Rosamund and the Purple Jar is a didactic story for children, written by Maria Edgeworth, first published 1796. To remind myself how old this story really is, what else was going on in the world at this time?
In 1796, Horace Walpole died. (He kind of invented the ‘Gothick’ with The Castle of Otranto.) Jane Austen turned 21. Ten Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Tahiti to try and save a population a decade after Captain Cook’s arrival had totally upset the island’s equilibrium. John Adams defeated Thomas Jefferson in the U.S. presidential election. The first two white women to ever visit New Zealand had arrived only the previous year. Australia opened its first theatre in Sydney. Japan was fully isolated.
So this story is very old. Of course it’s overtly didactic by contemporary standards. But what are the messages? And have the messages themselves held fast?
Liminality is all about between-ness. If you find yourself anxiously on the threshold of something, you may be in a liminal space.
A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place, if we learn to wait and let it form us.
If you’re on one side of a boundary, you could be in a liminal space. You might even be straddling it. Not just boundaries, either: borders, frontiers, no-man’s-land, the out-of-bounds area of the school playground.
Perhaps it’s dawn or dusk — on the border between night and day.
You’re in some kind of transition. You’re between schools, between jobs, between friendships. You’re engaged to be married but haven’t set a date. You have a new partner but haven’t changed your socials status. Doubly liminal if you’re both sitting where land meets sea, contemplating ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ with a flower.
You’re waiting for what’s to come.
You’re where land meets water. Dark water. You don’t know what’s down there. You almost feel you’re a part of it.
You live on a docked house boat.
You’re climbing a fence. Or thinking about climbing a fence — in the preliminal phase of climbing a fence. You don’t know what’s in that thicket of trees on the other side.
You’re on the edge of a village, trees are getting thicker. You’re about to enter the forest… or your dark subconscious.
You live in outer suburbia, betwixt urban and rural worlds. Shaun Tan made a picture book compilation about that particular liminal space. “‘It opened into another room altogether… an impossible room somewhere between the others.”
You live between cultures — one subculture at home, another at school.
You’re no longer a kid but haven’t yet launched as an adult. You have your learner’s permit but can’t yet drive on your own. You’ve outgrown the little chairs but you sit at the kids’ table over Christmas dinner.
You’re moving to a new house — a popular way to open a children’s book. Perhaps you live in a caravan park, and have this deep-seated feeling you’re living situation is something between permanent and temporary.
You’ve done something wrong, the community is throwing you out. You’re becoming an outcast. Your deputy principal is filling in the paperwork and you’re about to get expelled. You’re the black sheep of your family.
You’re not rich enough to afford a skiing holiday most of your friends are going on. But the poor kids think you’re rich.
You’re too beautiful to be human yet not quite a goddess. (Psyche had this same issue.)
You’re emigrating. This ship is your temporary home. (You’ve even brought your bird, with the birdcage functioning as symbol of a fully-contained house, in which you imagine you have all you could ever need.)
You’re having a rough time lately, alternating between hope and hopelessness.
You’re trying to read something interesting, but your mind keeps wandering as the text makes you think of related and tangential things. Things that upset you a little, or a lot.
You’re pregnant with your first baby. People are treating you like a mother but you’re not a mother yet. You actually have no idea how that’s going to feel.
You’re on an international flight and you haven’t readjusted your circadian rhythms yet and lunch arrives at a weird time. Between time zones, you’re neither here nor there. Doubly liminal if the world below is about to collapse due to an eco-crisis, as in this Helen Simpson short story.
You’re in the bathroom, standing in front of a mirror. You’ll never be able to touch one half of that space between you and your mirror-self. It creeps you out. Perhaps you’re a character in a horror movie.
Liminoid — Another similar adjective to liminal. The liminoid has the characteristics of the liminal. But liminoid experiences are optional and don’t involve some kind of personal crisis. Graduation ceremony: liminal. Rock concert: liminoid.
Preliminal, liminal, postliminal — the stages of transition
Limen — a threshold below which a stimulus is not perceived or is not distinguished from another e.g. existing in the limen between X and Y
Double liminality — Purgatory is a liminal space in its own right, but many people don’t believe in it, making it doubly liminal.
Paracosmic realm — that space behind the big red curtain where you like to read. (Your name is Jane Eyre.)
WHY DO WE NEED THE WORD ‘LIMINAL’?
Why not just say ‘between’ or ‘border’ or any number of similar words plucked out of a thesaurus?
For starters, liminality contains layers, e.g. the doubly liminal concept of Purgatory. It’s hard to convey this layered-ness using other, more concrete words.
The painting below might depict a doubly liminal space — a train transports passengers from one side to another and it is also sunset.
Not everything that seems liminal is necessarily so. In a story, a beach may be depicted as a liminal space or, in contrast, it might be a place where the characters have fun and feel a sense of belonging. In that case, the beach is not being used in a liminal way.
Liminal space is special.
Liminality is all about ambiguity, discomfort, anxiety.
Liminal situations are fluid, malleable and multi-layered.
Something feels weird here, but it’s never seen, never named and never known. People wouldn’t believe you if you told them about it. This is the epitome of ‘liminal’.
If you’re in a liminal space you’re basically facing a moral dilemma. Your circumstance allows you to question social constructs. Which world do you want to be a part of? Once you’re in that liminal space you can choose to progress or retract, to take hold of freedom or remain in a state of metaphorical slavery.
In stories, this is the bit where the main character has a Self-revelation, or makes a moral decision.
A liminal deity is a god or goddess in mythology who presides over thresholds, gates, or doorways; “a crosser of boundaries”, from Wikipedia
Header painting: Charles Harold Davis – Outside the Village 1883
“Feuille d’Album” (1917) is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, included in the Bliss collection. The word ‘album’ comes from Latin, neuter of albus ‘white’, and used as a noun means ‘a blank tablet’. This is the story of a man who appears to have no personality. Because of this, a group of women become fascinated by him, imagining he has deep, dark secrets. They endeavour to find out how he lives.
NARRATION OF “FEUILLE D’ALBUM”
The narrative voice of “Feuille d’album” has a strong personality. This is ‘the village voice’ of a subculture of women, society ladies, with the leisure to speculate about the life of an unfathomable young man of their acquaintance.
If this story were adapted for screen, I’d love Scottish actress Shirley Henderson to narrate in one of her English accents, for example that of Edith Dubarry in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day.
Although the viewpoint character is this nosy unseen narrator, the ‘main character’ is the story of Ian French. We must see her as unreliable. Here’s what she can know via the gossip mill:
He is socially awkward in the women’s presence.
He keeps a neat house (because some of them have visited)
He gave an egg to the young woman who lives opposite.
He may or may not have said “Excuse me Mademoiselle, you dropped this.” The gag is too perfect, a society tall tale (with a shaggy dog ending), and the result of many retellings.
Because she has such a distinctive voice, and feels so much a part of the society she describes, this narrator is clearly not omniscient. She is never present in Ian’s rooms. She doesn’t see him watching, scribbling things down. Therefore, the bulk of the story must be pure imagination on the narrator’s part. Highly imaginative narrators/characters are very useful in stories.
He is probably the son of a wealthy family, highly trained in the arts. He may have been sent to France as a ‘remittance man‘ to keep him out of the way, as he may be embarrassing, socially. (Some commentators have speculated that Katherine Mansfield might have been a remittance woman, sent to Europe because she was a woman who loves woman.)
Through my contemporary lens, I understand Ian French as autistic. At first I suspected social anxiety, but as the story progressed, a number of autistic-esque features hoved into view.
Ian is very good at what he does, and he does that thing a lot (painting).
He appears to freeze in social situations. Perhaps this is because he has a disability when it comes to reading social cues, and his way of dealing with this is to simply be quiet.
He has a surprisingly well-ordered house.
He has developed strategies to get things done on any given day. He writes himself notes, perhaps in the voice of a mother or nanny, who he still needs to hear from, if only in his head.
He fixates on the woman with few clues. Obsessive love is common across the breadth of human experience, but Ian seems to fixate on her motherly aspects. He seems to see someone who could take care of him. The details he fixates on are unusual.
Case in point, the egg. He (supposedly, and supposedly based on what the narrator has previously observed) really loves that egg, and he is perhaps attracted to it in a sensory kind of way. The flipside of sensory processing issues is that unexpected things can feel immensely pleasurable.
The character of Ian French was surely inspired by Mansfield’s interactions with human beings in real life, even if Ian French is a conglomeration. There is no ‘autism epidemic’ — in previous eras there was simply no name applied to neurodifference.
Ian’s opponents are the society ladies who speculate about his private life, epitomised by the voice of the unseen narrator. These women position themselves as allies, checking up on him, but are counterproductive when it comes to Ian finding the social connections he wants. They clearly consider him a figure of fun. We deduce that he knows this, for he turns them away whenever they darken his door.
A man who is a figure of fun is unlikely to find his people. He must find a new connection, with a person outside the social clutches of these particular ladies of leisure.
Unfortunately for Ian, we can also deduce that whatever he said to the young woman about the egg has got back to the ladies of leisure. So in fact, the object of his affection has revealed herself (off the page) to be as dismissive as they are.
