Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bugs! — Or, Overly Long Titles Derided

Ultimately, I suppose Dario Argento is to blame for what you’re about to read.

On the ride back from Solvang — no, we were not making a butter cookie run — I was explaining to Spencer how I had two Netflix arrivals waiting for me, both of them Dario Argento movies. The first was The Third Mother, the long-awaited (by some) completion to the trilogy that also includes Suspiria and Inferno. (If you care, I discussed The Third Mother in some depth in this post right here.) It’s relatively new. The other movie was the 1985 film Phenomena, which stars a pre-Labyrinth, 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly as an American girl attending a Swiss boarding school and, naturally, being pursued by a psychopathic murderer.

Allegedly Argento’s favorite of his films, Phenomena stands out from the rest of his movies, which frequently feature young, interestingly beautiful women trying to escape splattery death at the hands of some shadowy menace. In Phenomena, Connelly’s character, who is also named Jennifer, has the unique talent of being able to psychically communicate with bugs. Oddly, this superpower is not the focus of the film and, except for a few keys scenes, is presented as being rather incidental to the film’s plot. (Side joke: Connelly’s presence in a film that features bugs is especially funny since even as a teenager she has rather thick eyebrows. My dream Phenomena scene would involve the line “Jennifer, look out! There’s sinister, hairy caterpillars crawling on your face!” and her angrily responding “No, those are just my eyebrows, just like they were only my eyebrows yesterday when you said the same thing.”)

eyebrow-riffic image from analog medium

But this post isn’t about Phenomena, Jennifer Connelly’s eyebrows or bugs. (Sorry.)

After I mentioned Phenomena, Spencer asked me if I’d ever read a book titled something that sounds like “phenomena.” I suggested that maybe he was thinking of the John Travolta and Kyra Sedgwick movie and somehow confusing it for being a book, which it probably was, at some point, if only in the form of something that was shoddily adapted from the movie. Spencer swore that it wasn’t and that this book — Feemomeema or Fidonina or whatever — existed and had in fact been read by his friends for various classes. I hadn’t heard of it.

Later today, he figured it out: The work in question was the 1724 novella Fantomina, authoress Eliza Haywood’s tale of a woman who, according to Wikipedia, “assumes the roles of a prostitute, a maid, a widow, and a lady in order to repeatedly seduce a man named Beauplaisir.” I couldn’t imagine why groups of people had to read such a thing, but having survived UCSB’s English major I’m not especially surprised.

Eliza Haywood, it turns out, was quite prolific, despite the considerable handicap of being a woman existing in the 18th century. Wikipedia lists her works as including the following titles:
  • The Injur’d Husband
  • Idalia; or The Unfortunate Mistress
  • Lasselia; or The Self-Abandon’d
  • The Rash Resove; or, The Untimely Discovery
  • The Masqueraders; or Fatal Curiosity
  • The Fatal Secret; or, Constancy in Distress
  • The Arragonian Queen: A Secret History
  • The City Jilt; or, The Alderman Turn’d Beau
  • The Force of Nature; or, The Lucky Disappointment
  • Memoirs of a Certain Island Adjacent to the Kingdom of Utopia
  • The Secret History of the Present Intrigues of the Court of Carimania
  • Letters from the Palace of Fame
  • The Fatal Fondness (1725)
  • The Mercenary Lover; or, the Unfortunate Heiresses
  • The Double Marriage; or, The Fatal Release
  • The Distressed Orphan; or, Love in a Madhouse
  • Cleomelia; or The Generous Mistress
  • The Fruitless Enquiry
  • Philadore and Placentia
  • The Perplex’d Dutchess; or Treachery Rewarded
  • The Padlock; or No Guard Without Virtue
  • Irish Artifice; or, The History of Clarina
  • Persecuted Virtue; or, The Cruel Lover
  • The Agreeable Caledonian; or, Memoirs of Signiora di Morella
  • The Fair Hebrew; or, A True, but Secret History of Two Jewish Ladies
  • Life’s Progress through the Passions; or, The Adventures of Natura
  • Dalinda; or The Double Marriage
  • A Letter from H------ G--------, Esq., One of the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber of the Young Chevalier
  • The History of Jemmy and Jenny Jessamy
  • The Invisible Spy
If you made it through the list, you’ll note that an unusual number of Haywood’s works feature double titles. I realize this was common in her day, but looking at just her books by themselves, I can’t help but wonder if she was incredibly indecisive. Would one not have sufficed? Really, who is the main character of the book: The Mercenary Lover? Or The Unfortunate Heiress? Could it not have been titled The Mercenary Lover and the Unfortunate Heiress?

Personally, I think Haywood missed the boat by not going for maximum contrast with her title and either making the paired titles total non-sequiturs or complete contradictions.

  • The Diligent Piemaker; or The Lazy Piemaker
  • The Man Who Loved Fishing; or The Man Who Actually Didn’t Love Fishing
  • The Man; or The Woman
  • The Happy Rabbit; or The Embattl’d Governess Who Stole Hairpins
  • Commitment Ascertain’d; or Maybe Something Else, Possibly About Foul-Natured Rich People Who Drink; or Then Again Maybe Something With a Horse That Dances
You see what I mean.

More than anything else, I’m amused by the fact that Haywood’s last listed work is The Invisible Spy, mostly because one of her contemporaries was Aphra Behn, whom I did have to read quite often in college and who would have bored me to death if not for the fact that she worked as a spy for a period during her life. Also, I’ve read enough of her literary compendium bios to know that Behn was not an attractive woman. Such a condition could make one quite conspicuous in some circumstances and rather invisible in others. I’d like to think that Haywood’s book was about Behn herself.

miss aphra behn herself, god rest her soul

And to think — all this as a result of some Italian guy’s movie about bugs.

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