On Writing ‘Magnolias’ – Bethany W. Pope

Marriage is a complicated thing, no matter where you’re from, but it is even more complicated in the American South. There, the mediaeval concept of The Great Chain of Being is still very much the law. This is a hierarchal take on theology which posits that the world is a chain stretched between God and the Devil (with the latter swinging like a weighted pendulum at the bottom of the world) and each life, human or otherwise, dangles precariously between the two of them, each in their appointed place. To the Southern mind the hierarchy goes: God, then the various ranks of Angels, then the Saints (protestant, mostly), then white men, white women, men of every other race, women of every other race, animals, devils, and finally Satan. All of them, except for Satan and his minions, are meant to be clamouring towards God. In theory, the people or creatures higher on the chain are meant to reach down and help the others up (picture it as sort of spiritual noblesse oblige) but in practice what really winds up happening is that people in socially privileged positions are sure to keep their feet on the necks of the people below them, to be certain that they are never passed by on the long march to the top.

When you combine this idea of the inherent spiritual superiority of white men with a fierce and very rigid class system, well, things get interesting. If a woman is seen to have a modicum of power or ability, then a certain kind of man will see her as an existential threat. God help her, if that woman happens to be black.

In this story, Millie is a woman who marries a man who is beneath her on the social ladder. She is disinherited by her father for her choice and her husband, who viewed her as an asset in his social climb, resents her for it. When she eventually comes into her own and brings him the money he has craved for the length of the marriage, he views this as an emasculating action (Southern male virility is often linked to money) and he takes it out on her in a very symbolic, devastating way. Over the course of the story, he beats her, cheats on her, treats her with indifference, and finally (when she has, at last, allowed herself to find an outlet for her creativity in the planning and nurturing of her garden) he takes his vengeance on the trees that she has grown from saplings. It’s presented in the story as a very brutal act, and it is. The murder of a person’s art is tantamount to the slaughter of their soul.

This is the story of art, being slaughtered.

Every incident in this story was taken from the life of a real woman that I know. Bill is a conglomerate of many different husbands. Millie is a person who has been faceted out of a variety of wives. This is a story that, at its heart, is about the ways in which the flawed concept of indelible hierarchy grinds everyone down. It is an analysis of the destructive nature of the culture that I sprang from. It is also, in a warped way, something of a testament to the power of love.

Bethany W. Pope is an award-winning writer. She received her PhD from Aberystwyth University’s Creative Writing program, and her MA from the University of Wales Trinity St David. She has published several collections of poetry: A Radiance (Cultured Llama, 2012) Crown of Thorns,(Oneiros Books, 2013), The Gospel of Flies (Writing Knights Press 2014), and Undisturbed Circles (Lapwing, 2014). Both her collection The Rag and Boneyard (Indigo Dreams) and her debut novel, Masque (Seren), were published in 2016.

You can listen to Bethany W. Pope read ‘Magnolias’ here & purchase Issue Six of The Lonely Crowd (in which the story is featured) here.

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Copyright © Bethany W. Pope, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.