Hints of trope

Now, I daresay I might be wrong about this.

I have just finished reading A Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander, a historical fiction/mystery set in the Victorian era. While it isn’t a bad book in itself, I found myself weary from all these tropes that I seem to be uncovering in the 3 recent books of historical fiction I’ve read recently:

1. Main female character is a widow (usually aristocratic).
Lady Emily Ashton in A Poisoned Season, Lady Anne Darby in The Anatomist’s Wife, Christine Derrick (late husband was the son of an earl) in Slightly Dangerous. I suppose that widowhood was the most attractive option for authors to place their heroine. It entailed sexual experience and therefore they could easily explain and do away the stumbling block of shy inexperience that most single unmarried ladies in the Regency/Victorian eras would realistically exhibit. They could easily tune in and recognise as much sexual tension and imagery as an author could possibly want to write into their plot, without worrying about realism. A mature unmarried lady would be looked upon as a spinster and would probably be viewed as unattractive, so widowhood would give authors a good excuse to have a mature, attractive, and – more importantly – available female for sexual exploits.

Maybe men found black veils attractive.

2. Late husband is unloved and unmourned.
Whether her late husband is a sordid and uncaring man, as is Sir Anthony Darby, the so-called anatomist in The Anatomist’s Wife, or had given to a habit of gambling, as did Oscar Derrick in Slightly Dangerous, the late husband of our main widow is usually unloved at the point of their timely demise. They are usually mourned outwardly, as befits social expectations, but hardly missed. This is a quick way for our main widow to have unengaged affections so the hero, in some guise or other, will be able to captivate her without having to break down the meandering form of potent grief and lingering emotions.

3. There is usually some mystery to solve.
And usually our main widow will find some pressing reason to be the one to solve it, despite that it was highly improper for women at that time to partake in such tedious activities that entailed running around so much. This is excepted in Slightly Dangerous, where our hero solves the mystery.

Mmm, yes, zebras.
Mmm, yes, zebras.

4. Our main widow is usually a social eccentric.
Because apparently being a widow, you are either promiscuous, or you are a social recluse/eccentric. In the case of the 3 books I’ve read, all the widows’ main objective in life was to defy High Society and to live their life against the grain by shunning the mechanics of High Society. Usually also because they have some all-consuming passion and interest (art, Greek, children) in a subject that made them stand out from the crowd of simpering young women whose only object was to marry the most titled, wealthiest man that would have them. Because they don’t care about men (supposedly, even though they all end up with one by the end of the novel) anymore. And also because they are widows, and therefore it is almost expected of them to behave against the grain. Somehow. Maybe. Although sometimes I wonder if this would be a popular plot device if authors actually knew enough about the complicated machinery of High Society in England at that time period to write about it. Having a widow avoid most forms of social interactions is a pretty easy ticket out.

Essentially the life motto of all the aforementioned widows.

5. Our main widow usually also has some kind of unsavoury reputation
Being well-respected is for sissies. Widows have to prove their badassery and to proclaim their notoriety by having an unsavoury reputation in Society. Being unnatural because of her husband’s scientific pursuits for Lady Anne Darby, being a flirt for Christine Derrick, and being scandalous for Lady Emily Ashton. But wait! It just won’t do for the widespread rumours of our poor widow to actually be true cos who know if that will scare the hero away? No, all these unfounded rumours are just meant to up our widow’s market value by imbuing notoriety on her honour, but not really actually destroying her innate goodness, so our hero can discover that all by his onesy.

6. Despite her unsavoury reputation, our main widow still gets all the dudes
Because that’s what unsavoury reputations are for! Our main widow, despite being 1) a widow, 2) notorious in Society and 3) hating all kinds of social interactions – still manages to bring all the boys to her yard! Somehow or other, even men notorious for their gallivanting and dalliances find enough in our main widow to want to turn serious for good. For Lady Anne Darby, despite her wanting to hide herself away in a corner of her sister’s castle, she still attracts the two most attractive men of the house party – the handsome rake, also son of an earl, whom every lady in society wants to bed, and our main hero, a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Gage. For Christine Derrick, most of the men in the house party are attracted to her, most of all our main hero, Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle. She is almost proposed marriage to by the Earl of Ketridge. What a snatch! For Lady Emily Ashton, a pretender to the French throne, a cat burglar with stalker tendencies and a renowned flirt who is also a duke all want to bed her or marry her. That is not even counting the main hero in that story, Mr Hargreaves, who happens also to be one of the richest men in England. Well, well. Widows have all the luck.

