This blog post is about a literary archetype (said the author, casually).
When we hear the adjective pneumatic applied to the female of the species these days, we tend to think of a girl with a particularly large décolletage, especially of the sort that looks like a bicycle pump was involved – inflated, probably with mechanical assistance. It’s not exactly a particularly complimentary description any more, although it might imply a certain taut-skinned lack of clothing: bare arms and bare thighs, an airbrushed illusion of athleticism.
The cheapness of the word in current use is rather a shame, I feel, because the origins of the concept were a little more sophisticated.
The trope namer was, of all people, T.S. Eliot, with some able assistance from most of the major English literary figures of the early-to-mid twentieth century: Ford Madox Ford, Aldous Huxley, and John Betjeman were all actively involved. Don’t worry if you don’t know who they were. The point is, they weren’t the sort of writers who fetishized air-headed girls with silicone implants; what’s actually happened is that popular culture has fetishized an idea that they developed.
I suspect that in England, the modern archetype is a little more brazen than it is overseas: this is the land of the “Page 3 Girl”, where topless photos are an inexorable part of the biggest-selling daily newspaper; where it’s socially-acceptable to adjust your fake tan colour and upper-body dimensions depending on the season’s fashions, and the reality shows make Jersey Shore look intellectual. Thus, our pneumatic girl has fallen further than America, where the fitness models place a little more emphasis on actual fitness, and the valley girls tends to have a certain lack of stamina and an incoherent sense of social modesty, traits that rule them out of proper consideration.
In origin, the pneumatic girl was a far more respectable thing, a chaste Atalanta, as bad writers (and some good ones) would say. Sporty and taut, not necessarily particularly overdeveloped in the chest, and competent in the manner of the talented amateur rather than the ambitious professional, clean in attitudes and lifestyle. Generally blonde, generally Anglo-English, but always independent-minded, and often with surprising (yet generously understated) intellectual depths – Miss Valentine Wannop in Parade’s End, for example, is fluent in Latin and Greek to the point of random scholarly extemporation, and one of the few people yet invented who can intellectually out-argue that book’s protagonist, Tietjens.
Some English literary heroines of the era, such as Lady Joan Brett in Chesterton’s The Flying Inn, have a more complex relationship with the trope (but that book’s a topic for a more serious blog under another name).
Of course, at first sight, this seems suspiciously like a male fantasy, and there’s an element of that involved; though the first thing I want to say in riposte is that I don’t believe it’s simply a fantasy, or any sort of bad thing, that clever and confident men give honour to the idea of women who they can treat as equals.
This hopeful lack of prejudice in the concept is further strengthened by evidence for a level of metaphor and meaningfulness, as well as a strong twist of self-knowledge. The inherent strength of the pneumatic girl was never entirely physical. Pneuma, if you take it back to the Greek (as Miss Wannop would) is a name for the human spirit; Eliot’s pneumatic bliss, today’s trope namer, is ostensibly a reference to a heaving chest, but his poetic context connects it to the soul, to the highest aspirations of both religion and literature, and to that most human of all actions, conversation. All things, however apparently carnal and transient, hint at something fundamental.
You’re just going to have to take my word on that part, okay?
Buried deeper in the subtext is the fact that the Russian girl he’s describing is the greatest ballerina of the day, a physical embodiment of a skill and beauty; to the unwary reader, her eccentric, accented English might seem to objectify her, but this is merely the mirror to the poet’s own utter incapacity in the language of Pushkin and Tolstoy. She speaks two languages, one fluently, the other charmingly, and her entire body is a thing of high art; he has just one, and his thoughts keep straying to her breasts.
Eliot, who would never use a word with two contradictory meanings when three were possible, was probably also thinking of what were already by then known as penumatic drills – that sound you hear is the shattering of the narrative voice’s own intellectual tarmac – and Huxley, ruthlessly debasing Eliot’s own imagery in Brave New World, gave us a future where “pneumatic girls” are as mechanical, mindless and interchangeable as office chairs – yet here, once again, it’s the male protagonist who fails to make the human connection.
In some cases, in other word, the male narrative voice portrays the pneumatic girl as more than an equal. But I think the inadequacy of the male protagonist is a self-conscious stance that we can happily leave out of the wider discussion. It’s a little boring. It’s that layer of meaning about the soul that I want to turn back to, and explore a little more. In simple terms, it works like this: Eliot’s imagery identifies the quasi-unobtainable and self-possessed free woman with a pure longing of the soul, and see in her athleticism as an expression of a fundamental creative energy.
The pneumatic girl, in other words, is a symbol of goodness, and maybe just she’s capable of improving the typically-male narrative voice, as well.
The fact that is even the worst excesses of what feminists call objectfication by the male gaze hint at it. The modern debasing of the image of the free, athletic woman (and Huxley’s, and Eliot’s) point back towards the fact that it exists there in the first place. The subtext of the exploitative version breaks down as it tries to cheapen and simplify the concept, because by it’s very nature, it is debasing something, or rather – more optimistically – aspiring to be something, acknowledging the archetype in question.
And finally, I want to emphasize the simple fact that not all pneumatic girls of the good sort are imaginary; they operate quite independently of the male imagination. English boarding schools still produce them in appreciable quantities. The Daily Telegraph employs a good handful. We’ve recently seen an Olympics starring Hope Solo and Jessica Ennis, while Katee Sackhoff and Gina Carano are bankable at the box-office, to say nothing of Keira Knightley, who I could probably link to every single conceptual theme within this monologue. Black Swan touches on some important aspects of the trope, and even does so in a new way.
Counterparts also appear quite widely in modern fiction, in the form of that that “strong female protagonist” who’s so fashionable at the minute: Hermione Granger is only the most lucrative example.
Some of them, like Anne and Austra in Greg Keyes’ Thorm and Bone quartet, even have Valentine-and-Tiejens-style flirty conversations about comparative linguistics, too. I should emphasis that in Keyes, as in Parade’s End, this is played for laughs.
I want to mention Matt Stover’s female Knights of Khryl, but I’m not quite sure I have the courage to try and fit them (or anything Mr. Stover writes) into my own interpretative pattern. In this, I’m like T.S. Eliot confronted with a ballerina, bizarre as the simile is.