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EnchantedCornwall
From Enchanted Cornwall — Cornish beach — to them this recalls Andrew Davies’s 2009 Sense and Sensibility

Dear friends and readers,

Since tomorrow I’m going to try to travel to Cornwall where I will spend a week with a beloved friend, I thought I’d orient myself by reading an overview of the place, and found myself again reading DuMaurier’s Enchanted Cornwall and Vanishing Cornwall. Though I’ve long loved a number of her books (basically the historical romances with female narrators, Rebecca, her biographies, life-writing, travel writing) my yearning to see Cornwall does not come from them, as what drew me were the atypical romance stories; it comes from the Poldark novels where the life experience, landscape, kinds of employment offered, society of Cornwall is central. Thus (with little trouble) I’ve picked photos from DuMaurier’s book which relate directly to the Poldark world:

cornishBeach

I remember Demelza frolicking on such a beach with her lover, Hugh Armitage (The Four Swans)

season1Part8Episode6
19677-78 Poldark: Part 8, Episode 8: Demelza (Angharad Rees) and Armitage (Brian Stirner) cavorting along the beach —

and DuMaurier tells a tale of haunted vicar living a desolate life after he alienated the few parishioners he had in Warleggan church:

WarlegganChurch — From Vanishing Cornwall — Warleggan church

I’ve read all sorts of books on Cornwall since my love of these Poldark novels began, from mining to Philip Marsden’s archeaological reveries, Rising Ground, Ella Westland: Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, to Wilkie Collin’s ode to solitude and deep past in his Rambles beyond Railways); to smuggling, politics beginning in Elizabethan times, poetry (its authors include Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells), to women artists (Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, Dame Laura Knight), corrupt politics in this patronage-run Duchy. If I were to go back to count in the books on Arthur and the legends surrounding his figure, and literature, I have conquered whole shelves. Bryychan Carey’s website will lead you to much from a modern abolitionist left point of view, plainly set out. So much from one corner of a country.

TruroCornwalllookingdownfromcliff
A photograph my friend took today, near Truro

DuMaurier’s lyrical prose carries so much information so lightly, one is in danger of not realizing how much is there. There is a film adaptation of Vanishing Cornwall (half an hour); it accompanies the movie, Daphne with Geraldine Somerville and Janet McTeer as the leading lovers) developed from her letters, memoirs, and Margaret Forster’s biography. Her stance is less subjective than Graham’s, legend, myth, than Graham does in his Poldark’s Cornwall, which dwells on his life, his career, the place of Cornwall in his fiction right now. Appropriate to Graham’s fiction so concerned with law, justice, in his travel book, we have a photo of Launceston jail gate today:

LauncestonGaol

The DuMaurier’s may be regarded as instances of l’ecriture-femme too: in Enchanted whole parts of her novels emerge from this or that landscape memory as well as the sea. I had forgotten how many of her novels are situated there, from the one I think her finest, The King’s General (set in the later 17th century, the heroine in a wheelchair almost from the beginning) to the later one, Outlander takes off from, Hungry Hill. Her historical novels are historical romances: at core they are gothic, erotic fantasies. Vanishing is circular in structure, at the core her retelling of legend is minimized so she can do justice to the geography, archaeaological history, various industry. There is a paragraph on the coming of pilchards every spring which owes a lot to Graham’s lyrical miracle in the third book of Ross Poldark (there used to be a podcast on-line from the BBC, now wiped away, alas). Legend blends into history; history becomes poetical writing. She is not much on politics, dwelling on the upper classes as they’d like to be seen (mostly the later 17th into later 18th century and again the 20th).

For now here a piece from Vanishing Ground read aloud, evocative.

As qualifiers:

A poem by Betjeman: Cornish Cliffs

Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blow-hole booming like a gun-

The seagulls plane and circle out of sight
Below this thirsty, thrift-encrusted height,
The veined sea-campion buds burst into white

And gorse turns tawny orange, seen beside
Pale drifts of primroses cascading wide
To where the slate falls sheer into the tide.

More than in gardened Surrey, nature spills
A wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills
Over these long-defended Cornish hills.

A gun-emplacement of the latest war
Looks older than the hill fort built before
Saxon or Norman headed for the shore.

And in the shadowless, unclouded glare
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sea-line meets the wash of air.

Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling
Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring
On sunny shallows, green and whispering.

The wideness which the lark-song gives the sky
Shrinks at the clang of sea-birds sailing by
Whose notes are tuned to days when seas are high.

From today’s calm, the lane’s enclosing green
Leads inland to a usual Cornish scene-
Slate cottages with sycamore between,

Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles
With, as the everlasting ocean rolls,
Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.

Laura Knight paints the contemporary world’s hopes.

LKnightChinaClayPitDetail
Laura Knight’s rendition of a China Clay Pit (a detail, painting from early in the 20th century)

Ellen

Friends,

My original intent on these series of blogs on women artists was to do justice to obscure women artists; what I’ve discovered is of those whose writings and art survive, they cannot be so obscure. Records are required; if not a resume, a “character” by someone (a recommendation). Without some factual anchors, their work is not usually saved, and not put in prominent enough places to be readily seen. It has no larger context to give it meaning and life . I have myself been reluctant to feature a woman artist where I have hardly any images. I do so tonight.

I began writing this woman artists blog for the sake of one image, a black-and-white reproduction of Torcross, Devonshire, by Ellen Gosse:

GooseTorcrossdevonshire
Torcross, Devonshire (1875-79)

I first came across Torcross, Devonshire in Deborah Cherry’s Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists. I fell in love with it and have never forgotten it despite its the faded, small, and black-and-white state. It has the immense strength of a large single image — the lake: the beauty of the water shines through. The grass is caught as rich and various and thick. An idyllic dream vision of the holiday place

When I was younger, before I went to graduate school, I was familiar with the belletristic literary criticism of her husband, Edmund Gosse; he did very well in his career at a time when it was not so easy to (as in New Grub Street); he has fallen out of favor since (nothing theoretic, no intense dense scholarship). I used to find his work gentle, ironic, pleasing, and insightful. He was among the early scholars of early modern and minor 17th century women writers (the first essays I read about Katherine Philips and Anne Finch were by him). I had since read his powerful taboo-breaking life-writing Father and Son, and it’s possible my familiarity with the name made me pay attention to this image. There isinformation to be gleaned about Ellen and her other family members in Ann Thwaite’s biography, Edmund Gosee, a literary landscape 1849-1928 (he was friends and associate with central literary figures of his day, a member of clubs, libraries), but no reproductions of Ellen’s landscapes.

But I am also writing it to situate Ellen Epps within an entrenched pattern among women artists: her father was a middling class professional, George Napoleon Epps, a member of a respected family of homeopathic doctors. Her sisters were painters like herself. What was happening by the later 19th century in the UK was among the artistic and intellectual of upper class Victorian families a kind of proliferation of women artists and writers, who not infrequently group themselves with other female relatives and pursue their vocation with and through them: sisters, aunts and nieces, writing, doing fine art, of and for one another, and promoting or selling it together, e.g, the Hayllarr group (Little Stackpole, Edith, Jessica, Kate, and Mary, described by Cherry; also written about by Pamela Gerrish Nunn in her Victorian Women Artists). Another group of these related women we don’t often think about this way are Julia Margaret Cameron, the famous art photographer, maternal aunt to the sisters, writer Virginia Woolf and artist Vanessa Bell, and Vanessa’s daughter, Angelica Garnett, writer, editor, artist.

Ellen was one of three sisters: Emily, who trained with the pre-Raphaelite, John Brett, whose husband died young; as a widow and before Ellen married, Emily and she took up housekeeping together; and Laura second wife of Lawrence Alma Tadema, and because of her attachment to her husband, and his art career, a productive painter:

Laura_Theresa_Alma-Tadema_-_The_Bible_Lesson
Laura Epps Alma-Tadema (1852-1909), The Seamstress

In my judgement Laura’s work is a feminine version of her husband’s: the quietly erotic sensuality of omitted; the period changed from faux-classical to early modern or chaste early 19th century. Her work fits into those women covered by Cherry in her Beyond the Frame: “Tactics and Allegories, 1866-1900.”

Like her sister, Ellen’s influence on her daughter, Sylvia, so Laura influenced her step-daughter, Anna Alma Tadema (1867-1943), the daughter of her husband’s first wife. The best of Anna’s are architectural; the lines of the houses exert a chastening effect on exotic patterning. For example, Anna’s (to me) deeply appealing tranquil corner view of Eton College Chapel:

anna_alma_tadema_Etoncollegechapel
The colors are soft brown, the stones in the street exquisitely carefully drawn

And reprinted frequently is Anna’s gorgeously over-decorated (if the paintings of it are accurate): Townsend House, the Drawing Room (1885), a sort of show-place (owned by her father):

Anna-Alma-Tadema-The-drawing-room-at-townshend-house-1885
I take Anna’s as well as her step-mother’s paintings to be women’s versions of Laurence Alma-Tadema’s strongly-controlled eroticism with their hard surfaces and women’s flesh: instead they substitute bejeweled exoticism and much drapery

****************************

Ellen had begun exhibiting her work in 1871. She was under considerable pressure from her aunt to marry, and Edmund Gosse was also her aunt’s choice. She had refused to think about marriage, and in 1874 was described thus:

Nellie’s determination of will, she having willed that she will not marry, but prosecute her art with all her might, for since she has no fortune, she wishes to be indebted to no one for a holiday, she wishes no one to be indebted to no fortune.” Gosse was told about Elinor’s refusal; she realizes, she wishes to be indebted to no one for a livelihood, but worker her way into a fortune

According to Ann Thwaite, Ellen was very much a “new woman” in her attitudes and behavior before she married Edmund — though not an activist at all. She attended lectures at Queen’s College in Harley Street; her holiday reading one year included Carlyle, Blake, the Spectators, translations of Heine, early Meredith, Ruskin. She had had serious ambitions as a painter. She traveled to the continent and visited art galleries (France and Italy) by 1875 (Thwaite 149-50).

But a year later she “suddenly capitulated and without terms … she was so anxious to think of me in the future rather than herself.” After their marriage in 1875 Edmund Gosse worked as a civil servant, while gaining a reputation as a literary critic and poet. According to Deborah Cherry,

“Ellen ran the household, kept their accounts (keenly aware of the need to collect payments outstanding for Gosse’s work and to secure remunerative commissions) and and looked after their three children, Philip, Tessa and Sylvia. When Ellen was was away from home – on holiday with the children, visiting his parents, or nursing Gosse’s father in his terminal illness – her husband wrote to her as follows:

Please let me know by return of post: —
1. Where are my white flannel trousers and shirts?
2. Have I a decent pair of tennis shoes?

He would confess his dependence on her: She was, he admitted, his general provider: ‘Whenever you are away, I become immediately conscious of my utter helplessness without you, and how essential to my daily comfort your strength and knowledge and experience really are.”It is so dreadfully fatiguing to have you away. You are so terribly indispensable. hands and brains and everything to your poor E.'”

It was a happy marriage, despite Gosse’s homosexual leanings (confessed to John Addington Symons among others apparently). It seems that many of Gosse’s friends were adverse to marriage; but not he. I take it he was bisexual. Beyond the money he made from his academic success (at the British Museum), she inherited a sizable sum from an uncle, James Epps, the cocoa manufacturer. It was a very Bloomsbury world as described by Katherine Fisher who wrote of Sylvia’s life:

[Sylvia] was the youngest of three children of the poet, critic and librarian of the House of Lords, Edmund Gosse (1849–1928) and his wife Ellen Gosse (née Epps). Her mother and two of her aunts had all studied painting. Ellen (known as Nellie) had been a pupil of the painter Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893), while Ellen’s younger sister Laura studied with and later married the painter Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912). While Sylvia was growing up there was a constant stream of distinguished visitors to the family house in Delamere Terrace, Paddington, and from 1901 in Hanover Terrace, Regent’s Park, including writers Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling. Later, the list of social acquaintances included the artist Walter Sickert, who became Sylvia’s lifelong friend and colleague.

Tellingly Ellen produced her landscapes when away from home, on visits to others. The images I’ve seen beyond the one landscape exemplify the genre women favored: their own domesticity. Unlike writing women, they did not (hardly ever) used pseudonyms, and they painted their families, homes, children, the private sphere. Here is her richly colored depiction of “Hal in Townsend House:”

EllenEpps

Cherry:

“When circumstances permitted she worked hard, noting in her diary for 1887 that she had painted continuously for seven hours. She exhibited occasionally from 1878 to 1890 after which date she wrote travel pieces and nonsense verse, contributed art reviews to the Saturday Review, Century and Academy, children’s stories to St Nicholas and published articles in St James Gazette. In 1893 she wrote deprecatingly that she had been sent a copy of Art and Handicraft in the Woman’s Building of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago ‘as I happen to be a woman and was once a sort of artist’. She had exchanged her independence for marriage, children, a moderate output of paintings and a modest exhibition record;”

after her children grew older she became a regular minor journalist. Edmund praised her letters strongly; very amusing he said. He thought that she had it in her to write “a good novel one of these days.” She wrote children’s stories, art criticism, magazine articles on all sorts of topics, but not the great comic novel she was perhaps capable of (Thwaite, 213-14) . The only other image by her I have found is of her sister, Laura “entering the Dutch room at Townsend house:”

ellen-gosse-portrait-of-laura-lady-alma-tadema-probably-entering-the-dutch-room-at-townshend-house (Large)

***********************

A fourth woman with gifts from this clan was Ellen’s daughter, Sylvia (1881-1968). Here is the best picture by Sylvia I’ve seen.

Sylviagosse

Sylvia Gosse (1881-1968)
, The Semptress (1914)

It is influenced by Whistler, the schools of painters who painted working people which are found at the time in Normandy (Jules Bastien-Lepage) that came to center in Cornwall, and the break-up of images in impressionism.

Sylvia shows genius in her drawings too, e.g., “The Old Violinist.” She reminds me Elizabeth Forbes Armstrong in her admiration for Walter Sickert, and like Elizabeth was part of 1890s artistic groups. She resembles the women of Germaine Greer’s book, she dedicates herself to a fellow male mentor artist. Her brief biography is reminiscent of the fictionalized women artists & writers, whom Woolf writes of in her “The Mysterious Case of Miss V” and “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” (both in Memoirs of a Novelist).

“The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn and “Memoirs of a Novelist,” are gems, brief, of the type Diski so brilliantly imitates in her Apology for a Woman Writing, a novella, semi-biography of Marie de Gournay with Montaigne (a presence in the book) and her servant. In “Memoirs of a Novelist” our intrepid narrator trying to uncover lost lives, tries to research past what Miss Linsett, best friend of Miss Willatt, wrote of Miss Willatt in a biography. Go beyond the turgid unreal phrases and there are so few documents and most ignore any human reality suggested. Woolf shows that the way such biographies are written you end up knowing nothing about them person. Then slowly and with difficulty our narrator ferrets out what can be said for real of Miss Willatt. Alas, not much. That she was conventionally ugly, that her father made her life a misery until he died, that she was capable of deceiving Miss Linsett endlessly, a restless and disappointed woman who sought her happiness in her self and not others, and was never given a chance at an individual life.

Not true of Sylvia Gosse. Her public life appears to have fulfilled her. In the Burlington Magazine here and there an image of a painting or drawing by her appears. From Katherine Fisher, we glimpse Sylvia as living a quiet life, not exactly reclusive, but never becoming quite part of the Camden Town or London groups.

photo
A photograph of Ellen (here called Nellie) and Edmund Gosse in old age — they look like they are enjoying life together

I would be grateful for any information on other of Ellen Gosse’s landscapes.

Ellen

John-MartLandscape,-Possibly-the-Isle-of-Wight-or-Richmond-Hill-xx-Yale-Center-for-British-Art
John Martin (1789-1854), Landscape possibly Isle of Wight or Richmond

Felicité passée
Qui ne peut revenir;
tourment de ma pensée
Que n’ai je en te perdant, perdu le souvenir

In these gloomy moods, she was quite unable to remain a moment in company — Smith cannot break away from obsessive memories of her life as a girl, code for before marriage Celestina

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve read yet another novel by Charlotte Smith: her fifth published narrative, Celestina (1791). I can’t say I took no interest whatsoever in the pivotal central heroine and supposed central consciousness of the book, Celestina, or Willoughby, her hero and their unfolding story. I kept read-skimming to near the book’s end to find out whose daughter Celestina is, and how she came to be mistakenly regarded as the illegitimate daughter of Mrs Willoughby, her foster-mother (benefactress is the term in the novel), and thereby Willoughby’s half-sister and ineligible to marry him. I was engaged by his long semi-fantasy journey at la St Preux in La Nouvelle Heloise amid the mountains of Switzerland, his deep absorption in wild solitudes as he traveled about to Southern France, Switzerland, into Naples to discover who she is, and where this rumor that has estranged them from one another forever came from.

sunset_on_the_coast_near_naples-JWrightofDerby (Large)
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), Sunset on the coast near Naples

However, this journey was a detour from the book’s plot-design, and had no individual nuance, could easily have been attributed to some character invented for this journey, or better yet Smith herself as implied author, impersonal narrator. At the end of her life when she was dying, in pain from terminal ovarian cancer, and her husband had at last died, and she was getting the interest on her legacy, she dreamed of going to Switzerland, some cottage there. I imagine she thought of re-buying a library for herself once more.

And that’s part of the peculiarity of the pleasures of this novel. Its strong, compelling sections, passages are all those which have nothing to do with the central story. The most appealing engaging parts of the hovel are the several inset stories, of the “lamentable history” type told by a victim heroine: Jessy, much put-upon younger woman, harassed, exploited, seeks “service” where things do not get better; Mrs Elphinstone, the wife and then widow of yet another wildly extravagant, mercurially hot-tempered and intransigently stubborn husband, who (luckily we think) is drowned; Cathcart, Mrs E’s brother (who eventually marries Jessy, the lower middle class young man led astray by unrealizable ambitions in counterproductive jobs; Emily, their sister’s story, senselessly repressed, bullied, she flees with Vavasour, a handsome good-natured enough rake, who promised to marry her, does not but who loves and supports her even when she dies of consumption; of Lady Horatio Howard’s aristocratic life among corrupt circles she accepts (who stands in at moments for Smith’s beloved but probably prudentially conventional friend, Henrietta O’Neill); of Count de Bellegarde, a younger son of a reactionary punitive Italian Marquis, and his sister, Genevieve whose marriage beneath her her father refuses to forgive. Celestina travels as vigorously as any Radcliffe heroine, and I know I read the book for her sojourn in the Hebrides, which does not disappoint, and the inserted poetry in all the Scottish sections of the novel. I found the account of the early stages of the French revolution into Napoleonic era as played out in southern France, and Italy eye-opening as by a contemporary witness who thinks and reads. Did I say this is a long book?

I’ve come to the conclusion in this book Smith is a novelist in search of another form of novel, more than a different central story. She wanted another structure, another mode. As with her Letters of a Solitary Wanderer were the motifs and characters and themes and utterances anticipated those of Mary Shelley in her Frankenstein, I felt Smith was frustrated, hemmed in with these paradigmatic pathological familial romance-sex stories, semi-action adventure (Sophia Lee style, often with women at the center or feminized heroes), no matter how much more terrifying she managed to make them. Her next novel, Desmond, is epistolary. It’s a political treatise with its love story in the margins, and is balanced, symmetrical, satisfying, no tedium. But basically she changes content, reverses emphasis: the next three, Old Manor House, Emigrants (verse narrative), The Banished Man, are centered in inheritance, illegitimate and war, revolution, counter-revolution, stories of exile. Then the gothic Montalbert (about adultery, male violence, torrid climes, mother turning into daughter) and we read a story about debt, the prison system, some of it carried on by inset epistolary narrative, Marchmont. She does not take the generic leap she needed to.

Where the central narrative of Celestina comes most alive is in action-adventure moments of supreme suffering, but the problem is to get there we have to read distress upon distress and cannot forget the improbability of this. What she was seeking was some sudden frantic suffering, the sort of thing Outlander does weekly, as in the super-painful penultiamte episode where the sadistic homosexual Black Jack threatens to kill Claire until Jamie agrees to become his masochistic sex partner, and then smashes Jamie’s hand again and again.

Agonized
The ecstasy of the agony (Catrionia Balfe as Claire, Sam Heughan as Jamie)

Claire moans and groans, pushing her head against Jamie’s shoulder who tells her she must leave: he stands in for tortured prisoners today (in the perpetual war this earth’s colonialist capitalists and militarist dictatorships are waging against fanatic bands of excluded men and women mesmerized by a barbaric religion aka the war on terror) and what perhaps happens in prison systems like that of the US, China, Egypt (&c). So this film series knows what it’s doing and what it is conveying. We take this replacement as believable because done in the Lee mode, of historical romance with fantasy interwoven (what Diana Wallace in her Woman’s Historical Novel and Helen Hughes in her The Historical Romance describe). In her most powerful famous sonnets she is urging on herself such moments:

Swift fleet the billowy clouds along the sky,
Earth seems to shudder at the storm aghast;
While only beings as forlorn as I,
Court the chill horrors of the howling blast.

Even round yon crumbling walls, in search of food,
The ravenous Owl foregoes his evening flight,
And in his cave, within the deepest wood,
The Fox eludes the tempest of the night.

But to my heart congenial is the gloom
Which hides me from a World I wish to shun;
That scene where Ruin saps the mouldering tomb,
Suits with the sadness of a wretch undone.

Nor is the deepest shade, the keenest air,
Black as my fate, or cold as my despair.

The above is from Montalbert, the novel written in the wake of her beloved daughter, Augusta’s death. One of her sequences of poems is that of a mother grieving the loss of her daughter. Not enough has been written about these or Smith’s work in terms of a mother to a daughter.

But Smith is too conventional finally; too in her heart hopeful generally, not able to give up her progressive vision to move into the despair that would create an appropriate text.

I’m thinking that unlike Austen who could stay with conventional paradigms, not having a radical unearthing kind of vision, Smith needed to break them away. (Yes there is a sequence of double humiliation in a sort of assembly room dance that Austen could have had in mind in her S&S, but what is made intense height of shattering mortification in Austen, is a passing phase of your usual social suffering in Smith.) The feminocentric courtship novel was not for her (Emmeline). She writes in one of her self-reflexive critical comments that she cannot get herself to move to the supernatural (she is thinking of gothic fantasy) since she wants to stay true to the cause of the evil and harm she sees around her: natural, man-made, if by the end of her life she saw apparently not reformable. I was thinking today how Dickens’s great historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is not (like Barnaby Rudge, a weak book), rooted in historical detail accurately dramatized but instead has these long chapters of deep imaginative flights of bleak, tragic, pessimistic imagery to convey the nightmare horrors the ancien regime could inflict on the powerless. Most of her stories are set in the present. Maybe she needed some weaving technique whereby she could embed her inset narratives as letters, memoirs, from an earlier period, a version of time-traveling through having her characters do research and find letters and documents instead of wandering as desperate exiles. Something more integrated too, distilled. Maybe a Booker Prize type post-colonial book. She was 200 years too early. She reached for it in the opening of The Banished Man (which I’ve begun, a conflagration amid war of a house), but then fell back again when her daughter died.

