Thursday, 19 February 2009

Truth Stranger than Fiction: A House of Chastisement for Difficult Girls in Victorian Bristol -

It feels like I have neglected the blog for far too long this week. I have been staying at a mates place for a few days with no Internet access handy - the guy's some kind of modern Luddite I think...but he drinks well!

Its odd where inspiration can come from sometimes: For example I have previously mentioned the guarded references in Mozart's Magic Flute on this blog. Today I have been fitting the finishing touches to a section of volume 2 dealing with the description of a school uniform. I know that doesn't sound so galling, but I am something of a perfectionist and I ( in common with certain scheming behind-the-scenes plot-line characters) have a very specific view of what I am trying to achieve here. It has to suit an adult female form, yet seem juvenile enough to rob the wearer of any kind of credibility, both in her own eyes and those of others. It is not enough that it belittles the girl - it should also, by the very image it subconsciously inspires, encourage others, her betters if you will (even you and I if we were to come across her) to automatically treat her in the appropriate manner without thinking. And this should be so even if meeting her for the first time; even if one has not been briefed as to how to react one should find oneself taking an authoritative stance - it should seem quite natural to do so. This is what uniforms are supposed to do, depersonalise and underline a particular role and attitude to fulfil. In a similar way the uniforms that the nurses (and wardresses in volume 2) wear should subconsciously underline their authority and automatically place their charges, the girls, quite naturally on a submissive footing from the get go. Then the is the question of whether there should be any aspect to the design that might be thought 'sexy' in any way - personally I think that would be a mistake, although certain features might be incorporated that make use of the female form to titillate the onlooker, but always with the proviso tat it should not make the girl feel 'attractive' in any way. On the contrary - she should feel shame. In fact I came upon a view about some aspect of this while searching for the origin of the artwork I have used at the top of this post and that was sent to me anonymously (I hope the artist doesn't mind, it is a brilliant piece of work but if he or she objects obviously I will remove it instantly). Anyway, click on it to read a lovely discussion of school uniform discipline or CLICK HERE. Interestingly the writer bemoans having to wear rubber pants (Knickers), presumably rather than school knickers or possibly under them (it isn't clear) which she describes as 'degrading' but the goes on to say 'as it should be' - a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree! Going back to today's assignment: I think I would prefer to see some combination of the features of the underwear she describes - I am thinking along the lines of the 'crisp, sweaty bottle-green polyester' school knickers she so evocatively describes, so of a quite conventional, if old-fashioned, appearance externally, but lined with latex or perhaps having a removable rubber lining. I am not sure that they would need to be 'really big and baggy' as the writer suggests, but I am certain of the necessity of broad, tight leg elastics - with 17 hours a day spent crammed in a little cramped Victorian school desk and with toilet visits by necessity limited to specified times, there are bound to be one or two little accidents from time to time. Actually I think a case can be made for the diametrically opposite, ie of extreme and carefully engineered close fitting - but then again a more voluminous garment does lend itself to the inclusion of various additions, taking into account differing expediences, some features of which might well be adapted where it is felt that a little additional shame wouldn't go amiss. And to this point we haven't even began to discuss the outerwear - Skirt or pinafore / gymslip? Pleated or plain or should it be a dress? Long or short sleeved blouse? If long sleeved, puffed Victorian style shoulders and long stiff cuffs buttoned with three in-line buttons, high stiff starched shirt-style collar with school tie or something a little more feminine, childish, perhaps flouncy wit a 'peter pan' collar. Poplin, Crisp, sweaty nylon, or even crisper starched and stiff cotton. Stripped (my present favorite) or plain, white or coloured? The questions go on and on, but I am slowly narrowing down the design. Bear in mind that I am only talking about the design of the uniforms worn by the 5 or 6 girls housed in the institution's 'Schoolroom' wing and the imposition of an actual school uniform is something that the Powers-that-be have only just begun to consider (along with a considerable tightening up of the already very tight discipline). Maybe you'd prefer they be kept in the type of nylon dress-style overall that I have mainly concentrated on up until now, that you will have met in INSTITUTIONALISED volume 1 and that is basically supposed to approximate to a prison uniform. But I think this new aspect opens up some excitingly new disciplinary avenues to explore...what do you think? Views anyone?

Now the unexpected / truth stranger than fiction bit. While doing the above research and having chucked 'high buttoning stiff collared blouses - or some such combination of search terms - into google, by a kind of tortuous route I came across a nice little piece of writing about an admission procedure and a young girl incarcerated in a strict woman's prison (this is not the truth etc bit - this is the unexpected bit) CLICK HERE to read.

Then, on Flickr of all places (The Truth is Stranger than Fiction bit) I came across a piece, purporting to be true, about a house of chastisement for difficult girls in Victorian Bristol. I do remember reading something similar, reported and elaborated upon at some length it must be said, in Janus many, many moons ago. To read it CLICK HERE (the Flickr version that is - if I find that old copy of Janus I'll scan it in for you lucky folks). To quote from the article:

"Taking the birch, I measure my distance and, standing at the side, I proceed to strike slowly but firmly’ Mrs Walter explained. ‘By moving gently forward, each stroke is differently placed and six strokes may well be enough if given with full force. If the fault has been such as to need severe correction, then I begin on the other side and work back again. For screams, increased strokes must be given. If a girl tries very hard to bear it bravely, then perhaps I give 10 instead of 12" Blimey O'reily!!!
And apparently she used to dress in a nurse's uniform too!!! Most probably exactly for the point I made earlier; and to aid legitimacy of course

Finally: talking of uniforms and their character-defining effect, I couldn't resist quickly knocking up this little confection (left). a little something I entitle: "Just Three Strokes Today Dear". But it has a serious purpose also - it serves as a nice illustration of a 'Tippet' (the little cape worn by the nurse in the foreground); it is something I think mention in INSTITUTIONALISED Volume 1 but I definitely do in volume 2. So now you know what it is, if you didn't already - it all helps picture the scene in your head.

No comments: