My Muses: Erato and Anais Nin

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Erato. The muse of love poetry. If I were to assign a mortal woman to Erato’s position, I can’t think of any gal more suited to inspire romance than Anais Nin—writer of erotica, memoirist of passion. Born in France to Cuban parents in 1903, Anais began her life amid the peaceful haze of the Belle Epoch (between the tumult of the Franco Prussian War and the First World War), but the modernization of post WWI west would sweep her away into a world of desire and liberation for women.

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Anais was not one for conformity. She left school at age sixteen and later became an artist’s model, thumbing her nose at “lady-like” behavior. It was at this time that she also left the Catholic Church in the dust, drawn instead, perhaps, to the temple of love! However, Nin did not cultivate her sense for amore until she happened upon a tantalizing collection of French erotica, belonging to an American man (living in France). While she and her family rented this American man’s apartment for the summer, Nin could pore over steamy sentences of his naughty book collection. The fates had thrown Anais and “smutty” novels together. She would never be the same.

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Beyond reading fiction, Nin cultivated a sense of her own sexuality through her various high-profile romances. She was the lover of Henry Miller, and wrote of her desire for his wife, June, in her diary. Clearly, the scope of passion and love were ever growing in Nin, as was her sense of self-possession. Anais Nin had also been keeping a diary since she was eleven years old, and would continue to keep it for over sixty years. Her penchant for writing came in handy when she was strapped for cash during the 1940’s. It was at this time that Nin, Henry Miller and her band of merry writer friends began writing erotica, for an anonymous collector, at a dollar a page. Decades later, Nin published these lust-filled narratives in two books: Delta of Venus and Little Birds.

 

Here are a few selected excerpts from her erotic novels:

 

“He was in that state of fire that she loved. She wanted to be burnt.” – Delta of Venus

 

“He had not touched me. He did not need to. His presence had affected me in such a way that I felt as if he had caressed me for a long time.” – Delta of Venus

 

“With her eyes alone she could give this response, the absolutely erotic response, as if febrile waves were trembling there, pools of madness…something devouring that could lick a man all over like a flame, annihilate him, with pleasure never before known.” – The Little Birds

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Significantly, Anais Nin became the first woman to publish true, fleshy, lusty erotica in the west. As a pioneer of boundless female love in fiction, I honor her as my muse of love poetry. She is the perfect flesh and blood well-spring for inspiration in the bedroom and beyond. Causing readers to stir with lust and leave them dripping with wet anticipation, Anais Nin would make Erato proud.

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My Muses: Euterpe and Sappho

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Euterpe is the Greek muse of lyric poetry, and while she’s really great and all, she is made of mythic material. Sappho, on the other hand, was a real flesh and blood (well, now, soil and worms) gal who wrote honest to goodness lyric poems. Sappho was born around 630 BC, on the Isle of Lesbos. She was a Greek lyricist, and one of only a handful of female poets known to the ancient world. Supposedly, Solon (Athenian lawmaker and poet) was so moved by her work that he desired to be taught a song by Sappho “so that I may learn it and then die.” Now, Solon is either prone to emotional outbursts, or Sappho was one sweet lyricist.

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Unfortunately, we may never know which of Sappho’s lyrical poems had whipped Solon into a frenzy of drama, because much of her work has been lost through neglect.  Medieval Byzantium dropped her works from their standard curriculum in the process of modernization, and copies of her poems ceased to be reproduced by scribes. As if her work hadn’t suffered enough, in an act of textual terror, copies of her poetry had been destroyed in the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Gasp!  

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Here’s a lovely adaptation of a poem by Sappho, as translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

One Girl
 I 
Like the sweet apple which reddens upon the topmost bough, 
Atop on the topmost twig, — which the pluckers forgot, somehow, — 
Forget it not, nay; but got it not, for none could get it till now. 
    II 
Like the wild hyacinth flower which on the hills is found, 
Which the passing feet of the shepherds for ever tear and wound, 
Until the purple blossom is trodden in the ground.

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In modern times, Sappho is known less for her written work, and more for her image as a symbol of female homosexuality. Her romantic poetry, involving female subjects, has made her the darling of lesbian circles. The English words “sapphic” and “lesbian” both refer to Sappho, thus, preserving her in writing, after all. Her ability to morph herself centuries after her death into words which exist in the English language is almost as astounding as her poetry. Truly, Sappho is one inspiring babe, and she has been operating as a muse for many a year.

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My Muses: Clio and Anna Comnena

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I’ve already mentioned that my ability to enjoy relaxation is limited. So, in an attempt to dampen the sunny fun of my vacation, I’ve created a small project for myself. For the nine days that I’m on holiday, I will assign a real-life, honest-to-goodness lady to an appropriate Greek Muse. So far, I’ve managed to feature Bessie Stringfield as a flesh and blood version of Calliope. Today, I will be looking at the life of Anna Comnena, widely recognized as the first female historian. Appropriately, she will serve as my real-life Clio. My muse of history.

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Anna was “born and bred in the purple,” as she puts it in her historical masterpiece, the Alexiad. She came into the world on December 1st, of 1083, and grew up in the Imperial Palace of Constantinople. Anna’s mention of the luxurious color purple is a nod to her position as a Byzantine princess (her father was emperor Alexios I). In the medieval ages, the color purple was generally reserved for royalty and nobility under sumptuary law. But, even if a poor-old peasant wanted to break the law and don the color purple, the dye-stuff was too expensive and rare for a “commoner” to obtain. The reason: one of the major sources for purple dye at the time were murex snails, which populated the Mediterranean Sea. Divers were required to harvest the sea snail, and then the snail shell had to be cracked open and the hypobranchial gland removed, which secreted the blue tinted chemical, dibromo-indigotin. 10-12,000 murex snails were required to make one gram of Tyrian or royal purple dye, so you can imagine the dye was costly, at the expense of both humans and snails. (Thanks for joining me on this tangent about murex snails!)

