Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Exploration of Social Class Privilege in “Valour and Vanity” by Mary Robinette Kowal

[Huge spoilers.  Beware.]

Mary Robinette Kowal’s most recent work, “Valour and Vanity” dazzled me with its insightful exploration of privilege, social class, and social stratification through a heist plot. This fourth book in her series of Glamourist Histories follows her protagonists, Jane and Vincent, who can create magical illusions called glamour.  Throughout the series, they push the boundaries of their craft, which is relevant to the plot of this book, as they have developed a technology that criminals want to steal to sell. Jane and Vincent are artists but privileged artists. Sir Vincent is the Prince Regents’s official glamourist and is privileged due to this superior connection. All societies have a socially constructed hierarchy called stratification, in which some people have more power, wealth, or other privileges. Kowal pays meticulous attention to the historical time period in which she writes, the Regency, and her characters visit different European nations throughout the series.

The privilege of Jane and Vincent is established at the beginning of the novel. The types of problems they encounter are certainly important to Jane, but are “of the prosaic sort: which carriage to take, how to arrange their party’s quarters, and, most of all, how to manage her mother’s nerves” (11). Jane begins the novel ready to leave her family and travel alone with Vincent to work on a Glamour project in Murano. They are beset by pirates (or so they think) en route, and they lose all their valuables and are threatened with slavery. A banker onboard offers to help them by paying a ransom for them.

At the port office in Venice, it becomes apparent that their slide down the social classes has begun. They have lost some of their privilege, as no one believes that Vincent is the Prince Regent’s glamourist. For example, they can’t enter the city due to an entry fee, nor do they have a change of clothes, food, or shelter. A rich banker, Signor Sanuto, was aboard the ship when they were boarded by the pirates and offers to help them. On his charity, they are allowed to leave. He helps them establish a line of credit through his bank, loans them clothes, and allows them to stay at his palazzo. For a time, Jane and Vincent seem stable: they replace their clothes and even buy a replacement cane for the one that Sanuto lost during the pirate raid. They begin to work on their glamour project with the glassmakers, and time passes. Eventually, they truly plummet down the social classes when they are victims of a heist. The glasses that they make containing called Verre Obscuri are stolen, and Sanuto disappears.

Jane and Vincent are left destitute, and their friend, Lord Byron is out of town. They are forbidden from leaving Murano with no shelter, clothes, or food. Kowal does an excellent job showing the emotions that Jane and Vincent experience like anger, anxiety, and depression. They are treated in a stigmatizing way in the first church that they visit: the priest assumes that Vincenet lost all their money gambling.  He then proceeds to act as if they are the guilty parties.  The priest offers Jane a place to stay, but Vincent would not have had one.  The priest  states: “‘Venice’s charities are intended to provide means for those who cannot fend for themselves. Women, children, and the lame or ill’” (165). Jane refuses. They decide to pawn Jane’s wedding ring, although Vincent was loathe to do it because he felt he was failing at their marriage vows. They are able to rent a tiny room above a grocer, although they go to sleep with no food. Part of Jane’s privilege is revealed; she has never made more than toast and tea. Nor does she know how to launder clothes.

At this juncture, Kowal explores the intersection of gender and social class in occupation. Although ladies like Jane do not have a profession, lower class women did have professions like dressmakers and cooks.  Furthermore, the point is made that while glamour is considered a woman’s art, the only professionals in the field are men. Vincent comments that it is more “natural” for women to stay in the home to which Jane ponders giving him a copy of a book on “The Rights of Women” by Mary Wollstonecraft, which is an actual book you can read through the Gutenberg press online for free. Vincent plans to demonstrate his glamour abilities door to door, and they happen upon a church that the swindler had mentioned to them earlier. Jane manages to gain employment there.  It turns into a fulfilling experience for her over time.  The nuns teach her many skills including bread making, and eventually, she starts teaching the young pupils glamour in relation to their music lessons. This work, for Jane, is the opposite of alienating work.  She feels pride and gets to work on the whole product. Furthermore, she discovers a passion for teaching.

Contrastingly, Vincent has trouble finding employment. This line by Vincent is the experience of many educated people today in a stagnant United States economy: “‘Today, I attempted to acquire a job hauling bricks for a mason.  I was declined.  Apparently, I have the hands of a gentleman and am unsuited for ‘real work’’” (192).  This relates to the fact that many people in the United States (and elsewhere) are unable to find work relating to their educations or are underemployed.

When Vincent finds a job doing glamour and is reticent to discuss it, Jane fears that he is working as a coldmonger, which is dangerous work, established in a previous book. Often, the most dangerous and dirty work of a society is given to those in the lower social classes because they don’t have many options.  The dangerous work done in coal mines and textile mills are great examples of work that has immediate or long term dangers.

One poignant scene getting at the differences in social class is when “the more wealthy simply rode through the rain in sedan chairs or upon the water in gondolas, leaving the task of getting wet to their drivers.  In that moment, Jane would have been happy just to be able to afford an umbrella.” (215)  In another scene, a store clerk stereotypes Jane and states “no credit.” Jane buys a bar of lavender soap due to this interaction.When Jane begins to question the clerk about her assumptions, the clerk admits that they often get thieves in the store. The clerk apologizes and asks Jane if she used to be a lady.  Jane feels as if the woman was blaming her for her poverty.  (This reminds me of this short video, “Cracking the Code,” that is on race but relates how to how store clerks stereotype certain categories of people.)