Mary always enjoyed the gift of invisibility whenever her friend and recent widow, Lady Smithers, was in the same room.

It was fun at first, but the next time I read any historical fiction that answers all these tropes again, I think I may just give up within the first 10 pages.

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Twelfth Night; or What Life Wills

I have never read Twelfth Night in its entirety before, but it holds some special meaning to me.

If you have had the patience to read through my academic history, you will realise that I was, when I was 14, rejected from reading Full Literature at my GCE ‘O’ Levels because my Literature grades were just too plain sucky. I contented myself with studying Half Literature instead, doing only one text: I’m The King of the Castle by Susan Hill, while my friends revelled in studying Twelfth Night, swapping inside jokes that I didn’t understand, and all together enjoying it a whole lot more than the only other Shakespeare text we had all done earlier in secondary school, The Merchant of Venice.

Though that is long behind me now, but Twelfth Night has therefore always represented to me that bittersweet memory of coming up short, and missing out on so much fun, friendship and bonding because I did not make the grade. I hope I do not overstep the boundaries of modesty by saying that I think I have long made good. I have taken H2 Literature in junior college, and went on to score well in it at GCE ‘A’ Levels. I have taken Literature electives in university while I was pursuing my Pharmacy degree, which contributed more than significantly to the pulling up of my grade point average and enabling me to graduate with Honours. After working for a few years, I have decided to revert back to this calling and go back to studying Literature.

And so, what a curious way life works, that the very first module that I’m about to undertake in my Master’s of Arts in Literary Studies should be “Shakespeare and Literary Theories”, and the very first text of the module – Twelfth Night.

Why Japan like that, why Singapore not like that?

And so my days of reprieve have ended. A whopping 14 days away from work, mostly away from Singaporeans and the Singapore culture. 11 days immersed in another country, society and identity.

What have I learnt?

From my first trip there, Japan has always amazed me in so many ways. It is possibly the only country I have visited so far that truly gives me the impression that they are more advanced than the country I come from. I don’t mean just technologically, which is obviously leagues ahead of most other countries, but I also mean their entire culture. The term that kept ringing in my head throughout this trip was: SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY.

The Japanese are polite and have manners, but no culture is without its dark side. Yes, there is most likely hypocrisy, dishonesty and all kinds of unpleasantries that people hide beneath their facade of politeness, but what impressed me the most this trip is how much more Japanese people are mindful of their own social responsibility. They live in a clean, well-run country but yet, unlike Singaporeans, they don’t seem to take it for granted. I have observed teenage boys in high school being mindful enough to close the windows of the train (which they had opened earlier) when they exited. I have seen a disabled lady in a wheelchair wheeling her way through a maze of single-seater tables in McDonald’s just to clear her own tray after she was done eating. I have never seen a dirty toilet in Japan (it may be wet and gross in some public places, but the seats and facilities were never dirty or with random tissue paper on the floor).

Somehow or other, the Japanese have managed to cultivate a culture of being mindful and considerate of others in everything you do, and that is singularly impressive. I am unable to express how envious I am about this. This pervades not only the actions of their citizens, but even the principles of everything they design and invent. Their one-use train tickets come in small stubs that are easily lost, so they give out a tiny envelope at the ticketing machines of every stations, with a window cut out in the exact place so you are able to see the words on the tickets. Effort has gone into the design of such an envelope to make it larger than the tickets so it’s less easily lost, but yet small enough so it doesn’t become a hindrance. The cut-out window was further designed to make it more convenient for people to see exactly what ticket is inside the envelope without having to open it. This exemplifies what I mean by the motivation of everything they do, invent, design or come up with comes from the convenience of its users being utmost in priority. Effort and money is not spared in achieving this aim.

Because it is the rainy season, train stations provide free umbrellas for people to use in case they forgot to bring them out, but with the kind reminder to please return them when they can. The honour system becomes very important here, and this brings me to my next conclusion: when people are capable of being socially responsible, they can be trusted with more privileges and things. I can foresee many Singaporeans going to Japan and coming back complaining about how Singapore doesn’t have as many privileges. Japanese trains have velvet cushioned seats, why doesn’t Singapore have that? Japanese service staff are always so enthusiastic and polite, why doesn’t Singapore have that? Japan has an amazing variety of shops and brands, why doesn’t Singapore have that?