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Back at the royal palace, Anna was receiving an exemplary education, as she was prepped for rule. She studied astrology, mathematics, philosophy, literature, geography, Greek language, medicine rhetoric and…yes…history. She was a tailor-made royal. She had brains. She had ambition. But, what she didn’t have were balls. You can imagine that she was pretty peeved when her younger brother, John II, was offered the throne. She was preparing to place the royal diadem on her brow and the brow of her husband, Nikephoros Bryennios. And, because she could not tolerate B.S., she formed a conspiracy to murder and overthrow her brother. However, the plot was uncovered and poor Anna was booted out of court.

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After her plot to take over the throne was thwarted, and her husband died in 1137, Anna lived out the rest of her days in the seclusion of the convent. This might sound like a grim existence, but any writer knows that living like a hermit in a cloister-like setting is ideal for producing prose. It was during Anna’s time at the convent that she finished the history of her father, Alexios I, known as the Alexiad, which her husband had started before he croaked. Beyond the document’s importance as the first known history written by a woman, the Alexiad contains rare accounts of the First Crusade from the point of view of the Byzantines. Anna’s brilliant mind and brimming ambition could not be suppressed, and the Alexiad is a testament to her glowing talent. Amongst the mortals, she is my Clio. My muse.

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My Muses: Calliope and Bessie Stringfield

I’m sitting in a beach-house in Lauderdale by the Sea. It’s my break from school, and I’m having a difficult time slathering sunscreen (SPF 30) and joining my merry holiday party on the beach. Too much relaxation generally scares me, and on this trip I’m terrified. With no papers due or readings to debate, I feel as if I have been unmoored—bobbing about aimlessly in a sea of relaxation and sloth. Ah, well enough about my troubles. To remedy my fear of having fun, I decided to create a project of vacation-size proportions for myself, assigning real-life, honest to Zeus women to the nine Greek Muses: Calliope, Clio (my personal favorite), Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia and Urania. Today, I begin with Calliope:

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Calliope is the Greek Muse of epic poetry. Surely, if one wants to be inspired in an epic way, the bad-ass Bessie Stringfield fits the bill. Now, any epic saga should have a hero born out of strife, and Bessie was certainly met with some hard-times. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1911, her parents moved the family to Boston when she was very young, and after their unfortunate passing, Bessie was adopted by an Irish woman when she was five. She found herself an orphaned black girl, lodged in the societally sticky early 1900s. And though she was met with quite a bit of resistance from patriarchal, white-washed America, Bessie didn’t give a damn. She was a spirited lady with a motorbike.

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When Bessie turned nineteen, she got herself a 1928 Indian Scout motorcycle and made several cross-country trips, funding her travels by performing motorcycle stunts in carnival shows. It might seem as if Bessie had found freedom on the open road, but she was often denied accommodations at motels because of her skin color, and had to sleep out in the open, on her motorcycle at filling stations. Because she was a female, she was many times denied the prizes that she won in flat-track races.

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But, such circumstances did not keep Bessie and her motorcycle down. During WWII, she became the only woman to serve as a dispatch rider for the United States Army, delivering documents to domestic Army bases atop her breezy blue Harley Davidson. It was a grueling and dangerous job—one which bad-ass Bessie was perfectly suited for.

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After the beaches of Normandy had been stormed, and WWII passed into the annals of history, Bessie’s job as a courier for the U.S. Army ended. She moved to Miami, Florida: land of sunshine and racism. Bessie was repeatedly pulled over and harassed by the Miami police. Apparently, black women weren’t allowed to ride motorcycles. But, apparently, they had never met Bessie Stringfield before.

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Bessie went on down to the police station, and met with the police captain to discuss the issue of her driving her motorcycle. They convened in a nearby empty lot, where Bessie could show off her riding prowess; whereafter, the police chief gave her his approval to ride whenever she pleased, and the police never bothered her again. Decades later, I’m sitting here and wondering what exactly Bessie did to change to police chief’s mind. She must have put on one hell of a show to sway the minds of people living in an area rife with racism and sexism and sink-holes. In that moment, she broke ground for both women and African Americans who wanted to ride their motorcycles in freedom. Known as the “Motorcycle Queen of Miami,” Bessie Stringfield is an epic muse. She rode her motorcycle until the day she died.

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Leaving the Cult of Womanhood: Nora’s departure from Patriarchal Convention in Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”

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The Cult of Domesticity was the invention of late nineteenth-century traditionalists who had become alarmed by the arrival of the “New Woman:” the female who was both financially and intellectually autonomous, and independent from males. As a sort of patriarchal societal back-lash, the Cult of Domesticity was employed and the personality of the “True Woman” was developed to contain the intellectual and physical energy of women to the home, thus, preserving the sacred sphere of public life to men. However, the strict gender roles in Victorian society caused many women to suffer from depression, anxiety, “nervous prostration” and stress—some of the very disorders suffered by Nora, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Throughout Ibsen’s play, Nora is squeezed by the limited confines of the domestic sphere, undergoing a transformation from the nineteenth-century coined “True Woman” to “New Woman.” Galvanized by the pressure of the Cult of Domesticity, Nora emerges a stronger, truer version of herself, unrecognizable to nineteenth-century societal norms. Because Nora’s attitude is no longer congruent to the patriarchal model, she rejects the traditional roles assigned to women and exits the Cult of Domesticity.

