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Goddesses to gods

11 September 2015

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IF THERE is one point at which God and his handmaid Nature speak with one clear voice, it is the shape of the family: father (head, of course); mother, and children. All the energy of the Church should be spent on upholding this divinely ordained model. And, until very recently, all societies have expressed this by treating as a biological fact the secondary nature of women.

Except that the more we are prepared to look with unblinkered eyes, the more we realise that it simply is not true. One of the many excellences of Amanda Foreman’s new series The Ascent of Woman (BBC2, Wednesdays) is that her survey through history shows such widely differing ways of organising the basic social unit.

Would her story be an unfolding narrative of progressive freedoms, developing from prehistoric subjugation of women until today’s glorious climax: the possibility of being a female Archdeacon in the Church of England? Quite the opposite. For millennia, things went the other way round.

Archaeological evidence from around 7500 BC indicates an egalitarian, non-agressive society with a hugely fertile mother-goddess. By 3300, at the emergence of writing, women priests were equally important as male. A thousand years later, male gods were becoming ascendant, and women gradually become nameless, secondary — and this continued throughout the great classical civilisations to which we trace our Western cultural roots.

The great marker is veiling: societies that require a veil proclaim that, except, in private, to their husbands who own them women are essentially invisible. A surprising counter to all this was lived out in the nomadic tribes beyond the borders of empire. Their burials show something quite different — women buried with all the trappings of power and status. The programme jumps about a bit, but is absolutely enthralling.

One clash of cultures and gender roles was presented in Love and Betrayal in India: The White Mughal (BBC4, Thursday of last week). William Dalrymple told the early 19th-century story of James Kirkpatrick and Khair-un-Nissa: not merely their personal tragedy, but a moment of huge regression in terms of the British presence in India.

Kirkpatrick was exemplar of the older British attitude: happy to respect, admire, and even to join the civilisation he found there. His love for Khair was so great that he became Muslim to legitimise their union. But Wellesley, the new Governor General and a devout Evangelical, insisted that Indians, unless they converted, were inferior. British culture was clearly God-given and superior, and must be kept separate.

Dalrymple’s subtext was clear and timely: Christian and Muslim must return to the older attitude of finding mutual delight and value.

D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover received a 90-minute dramatisation on BBC1 (Sunday). It was awful: swaths of explanatory episodes that I am sure are not in the original, and class warfare episodes so unsubtle as to have been penned apparently by Private Eye’s Dave Spart. Worst of all, it wasn’t even sexy.

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