It’s been a couple very eventful days for Menolly at the Harper Hall. She’s been disillusioned of her lofty ideals of Harpers, has encountered the very finest in institutional misogyny, suffered the narrative’s best efforts at verbal abuse from all sides, and discovered that properly-trained fire lizards are useful for a lot of things. Menolly also understands her worth as a person in the Harper Hall has a lot to do with her fair of fire lizards. She needs a break, or at least someone who likes her without reservations or ulterior motives.
Dragonsinger: Chapter 6: Content Notes: Sexism
Chapter Six starts with an interlude, where Menolly gets to oil and express her affection for her fire lizards, who send her the pictures of their own exploits, and then Menolly takes a luxurious bath in the cottage, which the fire lizards join in on when Auntie Two gets dunked by one of the others, and finds the water to her liking.
I do like how, so far, the sanctity of the bath as a place to separate from the world and have positive experiences has not been violated. For as much awful goes on in the world outside the bath, inside is sacred space.
Menolly washes her clothes from yesterday and hangs them or to dry on her window, changing into her spare patched clothes. Cue Dunca complaining about inappropriate attire and going ballistic about the drying ledge, and some back-and-forth about where Menolly is headed to, despite Dunca not having heard anything. And the usual chaos of feeding, including Camo dropping whatever he was doing to come out. Really, at this point, it seems smarter to have Camo doing things that can be put down at a moment’s notice until Menolly and the fair are fed.
The morning is to be spent with Domick, Sebell, and Talmor playing a new (for Menolly) piece of music. Menolly notices paper records in with hide records, but has her attention directed to the music before she can investigate further. Today is an exercise in sightreading, so Menolly studies her part for a short amount of time, thinking about alternate fingerings here and there, testing one, but otherwise skimming the music for anything interesting. And then they’re off.
It had been fun, always, for Menolly to play with Petiron, particularly when he had let her improvise around his melody. It had been a pleasure yesterday to see new music in Talmor’s lesson, but now, the stimulation of playing with three keen and competent musicians gave her such impulsion that she seemed to be an irrelevant medium for fingers that had to play what her eager eyes saw. She was lost completely in the thrall of the music, so that when the rushing finale ended, she suffered a shock as keen as pain.
“Oh, that was marvelous. Could we play it again?”
Domick tries to see whether Menolly had been warned about what would happen, because, you see, he just finished that composition this morning, and he is forced to conclude that Menolly is every bit as talented as the two journeymen have said and that she hinted at during her audition, who are both having a laugh at Domick’s inability to comprehend what just happened.
“That’s enough. All right, so the joke’s on me, but you’ll have to admit that there was good precedent for my skepticism. Anyone can play solo…” He turned on the bewildered Menolly. “Did you play a great deal with Petiron? Or any of the other other musicians at Half-Circle?”
“There was only Petiron who could play properly. Fishing leaves a man’s hands too stiff for any fine music.” She flicked a glance at Sebell. “There were a few drummers and stickmen…”
“Suppose you tell me exactly what you did so at Half-Circle Sea Hold, Menolly. Musically, that is. Master Robinton’s been too busy to confer with me at any length.”
So she does, at length and detail.
Before we continue, though, no, Domick, your skepticism is not warranted, because your audition process sucks. You asked her to play solo on a piece of her choosing, some basic pieces on various instruments, tested her ability to follow and improvise a bit, and accepted that as basically the sum total of her skill. You didn’t ask her to sightread, you didn’t have a prepared piece that would challenge players so they could show off what they really knew about instrumental music, you didn’t push her audition to the point where she couldn’t and then back off from there. You expected her to not be very good because she’s a girl, I suspect, and so you deserve every bit of these two journeymen laughing at you. Shonagar did a better job at auditioning her than you did, Domick, and he never got to the part where she sang any actual music, because he could tell what her skill was. Yes, you’re not overtly sexist like Morshal is, but you’re still being sexist all the same.
Anyway, Menolly recounts the story we read in Dragonsong, and at the end, Domick seems willing to admit to what has already been demonstrated conclusively.
“When Petiron was here at the Hall, there was no finer musician, no better instructor,” Master Domick said quietly. “I had the good fortune to be his apprentice. You’ve no need to ever be ashamed of your playing…”
ASFDJHKOLARGHLEBARGLE. Argelfaster, Argelfaster, Argelfaster!
Petiron was held in that much esteem by you, Domick, and you apprenticed to him, and you knew that Menolly came recommended by him, and yet you… THIS? Great Maker, what was it going to TAKE for you to think that she might have some talent?
