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The Power of the Stage in The Limehouse Golem

The theme of “On Stage” takes a darker turn this week as I expand into film. The Limehouse Golem is a 2016 film adapted by screenwriter Jane Goldman and based on Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which was also published as The Trial of Elizabeth Cree. I can’t talk about it without giving away secrets, so be aware that spoilers abound!

limehouse 01The story opens with Elizabeth Cree (portrayed by Olivia Cooke in the movie), “Little Lizzie” as she’s known in the stage circles, being accused of poisoning her husband, John, a reporter and playwright, based on the evidence that she prepared his nightly draught, which was laced with poison.

In the midst of Lizzie’s trial, Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) gets handed the nigh-unsolvable case of the Limehouse Golem, a series of seemingly random and unconnected murders in the Limehouse district of London. The clues lead him to a journal, ostensibly written by the Golem, and Kildare latches upon John Cree as the number-one suspect. He believes if he proves that Cree was the Golem, Lizzie could argue that he committed suicide because of his crimes and the charges against Lizzie could be dropped.

To untangle the mystery, we have to learn more about Lizzie’s life. She grows up in poverty with an abusive mother whose work brings Lizzie into the path of abusive men. Once she escapes that situation, she finds herself in the realm of Dan Leno, a real-life historical figure known for performing female roles in drag. Of Leno, Lizzie says, “He portrays the suffering of women. My gender becomes inured to injustice. We expect it until we can greet it merely with a shrug…. The line between comedy and tragedy is a fine one.” In one scene, we see Leno singing a song as an abused wife. He pulls out a knife and sings, “He blacked both my eyes without warning, but I’ll be waiting for him tonight.”

Dan Leno’s career paves the way in the story for Golem’s journal, which features multiple passages referring to murder as “pantomime in its purest form.” About the first murder, the Golem writes, “But I was a beginner, an understudy, not yet ready to take the stage. An artist must perfect his craft, and tonight I would start with a small, private rehearsal,” by which the Golem means—kill a prostitute. One entry says, “[The victim] was a player waiting for a role. Of course, I obliged her. The public yearned for the next installment, and one should never keep an audience waiting.” Another says, “Ratcliff Highway was a tour de force,” referring to two multiple-victim murders committed by John Williams in 1811. In a macabre sort of homage, the Golem performs murders at the same location, and “as an actor may take home a program as a souvenir, so I returned with a blood-soaked shawl belonging to the clothes seller’s wife.”

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Olivie Cooke as Lizzie Cree and Douglas Booth as Dan Leno. http://www.imdb.com

As the Golem is terrorizing Limehouse, Lizzie finds acclaim and acceptance on the stage of the music hall, but there’s only so far she can go. As a woman, she’ll never be taken seriously as an actor. “We’re clowns, Dan,” she says to Leno. “We’ll be forgotten.” As Kildare recognizes and points out, she doesn’t want to be saved “by any man.” During one of their interviews while Lizzie is in prison awaiting her sentencing, she says, “What I deserve is to live freely and in death be remembered for my accomplishments, not as the wife who poisoned her husband, my name forever tethered to his.”

If you haven’t guessed by now (and I certainly didn’t my first time watching the film), here is the big twist of the story—Lizzie is the Golem. Early in the trial, she says, “My husband was adept at presenting a false face to the world.” The prosecuting lawyer responds, “And that is something you would understand, is it not, Mrs. Cree? Playing a role?” It’s not until the story’s final reveal that we understand how true this statement is—and not simply because of her life on the stage. In every meeting with him as he attempts to save her, Lizzie plays a role for Kildare. In fact, she never stops playing a role—that of the ingénue, a woman whom men are drawn to protect, only to realize she neither wants nor needs protection.

Instead, what she wants is lasting fame. She continues to discuss her case with Kildare because she appoints him as the keeper of her story. This will make his career, and her career will make her infamous. When he finalizes realizes this, he denies her last wish by letting her hang for John’s murder and by burning the written confession that she—not her husband—is the Golem.limehouse 03

Lizzie cannot achieve power as a woman, as her true self, even though she performs as a man on stage. Instead, she seeks that power by creating and performing the role of the Golem, whom everyone assumes is a man. In a ghoulish and awful way, she proves herself to everyone who underestimated her and her gender. As she murders one man, she even says, “Oh, I know, I know. Few would think a woman capable of such artistry.” And while I find myself appalled at her lack of remorse and can’t condone her crimes, such a character—one who so readily blurs the line between stage performance and reality—certainly makes for an exciting story.


