Why is it that I turn to Bette Davis in the film Now, Voyager time and again and certain books like Nabokov’s Ada or Ardour or anything by Yeats or the way I turn musically (at the end of the day) to Dylan. I suppose we all have our favorite reads and our favorite films, and though Nabokov is certainly my favorite author, Now, Voyager though , it may be a great, old Hollywood production, is also one of the hokiest films I have ever seen. Still, the film holds and as I watched recently I couldn’t help but see the surprising similarties between the two stories – between the nymphet and the spinster aunt, both stuck in their cocoons and both subject to the tyranny of others. The parallel never registered before.
There exists in all of us an Aunt Charlotte, a Carlotta with bushy eyebrows and the long hair and the ugly dress that other mother made us wear and our sensible work shoes and god help us, glasses! We are the geeks of the girls, the Lolita’s in school who weren’t considered the most traditionally pretty perhaps yet somehow all of the boys wanted anyway (regardless of whether or not you were popular). Maybe you had the long, lank-limbed awkward grace that tells us a signifier of a “true nymphet” who remains “unaware of her fantastic power”. This girl in all of her awkward grace and disheveled elegance – she may stand unrecognized (nor not), but there will be a man of “infinite melancholy” who will find her for sure True nymphets are discernable by certain “ineffable signs” he tells us: “the slight feline outline of the cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb… the little deadly demon among the wholesome children.” We are, as Paul Henreid knew in Now, Voyager and as Nabokov wrote, the Camilles’ and Los’ of the world, the unexpected and perhaps unlikely: wrote Nabokov, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
Who is Aunt Charlotte in Now, Voyager but a bad Hollywood version of a would-be Lolita, albeit portrayed as the aunt, (so she’s grown-up) which is a slightly different role, she is still the one who perhaps stands unnoticed in the crowd and she, like Lolita, is rather like a butterfly in a coccoon. She will emerge (and she does), but before that time, Aunt Charlotte is as dowdy as dowdy gets the way Nabokov wrote Lolita not as some overtly sexual nymphomaniac: hardly – she is a kid, sort of self-absorved, be-sneakered, gum-chewing, rude, and yes, totally unaware of her fantastic power as he says. Aunt Charlotte is everyone’s friend, she takes the brunt of the jokes and remains silent, self-medicating with brandy and cigarettes in her room in the family house where she still lives with her aged and tyrannical mother. Thank good for Dr. Jackworth who turns up and takes Aunt Charlotte away from her domineering mother to his retreat in the country where Charlotte, played by the beautiful Bette Davis, may be “looking unwell” because “she’s lost a great deal of weight” (for the record, she is now about a Hollywood size 8, ah, how we long for the days when sizes were logical and women were allowed to have curves and breasts and boy, isn’t Bette Davis just the perfect example, all tits and hips and those damn eyes that Kim Carnes wrote about, she’s a killer and she doesn’t’ know it. She still sees herself as the hopeless aunt whom nobody will ever want. A persona non grata, unwanted by her own mother (“A child of my old age”, her mother tells her very sweetly). I wish she were my mom.
What is left for Aunt Charlotte after her miraculous recovery at Doctor Jackworth’s country recovery but to go home or go on a cruise that a family member has arranged for her on the q.t.. Charlotte opts for the cruises (of course) and heads off incognito under a relative’s name, for reasons that are unclear; perhaps because she is still uncomfortable in her own skin. Still, when Bette Davis walks onto that ship while everyone is awaiting her arrival before they can depart, one cannot help but stare and stare. The camera stops at the feet and pans up and there she is, Bette Davis in a tight-fitting suit, gone is the foulard, the sensible shoes, the geek glasses (oh the envy I feel at this), the bushy eyebrows have been plucked or whatever they did back then and the hair has been bleached that beautiful “hollow gold” as Carnes called it. Doesn’t Paul Henreid luck out when he is paired with Ms. Renee Beauchamps, as she is called on the cruise, since everyone must have a partner with whom to tour the various island stops.
Jeremiah Duveaux Darrence – or Jarry – or J.D.; names are big in this film, for Carlotta, she introducers herself as “It's aunt...every family has one you know.” she also refers to herself as “a spinster aunt” when J.D. asks for her help in selecting gifts for his young girls and his family. So much of Now, Voyager film is about who you think you should be and other people’s notions of who you are: either who they have labeled you as and neatly fit you into their social register - that’s always convenient, albeit fucking cheapt, and then there are you own warped ideas about yourself that are influenced by these outside labels that get tossed at you. The trick is to sort out who you are for you. Not which labels are true and which are not. What someone says to you is irrelevant. It should always be about what YOU KNOW, not what someone else THINKS. We all have levels of selves, different facades, different skins that we wear for different occassions: we cannot be so open with everyone, for example, so we are a little or a lot more closed. You get the point. But to know yourself for who you really are – this is a life-long quest and one that should be undertaken with great seriousness. What is the first precept? “Know thyself,” countered soon by, that is basically impossible – and so it is we dialogue and we interact and we journey through life. If you’re smart, you are trying to sort out who you are and not busy attaching labels to someone else.
Clearly Aunt Charlotte was and is more than just a dumpy aunt; beneath all that hair and sensible clothing was all along a real a killer, who needed only to drop a few pounds and have bleach and wax job and a new wardrobe. For Charlotte, the outward aspects were really that simple because like any nymphet, aunts and nymphets alike live in a kind of chrysalis until they bloom into fabulous and beautiful and highly desirable Lolitas and Camilles, whom Nabokov wrote, cause in certain men a “bubble of hot poison in the loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine.” Not bad for a spinster aunt and a geeky teenager with a retainer and overly long legs and knock-knees.
Nabokov gives us our Lolita with all of her easy charm and awkward grace which somehow all works to marvelous affect – all of her contradictions that make her who she is - and Now, Voyager gives us Camille (note: J.D’s name for Charlotte is Camille). Both are Lolita and Camilla butterflies and it’s no surprise that fritillary imagery is used in both Lolita and in Now, Voyager or that Nabokov’s primary love in life was butterfly collecting, always in search of the elusive blues, about which there is an entire thick volume complete with plates and Nabokov’s own field notes.
The point here is transformation, of course, and emerging from something (anything) constraining – that tight-fitting cocoon that keeps you stuck, trapped where you don’t want to be but can’t find your way out either for fear or for lack of trying or because you’re being blocked. But the point too is that transformation, metamorphosis is in fact not only possible but I believe it is perhaps inevitable. That a mother (in both stories) can keep her nymphet or her daughter in a cocoon for only so long before the natural order of things takes shape and fate or evolution or time or whatever you want to call it – some natural processes kicks in - and the beautiful blue butterfly emerges, all wings and grace, a real painted lady. Humbert, in Lolita, does not want his Lolita to change – to emerge from her cocoon. He would keep her forever relegated to the perfect nymphet age on the cusp of pubescence, like some spayed half-woman because a woman like this, if you can even call her that, is “safe” and poses no threat would be the simple read, but Nabokov was far smarter than that. If anyone has the power in the book Lolita, it is Lolita. Agree that Humbert is her abuser – he is her undoing – and she likewise is his undoing. He starts a sequence of events that undoes them both. Lolita will always be the victim in this case for the simple reason that there is no way that she is of any level of maturity to understand the situation or consent with a grown man. It was one thing to make out or even make-love with boys at camp: it’s another thing entirely to have your step-father become your lover.
For starters, she’s too young to consent to anything adult and has a perfectly natural crush on her step-father, who isn’t even really that. Humbert is for all intents and purposes just some handsome stranger who came to stay at the house (perfectly portrayed by Jeremy Irons, if you haven’t seen this modern adaptation of Lolita, I highly recommend it), and secondly, Lolita has just lost her mother and been removed from everything she has known her entire life – her friends, her neighborhood, her house, her family. She is traveling, full-speed ahead across the country with this man she calls both “dad” and “lover” and she really has no choice.
What Nabokov does to threaten us in a way, to make us complicit, and the threatening thing about the film adaptation of Lolita with Jeremy Irons and Dominque Swain is that Humbert Humbert is an attractive and charming and desirable man and one can easily see how any teenage girl would be attracted to such a man. It makes sense and by making us see this, by making us see Lolita’s come-hither stares and pouts and even tantrums all designed for Humbert’s attention, we are made by the author complicit in the crime of incest.
We keep reading. Most of us are not yet horrified, we see Lolita’s role as much as Humbert’s (to not see it would be to give the book a shallow read, but again, this does not mean that she can consent to anything that happens; she is still a victim here, though Nabokov cleverly makes us emphathize Humbert.) The best we can say of Humbert is that he is so pathetic, so desperately in love with his nymphet, his ideas of who she is and the memory of Annabel from long ago (a childhood memory) that he is slave to his own pathology. He lives in constant dread of Lolita’s eventual and inevitable growing up - her metamorphosis and eventual leaving of him, and we can only watch as he begins to slowly lose his mind.
