A few weeks ago I posted a revision site’s curiously ‘blind” reading of Duffy’s ‘Warming her Pearls’ which interpreted the poem just in terms of class- ignoring the obviously subversive aspects of the text.
Here it is again followed by a short commentary.
Warming Her Pearls
for Judith Radstone
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm then, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.
Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way
she always does…And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.
The dramatic monologue specialises in desire. A voice breaks into our consciousness and admits to a love that dares to speak its name. However such a love is always a prohibited or ‘taboo’ love and the act of declaration through the dramatic monologue causes at least a reciprocal frisson of disquiet in the reader!
Duffy’s ‘Warming her pearls’ explores the very intimate relationship between maid and mistress. Maids may dress and touch their mistresses because it is their prescribed role, but in doing so argues Duffy’s poem, they may also fall in love. And such a love may rewrite the dynamics between maid and mistress, so that all the conventional signs of such an economically ‘fixed’ relationship become eroticised and loaded with fantasy. And the connotations of being or having a ‘mistress’ are reappropriated here: this adds to the secretly illicit and ‘illegitimacy’ of the poem’s subtext; men have mistresses; women ARE mistresses; Duffys reveals ‘otherwise’!
The poem explores the ‘spaces’ of the home occupied by maid and mistress, recognising that desire renders all such places, palpably erotic. Each stanza acts as another room or ‘place’ in the day’s rituals; we may all crave to know the whereabouts and activities of the beloved, but this poem ironises such knowledge. For the maid does know everything about her mistresses day,it is her job after all; yet such knowledge propels her fantasies about her mistress, whilst also revealing their restriction of course, as all her mistresses actions reinforce her separation from her maid.
This interest in the erotically charged, ‘what if..’relationship between mistress and servant was taken up by Sarah Waters in her novel Fingersmith. Waters superbly renegotiates the erotic potential of such a relationship, making this sexually explosive dynamic central to all the machinations of the plot and denouement. The consummmation of the sexual attraction between the ostensible mistress and maid is profoundly erotic, embracing the unnerving permeability that exists between giving and taking in sex. Waters’ use of the dual narrator allows the reader to get the consummation scene twice which reveals the reciprocity and intensity of the attraction. And it is this reciprocity that is significantly missing in Duffy’s poem as the poem is always and ‘only’ a monologue, and it is the solitary condition of the speaker that engenders pathos.
Sarah Water’s Fingersmith reveals the unbounded propinquity of sexual need. Maud’s recollection of her sexual initiation with Sue in Fingersmith matches the intensity and mind loosening eroticism of Sue’s earlier narrative:
‘ – I am breaking, shattering, bursting out of her hand. She begins to weep.Her tears come upon my face. She puts her mouth to them You pearl , she says, as she does it. Her voice is broken. You pearl.’
The pleasure of consummation is a rebirth. The old Self becomes fragmented in order to be reborn.
It is almost confusing as to what and who ends where. This blurring of separation between self and other reveals the joy (and emotional release) of sexual connection and recognition.
It also reveals the danger of intimacy.
Interestingly the orgasmic declaration of ‘pearl’ reveals both the preciousness of the moment AND the ‘gritty’ aspect of such an analogy for a relationship? For the novel with its underbelly of betrayal and painful revelation, embraces the ambivalence of the pearl, with its cool aesthetic beauty and its hard unseen core; a source of both irritation and growth.
Thus the ‘broken’ voiced lover in Fingersmith reveals far more about the miraculous revelation that is orgasm, ( through the reference to ‘pearl’) than she obviously realises at the time. Her voice is broken as her connection to her maid is life changing and is a moment of consummate maturity.
The solitary maid by contrast in Duffy’s famous poem, ‘Warming her pearls’ remains unfulfilled. The dramatic monologue privileges her voice however so that we hear a voice ordinarily ignored due to class restrictions.
The poem bravely foregrounds physical proximity from its opening assertion: ‘next to my own skin, her pearls.’ How far can syntax avow and almost integrate the parallel yet widely distant worlds of maid and mistress? There is something lingeringly delicious and prohibited about the use of the possessive pronouns and the real intimacy of ‘skin‘ and ‘pearls’ has a connotation that goes beyond the words themselves.
The hierachical relationship between mistress and maid assumes an implied eroticism with the breathy breathlessness of ‘bids me wear them , warm then..‘ The maid has reappropriated her mistress’s orders into her own secret sexually charged fantasy.