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The Cult of Domesticity was a phenomenon of the nineteenth-century which defined the role of middle to upper-class white women in the scheme of patriarchal convention. Because women were barred from the male-oriented public realm, women were confined to the realm of home, and the qualities of “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity” (Welter 115) became their hallmark of womanhood. Essentially, this is the formula for making dolls: figures without a will of their own, but replete with accessories like a Bible and a feather duster. The idea that women existed as mere “dolls” is a theme most famously explored by Henrik Isben in his remarkable play, “A Doll’s House.” Just like the actual women who lived during the nineteenth-century, Ibsen’s heroine, Nora, is limited to the role of “wife”: marriage and motherhood being her proper occupation, and maintaining a household and her virtuous appearance her livelihood. As exemplified in the play, many women suffered under the strain of being stripped of their independence, and were tested by the limits of societal roles—one of the most significant shapers of Victorian societal roles being the law of coverture, which not only constrained and distressed Nora’s character in Ibsen’s play, but thousands of nineteenth-century women.

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Under the laws of coverture, women were subject to the rule of their fathers or husbands, had little to no chance of supporting themselves financially on their own, and were granted practically no legal rights or protections. Throughout the play, Nora’s realization of the injustices of patriarchal society build, until she snaps in the final act and leaves her marriage, her children and her home. In Nora’s final conversation with her husband, Torvold, she sum up her dissatisfaction with the role which was assigned to her by society: “It’s the truth, Torvald. When I lived with Papa, he used to tell me what he thought about everything, so that I never had any opinions but his. And if I did have any of my own, I kept them quiet because he wouldn’t have liked them. He called me his little doll, and he played with me just the way I played with my dolls. Then I came here to live in your house….Now I look back on it, it’s as if I’ve been living here like a pauper, from hand to mouth. I perform tricks for you and you give me food and drink. But that was how you wanted it. You and Papa have done me a great wrong. It’s your fault that I have done nothing with my life.” (3.1.2204-2209).

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The analogy which Nora creates between herself and a doll conjures up strong associations of a nineteenth-century woman’s static, lifeless position as a play-thing for men. This social arrangement between the sexes is an ancient one which finds its roots in the laws of coverture:

“Marriage and property laws, or ‘coverture,’ stipulated that a married woman did not have a separate legal existence from her husband. A married woman or feme covert was a dependent, like an underage child or a slave, and could not own property in her own name or control her own earnings, except under very specific circumstances. When a husband died, his wife could not be the guardian to their under-age children. Widows did have the right of ‘dower,’ a right to property they brought into the marriage as well as to life usage of one-third of their husbands’ estate. Though a married woman was not able to sue or sign contracts on her own, her husband often did have to obtain her consent before he sold any property his wife had inherited. Apart from such generally applicable laws, many women were in a position of legal dependence as a result of their particular situation, be it youth, poverty, or enslavement ” (Women and the Law)

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The laws of coverture which ruled Nora’s existence are the root of her huge dilemma—a dilemma which essentially drives the narrative of the play. Because Nora needs to secure a loan of money to visit her ailing husband, and she does not want to disturb her dying father, Nora decides to forge her father’s signature on the loan document. Although Nora considers her actions to be heroic, other characters in the play, like Mrs. Linde and Torvald, represent the voice of convention and disapprove of her acting on her own accord. When Nora tries to explain her motives to her friend, Mrs. Linde, there is a degree of disconnect between the two women on what makes rational sense in Nora’s situation:

Mrs. Linde: You couldn’t have borrowed it.

Nora: Oh? Why not?

Mrs. Linde: Well, a wife cannot borrow money without her husband’s consent.

Nora: (tosses her head): Ah, but when a wife has a little business sense, and knows how to be clever—

Mrs. Linde: But Nora, I simply don’t understand—(1.1.350-356)

To Nora, it makes perfect sense that if one needs money, one simply should apply for it—especially when the motive for money is a noble and selfless one. Her reasoning places her on an equal playing field with men, which seems “imprudent” to the more conservative Mrs. Linde. Nora raises a valid argument, simply wondering why—why can she not sign documents to save her husband’s life? And if these rules are so, than they do not make any sense. The idea that the laws of the late nineteenth-century are unfairly, if not arbitrarily written, are illuminated by a brief exchange between Krogstad and Nora:

Krogstad: The law does not concern itself with motives.

Nora: Then the law must be very stupid.

Krogstad: Stupid or not, if I show this paper to the police, you will be judged according to it.

(1.1.792-795)

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  Nora’s challenge to patriarchal convention receives resistance from all who surround her, and, in turn, Nora is made to feel as if she is living in a pressure cooker. Trapped in a world of Victorian social strictures, whose very design was suffocating to women, Nora finds herself bubbling with nervous stress throughout the play as she tries to avoid the consequences of her acting in her own right.  It is ironic that all of her trouble and distress over signing a legal document would have been nonexistent had she been born a century later, in an age where women had obtained legal rights and a great measure of autonomy. However, without the lopsided and prejudiced regulations of patriarchal society, Ibsen’s play “A Doll’s House” would have no dynamic tension, and the play would have fizzled out, having lost all of its narrative propulsion. The tremendous tension which tugs at the central character of the play, Nora, makes for a great story, but it also points to an injurious truth about patriarchal norms and its effect on women.

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 Ibsen brings to the surface the unnatural state which women must live in during the Victorian era not only by comparing Nora to an inanimate doll, but by placing Nora in a situation which could have easily been avoided had the legal rules of the time not been written and benefitted by men. In effect, Ibsen directs his audience to the question, “Is it Nora or patriarchal rules which are causing all of the trouble in the play?” If one takes the view that it is the manmade rules which are the cause of the dilemma in the play, one must then reject patriarchal convention; therefore, Ibsen was posing some very controversial ideas about social reform in his Victorian age play “A Doll’s House.” However, this question of the legitimacy of patriarchal social norms was not uncommon in Ibsen’s time. I would surmise that the playwright was heavily influenced by John Stuart Mill’s essay, “The Subjection of Women,” which had been translated into Danish in 1869—just a few years before the publication of “A Doll’s House.” “Here, Mill claims that women under the Victorian regime are socialized into artificiality. ‘What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced expressions in some directions, unnatural simulation in others.’” (Langas 151) Ibsen’s allusion to Mill’s claim that women were made to assume an artificial identity is demonstrated in his comparison of Nora to a doll living in a doll’s house. It is clear through the writing of both Mill and Ibsen that the limitations of gender roles in society were a widely discussed topic of interest in the second half of the nineteenth-century.