All quotes from The Limehouse Golem. Director: Juan Carlos Medina. Screenwriter: Jane Goldman. Based on the novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd.
Featured image: Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare and Olivia Cooke as Lizzie Cree in The Limehouse Golem. http://www.imdb.com.

All Eyes on Theodora: From the Stage to Empress

by K.P. Kulski

In the 6th century, known for her sharp intelligence and political acumen, the Byzantine Empress Theodora was a force to be reckoned with.

Even today, there is something about Theodora that continues to draw attention. She was a unique figure in the Byzantine world. A woman who not only occupied a high position within the Empire, but appeared to have ruled just as much as her husband, the Emperor Justinian. In some sources it is suggested that she may have been a co-regent. The pair was the quintessential “power couple,” and their match appears to have been one created around love as well as reliance and respect of each other’s capabilities.

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While all of this is exceptional, more surprising is that Theodora did not come from a prestigious or politically powerful family. Instead she came from quite a low position within Byzantine society. The great Theodora, long before she took the throne was an actress. While our modern world tends to exalt actresses who rise to high levels of fame, actresses of the Byzantine world did not inhabit a position of respect or particular adulation. If anything, since actresses were often also sex workers in the Empire, the profession was considered despicable one.

Despite this, Theodora used her experience on stage to emphasize imperial ritual, recognizing that acting and all the props that came with it could be a form of social signaling. This was especially useful when it came to her and her husband’s interactions with the aristocracy, effectively creating a visible divide and reaffirming of their authority over members of the elite.

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(Image ©Antoine Helbert)

She intrinsically understood the political danger of unchecked power among the elite classes. She was able to manage these groups through interactions that stressed their lower status in relation to her and Justinian. Theodora did not always use her authority to support her husband. In religious matters there were times that she worked directly against him in order to achieve power and influence for the monophysite faction of the early Christian Church. Further, Theodora was responsible for laws that protected lower class women from sexual exploitation in the Empire, all the while fiercely maintaining her own power and influence.

1114theodoraShe is most famously known for her intercession during the Nika Riots, from which her husband Justinian had planned to flee Byzantium at risk of his position on the throne. It was Theodora who stopped him and wisely mentioned that those who had been in the position of power rarely survived if they were ousted. It is also recorded that she proclaimed purple (the color of royalty) was a good color to be buried in… essentially saying if she was going to die, she would die as an Empress. That was enough to dissuade Justinian and they were able to successfully regain control of the city from the rioters.

It is clear Theodora’s time as a performer gave her a unique understanding of her position as Empress and despite her lowborn social class, she carved out her own power and influence. It seems that she knowing brought the shine of “showbiz” with her as she entered into life as an imperial ruler and religious leader.

We will return…

Where on Earth did we go? Don’t worry, we haven’t stopped our love of history and literature. We are only on our yearly hiatus. You will see us return to our weekly schedule in February or March.

When we return, it will be a new year of great guests and topics to explore.

Stay tuned!

“Celtic Womanhood and the Banshee”–Our Other Favorite Guest Post for 2018

As I mentioned last week, we get the privilege of picking two of our favorite guest posts for December’s “Favorite Things” theme. Our other favorite guest post this year was from our August theme, Lady Midnight, and it was Juliette F. Martin’s “Celtic Womanhood and the Banshee.”

It’s no secret all three of us ladies at Unbound love our Celtic mythology…so this post spoke to our hearts in that regard. But it also touched on a pop culture topic that many have heard of, but few know the origin of–the screaming banshee. We learned a lot from this article about the connection between Celtic womanhood and the origin of the banshee–so we wanted to share it one more time to give even more people the opportunity to see how women in ancient Celtic culture influenced modern day mythologies!

“Celtic Womanhood and the Banshee”

“Under Tawaret’s Protection”–Our Favorite Guest Post for 2018

We’re so excited there are five Mondays in December 2018. Why? Because that means we get to pick two of our favorite guest posts as part of our “Favorite Things” theme. The first of our two favorites of the year was also an April Pick–Jennifer Della’Zanna’s “Under Tawaret’s Protection: Childbirth in Ancient Egypt.”

