The lucky number seven is of course prominent in religious lore; in Catholicism specifically there are the Seven Sacraments and the Seven Virtues. Interestingly, there are also seven bound and seven unbound volumes of the Realms. The historical individual who would seem to have had the most obvious influence on the formation of his Vivian Girls was St. Joan of Arc, who was very much in the news prior to her canonization in 1920. The Vivian Girls do not lead armies into battle as did St. Joan in 1428, but do go on spying expeditions, and they are living symbols for their country and the Christian cause. Darger made reference to St. Joan in the following passage: “It aroused the Angelinnians to superhuman bravery, fury and activity. … They fought … as if not only led by the spirit of the Maid of Orleans herself, but as if led by Christ and His Heavenly host of angels and Saints.”
Henry Darger’s novel, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger wrote the novel first in longhand, then typed a second version of the manuscript, which he bound by hand into a book of 15,000 single-spaced pages.
Also like St. Joan, the Vivian Girls were reputed to have abilities that bordered on the supernatural, owing to their spotless innocence and saintly nature. The character Vivian in Arthurian legend is an enchantress, the mistress of Merlin, the famed Lady of the Lake. The name is derived from the French and is both male, Vivien, and female, Vivienne, which leads us to perhaps the most intriguing similarity between the Vivians and the Virgin Maid of France: their mutual inclination to dress as boys when in the company of male soldiers. The Vivian Girls often disguise themselves as Glandelinian boy scouts in order to go behind enemy lines. They manage to alter their appearances just enough so as not to arouse suspicion or reveal their radiant feminine beauty. Moreover, disguising oneself as a boy is a common practice among many of these girl scout leaders, including Annie Aronburg, her sister Gertrude Angeline, and Jennie Turner. 1
Darger often depicts his girls with penises. There are a number of possible explanations, none very satisfying. Being as sheltered and religious as he was, he may never have considered that female genitalia look any different than male organs. Or perhaps he was endowing his little amazons with male equipment to indicate their warrior status. C.L. Morrison addressed this construct as well: “Traditionally, the mythological double-sexed figure has denoted knowledge of both sexes or a figure that is all-knowing, but by giving penises to his little girls, Darger has enabled himself to personally identify with their humiliating ordeals and to simultaneously be separate from them and facilitate their punishments. ” This raises another interesting issue regarding the sexual dualism in Darger’s work, for not only do the Vivian Girls frequently disguise themselves as boys, but the scout known as Rattlesnake Boy is really a girl.
1 Early in the writing of Realms, Darger lost a May 9, 1911 Chicago Daily News photo of a murdered girl named Elsie Paroubek. In the world of the Glandeco-Angelinnian war, Elsie Paroubek became child rebel and martyr Annie Aronburg, and the recovery of her picture became Darger’s obsession.
Also in Special Features: Take an interactive audio tour of a selection of Henry Darger’s works ». (RealPlayer required)
Michael Bonesteel is a Chicago-based art critic, curator, and editor.
From Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings by Michael Bonesteel, Rizzoli New York, 2000, pp. 21-22.