Ian watches the girl until he knows her weekly schedule, then he plots a way to meet her. We don’t know he has plotted this, in the veridical truth of the story. Because of the unreliable narration, it’s possible he never talked to the young woman at all, and that the entire interaction with the egg is a comical fabrication. Nevertheless, that is the level zero story. Any metadiegetic discourse in which we’re told, “Psst, that’s not actually what happened!” is missing. We must check our own tendency to believe these stories. We must. not. listen. to this gossip. Leave the poor guy alone.
Back to the level zero story. Because Ian is so passive, the ‘planning’ comes from his opponents in the form of three women who visit his house. Notice how Mansfield is making use of the Rule of Three.
The climax of this story is the meeting with the young woman who likes eggs. The story finishes after this scene.
the last few paragraphs of a novel are relatively unimportant. … A short story is much different. The climax may be the ending.
Nancy Kress, Beginnings, Middles and Ends
Until this moment, the storyteller has invited us into her gossipy world. I confess that I was expecting some sort of dark act — a stabbing, perhaps? This is entirely set up, of course. Plus there’s the history of salacious stories about women murdered by stalker men. So this climax is an example of an anticlimax, which also subverts our expectations of crime and melodrama.
The story has closed with a perspectival shift. In many short stories, a notable change of perspective marks that the narrative may now come to a halt.
These final two steps are left for the reader to ‘write’.
The plot revelation, arrived at via deduction is the part where we realise the young woman may have gone back to the ladies of leisure and told them the story about the egg, making Ian look hopelessly silly and an object of fun.
There are a great number of natural landscapes in Australia apart from beaches (rainforests, desert areas, snow-capped mountains) yet the beach has somehow become iconic.
In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.
These novels and short stories are often about men who retreat from inland areas to the coast. The storyworld is dark and brooding. The men have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. Beaches are badlands.
What is distinctive about the Australian beach?
The term ‘beach’ in Australia has a wider meaning than its geographical qualities.
Beaches exist all over the world but are an internationally iconic image of Australia. The beach is pervasive in Australian advertising, tourism and popular representation. The beach is presented as idyllic, almost nostalgic and beautiful.
Tourist photos of the Australian beach tend to focus on the natural aspects and remove amenities. The exception to this is The Gold Coast, in which the beach and urban cannot be disentangled. Images will include skyscrapers along the waterfront.
Some beaches are far more hospitable than others. There is great variation. Water temperature varies a lot at any given time. Tasmanian beaches are more suitable for picnicking than swimming because the water is generally cold. Northern beaches near Darwin are unsafe because of crocodiles.
In Australia rural and urban areas tend to stand in opposition to one another (with preference for the rural). The beach falls into both camps — it is ‘natural landscape’ but it is also an extension of suburbia.
The beach is associated with leisure, hedonism pleasure, indolence. The beach is healing, a place of escape, a spiritual place.
When the beach is depicted as healing, there’s a big difference between characters who live at the beach and those who holiday there. Tourists don’t have to fit beach time around the ordinary aspects of their lives. The holiday is itself an escape.
But beach holidays often induce guilt. Characters feel guilty at what they leave behind. Guilt can provide the motivation to make big changes in a character’s ordinary, non-holiday life. The holiday itself triggers a character arc.
In fiction targeted at women, a holiday to the beach can make a female main character reassess who she is looking for as a romantic partner. She might be an uptight sort of character who loses her sexual inhibitions on holiday and is forever changed because of it. Beach holidays can let women reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve lost touch with (apart from sexual aspects). They can forget about societal expectations placed upon women in everyday life, giving them a feminist ideology.
In this way, the beach can act as a type of mirror. The natural beauty of the beach allows a woman to see the natural beauty in herself.
A beautiful setting allows for a binary to exist — beautiful versus non-beautiful. This is why the mythic natural beauty of the beach can symbolise heaven on earth. Horror films subvert this, juxtaposing a beautiful beach against death. The beautiful playground of a beach can become a kind of prison. Characters move from freedom to slavery.
The message of some horror beach films is that characters create their own fate by disturbing a pristine environment. They had no business being there. Nature (or supernature) shrugs them off.
Australia has no legend based on how we live as an urban coastal society, unlike the myth of the bush, which is a strong tradition. Yet for many modern Australians, the beach is a more familiar territory than ‘the bush’.
British people tend to see natural landscape in terms of ‘countryside’ and ‘seaside’. At the ‘seaside’ you get resorts, relaxation and therapeutic results. But The Australian beach is a place for swimming and surfing. Australian beachgoers are not passive. Even when not swimming or surfing, Australians bring their beach furniture with them and decide where to sit. They are holidaymakers rather than beachgoers.