Not only was this article super well-written, but it contained a wealth of information on a topic that isn’t often discussed–childbirth and the role of mothers in ancient society. Not just the cultural significance, but also what recent researchers are discovering about the medical side of childbirth in parts of the ancient world. This article is equal parts women’s cultural history and scientific history, showing how what two ideas we generally think of as being disparate actually aren’t…which, of course, is the purpose of Unbound. We hope you enjoy this article as much the second time around as you did the first!

“Under Tawaret’s Protection: Childbirth in Ancient Egypt”

“Motherhood as Power” – My December Pick

This one was a hard choice! Over the past nine or so months, I’ve gotten to talk about some of my favorite books and stories as well as read new ones that hadn’t previously been on my radar. And my choice is:

Motherhood as Power: The Importance of Childbearing to Viking Age Queens.”

I settled on this article from May, which had the theme of Motherhood and Childbearing, for a few reasons. It was fun to dig into a topic I don’t often explore either in writing or reading. I also got to do a good bit of cool research on a time in history I haven’t studied for a while. By far, the funniest fact I ran across, which ultimately was extraneous to the article, was that King Æthelred of England was known as Æthelred the Unready, which also means “poorly advised.”

But probably my favorite thing about writing this article was I got to use a historical fiction novel, Shadow on the Crown by by Patricia Bracewell, and a fantasy novel, Daughters of the Storm by Kim Wilkins. Most months, it’s hard to find both that deal with the same topics within similar time periods. Using both types of novels allowed me to see the different ways each genre approaches the depiction of its heroines, which was neat.

“Of Hope and Expectation”–My December Pick

by: E.J. Lawrence

For my December pick, I decided to go with an article that matches the season–my April article on Mary titled “Of Hope and Expectation.” I enjoyed writing this one because I love seeing how mythology and story structure help us better understand and explore the world we live in. When we use the phrase “life’s not a fairy tale” as some sort of platitude to mean “life doesn’t always end happily,” it’s because we’ve forgotten that not even all fairy tales have “happy” endings, or even expected endings. But they do have right endings. Just because the story ends unexpectedly does not mean it ends wrongly. And just because darkness seems to have won doesn’t mean it has. We are living a story right now. The belief in a meta-narrative gives us hope that, in the end, all will end right.

So, without further ado, here’s my December pick–“Of Hope and Expectation”

 

“Witches: The Threat of Change” — My December Pick

by K.P. Kulski

Last year we used the month of December to pick out our favorite posts of the year. First up, E.J., Carrie, and I will talk about our favorite articles to write and then bring you our favorite guest article of the year.

So here’s my December pick “Witches: The Threat of Change.”

Of course this one wasn’t all that long ago, but it was my favorite simply because of subject matter. The idea of historic witches and society holds endless fascination for me. Long ago I wondered why witch hysteria occurred when it did, a question that led to some moderate research. The more source material I read, I couldn’t help but frame the primary sources against the greater social situation, I realized how often these hysterias occurred alongside great social change.

My October article was born of that curiosity and investigation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it!

Unbound

by K.P. Kulski

You tell ’em I’m coming… and Hell’s coming with me.

I’ve often thought these words, while said by Wyatt Earp in the movie Tombstone, had to have been first uttered by a pissed-off witch somewhere in history.

Women overcrowd the rosters of those who bear the label of witch. Even in the modern lexicon, the very word summons the image of a woman… specifically a threatening woman. But why? What is it about these women that are threatening? What about them warranted the extreme punishments we’ve all read about? Was it really just religious?

In my opinion, it was not so simple. I see witch hysteria as one of the many incarnations of the status quo reaction to female agency.

Interestingly enough, the major historic witch hysterias occurred during periods of significant change or disruptions to social norms. In fact, attacks on women in general have been…

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‘We Raise Our Sisters on Our Shields:’ The Modern Valkyrie

By Kristin Jacques, author of Ragnarök Unwound, forthcoming from Sky Forest Press

The Valkyrie has made a comeback in a big way. While this Norse mythological figure has cropped up from time to time in the modern era, the influx and influence of mythology in recent media has lifted the Valkyrie in a new direction. There is now an abundance of depictions in comic books, novels, television shows and blockbuster films, where the Valkyrie has become synonymous with the B.A.M. (Bad Ass Motha), the tough-as-nails female heroine. This archetypal heroine is a cornerstone in several genres, such as Urban Fantasy.