This is an excellent example of institutional sexism at work – Menolly being female apparently is such a debit that she has to be on the level of the journeymen, or even Domick, despite being recommended by Domick’s Master, before she can begin to be seen as equal. Menolly will have to be consistently better than everyone just to be good enough to Domick. Grah. And then Domick has the temerity to tell Menolly that she shouldn’t be afraid to tell him what she really wants to do at the Hall. It’s playing in a group, she says, and she thinks the experience was wonderful this morning, only…
“I didn’t play it right. I should have studied the music longer before I started playing because I was so busy watching the notes and time changes that I didn’t, I couldn’t, follow the dynamic markings…I am sorry.”
Domick bright his hands against his forehead in an exasperated smack. Sebell dissolved again into his quiet laughter. But Talmor just howled, slapping his knee and pointing at Domick.
“In that case, Menolly, we will play it again,” Domick said, raising his voice to drown out the amusement of the others. “And this time…” he frowned at Menolly, an expression which no longer distressed her because she knew she had touched him, “watching those dynamic signs, which I put in for very good reason. Now, on the beat…”
Menolly’s earnestness is setting the journeymen off, but the rehearsal to follow gives Menolly insight into how the music should be played. And before we progress, I have to say that this is another one of those elements where it appears the research has been done – when sightreading new music, if you frak the melody, rhythm, key, or tempo, it’s obvious to the audience. Dynamics, on the other hand, you can often get away with not doing and the music still sounds okay. They’re often the thing that is hardest to pay attention to, especially in the kinds of compositions that Domick makes. So the apology, and subsequent facepalm, are quite natural for me to read.
The rehearsal is interrupted by an alarm signaling the onset of Threadfall that is described much like a fire or natural disaster siren, which again, tech level of Pern is what, exactly? Which makes all the fire lizards appear, but there’s space for them and the rehearsal continues with new music and instrumentation until lunch. Where there are lots of questions for Menolly about Thread and fire lizards, until the alarm sounds again, indicating Threadfall directly above. Which also produces nine fire lizards on the mantel, sending up their own alarm at a high octave. To counteract the screams, Brudegan leads the choruses in a song that the fire lizards join in at Menolly’s prompting, after being taken aback at the strength of the massed voices. Since it’s still falling overhead at the end of the song, we get to hear “Moreta’s Ride” for the third time in as many days, but this time, as a choral piece with fire lizard accompaniment.
And Menolly conducting, which, thankfully, she does know how to do from leading evening singing. What’s different to her is “the quality of the singers, their responsiveness to her signals, that made as much difference as chalk from cheese.” The song tells a story that will eventually become a full book on its own, and what’s important here is that Menolly eventually waves the humans silent and lets the fire lizards sing the last verse of the song. Which proves their vocal worth to Brudegan, and he retakes direction of the chorus until the all-clear sounds and everyone heads to their assigned post-Thread chores.
Silvina flags down Menolly and asks whether or not her clothes had been sent forward from Benden Weyr. Menolly has no response, because she had no other clothes, which makes Silvina unhappy that she had to admit Dunca is right about the state of Menolly’s clothing. Menolly is about to apologize…
“Great shells, child, I’m not angry with you!” And Silvina took Menolly’s chin and made her look eye to eye. “I’m furious with myself for not thinking! Not to mention giving that Dunca a chance to snipe at you! Only don’t go repeating that, please, for Dunca’s useful to me in her own way. Not that you talk much anyhow. Haven’t heard you put two sentences together yet. There now! What have I said to distress you? You just come along with me.” And Silvina took Menolly firmly by the elbow and marched her toward the complex of storage rooms at the back of the Harper Hall on the kitchen level.
Augh, the cluelessness, it burns! Let’s see, Silvina, you just told an emotionally, mentally, and physically abused girl that her appearance wasn’t up to par and that you expected her to have something better to wear, and you exhibited visible anger at this. What is the abuse survivor going to think? It’s certainly not “Oh, she’s not mad at me for any of this.” Menolly is in panic mode, looking for flight opportunities so she doesn’t have to fight a losing battle against someone with a higher status. If Menolly apologizes, perhaps the crisis passes without incident. It’s a learned survival skill, Silvina. Which is why any time the Masters, or anyone else, for that matter, are visibly angry at Menolly, it’s cringe-worthy.
Anyway, Silvina shows Menolly the spare supplies room and picks out some clothes and fabrics for her, which Menolly starts to protest, before Silvina re-fixes her baleful eye on Menolly, cutting off the protest before it can start.