When compared to American beaches, Australian beaches feel ‘transient’. Australian holidaymakers are responsible for bringing everything — you can’t hire umbrellas and lounges like you can in Honolulu. Holiday resorts do exist in Australia (e.g. Byron Bay) but there is not much emphasis on those in literature. Australian beach culture is far more accepting of nature than in trying to impose human order onto it.
Bush mythologies tend to idealise individuality. You’re on your own out there. Survival in the bush is seen as a personal achievement. But the beach is all about pleasures shared with others. ‘Indecent’ pleasures challenge social norms in a community. Competitive sport flourishes.
The naturalness of the beach is part of the myth of the Australian beach. This is the beach of our imagination. In this imagined version of the beach, we’re the only person walking along pristine beaches of untouched sand.
In fact the beach is surveilled: The beach is under the eye of the lifeguard from the tower, and increasingly, the beach is also observed through technological means such as cameras installed to detect erosion.
Many Indigenous texts placemore importance on fresh water than the beach. Yet there are still some important aspects of the beach that feature in the writing of Indigenous authors and in films that feature Indigenous characters.
Iconic Australian beaches: Surfers Paradise (Gold Coast, Queensland) and Bondi Beach (Sydney, New South Wales). These settings are also common in Australian stories.
Normally the word ‘badlands‘ conjures images of extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation, for instance the barren plateau region of the western US (North and South Dakota and Nebraska). But the Australian beach can be used as a type of badlands.
In the 1960s the Beaumont children went missing. (Their mother recently died without ever knowing what happened to them.) They disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia on 26 January 1966 (Australia Day)
Harold Holt went swimming in the sea and never returned. He was Australia’s prime minister. The fact that a prime minister can go missing like that is seen as a quintessentially Australian thing. We like to think this could never happen to the American president, whose body is protected, his every move monitored.
In the 1980s and 90s, infamous gay hate murders took place on Bondi beaches.
Bra Boys is a movie about the Cronulla riots of 2005.
Crime, assaults and kidnapped children continue to be plots in fictional texts with beach settings.
The beach is often a horror setting e.g. The Long Weekend (1978) and Lost Things (2003). Sometimes the beauty of the beach juxtaposes against the horror that unfolds e.g. The Long Weekend (1978 movie), Lost Things (2003 movie). Like any good horror story, the setting (in this case the beach) is initially set up as an idyllic, beautiful place. Also true to the horror genre, these beaches are difficult to reach and isolated. The humans are plucked off from the herd. In a Love story, the beach can act as a mirror, showing the (female) main character the beauty in herself. In a horror story the beach can also act as a mirror, but this time it reflects the evil within the main character(s).
In either case, the beach has the power to reveal some sort of truth.
The beauty of the beach is sometimes cast as ‘tempting’ e.g. Two Hands (1999 film). Bondi Beach is depicted as a glittering ocean which entices Jimmy into the water, away from his tasks.
The Australian beach is increasingly urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand.
Philip Drew, in his work The Coast Dwellers, believes that the Europeans brought their own understanding of space to Australia when they arrived in the late 19th century. Europeans journeyed here with a “conception of a closed centric world”. But this understanding that did not fit the geographical complexities of the country they found themselves in.
Even natural beach elements can be scary. Nature is unpredictable and we can’t control it (shark attacks, wild weather).
The beach is considereda space of equality. Anyone can go there, whether rich or poor. No one owns the beach. Once at the beach, no one is judged on the norms of the rest of their lives — everyone is now just a person at the beach, perhaps stripped down without clothes as status symbols. Employment and wealth is discarded. However, in practice the classless beach isn’t real, sometimes made clear in fiction as well. In Puberty Blues Kathy Lette describes Green Hills beach as trendy while beaches at the sound end of Cronulla are family friendly (but not trendy).
Some texts objectify women on the sand. Surfing texts are very masculine. Some films objectify other kinds of bodies, including the bodies of men.
Australian beach films are rarely financially or critically successful. (e.g. Newcastle) But still Australians keep trying to make beach movies and TV shows.
The beach is neither marginal nor liminal. It allows the imaginative and the social to exist at once within the same landscape. This is called ‘Beachspace’. Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. In contrast, the beach can create a sense of belonging, or multiple belongings.
Like high places, the beach can be used as a place to gain perspective, especially by going surfing. For surfers, waves can be a refuge and like driving, afford a sense of control. The main character of Breath by Tim Winton (2008) uses the surf in this way. He feels he can’t control death around him in his regular life.
Even though characters might try to use the beach as a safe space away from their ordinary lives, the beach isn’t always binary in that way. Floating in the shallows is similar to sitting in a bath, affording characters the space to think. Characters often have self-revelations in the water.
Header painting is a View of Sydney from the West side of the Cover painted in 1806 by a convict artist John Eyre. Some convicts were artists. Some of them were even convicted because of art — for forgery.