Saturday, March 03, 2007

Sylvia: Sadist or Liberated Woman?

Vintage Ad, 1913

Sylvia Tietjens is arguably one of the most fascinating females in British literature. In the first book of Ford's tetrology Some Do Not, Sylvia is the seductive, conniving female who tricks the protagonist, Christopher Tietjens into marriage, even though it is uncertain if he is the father of her child. After the child is born, Sylvia leaves Tietjens to commit adultery, and then, unrepentant, she returns to Tietjens with the seemingly sole intent to degrade, enervate or destroy his honorable character. Her motives seem to be a deep hatred of her husband’s temperament: the typical British “stiff upper lip” sort that represents the authentic Tory of Victorian England. However, in No More Parades, the reader is given further insights into Sylvia character and motivations…

At the end of Some Do Not it seems as though Tietjens and Sylvia have parted ways, he has gone back to serve in France and she has decided to go to a convent. However, in part two of No More Parades, we (the readers) learn that Sylvia has followed Tietjens to France. In the opening scene, she awaits Tietjens in the lounge of the best hotel in town, accompanied by Major Perowne, the man she had an affair with. Through Sylvia’s narrative, we soon see that the affair, for her, was in way motivated by typical reasons such as passion or romance but out a desire to upset or embarrass her husband:

“At the later date Sylvia had no difficulty in accounting to herself for her having gone off with such an oaf: she had simply reacted in a violent fit of sexual hatred, from her husband’s mind… For, for your wife to throw you over for an attractive man is naturally humiliating, but that she would leave you publicly for a man of hardly any intelligence at all, you priding yourself on your brains, must be nearly as mortifying a thing as can happen to you.” (389-90)

Her motives are revealed to be based on a kind of sexual sadism. Sylvia is obsessed with her husband; her hatred of his temperament and principles is coupled with her dark sexual need for him, and it is this friction that seems to be at the root of most of her frustrations and actions.
After a few weeks with Perowne, she finds she can no longer put up with him, but also that she ‘misses’ her husband. She is bored by Perowne, instead she misses the agony of her sexual frustration and hatred for Tietjens. When she reunited with him, she finds herself in a state of almost violent sexual tension:

“Emotion was going all over Sylvia…at the proximity of Tietjens. She said to herself: “Is this to go on forever?” Her hands were ice-cold. She touched the back of her left hand with the fingers of her right. It was ice cold. She looked at her hands. They were bloodless…She said to herself: “It’s pure sexual passion…it’s pure sexual passion…God! Can’t I get over this? Father! used to be fond of Christopher…Get our Lady to get me over this…It’ll be the ruin of him and the ruin of me. But oh damn, don’t!...For it’s all I have to live for.” (400)

Sylvia is in a fit of sexual frustration and desire, she wavers between wanting it to be over and needing it to continue. She realizes the dangerousness of her feelings; that she may indeed ruin them both as a result but the virulence of her passions and her addiction to them drives her on. She attacks Tietjens out of a need to ‘shake the unshakeable’, to cause in him a measure of what he does to her:

“She said to herself: “By God, if that beast does not give in to me tonight he shall never see Michael again… Ah, but I got him…” Tietjens had his eyes closed, round each of his high-coloured nostrils a cresent of white was beginning. And increasing…” (401)

Of course, no matter how Sylvia tries to torment Tietjens, he is always stiffly polite in response, a reaction that further infuriates her. We can almost feel sorry for Sylvia for the simple fact that it is obvious she will never be satisfied or at peace:

“How, she said to herself, could she ever move, put emotion into, this lump! It was like trying to move an immense mattress filled with feathers. You pulled at one end, but the whole mass sagged down and remained immobile until you seemed to have no strength at all. Until virtue went out from you…
It was as if he had the evil eye, or some special protector. He was so appallingly competent, so appallingly always in the centre of his own picture.” (406)