“You may not be proud in yourself, Menolly. In point of fact, your modesty has done you great service, but you will kindly consider the change in your circumstances. You’re not the youngest child in a family of an isolated Sea Hold. You’re an apprentice harper, and we – Silvina tapped her chest smartly with her fingers – “have appearances to maintain. You will dress yourself as well as, and if I’ve my way, better than, those fumble-fingered females, or those musical midgets who will never be more than senior apprentices or very junior journeymen.”
[…Silvina pushes Menolly into a chair and starts piling clothes on her…]
“Now these,” and from another chest Silvina extracted breast bands and underpants, snorting as she passed them to Menolly. “Dunca was quite incensed you’d no underthings at all.” Silvina’s amusement ended as she saw Menolly’s face. “Whyever are you looking so stricken? Because you wore your underthings out? Or because Dunca’s pried into your affairs? You can’t honestly be worried what that fat old fool thinks or says or does? Yes, you can and you are and you would!”
Not that Menolly has a reason to, with as poorly as she has been treated, but it likely is that survival instinct trying to keep Menolly from making enemies that will hurt her, even though it won’t help. Also, Silvina, physically pushing Menolly around is probably not the best way to have her develop assertiveness. I still don’t understand how everyone expects Menolly to change so quickly, since it has only been a little while of actual chronological time since she escaped Half-Circle. Everyone expects her to think “I’m safe now! My true personality will now shine forth!” when the reality is that Menolly still needs to feel like somewhere is sufficiently home and welcoming before she can begin to build positive relationships and stay working through her issues with relation to the years of abuse that she has lived through up to this point. Even though Menolly is where she wants to be, she has yet to have a stable, happy home life. Even characters that should know better, or perhaps have an inkling of knowing better, are all privilege-blinkered enough that they can’t figure out how to actually help.
Also, we continue to have issues with exactly what Menolly looks like. Silvina says she’s all leg, but is collecting “breast bands” for her, which are likely supposed to function like brassieres, but that would imply that Menolly is not just all legs at her age, and that she should not be so easily mistaken for a boy as she is. So we continue to have Menolly shifting back and forth between one or another body image. I hope the waveform collapses.
“Don’t think I’ve missed Pona’s little tricks, or Dunca’s. No, the cot is the wrong place for you. I thought so when you first arrived, but the were other reasons for plunking you there at first. So we’ll take the long view, as should be done, and shift you here. Oldive doesn’t want you on your feet so much, and sure as Fall’ll come again, the fire lizards are as unhappy at Dunca’s as she is to have them. The old fool! No, Menolly,” and now Silvina was angry with Menolly, “it is not your fault! Besides which, as a full harper apprentice, you really haven’t anything to do with the paying students.[…]”
I personally believe that the “other reasons” Silvina is talking about is “the narrative made me put you there because it wanted you to suffer.” Because the narrative still wants Menolly to suffer, despite what happened in the last book.
And now I know why everyone had such a dim view of the women at the Hall. A place like the Hall wants to distinguish its residents based on their talents, and so people who pay their way in to receive the instruction are admitting that they don’t have the talent to get in on their merits. The institutional sexism present couldn’t possibly influence why it’s only guys that ever seem to make it into the Hall on their merits, not at all. Also, with them being “paying girls”, it’s supposed to help us cement that these are the mean rich girls who don’t care about the music, and are instead there to play politics games and possibly learn a little talent enough to get themselves a husband. Only Audiva looks to be more complete than that, and that’s only because the narrative has been signaling very hard that she’s more complete. Surely we can have more complete and deep characters than the Mean Girl Squad here.
Anyway, Silvina says Menolly is coming back to the guest room she was at, flippantly suggesting she’ll strip the room of the finery. Menolly thinks it’s a good idea, and seriously negotiates it out so that nobody thinks of her as putting on airs or thinking of herself as better. She does take an extra apprentice cot for the fire lizards as a concession to their extra weight. After everything is properly arranged, Piemur arrives to take Menolly to Master Shonagar. Since she has no post-Thread chores, he insists she comes to him to continue voice lessons. And he “did roar and bellow and carry on” about Menolly not being there and he makes her promise that she’ll be there, no matter what. Shonagar, are you going to join all the other Masters as someone who doesn’t care and show empathy, or am I going to be able to pass it off as you blustering for Menolly’s benefit, but that you weren’t really mad about any of it? Not that I think it’s a good move on your part, Shonagar, because Menolly is still the recovering abuse survivor.
Anyway, Chapter Six finishes with that exchange. So answers to those questions will have to wait until another time.