Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Invitation to the Waltz


Carly Rae Jepsen’s colossal hit single “Call Me Maybe” has been certified six times platinum by the RIAA. This means the single has sold over 6,000,000 units, making it one of the highest selling singles of the year, if not the highest selling. Part of the song’s success is the infectious nature of the song; the chorus is as efficient an earworm as any other massive hit song. The more interesting element of the song, the other part of its worldwide success and cultural influence, is the song’s lyrics. They seem to articulate something that writer Rohin Guha (of Flavorwire) calls “teenage magic.” Guha writes:
In these tough times, one of the latest incarnations of pop to catch on is the sparkling revival of what we call “teenage magic.” While we experience teenage magic differently, at its heart, the phenomenon is unequivocally premised in the wide-eyed perceptions we have of the world around us. In trying to figure out how things worked as kids, we colored in logical blanks with wild speculation. More than that, at that age, only our points of view — no matter how wrong and misguided — mattered. We were suns in our solar system and everyone else was asteroids; we were brats, man.
The song, and the subsequent video, is rooted in this feathery, light, airy nostalgia for a period of innocence and ignorance, before the taint of forbidden (read: adult) knowledge occurs. “Call Me Maybe” captures, reflects and re-circulates this queasiness of uncontrollable passions and strange new emotions. However, “Call Me Maybe” is not the first, nor the last, work of art to fixate on the newness of infatuation and the introduction of the innocent into the world of maturity.

Also not the first, Invitation to the Waltz, written by Rosamund Lehmann and published in 1932, articulates this “teenage magic” in the form of Olivia and Kate Curtis, two sisters going to a dance. The novel opens with Olivia’s seventeenth birthday: “Oh, but breakfast would be awful, with all the family saying many happy returns; with opening parcels, repeating thank-you with self-conscious strained enthusiasm” (Lehmann 8). Olivia reflects on the awkwardness of the birthday, her seventeenth, and that number’s proximity to marrying age. This leads her to anticipate excitedly the dance to be held at Lord and Lady Spenser’s house in a week. While it is Olivia’s first dance, her older sister Kate has already attended a dance before. The end of the year produces a mixture of variegated moods within Olivia: the excitement of the dance, the tediousness of her provincial family’s birthday celebrations and the eventual departure of Kate to Paris for “finishing school."

The separation of Kate and Olivia is a complex moment that looms over the entirety of the text. It is not just a literal geographic separation, but a figurative distinction between the sisters due to their age. Kate, a couple years older, is preparing to enter a more subtle and adult environment, away from the provincial and tellingly middle class familial home. Mr. Curtis, an asthmatic old man, retired, lavishes attention on the family pet while Mrs. Curtis, strict and religious frets over her daughters’ clothes and makeup. Neither is the youngest child, James, able to give the girls the male attention that they feel they deserve. The house is stilting and not conducive to the necessary emotional maturation that Kate and Olivia need. At this point, the girls awkwardly navigate the boundary between girl and woman.

Another pop song derived from “teenage magic” but unfortunately not even close in quality, is Britney Spears’ 2002 song “I’m not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” In the song, Spears warbles, “I'm not a girl (I'm not a girl don't tell me what to believe) / Not yet a woman (I'm just trying to find the woman in me, yeah)” which speaks to the journey of self-discovery in the Bildungsroman as well as this unknown, culturally awkward territory of post-adolescence. It’s a ballad that hopes to reconcile the complex emotions within the teenage girl. Unfortunately for Spears, the public eye was the arena in which she went through this particular journey of self-discovery.

For Olivia, the arena of hopeful maturity is the dance at Lord and Lady Spenser’s house, which only comes at the halfway point of the novel. Until then, the text follows Olivia through scenes of domesticity, meant to showcase her resistance to the provinciality of her small town. Some of the scenes feature older men and their relation to Olivia, such as Major Skinner, a very unaware type of man, always asking the younger girl for tea or offering to teach her golf. Lehmann writes,
Suddenly Olivia felt inclined to smile warmly, lingeringly at Major Skinner. She did so. She didn’t care. He was a dear. She was attracted by his human, his male quality — simple, sensual, kindly, pathetic. She was sorry for him, because all his offering was nothing but asking — tentative, shamefaced, pretty sure it was no go, but never altogether daunted. (73)
Major Skinner stirs the faintest feelings of adulthood within Olivia, an awareness of the intimacy and physicality of the male body, but repelled by the clumsiness of that very same body. The text’s focus on the physical details of the village, the men, the clothes, the weather all impart some knowledge of Olivia’s relationship to physicality, but her social situation resists any direct engagement. That is, of course, until the party.

