Last week I attended an event with Min Jin Lee in conversation with Mark Oppenheimer. They were talking about writing and one of the comments Min made was about tone. She asked if anyone knew the definition of tone. The audience lacked a Hermione. No hand was raised.
Min said tone is simply, “the attitude the writer has toward her subject.” What a simple and concise definition. Not surprisingly, tone has been on my mind as I’ve been reading this week.
For those who have read only Cather’s prairie novels, the tone of “Flavia and Her Artists” must be quite a shock. There’s little romantic nostalgia here. This scathing story of a deluded woman and a house full of parasitic artists is repulsive and cold.
I loved the snarky observations of Miss Broadwood, such as when she refers to the guest’s rooms as cages. It struck me that Broadwood understands her cousin Flavia because she’s a bit like her. Whereas Flavia has no self-awareness and is deluded about why she “collects” the best artists and interesting people, Broadwood, a working performing artist, tells Imogen that people in her profession are envious of scholarship and impressed by, “Anything in type…that’s why so many of us marry authors or newspaper men and lead miserable lives.”
This is the Shadow Artist concept that Julia Cameron writes about in The Artist’s Way:
Too intimidated to become artists themselves, very often too low in self-worth to even recognize that they have an artistic dream, these people become shadow artists instead. Artists themselves but ignorant of their true identity, shadow artists are to be found shadowing declared artists. Unable to recognize that they themselves may possess the creativity they so admire, they often date or marry people who actively pursue the art career they themselves secretly long for (27).
Is this Flavia’s deal? Do you think she lacks the self-worth to see her own creative side and therefore desperately surrounds herself with creative types? Or is there some other explanation?
I first read this story when I was in my 20s and I think I probably detested Flavia back then. Now I feel for her. And as noble as her husband seems, I want to shake him and tell him to help his wife! Be a partner. But no. Instead, he falls on his sword and becomes the martyr so his wife can live on with her delusion and cast all her aspersions on her husband who is really her protector. Or is he? So twisted. Or is it just not that good of a story? What do you think?
Let me know what you think of “Flavia and Her Artists” in the comments below. Let’s have a conversation!
Categories: Willa Cather