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But Nora’s struggle against gendered legal rules are just one of the problems which she faces in the play.  Nora demonstrates her displeasure with a life of little accomplishment in her closing statement to her husband, Torvald, claiming, “It is your fault that I have made nothing of my life” (3.1.2218). Nora, like many women of her time, found the role as mother and housekeeper to be limiting to one’s self-development and happiness. If one looks past the doll-like and twittering façade that Nora has created to please her husband, one can certainly see that Nora is an intelligent women. Nora must have felt stifled and bored by a societally assigned identity which prevented her from pursuing an education, a career and engaging in “serious” conversation. The Cult of Domesticity valued submissiveness to husbands, and selflessness towards nurturing children. This prescription for “True Womanhood” was certainly draining to women, and left little room for her to pursue her own interests or take care of herself. “The canon of domesticity, as Cott argues, ‘prescribed women’s appropriate attitude to be selflessness.’ The conventional cliché ‘that women were to live for others was substantially correct, wrote the author of The Women’s Mission, for only by giving up all self-interest did women achieve the purity of motive that enabled them to establish moral reference points in the home….” (Cutter 384)

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 Aside from a woman’s marital obligation of selflessness towards her children, it was a woman’s job to keep her husband happy, above all other responsibilities. This is where the revered virtue of submissiveness came in handy to nineteenth century women; she would forfeit her own inclinations and passions for that of her husband and household. Books, magazines and mothers of the time instilled in a young girl’s mind the importance of accommodating and obedient behavior. “The Young Lady’s Book summarized the necessity of the passive virtues in its reader’s lives: “It is, however, certain, that in whatever situation of life a woman is placed from her cradle to her grave, a spirit of obedience and submission, pliability of temper, and humility of mind, are required from her” (Welter 118). However, an existence of subservience contradicts the natural impulse of human nature: to exercise free will and preserve one’s self. From the very beginning of the play, Nora is exercising the use of her own free will and is finding resistance from the socially conventional around her. For Nora, being submissive is not natural, and so she must assume the character of a doll to survive her experience as a wife and daughter. However, pretending to be something that she is not becomes problematic for Nora as her most authentic self is struggling to rip through the confines of gendered convention.

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The way in which Nora views her actions of obedience and submissiveness to her husband differs from Torvald’s perspective. While Nora finds following her husband’s instructions to be a great sacrifice and gift, on her part, Torvald simply views it as a part of Nora’s job as his wife. The contrast between Nora and Torvald’s understanding of female submissiveness can be found in the following exchange of dialogue between the two characters:

Nora: No, it was Christine; She’s helping me mend my costume. I’m going to look rather splendid in that.

Torvald: Yes, that was quite a bright idea of mine, wasn’t it?

Nora.: Wonderful! But wasn’t it nice of me to give into you?

Torvald: Nice— to give in to your husband? All right, you little silly, I know you didn’t mean it in that way. (2.1.1094-1099).

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Here, Nora indicates that her decision to do as Torvald wishes was a sacrifice of her own free will. Unfortunately, Torvald looks at Nora’s obedience and submission to him as a part of her wifely duty. This notion that it was a woman’s role to deny herself and submit to the prerogative of men was just one of the many aspects of patriarchal convention which was tearing at Nora’s conscience. Because nineteenth-century women’s identity was bound up with self-abnegation, women found little opportunity to replenish their body, mind and spirit—a social position which caused many women to suffer from depression and nervous conditions. Signs of Nora’s own emotional deterioration can be seen throughout the play, as her role as a domestic doll start to wear on her. There are several instances throughout the play in which Nora is torn between her private inner–world of turmoil and her dizzy role as a doll-wife. In the moments before she has to adjust her behavior to play-acting as Nora the doll-wife, one can see Nora’s troubled state. For example, when Nora realizes that Torvald has dismissed Krogstad, and that she is now in danger of Krodstad revealing the truth about her forgery, Nora falls apart into a state of distress:

Nora: (Desperate with anxiety, stands as though transfixed and whispers): He said he’d do it. He will do it. He will do it. He will do it and nothing will stop him. No, never that! Never, never! I’d rather anything. There must be some escape—some way out–! (The doorbell rings.) Doctor Rank! Anything rather than that—anything, I don’t care! (She passes her hand across her face, composes herself, walks across and opens the door to the hall…) (2.1.1212-1216).