The second half of the novel begins with the utter definition of “teenage magic”: “That morning Mrs. Curtis said: ‘Nannie, you’ll help the girls to dress, won’t you?’ And they felt the first thrill of preparation. It sounded so important and correct, as if they were authentic debutantes with a maid… to lay out, to fold up after them” (117). The two girls go through an elaborate toilet, giggling and making jokes about the unfortunate young man their mother cajoled into accompanying them to the dance. Reggie is a serious man, totally divorced from the reality of these two beautiful girls, unable to make even eye contact with them through his thick unattractive glasses. The girls sigh and hope Reggie’s woeful presence doesn’t predict the rest of the evening’s atmosphere. Kate harbours a desire for Tony, one of the village’s most attractive sons to be there, to notice her, to dance with her. Inwardly, Olivia frets endlessly about her dress that doesn’t quite fit and how she’s not quite as pretty as Kate. She hopes that her dance card will be even slightly filled.

Invitation to the Waltz picks up energy when the girls finally arrive at the dance. It is here where the quaintness of unfashionable tradition serves the narrative. The sisters are propelled through a group of village inhabitants known to them, and strangers from other parts of the country, brought in for the purpose of social connections. It’s not terribly out of order to claim that these dances are meant solely for the establishment of social connections. It is here where Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social capital gets some of its force. The girls’ family name and reputation allows them entrance into the dance; there, they fill their dance cards with eligible men for the purpose of future attachment. Olivia and Kate are exchanging their social capital for more social capital, hoping to mobilize their background for the purpose of marrying a suitable man with a similar if not better background. Luckily for all involved, the sisters, but more so Kate, are born with the proper habitus to negotiate this type of social interaction.

The text does not shy away from the sexual politics of this marketplace, nor of the lasciviousness of the predatory older men. Instead, the girls see the dance as an opportunity to have fun and meet someone to marry. Olivia does not see why these two things should be mutually exclusive. It is her emotional fecundity and sensitivity that allows her to navigate this dance — not altogether successfully, as she is still drawn across the border of adolescence and adulthood.

The majority of the action in the second half of the novel concerns the separation of the sisters as Kate ends up dancing all night with Tony and Olivia goes through awkward, heartbreaking encounters with various unsuitable men — perfectly highlighting the increased distance between the two sisters. Olivia has her first ever dance with Reggie: “[she] was rather red in the face, with a sort of congested look, as if she might be struggling with feelings. Was it unhappiness, or the effort to make Reggie keep time? He held her by a loose handful of dress in the small of the back. The stuff would be damp and crumpled when he let her go” (166). This, of course, perfectly captures the tenderness with which the text treats Olivia. Her intentions are good, and she’s determined the make the best of anything, but she’s constantly put up against a bunch of infantilized young men or prematurely aged older men.

One of the more uncomfortable scenes involves a young, possibly Communist, poet named Peter, who is a classic case of social awkwardness. He barely bothers to learn Olivia’s name and proceeds to rail against the whole institution of the dance, the ponderous, presentation of capital through Lord and Lady Spenser’s ostentatious house. Even though Olivia expresses a fondness for dances, Peter goes on, unaware of his new acquaintance’s disquiet: “‘The unreality of it!’ He gave an unexpected shrill cackle. ‘My God, though, it has its humorous side. What’s-her-name now — that bosomy tin-plated dowager, yearning over us with her bowels of condescension… All these well-diluted debs — guaranteed wholesome and sedative. They’re enough to make a cat laugh’” (197). Of course, this unfriendly young man does not dance and proclaims so, somewhat to Olivia’s disappointment. When Peter ditches Olivia, he later catches up with her to accuse her of ditching him. In the end, Peter gets drunk and begins openly sobbing about how everybody hates him, including the waiting staff. It’s implied that Peter comes from money much to his own chagrin.

