Review of ‘The Beguiled’
Review of “The Beguiled” by Ronel Koekemoer
The Beguiled, set in the American Civil War adds a feminine voice to an era that traditionally does not spare mushroom for women.
Mansplaining is one of the evils of our time. We’ve all been subjected to a man interrupting a woman when she voices her annoyance at a particular behaviour (or voices an opinion, or exhales). Man launches into explanation about said behaviour, casting himself as misunderstood underdog and woman as whiney bitch.
In that moment of mansplaining, however, there is one positive. It elicits an empathetic glance that is one of the greatest examples of solidarity between women. There are few connections more meaningful than that conspiratorial exchange of understanding shared by two women who have just found themselves audience to the defensive tirade.
Reading The Beguiled is a lot like that moment of connection.
Set at the height at the American Civil war, Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel plays out in the claustrophobic confines of ‘The Miss Martha Seminary for Young Ladies’. The school is furnished with all the God-fearing Southern sexism you would expect (“if you all feel you are innocent of your misdeeds today, I can only pray that God will enlighten you” admonishes the school’s matriarch, Martha Farnsworth). The plot is driven by the introduction of a wounded Yankee soldier, Johnny McBurney, to the women-only world of the school.
What makes ‘The Beguiled’ novel so fabulously feminist is that while a man is the central focus of the novel, the story is told by the eight women who populate the school. This melting pot of unreliable narrators gossip about each other and the world around them, ultimately revealing more about themselves in the telling of the story than the man who disrupts their lives. It is the varying ages and backgrounds of the women that adds textures of femininity to a novel that seemingly centres around a man. It is a powerful technique for the fact that while Johnny gets to disrupt, The Beguiled is one of the rare instances where the man does not get to speak.
The plot unfolds with the women seemingly divided, each vying for the soldier’s affection but the novel’s conclusion sees the women come together not in the bra-burning solidarity of the second-wavers, but in accordance with the repressive realm to which they are confined.
The Beguiled’s brilliance stems from Cullinan’s ability to write women characters in such a way that highlights the essential contradictions of femininity; where the same hands expected to do needlepoint are capable of amputating a man’s leg below the knee.
The Beguiled is a Southern Gothic gem peppered with sex, scandal, blood and humour. For example, when the youngest of the brood feels thwarted that her age excludes her from witnessing the amputation she remarks: “I wonder if when Miss Martha thinks about the afternoon when she cut McBurney’s leg off, she ever remembers the pretty vile way I was treated on that occasion”.
Originally titled The Painted Devil, the titular change and republication is the result of Sofia Coppola’s film based on the novel being released this year. Coppola won Best Director for the film adaption at the Cannes Film Festival—only the second woman to do so in the festival’s 70-year history.
Despite her brilliance, Coppola white-washed the novel by excluding Mattie (the all-seeing slave working for the Farnsworths) and by casting Kirsten Dunst as Edwina (who in the novel is a biracial character). The nuance of feminising the Civil War inevitably gets diluted by this move, but in the novel, both characters contribute to this project importantly.
The Beguiled is for anyone who enjoys a good Southern gothic (or who has not had the pleasure of indulging in one yet) and loves women and their world. And for those who dislike the aforementioned, read the book, as the fate of the beguiling Johnny may serve as inspiration to any woman looking for a solution for the mansplainers in her life.