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Valkyrie, Peter Nicolai Arbo, 1864

This representation is not a far cry from their Norse origins, though newer incarnations present a somewhat sanitized version of the original myth, focusing on the noble characteristics of these female extensions of the All Father. The hint of their dark origins is in the etymology of their name.

valkyries-1900778_1920To break down the old Norse Valkyrjur, Valr referred to the slain of the battlefield and kjósa, meant ‘to choose.’ Valkyrie translated to ‘Choosers of the Slain,’ a title that not only encompassed their choice of which warriors were granted Valhalla status, but who would die in battle. Valkyries didn’t shy away from invoking some heavy-duty black magics to ensure their choices came to fruition. In Njal’s Saga, there is an instance of twelve Valkyrie gathered around a loom, weaving fate like the Norns, though their materials are far grimmer. Here, the Valkyrie use intestines for thread, severed heads for weights, and swords and arrows for beaters, while they gleefully chant their hit list. The Saga of the Volsungs compares the sight of a Valkyrie to ‘staring into an open flame.’ To the Anglo-Saxons, they were spirits of carnage.

At some point the representation shifted from ‘warrior’ to ‘shield maiden,’ and there, a fine distinction began to surface. Valkyrie served as projections, parts of a greater whole. The Valkyrie were an extension of Odin, but as the focus shifted to their nobler deeds, so too did their autonomy expand. Odin might dictate their choice of who died in battle, but the Valkyrie, such as Brunhild or Sigrun, chose their lovers. They chose mortals to favor and protect. They became susceptible to the vices and failings of mortals, just like other Norse deities. They became more human.

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It was this association with fairness, brightness, gold, and bloodshed that has resurfaced in depictions of the modern Valkyrie. There has also been a bit of an amputation from the All Father. A single Valkyrie is a B.A.M., but she comes with a sisterhood. Recent Valkyrie representations include everything from Tessa Thompson’s very memorable kick-butt turn as Marvel’s Valkyrie in the third Thor outing to Rachel Skarsten’s Tamsin in the fantasy femme fatale brawl that is Lost Girl. [pictured: Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie in Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok.]

In Marvel’s hot take, the Valkyrie were an elite band of female warriors who served in Odin’s army, with Thompson’s character adrift and rudderless without her sisters. (Slight spoiler: she comes back swinging.) Here at least Odin is present, but the Valkyrie, particularly Thompson, have complete autonomy over themselves.

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LOST GIRL — “Like Hell Pt. 1” Episode 501 — Pictured: Rachel Skarsten as Tamsin — (Photo by: Steve Wilkie/Prodigy Pictures)

The Valkyrie in the Canadian fantasy drama Lost Girl give a fair nod to their dark origins. Here, the Valkyrie don’t answer to Odin at all, but to Freyja. They still have the soul-taker gig, but with a twist.  The Valkyrie consider one another sisters, and they fight like sisters, though the hair is off-limits.

For my own depiction of Valkyrie in Ragnarök Unwound, I draw on the more bombastic qualities present in the myths and modern incarnations in the creation of Hildr—fierce, loyal, and quite literal. Isolated from her sisters, Hildr builds a new sisterhood with the other female characters of the novel to fight the good fight.

A common factor in these modern depictions is while the Valkyrie are singularly B.A.M., the Sisterhood is a force of nature. They draw strength from one another and in turn give their strength to one another.

This mentality of sisterhood carries over into women’s culture. We all want to be Wonder Woman. We want to be the B.A.M., but we are strongest when we lift each other. We raise our sisters on our shields. No matter the depiction, the world they inhabit, or who their boss is, Valkyrie are the Sisterhood of the Fierce.


Sources:
The Saga of the Volsungs
The Viking Spirit by Daniel McCoy
Norse-mythology.org
Lost Girl
Thor: Ragnarok

Featured image: Arthur Rackham, “Wagner’s Ring Cycle: The Valkyrie,” 1910

Featured Article – NYT Review: A History of Female Friendship

In the spirit of this month’s theme, we’d like to share this old but great review that discusses the book “The Social Sex: A History of Female Friendship” by Marilyn Yalom and Theresa Donovan Brown.

Depictions of female bonds have long been missing from history, from the ancient world to modern day, yet we have a sense of close nonsexual female relationships. Today, we even use the term “bestie” to describe such a role. Yalom and Brown’s book shed some light on how that’s always been the case, whether history recorded it or not. Enjoy!

NYT Review: A History of Female Friendship