The same is true of Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager only this time, it is the mother who keeps her confined in her cocoon. In Now, Voyager, we are told time and time again that “every family has one, you know… a spinster aunt” and somewhere in there, perhaps we see a bit of ourselves, or I suspect that some women who see the film and like it see themselves at some point in their life, if not now, then years prior.
Mother Vale, like Humbert Humbert, wants to keep her chrysalis intact. She does not want any metamorphosis on her watch and she will not have her own daughter changing into an independent and most importantly, free individual, and while one may not have thought to compare Now, Voyager and Lolita at first glance, on closer inspection the two stories are not dissimilar. Charlotte Vale is not a victim of incest, true, but she is a victim of a kind of emotional abuse at the hands of her own mother who tries to control everything, including her daughter’s sexuality, that this almost borders on a kind of emotional incest. When Charlotte returns from her cruise, a full-fledged butterfly, in love with J.D. wearing her “Jolie Fleur” perfume that he bought her with her hourglass figure and the rest of it, the mother wishes to attribute the change to “severe illness” in which “after severe illness one often loses one’s hair and eyebrows.” she is also told to “wear your glasses, that way you’ll be less of a shock to the others” at the party they are having to welcome Charlotte home.
Instead of being praised for her great emersion and “recovery” (which is really simply breaking out of the chrysalis and the family role of “aunt”), Charlotte is told she looks worse, looks ill, that she must obey her mother and keep up her family duties. She is there as a “guest” but one who must also be at the foot of her mother at all times to be at her call. Likewise, Lolita as she gets older and attends school and even begins to see, and by see I mean notice, not actually engage with, boys her own age, Humbert tries all the harder to shove her back in and then zip up tight her cocoon so she may never escape again.
As for the mother in Now, Voyager, like Humbert she’ll use any manipulative device she can to keep her daughter (note in both cases we are talking about a daughter - Lolita is Humbert’s step-child). Mother Vale tosses herself down the stairs when she doesn’t get her way at Charlotte’s welcome home party, at which Charlotte refuses to put back on her foulard and her glasses. It’s a minor injury she gets – a torn ligament, but it’s the fact of the doing that astounds us most. That another person would go to such great lengths to control another. Humbert has his devices too, including temper tantrums, long apologies that no doubt are sincere but that change nothing, sex that seems at times almost violent (and let’s not forget that every time it is legally rape); these are people who are unable to bear life without the person who on the surface seems the weaker of the two. As long as they are in their cocoon, even they may believe this is true, just as Charlotte believed for so long that she was no more than the spinster aunt and Lolita and ugly duckling.
Neither is true, but that both believe such nonsense goes a long way to telling us the lengths others will go to simply to control us and keep us near them, the weaker of the two. This may not seem obvious on the surface, but on closer inspection, it becomes clear that in each case, it is the nymphet and the spinster aunt who holds all the cards. Charlotte Vale’s moment comes the moment she realizes that she is “not afraid” which she finally summons the courage to say to her own mother.
Not being afraid is what it is all about, for if you stay afraid, then it is in the seeming and relative safety of the cocoon you’ll remain. What you fail to see is that break free from the cocoon, shed the granny glasses and the pounds and the silly clothes that you know don’t suit you and you’ll soon realize the incredible power you have, just as Humbert realizes the incredible power of his nymphets and no doubt, Mother Vale sees the magnificent radiance of not Aunt Charlotte who returns home from her Rio pleasure cruise but this Camille – radiant as the sun.
The choice to stay in the cocoon is almost always in the hands of the subject, not the third or second party trying so hard to control the situation to get their desired outcome. That person will say and do anything to keep you there in that cocoon. It is manipulation at it’s finest or ugliest, depending on your point of view, but either way, it’s not the way things will naturally want to be.
One cannot stop the metamorphosis forever, or they can, but only if you let them out of some sense of duty or guilt or fear of whatever. One must believe just as Charlotte eventually does, and as Lolita, though sadly, Lolita was damaged too young to ever recover fully from her father’s manipulation and her own fear and inhibitions. Remember what Nabokov said about his nymphets, that in the midst of others “she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious of her fantastic power.”