Sylvia is a creature of passion, she acts on impulse, out of spite and frustration. When she sees Tietjens behave like the perfect example of an English Tory in front of the duchess, her rage drives her to tell General Campion that Tietjens is a Socialist:

“A triumph for Christopher was at that moment so exactly what Sylvia thought she did not want that she decided to tell the general that Christopher was a Socialist. That might take him down a peg or two in the general’s esteem…for the general’s arm-patting admiration for Tietjens, the man who did not argue but acted over the price of coal, was as much as she could bear…But, thinking it over in the smoking-room after dinner, by which time she was not so certain that she had done what she wanted.” (409)

Sylvia’s action is rash and she begins to realize, as she did with her affair with Perowne, that her actions may be moreover detrimental to her actual goals. While she may succeed in ‘disturbing’ her husband, the ill effects of her actions often seem to catch up with her.

One of Ford's remarkable abilities as a writer is evident in his characters' many contradictions. Part of Sylvia’s appeal may be understood through the fact that none of his characters seem to be entirely admirable, or even likable. While it has been argued that Christopher Tietjen's represents Ford's 'proper' man, extremely intelligent and unshakably honorable, he is also at times irritatingly rigid, pompous and sexist. He makes such statements as:
"I stand for monogamy and chastity. And for no talking about it. Of course if a man who is a man wants to have a woman he has her." (SDN, 18)
“I don’t read novels,” Tietjens answered. “I know what’s in ‘em.”

It is these and other comments that can lead the reader to sympathize with Sylvia; while her actions are often cruel and immoral, the reader can at least identify with her frustrations.

Overall, there are aspects of Sylvia’s character that may be admired. She represents the modern women, independent and fearless; a woman who is in control of her own destiny and unaffected by social criticism. She is also mysterious, alluring and stunningly beautiful. Unlike many of her sex at the turn of the century, Sylvia is not controlled by the men in her life but rather the opposite: she comes and goes according to her own fancy and is proud of her ability to do as she pleases.

However, on the other hand, Sylvia is also cruel, spoiled, self-centered apathetic, aggressive and sadistic. This is never clearer than when she sees her husband weary from war and likens him to a whipped dog:

"His face was intolerable. Heavy; fixed. Not insolent, but simply gazing over the heads of all things and created beings, into a world too distant for them to enter. And yet it seemed to her, since he was so clumsy and worn out, almost not sporting to persecute him. It was like whipping a dying bulldog..." (381)

While Sylvia’s voice seems almost sympathetic, we soon realize that she is heartless and without mercy:

“…I remembered the white bulldog I thrashed on the night before it died…A tired, silent beast…With a fat white behind…Tired out…You couldn’t see its tail because it was turned down, the stump…A great, silent beast…
…And I found it at the door when I came in from a dance without Christopher…And got the rhinoceros whip and lashed into it. There’s a pleasure in lashing into a naked white beast…Obese and silent, like Christopher…I thought Christopher might…that night…It went through my head…It hung down its head…A great head, room for a whole British encyclopedia of misinformation, as Christopher used to put it. It said: “What a hope!’…As I hope to be saved, though I never shall be, the dog said: “What a hope!’…Snow-white in quite black bushes…And it went under a bush. They found it dead there in the morning.”
“…It’s the seventh circle of hell, isn’t it? The frozen one…The last stud-white bulldog of that breed…As Christopher is the last stud-white hope of the Groby Tory breed…” (416-7)

If Christopher Tietjens is meant to represent the last of the English Tory breed, an obvious question that follows is what does Sylvia symbolize? Perhaps, in a way she represents Britain itself, a country which mercilessly exploited and destroyed almost the entire upper class with the First World War. As Ford so clearly states over and over throughout the book "There will be no more parades": things will be changed by the war; pomp and circumstance (like the band playing Land of Hope and Glory) will no longer be important as the old order is overthrown. After a disaster of such epic proportions, what can be left of the honor of war?


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