The answer to all the above questions is: because Singaporeans are not Japanese.

I’m pretty sure the Singaporean government has the resources to install velvet cushioned seats in our trains too, but how long would it last? Honestly, can we trust Singaporeans to be socially responsible enough not to damage or dirty these seats? Or would they simply enjoy the luxury but continue to have that mentality that someone will clean up after them, or someone will repair these seats if they spoil it anyway?

Japanese service staff are enthusiastic and polite, but their customers are also similarly polite. It’s not to say that Japanese don’t get angry at service staff (I witnessed an angry Japanese man raising his voice and scolding a service staff at the JR Information Desk), or there aren’t horrible customers in Japan, but a large majority of them are appreciative and polite. The service staff’s politeness are responded with equal politeness from the customers MOST of the time, and that makes a huge difference. As someone in the service industry, a customer’s response to my efforts could make or break my day. I understand that I’m being paid to give good service, but service staff are still humans after all, not robots. Emotions get in the way, especially if you’ve to do this same thing over and over and over again, for years. In Singapore, I consider it a good day when I meet just one appreciative Singaporean customer out of the many that I have to serve in my work day. In Japan, that’s far from the case. I can tell you that just hearing a sincere “Thank you, I really appreciate your help” from a customer can motivate me more than the customer even realised themselves.

And lastly, why does Japan get everything? They not only have all the big brands operating in their market, but they also have their own special Japan-exclusive products. The reason is again simple: Japanese are willing to spend. When they like something, they go all out. 2PM fans go to their concert dressed head to toe in concert merchandise or their favourite member’s colour. They make entire costumes based on 2PM outfits or colours. They splurge so much money on buying fangoods and merchandise. Is it really that inexplicable as to why 2PM releases a great variety and better fangoods in Japan than in Korea or for their world tours? Their albums and singles in Japan cost at least 3 times as that in Korea, but yet Japanese fans are willing to continuously buy them, and not just 1 copy but several dozens just to get the chance of winning a fanmeet ticket or an autograph session card. Would that happen in Korea, or any other country? Are fans from other countries generally willing to spend just as much as Japanese for that same chance of winning a ticket? I don’t really think so. Maybe a handful of fans are willing, but a majority of fans from other countries simply prefer to go the free or cheap way. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but that means there’s no room for lamentation that JYPE doesn’t release as much goods for you, or prioritize you as much.

Those who love theme parks and stay near one usually buy an annual pass and go there as frequently as every weekend, whether it’s Universal Studios or Tokyo Disneyland. When it’s Disneyland, they could dress up as their favourite Disney character, or head-to-toe in Mickey merchandise. When it’s Universal Studios, they make entire outfits designed to look like those in their favourite movies, like Survey Corps uniform for Shingeki no Kyojin, Guildmarm outfits for Monster Hunter and not to mention, entire Hogwarts uniforms for Harry Potter. Because they are willing to spend, their consumer culture is thriving so much more than any other country I’ve seen. They have entire buildings for Yamaha, Zara, H&M, Diesel, Uniqlo, etc. Just imagine the variety of products available in these buildings. Before asking again why Singapore doesn’t have this, let’s imagine all these are transplanted into Singapore. The amazing variety of clothes and shops and theme parks available in Japan becoming similarly available in Singapore. Without thinking about how much smaller our population is compared to Japan, can we imagine Singaporeans being able to give these businesses enough profit to make this move sustainable? Singaporeans hold on tightly to money, and that’s part of our culture and heritage. We would rather save the money than to spend it on costumes and frivolities that we would deem useless. So if we don’t have as many shops, then the simple reason is: there are no customers. As far as I could tell from my trip, Singapore has probably roughly the same cost of living as Japan does (though Japanese transportation costs significantly more), though I cannot be 100% sure on this without knowing more about any various taxes and all that, but yet Japanese are simply willing to spend a lot more. Small wonder that businesses prefer to operate in Japan than in Singapore or other countries?

So with that in mind, for those who complain that Japan and the Japanese get more privileges and luxuries and awesome things that Singapore doesn’t, I can only say that Singaporeans aren’t ready for it. We have not yet evolved to become a polite, considerate and socially responsible country, and that is a pre-requisite if we want a sustainable, improved society with all these luxuries in place. Hopefully we will be in the future, but not right now.