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Old 25th July 2008   #1
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Default California Gold, by John Jakes (novel)

Although the kinds of books that are usually mentioned on this site are world's classics, I stumbled upon a character in a somewhat...subliterary novel from 2001 that I'm sure everyone would love to be introduced to.

Her name is Carla Hellman, and she appears throughout a novel called California Gold, by John Jakes.

The author is probably best known for North and South, which was made into a TV miniseries starring Patrick Swayze back in the 1980s.

The is the only Jakes work I've ever read, and it comes across as part historical novel and part romance novel. These days, the "romance" tag inevitably means that some of its passages are kind of risque -- too risque to post here -- so I'll confine myself to the G-rated material.

The novel is set in 19th-century California. Carla is the femme fatale of the book -- and she is a dream come true. The daughter of a wealthy German immigrant, she has every element of timeless beauty -- definitely including a full figure -- and, most important of all, Jakes fully acknowledges that such a woman would have been the ideal of beauty in her day.

Here are some quotations describing her fair features, and the effect of her appearance:

She had a wide mouth, starkly pink but unpainted by cosmetics, and eyes of a deep blue... (34)

She unfastened the long scarf, spilling her hair, billowy and golden, onto her shoulders. (42)

Mack's stomach churned in disappointment. "I can understand why he'd want to escort your daughter. She's the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." (74)

Mack stared into the dark-blue eyes. Her beauty was overpowering as ever . . . (239)

She pushed a spill of blonde curls off her forehead. (267)

Here are some passages in which the fullness of her figure is celebrated -- and its effect on male admirers acknowledged:

"You're ridiculous, both of you," Carla said, nudging her horse forward with her boot heels. Her hips were broad, Mack noticed; she had the kind of billowy figure very much in fashion. Despite the heat and tension and the pointed pistol, he felt a distinct physical attraction to the girl. (36)

With a stifled grunt--she was not light--he carried her toward the bank. Carla's deep-blue eyes were close to his, watching him intently. (37)

A long gold-colored silk scarf tied in by her blonde hair trailed down between her large breasts. (34)

Notably, Jakes describes her as incrementally putting on weight throughout the book, but this never diminishes the effect of her beauty. Note especially the first of the following passages:

It was impossible for Mack to keep his eyes away from Carla. She was rounder and heavier than he remembered--an erotic heaviness, broad-hipped, big-breasted. A perfect Victorian woman . . . (160)

He gently touched her round, voluptuous body, brushed her shoulder with a kiss. (190)

She was incredible--soft, pillowlike, with no prudish restraint. (190)

The wind was as loud as ever. Carla brushed a plump forearm across her eyes. (267)

Somewhat disappointingly, there is little mention of Carla's appetite in the book, apart from a single instance in which her enthusiasm for a meal is mentioned:
She kicked at her accordion-pleated skirt and went inside the depot. When she saw the table, she clapped her hands. "It is a feast." (159)
And subsequently, her expression of satiation after indulging herself:
She sighed and leaned back.
"God, too much food. A positive orgy." (161)

In one instance, Jakes mentions how unathletic Carla is, but -- and this is crucial -- observe how he acknowledges that this too would have been seen as an attractive feminine trait at the time:

Accepting an invitation to join the Casa Blanca Tennis Club, Carla tried to learn the game but didn't play well. The stoutness that made her attractive to men hampered her, and she soon gave up, preferring to sit in the canvas pavilion at courtside, gossiping and drinking the fine English tea served between matches. (279)

Probably the book's finest description of Carla's beauty is the following, which even includes a reference to Antiquity:

She sat up, folding her arms over her bosom. She was heavy as a classical nude in a painting: great golden thighs, a waist growing plump . . . She was the ideal woman, big and billowy like Lillian Russell. The whole world loved Lillian Russell . . . (268)

Carla sat on the bed watching the bolted door. Her hair hung in golden tangles, her bed gown of silk and lace pulled apart to show the heaviness of her thighs. (309)

As if all of this wasn't perfect enough, Jakes also endows her with an exciting personality:

She was spoiled, accustomed to having her way . . . The willful streak had suddenly asserted itself, and instead of an eager, generous girl, she was suddenly a queen about to grant her favors for the night. (43)

She was beautiful, but she was willful and dangerous. (195)

He didn't know how to handle a rich, spoiled woman like Carla. (290)

But she is not merely a "bad" girl -- rather, mixed with her attractively spoiled qualities are other distictly feminine qualities, such as warmth and vulnerability:

He decided a part of him wanted Carla badly because she was so womanly and warm, and many other men would have sacrificed almost anything to have her. (240)

Coupled with Carla's warmth and good cheer, this gave life a magnificent zest. (276)

Mack had never seen this woman before: satiated, quiet, meek. (191)

She seemed so unsure all at once, vulnerable as a child. (191)

The book contains many captivating descriptions of Carla's opulent outfits, which I'm sure lovers of fashion history and Victorian aesthetics would enjoy. I don't have the leisure of writing those out, but I'll offer two interesting quotes which describe the effect that Carla's fashions have on her male admirers:

She swept in without knocking. He had to admit she was breathtaking. Why not? She'd spent the afternoon bathing and dressing. (286)

Carla kicked her voluminous skirt behind her and the garments under her dress rustled in a way he found very feminine and seductive. (286)

As the novel progresses, Carla really lets herself go, becoming quite full-figured; yet her beauty is always there:

She'd grown heavier, a half-moon of chin f** peeping from behind he veil bow . . . (457)

Mack smelled her perfumed hair, felt the warmth and bulk of her body. (518)

She made a little lunge at Mack, enveloping him in flesh... (564)

Alas, I wish I could say that Jakes' portrayal is wholly positive, but it is definitely not. As one might expect, he contrasts Carla with another character -- a tedious suffragette named Nellie who is, in temperament and appearance, a complete contrast to Carla. Nellie is a walking political "moral of the story," one might say, and is obviously meant to appeal to modern-day sensibilities. And of course, because Nellie is Jakes' supposed heroine, the author forces some negative characteristics onto Carla (that I won't mention here), which simply don't fit in with the rest of Carla's depiction, and seem contrived.

In the end, reading California Gold is a mixed experience. It's extremely enjoyable to discover a character like Carla -- someone who truly embodies the Classical ideal of beauty, and has a genuinely feminine character to match. But it is excruciating to watch the author engineer her destruction on behalf of a contrasting character who is altogether unlikeable. Also, many of the "romance" elements in the book are just too explicit for me. I much prefer the subtlety of a true Victorian novel.

Nevertheless, as the quoted passages show, the descriptions of Carla's beauty are magnificent, and virtually unheard of in a present-day novel. Jakes deserves credit for realizing and admitting that the ideal of the past was wholly different from the modern media standard, and for faithfully depicting that timeless ideal.
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Old 1st August 2008   #2
Join Date: July 2005
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Default Re: California Gold, by John Jakes (novel)

Apart from the unfortunate carnal excesses that you describe, this book deserves at least a measure of praise.

How extraordinary that a contemporary novelist could write a character who genuinely embodies timeless beauty. Her every feature is so perfectly selected that she could have emerged straight out of the pages of Alexander Walker's definitive treatise on feminine aesthetics.

The fact that Carla is the antagonist of the novel is not in itself a bad thing. (Better to be a vixen than a victim.) However, the author's undermining of Miss Hellman is extremely unfortunate. It seems that Jakes lacked the courage to contrast his two female leads--the feminine Carla and the modern Nellie--fairly. No doubt he realized that if he gave the two a level playing field, every reader would prefer the traditional womanly goddess to the proto-feminist, so he had to stack the deck against the blonde beauty.

Two passages from the novel stand out as particularly daring:

It was impossible for Mack to keep his eyes away from Carla. She was rounder and heavier than he remembered--an erotic heaviness, broad-hipped, big-breasted. A perfect Victorian woman . . . (160)

Notice that the charcter's weight gain ("rounder and heavier") is presented neither negatively nor indifferently, but favourably--as an augmentation of her beauty.

The phrase "erotic heaviness" is fascinating. The word "heavy" has been given a negative connotation in the modern day, but Jakes demonstrates the innate sensuality of heaviness by coupling it with youth and beauty. Modern media culture depicts female heaviness as either coarse or matronly, but Jakes configures it as the heaviness that one senses in a Greek sculpture of Venus, or in a Rubens goddess.

But most extraordinary excerpt is the following:

She sat up, folding her arms over her bosom. She was heavy as a classical nude in a painting: great golden thighs, a waist growing plump . . . She was the ideal woman, big and billowy like Lillian Russell. The whole world loved Lillian Russell . . . (268)

Note again how Jakes eschew negative modern connotations of certain words, and presents them in their favourable, 19th-century sense. Again, there is the sensual use of the word "heavy." Also, the affirmative reference to "great golden thighs" ("great" suggesting "large"--in a wholly positive sense). Whereas womanly thighs are practically stigmatized in media culture, in past centuries they would have been revered. And most unmodern of all, there is the appreciative reference to "a waist growing plump," indicating not only fullness, but even gain--yet presented here as part of Carla's allure.

In shot, Jakes indicates that Carla is beautiful because of all of these plus-size features, not despite them. And that is precisely how such attributes would have been regarded in any era prior to our own.

* * *

Beyond giving us an irresistibly beautiful embodiment of the timeless ideal in Carla Hellman, Jakes's novel is significant for another reason. His success in creating a wholly unmodern character, and evaluating her appearance through the lens of another age, proves that it is possible for writers (and anyone else involved in popular culture today) to escape modern thinking, to enter the aesthetic world of another age--a better, more beautiful age than our own--and to depict its values faithfully.

The creators of modern culture are not trapped by the alien tastes that exist all around us, suffocating and stifling true creativity. All it takes is a little awareness, a little imagination, and a writer can kick loose of this degenerate world, and create a better existence. And in depicting the nobler values of another age, and showing them to the public, a writer can instill in society a desire to recover those values, and to restore that better world.

California model Kelsey Olson--personally embodying timeless ideal that Jakes describes:

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