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 It is clear that staying in character—as the vacuous housewife who is only concerned with material items—is becoming more and more difficult for Nora to maintain. Nora is a woman of thought and strong free-will, and these characteristics are constantly at odds with her dim-witted alter ego, the doll-wife. The only thing which seems to be keeping Nora together as the doll-wife is her love for her husband and her misconception of her husband’s character. Nora has subscribed to her husband’s illusionary portrait of his brave and supportive character, as she is reminded of his noble traits throughout the play. In act II, Torvald assures Nora, “My dear Nora, I can forgive the anxiety you are in, although it is an insult to me. It is, indeed. Isn’t it an insult to think that I should be afraid of a starving quill driver’s vengeance? But I forgive you nevertheless, because it is such an eloquent witness to your great love for me. And that is as it should be, my own darling Nora. Come what will, you may be sure I will have both courage and strength if they be needed. You will see I am man enough to take everything upon myself….That’s right. Well, we will share it, Nora, as man and wife should. That is how it shall be.” (2.1.1192-1204)

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However, that is certainly not how it would be. By the end of Act III, Torvald has revealed himself as a shallow and cowardly man who is incapable of standing by his wife through troubling times; Torvald even goes so far as to call Nora a hypocrite, a liar and a criminal. It is at this point in the play which Nora’s false perceptions of her husband are shattered, and she realizes that there is nothing keeping her in her truly artificial marriage. The last thread which had held her character together as Nora the doll and Nora the wife and mother had been severed in two by Torvald’s sharp and cutting comments towards Nora’s personality, and his incapability of substantiating his claims to possessing a courageous and selfless character. Finding the depths of her marriage to be completely shallow, Nora decides that there is nothing holding her to the Cult of Domesticity. Furthermore, Nora has been transformed by her experience of anxiety and grief, and understands that in her existence as a wife and mother, she has forgotten about her own desires and needs; she has outgrown her role as a doll-wife, and can no longer accept a life of complete self-denial and submission to her husband. Dissatisfied by the position which patriarchal convention has assigned her, Nora rejects her gender-limited role in society, and informs Torvald that she is leaving him and the children. Not fully understanding that Nora is no longer subscribing to the Cult of Domesticity, Torvald tries to appeal to her logic with social strictures that no longer apply Nora:

Helmer: But this is monstrous! Can you neglect your most sacred duties?

Nora: What do you call my most sacred duties?

Helmer: Do I have to tell you? Your duties toward your husband and your children?

Nora: I have another duty which is equally sacred.

Helmer: You have not. What on earth could that be?

Nora: My duty towards myself. (3.1.2263-2269)

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By calling attention to her own desires and needs, Nora is renouncing her position as a “True Woman” and embracing her role as the “New Woman.” Her departure from the domestic sphere and all of its trappings is a dramatic one, indeed, but necessary in making a statement about the damaging and unnatural design of patriarchy and the Cult of Domesticity. Although women had a long way to go in the struggle for women’s rights during the Victorian Era, works like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” helped to pave the way for a new way of looking at gender roles in society. Nora’s exit from the confines of patriarchal convention may have been a fictionalized one, but through the power of art and literature, Nora’s character created a template for women to follow wherever the play could be read or performed. In the case of Ibsen’s play, real life would eventually emulate his art, and fiction would become fact.

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Cited Works

 

 

 

Cutter, Martha J. “Beyond Stereotypes: Mary Wilkins Freeman’s Radical Critique of Nineteenth-Century Cults of Femininity.” Women’s Studies. Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, S.A. Printed in the United Kingdom, Sept. 1, 1992. 383-395. Web. 2001.

 

Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll’s House.” Literature and Ourselves, 6th Ed. Henderson, Gloria Mason, Anna Dunlap Higgins, Bill Day, Sandra Stevenson Waller, eds. New York: Pearson Education, 2009. 367-423. Print.

 

Langas, Unni. “What Did Nora Do? Thinking Gender with ‘A Doll’s House.’” Ibsen Studies: December, 1 2005. 145-166. Print.

 

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” Major Problems in American Women’s History, 2nd Ed. Norton, Mary Beth and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1996. 115-122. Print.

 

“Women and the Law.” Women, Enterprise and Society. Harvard Business School Online. President and Fellows of Harvard College: 2010.  

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The Public Enemy: Disenchantment With the American Dream

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The Public Enemy was a terrific example of the gangster genre, which emerged in full force during the early 1930’s. As the film came out in in 1931, and was unhampered by the restrictive measures of the Hollywood Production Code, enforced in 1934, The Public Enemy retains its punchy lines, seedy settings and bawdy women: grit essential to the murky vigor of organized crime. As I was watching the film, I quickly understood why audiences, some eighty years ago, were struck by the gangster drama. As the American psyche was inextricably bound up with the accumulation of wealth and success, a story of a self-made man seems irresistible. However, The Public Enemy is, in actuality, a cautionary tale which debunks the reliability of the American Dream.

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The intoxicating allure of upward social mobility was instilled in the collective American conscience by stories designed by Horation Alger, and inspired by men like Rockefeller and Carnegie. The American myth, that anyone could make it to the top if they just worked hard enough, or possessed the right character, was a misconception understood by most Americans during the 1930’s, and is a myth that stands strong to this very day. Circumstance and luck had nothing to do with success in the traditional Gilded Age understanding of the word. Just as personal success was attributed to character, so too was poverty; thus, poverty took on a meaning of laziness and personal inadequacy. However, after the fall of the stock market in 1929, around 25% of the American workers found themselves jobless and poverty was thrusted into the face of the middle-class. Poverty was too big of an issue and too close to home for average Americans to sweep under the carpet, and so poverty was beginning to be comprehended as a problem with the economic and government system, not an individual’s lack of character.

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With the disillusionment of the American Dream in mind, consider the plotline of The Public Enemy. James Cagney is mesmerizing on screen as the fast talking, quick moving and unapologetically bad Tom Powers. Tom’s humble beginnings and harsh childhood allow the audience to empathize with the hero’s descent into the world of organized crime. During the 1930’s, when jobs were scarce and waist-belts were tight, audiences would have understood Tom’s involvement in the crime world as an act of survival and courage. Now, that the audience is fully empathetic to Tom, it can revel in the themes of violence, sex and money, along with Tom; hence, living vicariously through Tom. Throughout most of the movie, Tom takes what he wants, whether it’s a punch, a dame or some dough, and this is the part of the movie which served as escapist fodder for audiences. His violent and uncaring behavior is a reflection of a bloated sense of unfettered individualism and ego– a dark facet to the American Dream. It seems that Tom can ride the swell of personal success and unlimited power, doing just as he pleases without any regard for the well-being of other people. However, the principles of laissez faire society had to be tested, as seen in the concluding scenes of The Public Enemy. The ebb was coming.

