April 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Margaret Atwood comes to Perth

By Chloe Hooper

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Brides revisited

“Oh, boy, that’s a ghostly-looking thing!”

Margaret Atwood, the grand dame of Canadian letters, is impressed by an antique lace veil suspended alone in a glass exhibit case. A slight woman with high, translucent cheekbones and very pale blue eyes, she moves with her head bowed, possibly from the weight of the information it contains. Wearing a shapeless dark jacket and trousers, only her long pink silk scarf betrays any interest in the sartorial. And yet before giving her address at the Perth Writers Festival, she has chosen to visit Unveiled: 200 years of wedding glamour at the Western Australian Museum.

In a dimly lit gallery she stands among mothers and daughters wandering reverentially past headless mannequins sheathed in white. What had happened to all these long-ago brides?

“Well,” explains Atwood, “they eventually died. Hate to break it to you.”

Wedding bonnets, going-away bonnets, gloves, garters and pearl-buttoned boots accessorise the displays. “It’s amazing that people saved these things, that they’re still with us,” she says, pointing to a cotton wedding dress from 1841. “So in the age of early Dickens, people were dressed like this, [then] sleeves balloon, they shrink, waists go in, they move up, they move down, bustles go out, crinolines expand.”

In her fiction, Atwood is scrupulously attentive to her characters’ wardrobes, and now, in real life, she inspects the cut and sculpting of each dress’s fabric, the technical skill and labour involved, with something close to awe. “Look at the tiny little pleats, look at the self-covered seams, look at the self-covered buttons.” She turns a corner and the mannequins multiply. Nodding towards an elaborate silk-fringed gown, circa 1857, she notes, “At this point they’re throwing everything on that they possibly can.”

Atwood grew up in the woods of northern Canada in the 1940s with her entomologist father and outdoorswoman mother. Each winter her father’s insects hibernated and he would have to “go back to a city and write up the results. My mother, unfortunately for her, would have to wear hats and gloves, which she didn’t like doing.” Fashion, however, appealed to her daughter, who played with paper dolls of movie stars and liked to sew. “Remember how old I am? Girls did home economics.”

When the family moved to Toronto, Atwood, aged nine or ten, would visit the Royal Ontario Museum on a Saturday morning. She had a friend whose father worked in the antiquities department, so after the place closed at noon, “we got to run around the museum with no one else in it. Immediately we would head for the Egyptian section, what with the mummified corpses.” On learning the museum she’s currently visiting also has a collection of the embalmed, she remarks, “What would a museum be without mummified corpses?” Does this famous feminist see a connection between weddings and death, or, in this case, wedding dresses and mummies? “Yes, there’s a famous Grimms’ fairy story that combines the two, called ‘Fitcher’s Bird’. It’s got a wedding dress and a mummified corpse in it. The mummified corpse is in a way wearing the wedding dress – even better.”

Has Atwood had a wedding herself?

“Oh, yes. I wore a bargain-basement white lace mini-dress. This was 1967. The age of Twiggy. It was one of the most peculiar days of my life.” She and her fiancé were in Cambridge, Massachusetts; they telephoned around for a justice of the peace, and found only one at home. “He turned out to be this wizened Chinese guy who’d once been the ambassador to China in Paris, and he was wearing a buffalo-head string tie, and those sunglasses that you fold up like lids. And I think he just made up the whole thing. He passed the rings over statues of the Buddha. We looked him up afterwards to see if he was legit.”

The marriage ended in divorce, and Atwood and her long-term partner, the writer Graeme Gibson, haven’t opted to tie the knot.

“Look at this …” She now gestures to something for the gentleman: an 1857 white satin waistcoat embroidered with lilies of the valley and forget-me-nots, symbolising purity of heart and true love. “Very nice, very fancy. When they’re talking about seamstresses and piecework and people’s eyes being ruined, that’s what they were sewing.” She gives the slightest sigh. “The sewing machine, on the other hand, took 80 years to become established as a commercial venture. Of course, it immediately gave rise to sweatshops. So instead of doing piecework at home with your needle, you were in a factory.”

Atwood seems to have an encyclopaedic take on most things, including the history of women’s labour. There was a surge in their employment after the Black Death, she explains, “until the invention of the potato basically screwed things up”. With an adequate food supply, the population exploded and women were again excluded from the workforce.

“It’s what happened after World War Two. Rosie the Riveter had boom years, back come the men from the war, they want those jobs, so there’s a big push – and it was very deliberate – to get women back into the home with the four kids, the washer and dryer. That’s what Betty Friedan was writing about. There’s a joined-at-the-hip connection between women in the workforce and available jobs. That connection seems to have been somewhat broken because they let women into the universities, and upper-body strength is not needed to run a keyboard. So a lot of the jobs are now in high tech and information flow, and women are just fine with that, thank you very much.”

But what kind of world will we be doing this work in?

Atwood’s latest books, a trilogy of speculative fiction – which will culminate in the August publication of MaddAddam – imagines a bioengineered apocalypse, in which Homo sapiens is all but wiped out.

Their author is remarkably phlegmatic about our lean towards extinction. “This is how human beings behave. One has regret at all things that pass. But many, many, many species have gone extinct: why do we think we’re exempt from the general law?” As a kindness, she reports on a good-ish news story. “It might cheer you up to read the Scientific American’s special issue on ancient man. We almost went extinct during a glaciation that took place 135,000 years ago, but we did manage to survive on the bottom rim of Africa, although not in great numbers.”

Atwood has spent her life thinking deeply about environmentalism and feminism, which she sees as crucially connected. “One of the big keys to [environmental action] is the education of women, because as soon as you have educated women, number one: they’re aware of the problem; and, number two: they have fewer children. One of the things people are terrified of talking about at the moment is overpopulation. We are industrialising at the same time we are reproducing. And of course everyone can now see stuff on their phones they once wouldn’t have known about, and they think, ‘I want a car too. I want air-conditioning too.’ But there are not enough resources to have everyone living in a Beverly Hills mansion. Then what will happen? With disaffected populations all of whom want the cars and the air-conditioners.” And the elaborate bridal attire.

“Whoa.” Atwood stops before the almost seamless ivory silk-satin dress of the 1934 bride Baba Beaton, sister of society photographer Cecil. “Now to get this silhouette with basically no bum, you needed the invention of the two-way stretch girdle.” Does she know about this invention from writing or life? “I know everything,” Atwood clarifies, moving briskly on.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire and The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, and the novels The Engagement and A Child’s Book of True Crime.

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