Mar 5, 2015

Lilies (BBC)

Lilies BBC logo
Lilies (BBC)
Lilies is a 2007 BBC series created by Heidi Thomas, best known for her work in popular period dramas such as Call the Midwife and Cranford. It’s about the lives of three sisters — May, Iris and Ruby Moss — growing up in a working class family in 1920s Liverpool, and it’s so obviously my sort of thing that I can’t believe I hadn’t even heard of it until Ruby Rose Scarlett mentioned it in a post last year. I immediately added the DVD to my wishlist, and treated myself to a copy for my birthday this year. Sadly Lilies only ran for a single eight-episode season, but even if some loose ends remain, the story it tells reaches what feels like a natural conclusion and makes for satisfying viewing.

I found Lilies as captivating as it was occasionally frustrating. I’ll start with what I loved: the three sisters at the centre of the series are rich, complex characters, and Lilies makes no apologies for the fact that this is first and foremost their story and that the relationships between them are important. The eldest, Iris, has taken on most domestic duties since the death of their mother, and although she cares deeply about her family she also struggles with feeling unappreciated and like she’s being asked to sacrifice her own life to improve everyone else’s. May works as a domestic servant for a well-off couple, only coming home to see her family one night a week. But her life begins to change when she finds herself drawn to a man she knows she probably shouldn’t get involved with. Lastly, the youngest Moss sister, Ruby, is an accomplished swimmer who almost makes the Olympics team. Ruby worked as a postal worker during the War and greatly enjoyed the freedom her job gave her; when she’s forced to give it up for the returning soldiers, she becomes a corset seller instead and is eventually drawn to early feminism by way of the rational dress movement.

Lilies: Iris, Ruby and May

The Moss family is haunted by the Great War. Ruby’s twin brother Walter was killed; another brother, Billy, survived, but was deeply traumatized by the sinking of the ship he worked in. Billy struggles with nightmares, survivor’s guilt, and the knowledge that PTSD sufferers are still perceived as cowardly and are stigmatised by many. The other key determinant of the Moss’ lives is poverty: I love how Lilies is rooted in historical details concerning the lives of working class families in the 1920s, and I love its refusal to romanticise them. For example, the Moss sisters lost their mothers to appendicitis because they couldn’t afford to send for a doctor; the family and the whole of their neighbourhood live in terror of visits from the tallyman, which might result in families deemed overcrowded being separated and essential livestock taken away; and in difficult times the sisters struggle with whether or not to turn to their “grave fund” and let go of the relative certainty of dignity in death it represents. These are all rather bleak things, yet at the same time the Moss sisters’ lives are far from unrelentingly dire. Iris, May and Ruby are multifaceted young women who of course experience the full spectrum of human emotions regardless of the constraints of their circumstances, and Lilies has as much humour and warmth as it has moments of darkness.

Gender inequality is another one of the series’ central themes: it’s implicit to many of its storylines, and it’s addressed directly in one of my favourite episodes. In “The Release”, Ruby meets and befriends Marianne Parkes, an upper-class first wave feminist who campaigns for reproductive rights, rational dress, pacifism, vegetarianism, etc. Ruby is drawn to Marianne’s ideas, and she’s quick to draw parallels between what she’s being exposed to and her own observations of women’s lives in her neighbourhood. However, it eventually surfaces that Marianne and her circle are eugenicists, who hope to recruit Ruby to help with the forced sterilization of impoverished and disabled women. Ruby, who just might be my favourite Moss sister, has absolutely no qualms about giving them a piece of her mind, and passionately stands up for the humanity of women like herself. I particularly liked how “The Release” was true to my knowledge of early twentieth-century feminism, which was not any more of a monolith than contemporary feminism is. The episode acknowledges the blind spots of women like Marianne Parks, but also the fact that in the 1920s (and before) there were outspoken working class women who rejected the intersectional failures of first wave feminism, while still claiming the fight for gender equality for themselves and shaping feminism with their experiences. In the end, Ruby rejects eugenics and Marianne’s circle, but doing this doesn’t mean she has to swear off the ideas about women’s rights she does find relevant and useful.

The rest of what I have to say about Lilies will require me to give away important plot points, so be warned that there will be some spoilers from this point onwards.

Lilies: Iris, Ruby and May

As I said, my love for this series was accompanied by occasional moments of great frustration. These reached maximum intensity in “The Sea”, an episode that delves into Billy Moss’ backstory. Billy learns that his best childhood friend and wartime companion Nazzer is returning to Liverpool and would like to see him. After considerable hesitation, Billy visits him in a home for disabled and shell-shocked WW1 veterans: viewers learn that Nazzer lost both legs and an arm in the war, and that Billy’s survivor’s guilt and war trauma make it very difficult for him to deal with his friend’s disability. Nazzer is shown to be a warm, cheerful young man, who can still charm the Moss sisters and who appears to enjoy many things about life despite his difficult experiences in the war. I was interested, at first, in the contrast between Nazzer’s attitude towards his life and Billy’s struggles: although I’m inclined to favour stories that focus on disabled people’s firsthand experiences, there’s also scope for interesting fictional explorations of how other people’s assumptions and struggles to adjust can cause pain and misunderstandings. I’d be interested in a story that showed Billy coming to accept that his issues were his own, and that despite the seriousness of his injuries Nazzer was not doomed to a life of misery.