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As a parallel to the collapse of the economy and the integrity of the American Dream, The Public Enemy takes the audience on a thrilling ride to the top, where money sex and power are plentiful, and then rips success away from the hero; leaving him, in the final scene of the movie, as the powerless, bound and mummified remnants of a once “great” man (A misogynist murderer is certainly not my idea of a great man, but this is the dirty thirties). The shocking image of Cagney left on his mother’s doorstep, bloodied and wrapped up like a package, reminds the audience of how quickly a man can be humbled—no matter how powerful. Cagney’s character fought the stagnant world of convention and mediocrity and lost. He was a self-made man, like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, but fell prey to the gods of circumstance and chance. Perhaps Cagney’s character reminded people facing hard times, or the threat of hard-times, that it wasn’t a person’s fault if they failed, it was merely the hand of fate. “The gangster film became a contemporary version of the Gospel of the Gilded Age. But the gangster film always dealt with both rise and fall; when the gangster, sitting “on top of the world,” dies spectacularly alone, his success proves hollow and short-lived, like the bubble of prosperity in the 1920’s.” (228, Dickstein)

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Likewise, the hero’s involvement with the crooked Puttynose, illuminates not only to the ways in which environment and circumstance can forge a man’s life, but how unreliable people and organizations can be when you really need their help. While Puttynose was responsible for putting malicious ideas in the mind of Power’s character and a gun in the youth’s hand, old Puttynose failed to support the very beast he had created when it came back to his creator. This, again, parallels American society– filling youth’s heads with ideas of grandeur, informing them of the steps they need to take to be a success and then turning its back on youth when the rug of the American Dream is pulled out from under them. Just as the veteran soldiers of WWI formed the Bonus Army and trekked to Washington in search of help, only to be hosed off the pavement and whisked away by a fellow officers of the army, so too did Puttynose reject his own.

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Aside from the theme of the individual being explored—an idea most cherished by American culture— the importance of community and sticking together is found throughout The Public Enemy. Take the scene in Public Enemy where Powers questions Patty’s (owner of Patty’s Pub) decision to do him a favor:

Tommy: “Why do you want to front for us? We ain’t ever done nothin’ for you.”

Patty: “Maybe not. I might need a friend sometime. I’m older than you, and I’ve learned that nobody can do much without somebody else.”

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Contrary to the American ideal of self-sufficiency and individualism, the idea of needing to depend on other people for survival or success is explored in many of the Golden Era films, The Public Enemy being no exception. With a growing awareness of the fragility of the American Dream, many Americans began to look at socialist models for society as an answer to the capitalism gone amok. The American government, for the first time in its history, took responsibility for the well-being of its people through government programs, designed to support those who were less fortunate and needed financial aid. These programs were a part of the New Deal, under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s command, and acted as a buffer against the American Dream, which was chafing under weight of grief, stress, loss and despair felt by many millions of jobless Americans.

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The Historic Crescendo of Indian Cotton Muslin in the West (1770-1820)

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Muslin fabric was the textile of emperors.  While the Indian continent historically boasts many different varieties of textiles—from calico to ikat— it was the remarkably translucent, wonderfully white characteristics of cotton muslin that the Indian Mughal court revered. When The British East India Company received a royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I of England, in 1600, a long history of trade between Europe and India began. Cotton textiles were among the most popularly imported items from the exotic, far-reaches of India, and chief among these cotton textiles was muslin. During the eighteenth-century, the production of the cloth had reached its zenith in popularity amongst Europeans, and up until the close of that century, the quality of the fabric was far-superior to anything that Europe could produce.

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            In a global sense, India had been ahead of the cotton-based textiles game for a couple millennia. Cotton had existed as a domesticated and cultivated plant on the Indian continent for thousands of years, proof of which can be found in the domesticated cotton fibers and seeds which have been found in excavation sites in Baluchistan, dating from around 6,000 BC.  By the time European companies started trading with India in the seventeenth-century, the spinners and weavers of India had the advantage of working with cotton for a long period of time.

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            The cotton muslin which pre-dates the twentieth-century is much different in appearance and quality than what is modernly termed as muslin. The muslin fabrics produced in India during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century could be defined as a plain-weave, cotton cloth with a translucent appearance. Because of its sheer and airy characteristics, it was originally named after the French word for mousse: mousseline. Later, it was adapted into the English language, and mousseline became muslin. Because the fabric was so diaphanous and sheer, it acquired other monikers which denoted the degree of the fabric’s delicacy. “Woven-wind” and “evening dew” were just a few names which were attributed to Indian cotton muslin. “In the 1760s the Dutch traveler Stavorinus wrote that ‘Bengal muslins were made so fine that a piece twenty yards in length or even longer could be put into a common pocket ‘tobacco box’”

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The delicacy of the cotton thread used to construct muslin textiles and the difficulty of weaving muslin fabric allowed for India to corner-the-market on fine muslin, so to speak. The art of making a fabric which could be described to be as dainty as “spider web” required specialized skill and unique conditions. It was Dacca India which was known, during the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries, for making the most exquisite and translucent muslin fabric. But how did a rural region which was made up of small villages produce a fabric which was unparalleled by modern western countries? Fortunately, for the western world, the answer has been preserved in a written record by the medical officer, James Taylor, who lived in Dacca India between the years 1828 and 1846. Although his report post-dates the period which has been highlighted in this paper, the slow-moving technology changes in rural India make it highly plausible that the techniques described in Taylor’s report apply to the manufacture of the fabric in the eighteenth-century.