The acute awareness of the physicality of the other:’..her cool, white throat.’Is immediately followed by the besotted acknowledgement, ‘all day I think of her, resting in the yellow room..’ The enjambement mirroring the running on fantasies of the maid lost in love for her apparently unobtainable mistress.
How far do we all recognise the shame of need here and the desire to know or feel we know the whereabouts of the beloved other?
The apparent triviality of the mistress’s life choices:
‘silk or taffetta’ are transformed into suggestively intimate possibilities through the positioning of the present participle ‘contemplating’ and the very obviously tactile nature of such choices!
But then I wonder who is really zooming who? For the mistress ‘fans’ herself ‘and the ‘slow heat entering each pearl’ has such tantalisingly overheated erotic potentiality that I don’t wonder that the mistress needs a ventilation. But then again the fan itself has its own semiotics of courtship and interest.
‘slack on my neck, her rope.‘ Here we recognise the enslavement of desire and love. This is further ironised of course if the love is unrequited ( and I may have changed my mind!) and of course when their economic inequality is recognised.
However there seems to be a tension between the ‘slack’ nature of the ‘rope’ of pearls. For if ‘slack’ it might imply that the maid is not tied tightly to her mistress; yet the mention of ‘rope’ immediately conjures a feeling of bondage and attachment. Surely this suggests the ambivalence of desire? Or fact that the mistress is physically larger and therefore more powerful than the maid?
I am not sure if the exchange of the pearls between mistress and maid is actually fully resolved by either reading. Perhaps neither knows…
Again we hear the revelation of acknowledged love and how finally painful such a love may prove to be:
‘ She’s beautiful’
Does anything else need to be said? I doubt it. The pride of proclamation.
The ‘attic bed’ rearranges the erotics of space in the house. The ‘attic’ situation of the maid, though clearly a hierachically lower space than that of her mistress, ironically privileges the maid’s transgressive desires. For an attic is illict and ‘free‘ and the maid can fantasise away…the ‘tall men’ highlights the desirability of the mistress. We do not want our objects of lust to be unattractive to others! The phallic aspect of the tall men’ contrasts sharply with this secret, illict lesbian desire and the ‘faint, persistent scent’ of the
maid’s smell on the pearls leaves as much or as little to one’s imagination as one may dare to contemplate! The idea that the maid
has ‘marked’ her mistress as an animal would mark its terroritory is subversive to say the least!
The good lucky connotations of the ‘rabbit’s foot’ are again ironised by the distinctly erotic aspect to the rituals of the maid’s and mistress’s relationship. The maid is surely gently marking and even scratching the mistress with this foot so that the blush becomes as much a natural mainfestation of arousal or projected arousal as being the outcome of artifice in the form of make up? Once again, I remain unsure as to whether the mistress is latently or surreptitiously colluding with the maid in this archly erotic relstionship or whether everything remains a fantasy/projection of the maid.
It is certainly true to say that the maid is a voracious reader of her beloved’s body and behaviour and like anyone in love, is lost in the codes and semiotics of desire.
The apparent disassociation of the maid from her ‘red lips’ in the mirror suggests her voicelessness ( ironised by her role as speaker in the poem) yet also proximity to fetishistic pleasure. Is the mistress looking at her maid getting excited by their proxinity or is she utterly impervious to this figure? The fact that the lips ‘part‘ reveals the visiblity of the maid’s desire. How many adverts reveal womne’s ‘availability’ through parted lips?!
The fairy tale aspect of the ‘full moon’ also introduces a slightly vampiric possibility and I recall the ‘cool, white throat’ of the mistress. Do we want to ‘devour’ the objects of our love?
Love renders us ‘mad’ with longing?
Mentally, the maid undresses the mistress who is in another place in their shared yet not shared ‘home’. The ellipsis telescopically brings the body of the mistr
ess to the maid’s attic bed.
The lingering fetishism and fascination of the ‘slim hand’ ( and whose hand might this be? Why are hands so related to the surety of desire and the articulation of desire? ) is quickly followed by more ellipsis…ecstasy is a lonely release and then the aftermath of the poem reveals their separation and estrangement.The maid remains unsatisfied by her release as it is solitary and the fantasy is no substitute for the physical need of the other.
But perhaps the sleep of the mistress with the cooling pearls also shows how unfulfilled she might be too? She sleeps alone. Are they separated only by convention, protocol and ignorance?
The last word of the poem is ‘burn’ .
How to write a good essay!
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