Sadly this was not what Lilies turned out to be doing. Halfway through the episode it’s revealed that Billy and Nazzer were not friends but lovers, and the two spend a secret passionate night together at the Moss’ home. The inclusion of gay characters made me happy for about ten minutes, but in light of what I said above about my frustration, I bet you can all just guess where this is going. Nazzer, it turns out, was faking it all along. His cheerfulness was only a mask for his despair, and he attempts to persuade Billy to help him commit suicide by drowning at sea. Billy refuses and pulls him out of the sea, but (of course) Nazzer catches pneumonia and dies anyway, just when Billy had resolved to tell him he was willing to make any sacrifice for the two to live together as a couple.

I honestly can’t think of a single narrative reason for Nazzer to have died that doesn’t involve a thoughtless defaulting to the worst, most lazy storytelling clich├ęs surrounding both lgbtq and disabled characters. Several smart and articulate people have written about the problems with portraying lgb love stories as inevitably tragic; in addition to that, I find the implication that disabled people can’t have genuinely found ways to adjust to their disability and enjoy their lives extremely troubling. This isn’t to erase the fact that many soldiers struggling with physical and mental disabilities did in fact commit suicide after WW1, or that suicide among war veterans continues to be an enormous issue that needs addressing and can be explored in fiction. It’s just that I wish this wasn’t the only story we ever told about disabled or gay characters. Additionally, the pattern this particular narrative follows was made all the more uncomfortable by the suddenness of the shift: the assumption seemed to be that revealing that Nazzer was in fact depressed and suicidal required no elaboration because of course he would be. The inevitability implied here is both damaging and untrue. In the end, this episode didn’t kill my love for Lilies, but it was frustrating and disappointing in ways I hoped an otherwise thoughtful and well-written series wouldn’t be.

Also, initially I had mixed feelings about the storyline surrounding May’s pregnancy: there are multiple stories out there where an unplanned pregnancy is the first step in a series of narrative punishments for sexually transgressive women, and I was terrified that May would end up jumping into the river like she nearly does in the final episode. I feel differently about these endings in contemporary historical fiction than I do in the classics: as I’ve said a few times before, sometimes classic endings where rebellious women are killed off or reformed can feel like ways to hastily tidy away all the taboo possibilities the middle sections of the works in question raise; I understand why they still frustrate readers (a lot of the time they frustrate me too), but if I read them generously I mostly see a hurried nod at conventionality that doesn’t entirely work, and I’m capable of more or less ignoring them in my head. However, with narratives written today I see far fewer reasons to default to a pattern of death or tearful regret, and I tend to favour the subversive power of a happy ending instead.

All this to say that I was very relieved that May didn’t die. The way her story is told made all the difference to me. There are no hints of slut-shaming whatsoever; what we have is a story about a young woman who’s allowed to experience and act on her desire; who is manipulated by a man with more power but walks away when she realises this is the case; and who suffers the consequences of sexual double standards and lack of access to contraception. Lilies acknowledges how awful and stigmatized illegitimate pregnancy would have been for a 1920s woman like May, but also that support would have made all the difference. I was equally relieved that there was no reconciliation with horrible Mr Brazendale for May (her former employer and father of her child), or a hasty relationship with childhood friend Frank to publicly justify the pregnancy. Instead, Lilies ends with May being given the unwavering support of her sisters, and, with them by her side, resolving to bring up her child in her own terms.

Lilies BBC Moss Family

I can’t end this post without talking a bit about Dadda Moss, a character I struggled with. I appreciated that Lilies made an effort to portray him as a complex figure, and I see Dadda as an interesting study in a certain type of traditional masculinity and in the way men are socialised to assert it. For example, he feels entitled to being waited on by his eldest daughter, and the series explores the consequences this has for Iris. And like many men to this day, he treats his daughters’ sexuality like a commodity that is his to pass on (or deny) to other men. Needless to say, Dadda doesn’t react kindly when May tells him about her situation, and I’m afraid the episode where he beats up his terrified pregnant daughter put him beyond the reach of my sympathy. I confess I struggled with the series’ violence at times: I’m guessing it’s probably mild by most people’s standards, but animal harm in particularly is my no-go zone in fiction, and there were a few scenes where I had to look away from the screen (your mileage may of course vary). But to go back to Dadda, I was glad his wasn’t the only kind of working-class masculinity the series portrayed. There’s also kind, gentle Frank, who thankfully doesn’t end up becoming a Nice Guy; there’s thoughtful Billy; and there’s Ruby’s love interest Joseph — the scene where he uses his privilege to carve out a space for Ruby to be heard with a well-timed “Let her speak” to another man was to me the most romantic scene in the whole series. Frank, Joseph and Billy show that Dadda’s violence is not inevitable, and that’s an important thing.

Spoilers over.

In sum, Lilies is a series centred on women’s experiences, on sisterly bonds, and on the sort of details that tend to be written out of history, and this is something I continue to prioritise in the stories I give my time and attention to. Although there are some frustrating moments, the series also has a clear feminist sensibility, and it introduces us to three main characters well worth getting to know. I’m grateful that Ruby Rose Scarlett brought it to my attention, and I’m glad I made the time to watch it.

4 comments:

  1. As my tv watching time is severely diminished, I kind of like the idea of an awesome, 8 episode binge. Fingers crossed that Amazon Prime has it available.

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    1. Yes, fingers crossed! Do let me know what you think if it does.

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  2. Drat! It's not available on Amazon Prime! But it's okay. I can get it at my library on DVD, and I shall do so at my earliest opportunity. I love stories that deal with class in sensitive and nuanced ways! Thank you madam for bringing this to my attention!

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    1. Hooray for your library! Do let me know what you think.

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