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The process for making delicate muslin begins with the cotton plant itself. In the flood-planes along the Brahmaputra River, the land is seasonally covered with a fine silt, making the soil fertile. The cotton which grows in the silty soil of the region has been cultivated to produce a boll with exceptionally long and thin fibers.  Such choice cotton bolls were cleaned in an ancient technique, where women used the small teeth attached to the jawbone of the boalee fish to comb out the seeds. To remove the dirt and knots from the processed boll, the cotton fibers were laid out into a pile. The next step to the process was quite simple, but clever. Workmen struck a large stringed bow with a wooden mallet, and set the bow against the pile of cotton, where the vibrations of the bow shook the dirt from the cotton, while simultaneously fluffing the fibers. Now, the cotton was ready for spinning.

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The spinning process could not be left to just any hand. Because of their nimble young fingers and acute eye-sight, women under thirty years of age were chosen to spin the cotton yarn.  The relentless humidity of Dacca eased the stress on the fibers, making it more pliable for spinning and weaving. William Ward observed in 1818, “Women of all castes prepare the cotton thread for the weaver, spinning the thread on a piece of ware, on a very thin rod of iron with a ball of clay on one end, this they turn round with the left hand, and supply the cotton with the right.”

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The weaving portion of muslin cloth production was customarily performed by men. The work of weaving required great restraint and dexterity to work with cotton yarns which were so fine. The weaving work was executed on a simple loom, where the warp yarns were strengthened through a process of soaking the yarns in rice paste. After the cloth was woven, the starchy rice paste was washed out of the fabric in a running stream, and laid out in a field to bleach in the sun. The resulting fabric appeared sheer and filmy, and as it was stretched on the ground to dry and bleach, it resembled spider webs, or in the hazy morning sun, dew.

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Before the nineteenth-century, Indian cotton textile production was ordinarily carried-out in villages, and was performed at the house-hold level, where every member of the family was involved in the production process. Children would clean and card the cotton and assist the weaver, women would spin the cotton, and men would weave the fabric. Each district specialized in one textile—Dacca specializing in fine muslin. These localized centers for production were called aurangs. The cleaning, spinning and weaving processes were further specialized and determined by caste and occupational factors. In a sense, the divided labor system of the aurangs resembles an assembly line in a modern factory, where each separate “part” or step in the production was allotted to one person or group who specialized in just one task. Such aurangs in Dacca fell under the patronage of the Mughal Court, who controlled the production over the best weavers. While the Mughal Court allowed muslin to be sold to Europeans, the finest muslin was reserved for the Court. It wasn’t until the late eighteenth-century, after the British conquest of India, that the British took control over the aurangs, and, in turn, gained access to the highest-quality muslin fabrics.

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You may be wondering why it was so important for the European trading companies to get their hands on fine muslin woven in Dacca. The answer has a lot to do with the changes in western philosophy, aesthetics and fashions, and the increased demand for textiles which were suited to these new ideals. During the second half of the eighteenth-century, Neoclassicism had taken a hold of western Europe. The architecture and fashion of the time had a dominant Greco-Roman appeal, spawned by the discovery of the ruins of Pompeii in 1748.  The fashion for resembling Greek marble sculpture encouraged the wearing of beautiful white fabrics in the form of the fichu, shawl and dress. It was Indian cotton muslin which was the best-suited to these Greek-goddess-inspired fashions, with its elegant, soft drape and gossamer sheerness.

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By the mid 1780s, the robe en chemise became popular, after the fashion forward Queen Marie Antoinette was immortalized in a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee-Le Brun, (painted in 1783), wearing the underwear-like garment. Although the robe en chemise’s debut amongst privileged circles was shocking, it was quickly embraced by the fashionable elite. Soon, European royalty, like the Prussian princesses Friederike and Luise, and aristocrats, like Juliette de Recamier, were wearing simple white dresses made of muslin fabric.

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During the first two decades of the nineteenth-century, the empire-waisted muslin dress was the reigning fashion, and can be seen being modeled in early nineteenth-century fashion-plates, and portraits of royalty and aristocrats.  Empress Josephine de Beauharnais—Napoleon Bonaparte’s first wife— cemented the look in popular fashion, reflecting her husband’s politically fashioned, Neoclassical imperial style through the white empire dress. Josephine and her fashionable friends were known to splash water on the filmy muslin material of their gowns, causing the fabric to cling to their figures, while simultaneously becoming even more transparent. Not only was the wearing of muslin fabric a political statement, but it was a seductive act, as well. The prevailing cultural climate consisting of Greco-Roman inspired Neoclassicism, “Anglomania-style,” which elevated simple country wear to high fashion, and the idea of the return-to-nature, supported by such philosophers as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, coupled with the inherent alluring qualities of the fabric all ensured the ready adaption of white dresses and accessories made from muslin into popular fashion.

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Aside from the fabric’s visual appeal, muslin possessed practical qualities, as well. Not only were cotton textiles more cost-effective than textiles like silk and wool, but cotton fabric was color-fast. This meant that clothing and bedding made of cotton fabric could be dyed a color, or feature dyed popular motifs and designs, and withstand exposure to sunlight and washing. In the case of cotton muslin, it was a good choice for undergarments because the fabric could easily be washed. Because both outer-garments and undergarments made of cotton were washable, new concepts of cleanliness emerged in nineteenth-century European culture. Cotton muslin was a marvel of both beauty and hygiene.

