My Favourite Heroines
This article was originally written for Inspiration-Letters – a theme that was to have been entitled 'Women Who Have Changed Our World'. But that all changed and so my article has found its way here...
It's a pleasure for me to offer a few appreciative thoughts on the many women who have changed our world. It gives me, too, an opportunity to write about my maths teacher, Mr. Pennington, an amateur historian who filled my teenage school years with harrowing tales of ruthless, scheming women who maneuvered, murdered, swindled or charmed their way to power. Although avoiding becoming a misogynist – I had three great sisters and a wonderful mother – I did develop a fascination with scurrilous, successful people, specialising in Mr. Pennington’s own area of expertise which was ancient China.
Academically, Mr. Pennington valued loyalty and perseverance over mere intelligence and so surrounded himself with an admiring society of under-achieving boys like myself who in later life would march to the beat of a very, very different drum – merely by attending all of his classes we were given a generous pass mark even though they left us mathematically dysfunctional for life. But I know a few things about evil, world changing Chinese women that, if disclosed, would give you many a sleepless night.
One of my favourites was the Empress Wu Lei, a 10th century character of considerable ambition and zero scruples, and Mr. Pennington really brought her to life in our Tuesday afternoon trigonometry sessions – a hateful subject even he despised. You could hear a pin drop at these times, so absorbed were we in his riveting tales of Oriental intrigue, mayhem and venality. The blackboard carried a mind-numbing smokescreen of incomprehensible maths equations and Mr. Pennington, secure in our loyalty and the blackboard’s illusion of bona fide study, pressed on.
Wu Lei was an enterprising creature of ‘unsurpassed loveliness’ but in equal parts guileful, murderous and cruel. She successfully dispatched seven husbands and concealed their deaths by ‘suicide’, poisoning, a beheading, one trampled beneath the galloping hooves of horses, one by unspeakable torture and two by relatively pleasant drownings – with elaborate subterfuge and persuasive charm. Here Mr. P. provided graphic details. The eighth suitor, perhaps in lucid moments contemplating the fate of his predecessors, must surely have felt at least a twinge of apprehension as the nuptial day arrived and his bride of ‘unsurpassed loveliness’ led him away. Or been possessed himself of unsurpassed stupidity. A wisp of poetry gleaned from Trigonometry 1 still echoes, words that Wu Lei’s last husband might himself have written:
I have travelled down this road
Felt desire’s siren cry
But want no more
The sorrow-sweet of love.
I have seen the beauty in your eyes
Imagined too the promises and lies
But want no more of bitter joys and sighs.
I’ve turned away from love.
Indeed, I should think so! The Empress’s further years of intrigue and unbridled cupidity even saw her dispatch her own son – "Her own son!" Mr P. reiterated, and in the mesmerized silence that followed we would reflect on this monstrous violation of motherhood , suddenly grateful that our own mothers had shown no such dark inclinations. Years later the unseen hand of karma intervened and Wu Lei mysteriously fell off the battlements of the city wall one dark night and was found only the following day, very dead and now clearly surpassed in loveliness by others. And here Mr. P. smiled, clearly pleased by life’s rough justice, and chuckled, rubbed his hands together in satisfaction. “Just desserts I’d say, my boys, just desserts.” To which we would all nod in silent assent.
Spellbound by this grand denouement, we felt ourselves almost there, hearing the shriek from high up on the battlements and seeing the scheming dowager-empress falling, falling, trailing a comet’s tail of pale silk as she tumbled to her death like a rag doll, almond-eyed and surpassingly lovely on that long ago Oriental night. And had we been able to see it, perhaps the seven souls of successive murdered husbands and a small army of others deposed, hovering and now avenged, there to escort her to some Oriental underworld of Retribution. The Emperor, relieved and reprieved, had good reason never to remarry.
Mr. P.’s mathematics classes with their riveting accounts of larger than life heroes and heroines were the only real sunlight in the wasteland years of secondary school and Mr. P. himself, a co-conspirator in our secret war against academia and ‘the system’ was a quiet ally. The school principal too was generally liked but this mild mannered scholar was clearly unsuited for the trench warfare of a seedy third rate boy’s school and eventually retreated, battle scarred and weary, to the principalship of a gentler country school. His replacement was definitely a world changer – and yes, a woman – and under Mrs. Matthews tough regime (or “Herr General” as we called her) rebellion flourished.
Small cells of resistance formed and we would often endure days of interrogation after someone redesigned the paintwork on her car, conducted unsupervised and dangerous chemistry experiments with obvious pyroclastic ambitions, hoisted aloft a rough skull and crossbones pennant to replace the proud flying New Zealand flag or deflated a teacher’s tires. Our underground artists sketched unflattering portraits of a tyrannical, jodpurs and jack-booted despot armed with AK47 and whips in our school toilet cubicles.
My apostasy was evident only in trifles – an unrivalled absentee record, flicking ink from my pen onto my French teacher’s white shirt back as he chalked up French declensions on the blackboard, or releasing ‘stink bombs’, foul smelling crushed black seeds from a neighbourhood tree that made the classroom virtually uninhabitable. I nearly lost my coveted role in our secret society of dissidents when one day, facing caning for some infraction, I doffed my school cap to the male teacher’s passing wife. This craven but inspired act of self-preservation won me a reprieve but caused even my best chum to hiss at me “fawning sycophant” and after consulting a dictionary to learn what sycophant meant I felt wounded for days.
In order to redeem myself I was obliged to carve the initials of the school bully in foot high letters onto my wooden desk top with a penknife, no mean feat, and we all giggled hysterically outside in the corridor while the protesting boy, presumed guilty, got ‘six of the best’ across his derriere from Herr General’s beefy deputy. This triumph won me much kudos and I was swiftly reinstated – my earlier act of ‘fawning sycophancy’ was now firmly behind me.
Once, in a thrilling daylight raid into Principal Matthew’s own private office, a large live garden worm was placed in her lunchbox sandwich – the stuff of legends and expulsions! Our sentinels were strategically placed to report on her response, a single great heart stopping bellow, the thud of a heavy object driven against a wall, then a menacing silence. Days of interrogation followed, assembly hall denunciations, and from Mrs. Matthew’s office the occasional sounds of a rolled newspaper colliding with a suspect’s cranium. But our clannish troupe maintained an impenetrable silence.
Principal Matthew’s swift punishments and her thirst for vengeance included the use of a wide ranging vocabulary rich in colourful and inventive phrases, canings (usually carried out by the large silent deputy while you dutifully bent over, though wads of paper concealed beneath one’s trousers nullified this threat) or belting the reprobate’s head with the rolled up newspaper. Ear twisting was also quite popular, and sustained until a long drawn out ‘AAAAAH!’ signified penitence.
Collaborative parent-teacher ‘think tanks’ failed to quell the insurgency. The repressive Mrs. Matthews inspired us to organize our rabble of headstrong school boys into a coherent body of revolutionaries – and many of us, our skills honed during these five years of insubordination and counterstrike, went on to work as environmental campaigners, political activists, lobbyists and explorers.
Believing that resistance and debate and the occasional healthy insurrection or two are character forming and preferable to timidity and mindless acquiescence, Mr. P. permitted a small smile as our misadventures unfolded. At heart he was one of us and we recognised in him a senior member of our society, the ‘nous autres’, those who would never belong to or want that utopian promised land of financial success, family, comfort, the quotidian that schooling and society so ardently and mindlessly promoted. Stranded on the reefs of professional responsibility and joyless adulthood he was obliged to conceal his acerbic intelligence behind thick rimmed glasses, a rumpled suit and a mild manner – yet he was complicit in our pranks, wistful that he could no longer adventure with us.
‘Mr. Pennington’ in the presence of other teachers, ‘Bill’ among ourselves – a huge liberty we felt entirely comfortable with – and ‘Mr. P.’ in the classroom or during those intimate, oratorical moods, he accepted these informalities as the tribute they were, our recognition of a comrade. And because we liked him his occasional reproving tut-tut or finger wagging carried the authority of ‘six of the best’.
Come to think of it though, there’s been a whole galaxy of women world-changers and our history books are jammed with their deeds and misdeeds – all those suffragettes, psychopaths, paleontologists and pugilists, survivors of famous shipwrecks, heads of state, con artists, stars of stage and screen, great beauties, priestesses, poets, witches, aviators, media moguls, even an admiral or two of great fleets; and voodoo queens, Olympians, female vampires, saints and sports personalities, jailbirds, astronauts and literary giants, monarchs, tyrants and deceivers, heroines of near and distant battlefields.
It’s useful also to remind ourselves of the impact that every life, every man and woman, has in the infinitely complex causal chain of history. We think of Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, Pocahontas, Florence Nightingale for example, but what of those who nurtured them, brought them into this world? Or their mothers, and theirs also? Who should get the credit? It’s messy and complex like the ripples of countless tiny pebbles tossed into a huge pond, each insignificant event, action, heartbeat, life extending irreversibly and forever out into future time and compounding the giant matrix of change and possibility, shaping a world of infinite potentiality. The great achievers are simply the waves tossed up from the boundless ocean of Time and Life which created them and apart from which they have no existence.
Extraordinary, too, that the forces sweeping through our hearts and minds – waves of consciousness; pure imaginings; the intangibles of thought and feeling; the abstract polarities of love, hate, desire, aversion, compassion, cruelty – are only spectres that have no existence save in the dreaming mind.
Turned loose from the confines and dark vaults of the human brain they incarnate in the world around us and are there unleashed as the wars between countries, the tyrannies of despots, the dreams of conquerors; or our nobilities now manifest as the compassion of peacemakers or the philanthropy of the clement, their ships filled not with soldiers but Good Samaritans, impelled now by inner winds of charity.
Yes, we are each a microcosm of the world and its author. The universe sleeps and dreams inside us, stirs into being through us. Tat twam asi – I am this, I am that (you too!) – the sadness of the bereft, the innocence of the child, the malice of the vengeful, the devoutness of the bhakta, the bitterness of the damned, the renunciate’s calm poise, the loneliness of those estranged from God, the multifariousness of all experience. We are all world shapers.
So I’m grateful to the autocratic, iron reign of Mrs Matthews for it bred in us a little character, a willingness to dispute, and comradeship at arms – all healthy life skills. And grateful to Wu Lei, a girl with tons of personality who could still ignite our maths class ten centuries after her demise – even though she was a little unreliable in her affections. Charming, unscrupulous Chinese women and boys with garden worms can topple governments, change our world.