Vincent and Jane fight over the purchase of the lavender soap.  It has been established earlier in the book that the couple had a warm, friendly relationship with calm conflict resolution.  Their change in circumstances (e.g., the stress) leads into more heated conflict.  One problem is that Vincent is upset that Jane is bringing in more money. Jane and Vincent fight about who does the household chores, quite reminiscent of many modern conversations. In fact, Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, looked at these topics in “The Second Shift” originally published in 1989. This book is an easy read and still relevant to modern issues. The second shift is the idea that when (usually) women get home from their paid work, they have to do the household and care work in the home. Interviews were conducted with dual career couples. While “The Second Shift” is about a later time period and a different place, it is relevant to the conflict faced in the book.

There were three different ideologies: traditional, transitional, and egalitarian. Before their downward social mobility, Jane and Vincent were essentially both working as elite professionals and would likely fit into the egalitarian mode. They shared similar power in their relationship in terms of decision making and did similar work. (Although due to her gender, Jane is not recognized for her contributions by society.) They could afford to employ others to do the second shift. Today, many professionals hire maids to compensate for not having a spouse in the home.  However, Vincent’s comment that women were more naturally suited for the home would fit in with a traditional ideology, in which the man works outside the home and the woman works inside the home.  Usually, women have less power in these relationships over major decisions.  Transitional ideology occurs when it assumed that women will both work outside of the home and fulfill the housework and childcare.

At the end of the book, after Jane and Vincent complete a dazzling heist of their own, they return to their previous station and social class.  They realize how privileged they were and things that had seemed normal to them at the beginning of the book seem like luxuries: eating pastries, enjoying lavender soap, and the return of Jane’s wedding ring.  I love this line of Kowal: “Jane…knew that she would always love him, for richer, for poorer.  With and without soap” (382). In the final chapter, they pay off their debts, restore their clothes, etc.

As they walked along in their new clothes, Jane notes “Today the other passers-bye saw her, but as a fitting part of Murano rather than as a bit of refuse that they would prefer not to acknowledge” (384).  Kowal is spot on in her analysis of how people treat the poor and homeless.  People often look past these groups as if they are invisible. They are stigmatized and often blamed for situations created by the larger political and historical changes happening around them.

Kowal’s book is both highly entertaining and thoughtful. It is my favorite so far. I highly recommend it and the entire series.



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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy

James Turrell’s Skyspace and Perception

[This post is a bit different than my usual posts. No spoilers!]

When my spouse and I visited the Henry Art Gallery at University of Washington, I was overwhelmed by the experience of the Skyspace designed by James Turrell. This video links to information about the installation. Later in the day, I returned alone, and the Skyspace was empty. As I looked through the aperture in the roof, shaped a bit like an egg, I fell into a meditative state, not entirely dissimilar to walking a labyrinth. It was amazing: pleasantly warm with an azure sky above. I realized that our minds are similar to this installation. The installation limits (or focuses) our perceptions on a small sliver of the sky.

Although I could hear the occasional cries of seagulls, they only flew over the visible area twice. I started to ponder the different senses and how there might be other experiences that we miss because of our filters as human beings, a common question of people generally and philosophers. An example of this I’ve seen repeatedly is about the different vision perceptions of other animals, or even other humans.  According to this blog post, mantis shrimp are amazing and are being researched in terms of their eyes, which perceive the world quite differently than our eyes.

This applies, too, to how we allow for our fears and anxieties to limit our experiences in other ways.  I’m terrified of heights, but I had an opportunity to hike a trail at Mount Rainier a couple of days ago.  While I was up there, I started to think about how I don’t want my “perception filter” to be limited by fear.

Also, my somewhat spotty meditation practice over the past ten years helped.  I’ve done walking meditations so instead of being afraid as I saw a long trail on the side of a mountain, I decided to focus more more of my attention on my feet and where I was walking one moment at the time. I was essentially limiting my perceptions intentionally, just like looking at the roof in the Skyspace to be able to follow my party. (The views of Mount Rainier were some of the best I’ve ever experienced and definitely worth it.) I know that both psychologists and Buddhist practitioners spend a great deal of time pondering these issues than I ever will, but it was intriguing to see how it applied to my life.  James Turrell’s Skyspaces are all over the US and the world, and I want to visit more of them.

In terms of sociology, I think that this quote from Turrell’s website sums up how this relates:  “Turrell often cites the Parable of Plato’s Cave to introduce the notion that we are living in a reality of our own creation, subject to our human sensory limitations as well as contextual and cultural norms.” The cultural values and norms that we are taught shape what we expect to see and our perceptions.  The ideologies that we are taught contextualize what we are able to see, hear, think, feel, etc.  Although there is room for deviance, rebellion, and change, our formative experiences during socialization create the lens we happen to view the world from.  As always, I wonder how we can shape the cultural values in our societies for people’s wellbeing.

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Filed under Psychology, Sociology