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Although Europe tried to emulate the cotton muslin fabric, they were, at first, only able to produce cruder, lower-grade muslin fabrics. It is for this reason that Indian muslin was highly sought after by European traders.  Especially during the mid-to-late eighteenth-century, the European demand for Indian cotton muslin reached its peak. In the decade between 1760 and 1770 alone, it is estimated that European companies imported around 1,400,000 pieces of Indian cotton fabrics. The exceptionally sheer and delicate muslin fabric known as jamdani was the variety which was most difficult for Europeans to replicate. Jamdani is an-ultra-fine muslin fabric which has been embellished with cotton yarns, introduced as weft threads during the weaving process, forming a white-on-white pattern. In the caste-conscious culture of India, it was the Muslim men who wove jamdani muslin, and the Hindu men who wove plain muslin.

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As fine and beautiful as the hand-woven Indian cotton muslin was, the cottage industry system which ruled the production of the fabric in Dacca could not compete with the developing machinery emerging out of England at the close of the eighteenth-century. In 1779, the spinning mule was invented by Samuel Crompton, which revolutionized yarn making. The spinning mule could generate yarn that was both smooth and fine, and could be produced at a much faster rate than by hand. By 1800, English cotton mills featured steam-powered spinning mules and steam-powered looms which out-classed and out-produced weaving centers in Dacca, India. By the dawn of the nineteenth-century, the age of the machine and the Industrial Revolution had come into its own. While the Industrial Revolution began in England around 1780, it was in the year 1800 that a steady advance in efficiency and technology occurred. Machines and technology that produced textiles made up 43% of productivity advancements, which points to the importance of textiles as both utility, luxury and commodity.

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 Truly, it was the sound of the steam engine’s pistons, cogs and wheels that signaled the end of the millennia-old muslin weaving tradition in Dacca, India. Around 1790, machines in England were producing most of the cotton textiles that were sought after in the commercial market, which spelled a declining demand for the Indian made muslin. While the exotic beauty and functionality of Indian cotton muslin had captivated the desire and imaginations of western Europe, beginning in the seventeenth-century, the ethereal hand-woven fabric was inevitably left behind in the annals of history as time marched forward, into the age of machines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

 

Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015.

 

 

Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014.

 

 

Bhatnager, Parul. “Sari-Tangil and Jamdani.” www.academia.edu/373055/sari-tangil_and_jamdani.

 

 

Clark, Gregory. “The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population and Economic Gowth, England 1209-1869.” Economic History Review. February, 2009.

 

 

Crill, Rosemary. Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia. Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016.

cpd.org.bd/private-public-and-civil-society-partnership-is-critical-for-revival-of-muslin/

 

 

Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012.

 

 

Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999.

 

 

Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

 

 

Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.

 

 

McDowall, Carolyn. “The Fabric of India—V&A London, Showcases Indian Textiles.” The Culture Concept Circle. V&A, London, 2015.

 

 

Riello, Giorgio. “The Making of a Global Commodity: Indian Cottons and European Trade, 1450-1850.” The Proceedings of the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians. U.K.: University of Warwick Press, 2010.

 

 

Riello, Giorgio. “When Cotton was Banned: Indian Cotton Textiles in Early Modern England.” Fifteen Eighty Four. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

 

 

Sarkar, Suborna. “Inventive Employ of Jamdani: An Idiosyncratic Cram and Analysis.” European Journal of Business and Management, Vol.8, No.12, 2016.

 

Ward, W. A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, Vol.1. Serempore: Mission Press, 1818.

[1] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. cpd.org.bd/private-public-and-civil-society-partnership-is-critical-for-revival-of-muslin/. 2.

[2] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966. 1.

[3] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. cpd.org.bd/private-public-and-civil-society-partnership-is-critical-for-revival-of-muslin/. 2.

 

[4] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[5] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 119.

[6] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[7] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 12.

[11] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[12] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[13] Ward, W. A View of the History, Literature and Mythology of the Hindoos, Vol.1. Serempore: Mission Press, 1818. 93.

[14] Harris, Jennifer. 5,000 Years of Textiles. London: British Museum Press, 1999. 106.

[15] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR. Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 12.

[16] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 126.

[17] Bhatnager, Parul. “Sari-Tangil and Jamdani.” www.academia.edu/373055/sari-tangil_and_jamdani.

[18] Cole, Daniel James. “Hierarchy and Seduction in Regency Fashion” Jane Austen Society of North America. Vol.33, No. 1, 2012. 3.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lubrich, Naomi. “The Little White Dress: Politics and Polyvalence in Revolutionary France.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body and Culture. 2015.

[21] McDowall, Carolyn. “The Fabric of India—V&A London, Showcases Indian Textiles.” The Culture Concept Circle. V&A, London, 2015.

[22] Irwin, John and P.R. Schwartz. Studies of European Textile History. Ahmedabad, India: Calico Museum of Textiles, 1966.

[23] Riello, Giorgio. “The Making of a Global Commodity: Indian Cottons and European Trade, 1450-1850.” The Proceedings of the First Congress of the Asian Association of World Historians. U.K.: University of Warwick Press, 2010. 11.

[24] Berg, Maxine. Goods from the East, 1600-1800: Trading Eurasia.

Edited by Maxine Berg, Felicia Gott Mann, Hanna Hodacs, Chris Nierstrasz. U.K.: Pelgrave Macmillan, 2015. 124.

[25] Sarkar, Suborna. “Inventive Employ of Jamdani: An Idiosyncratic Cram and Analysis.” European Journal of Business and Management, Vol.8, No.12, 2016.

[26] Crill, Rosemary. “Fruit of the Loom: Cotton and Muslin in South Asia.” Center for Policy Dialogue. 2016. cpd.org.bd/private-public-and-civil-society-partnership-is-critical-for-revival-of-muslin/. 2.

[27] Bhadra, Siddhartha. “The Impact of British Industrial Revolution on Bengal Industry.” IOSR Joural of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2014. 13.

[28] Clark, Gregory. “The Long March of History: Farm Wages, Population and Economic Gowth, England 1209-1869.” Economic History Review. February, 2009. 122.

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