Olivia must also dance with the loathsome George, who is willing to make all sorts of insinuations about “English virgins” and their inability to have a good time, but getting irritated with Olivia when she is brave enough to give as good as she’s got. Every encounter with George heightens Olivia’s bad luck at finding a suitable dance partner. As well as her lack of proper judgment.

In an echo of the previous, more domestic half of the novel, Olivia finds herself drawn to an older, married (and thus ineligible) man, a veteran of the Great War and victim of a gas attack. Timmy Douglas has been blind since 1918, and during their dance, Olivia loses herself in a teenage fantasy of romanticism. She imagines how Timmy would have lost his sight, the pain, how he manages now, and she fantasizes about taking care of him, sacrificing herself for his benefit. Olivia is drawn to his worldliness without knowing it. She’s drawn to his interesting, formerly urban life. She dances with him, and it brings the reality of the war rushing to her awareness:
She was silent. War, a cloud on early adolescence, weighing not too darkly, long lifted…. A cousin in the flying corps killed, the cook’s nephew gone down at Jutland, rumour of the death of neighbours’ son — and among the village faces, about half a dozen familiar ones that had disappeared and never come back… and butter and sugar rations; and the lawn dug up for potatoes (the crop had failed); and knitting scratchy mittens and mufflers; and Dad being a special constable and getting bronchitis from it: that was about all that war had meant. (255)
Olivia sees Timmy as something from another world due to his experience, his subsequent acceptance of his fate, and his domestic life, quiet and happy in marriage. Olivia, while resistant to the provinciality of her own village, seems to yearn for this happiness, even if it comes without urbanity. For selfish reasons, she dances with him a second time, if only to make himself feel good and thus to feel satisfied.

Meanwhile, Kate is experiencing the same emotional queasiness as Carly Rae Jepsen does in her aforementioned monster pop hit. Kate and Tony are hitting it off, and his stories of hunting, riding, working in London, having holidays in the country are enthralling Kate. She is attracted to his physicality, his confident smile, his inquisitive attentive eyes, and mostly by his maturity and urbanity.
‘Couldn’t you come at Easter? I shan’t be home till the summer.’
He said quietly, in a tone of suppressed excitement: ‘Right. I will. If you’re sure you’d like me to.’
She answered, almost under her breath: ‘Yes, I would.’
They were silent, seeing themselves walking together beneath a blue and white Easter sky, down strange exciting sunny streets and under budding trees.
Olivia’s difficulty with various men, even the possibly appropriate suitors, is perfectly contrasted with the ease with which Kate and Tony seem to fall in love — with all of the pleasurable nausea that accompanies “teenage magic.” This contrast, this distancing, represents the true conflict at the heart of Invitation to the Waltz.

After the dance, around four in the morning, the girls return home. Olivia is possibly drunk, but more likely exhausted while Kate feels the inexorable gulf that has appeared between them. She cannot imagine telling Olivia about everything that happened and thus sets in motion her plan to join Tony and his family for a holiday. The subterfuge involves Etty, a cousin, inviting Kate in order to avoid Mrs. Curtis’s reaction to a boy inviting Kate. However, when this is revealed in the morning, Olivia is taken aback: “Oh Kate! She’s not going to tell me. Everything’s changing, everything’s different… I’m left behind, but I don’t care. I've got plenty to think about too. Everything crowded in her head at once… words, looks, movements — simply extraordinary. Life — she felt choked” (301). Of course, the important word being deployed is “extraordinary” but not in the usual banal sense of the word: (an exclaim). Rather, Olivia has entered, albeit delayed compared to her sister, the world of adulthood, men, and mature emotions. However, as with all journeys of development, the cost to be paid is the separation between sisters.

The novel ends with Olivia running into the sunlight that touches everything, hopeful and heartbroken at the same time, perfectly capturing the biliousness of “teenage magic,” the kind of superlative expression of emotion that vacillates between romantic depression, exultant anguish and unflinching optimism. The invitation of the title is actually the initiation, the introduction of Olivia into adulthood, but unlike Kate, she is not ready to embark on the final stages. Rather, Olivia must be content to stay within the territory mapped out by Carly Jae Jepsen, Britney Spears and a whole host of other teenage magic pop stars.

Works Cited

Lehmann, Rosamund. Invitation to the Waltz. 1932. London: Virago Press, 1996. Print.

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