Something visionary in a prose story yet grounded in realism. This is iconoclastic for Smith scholars as (like them) I love how she follows Cowper, but the problem with her much admired Beachy Head is it is too exquisitely a jeweled imitation of him. She cannot like Wordsworth tell her life directly: it is unacceptable what she knew. In one of her late stories she has a heroine whose husband murders her son out of sexual jealousy over their daughter remember her last years with him before separation:

when, far from other motives than those of real affection, he once more approached me, mingling resentment and doubt even with his caresses, I would gladly have returned to my dungeon, or even have sought shelter in the grave, rather than have become, as I was however gradually compelled to do, the mere victim of his animal gratification (from “Edouarda,” Tales of Solitary Wanderer)

This getting close to the heart of the matter. Her surrogates are all of her older; she omits the time inbetween and she needed to write out of that. As I read and reread her poetry, this silent core is what she seeks to erupt from herself looking to the wild storms and solitude of landscapes outside the control of men, to bring her to it.

ON this lone island, whose unfruitful breast
Feeds but the summer-shepherd’s little flock
With scanty herbage from the half-clothed rock,
Where osprays, cormorants, and sea-mews rest;
Even in a scene so desolate and rude
I could with thee for months and years be blest;
And of thy tenderness and love possest,
Find all my world in this wild solitude!
When Summer suns these Northern seas illume,
With thee admire the light’s reflected charms,
And when drear Winter spreads his cheerless gloom,
Still find Elysium in thy shelt’ring arms:
For thou to me canst sovereign bliss impart,
Thy mind my empire–and my throne thy heart.
— Celestina in the Hebrides

The lines to pay attention to are the last three: she does not find refuge, an alternative either through her mind or (being this realist), now without a friend (the death of Henrietta O’Neill is never far from her mind) in an envisaged practical future.

Faultering and sad the unhappy Pilgrim roves,
Who, on the eve of bleak December’s night,
Divided far from all he fondly loves,
Journeys alone, along the giddy height
Of these steep cliffs, and as the Sun’s last ray
Fades in the West, sees, from the rocky verge,
Dark tempest scowling o’er the shortened day,
And hears, with ear appall’d, the impetuous surge
Beneath him thunder!—So, with heart oppress’d,
Alone, reluctant, desolate, and slow,
By Friendship’s cheering radiance now unblest,
Along Life’s rudest path I seem to go;
Nor see where yet the anxious heart may rest,
That, trembling at the past—recoils from future woe.
Celestina in the Hebrides

HebridesRobMiller
Rob Miller, Outer Hebrides

Ellen

HUbertRobertgardwenitalianvilla
Garden of an Italian Villa (1764)

Catalogue: “the overall spacial fluidity [remarkable] slightly syncopated … the space offers the surprise of a tree-framed aperture at the top of the steps on the left, and easily accommodates the irregular perspective … recalls landscapes of the German artist Friedrich Reclam … “

HUbertRobertartidtinhisstudio
The Artist in his Studio (c.1763-65)

“The ideas that ruins awaken within me are grandiose. Everything is annihilated, everything perishes, every thing passes out of existence; the world alone remains, time alone endures. How old this world is! I walk between two eternities. Wherever I cast my eyes, the objects surrounding me speak of an end and make me resigned to that which awaits me … ” (– Denis Diderot after seeing a now lost Grande galerie eclairee du fond by Robert)

HUbertRobertloggiamedici
A loggia in the Villa Medici

Dear friends and readers,

Hubert Robert is such a favorite artist with me that I braved intense heat, a long trip on the Metro for a second day (see first), a crowded city a couple of days after the exhibit opened. I worried lest Metro service get worse, and didn’t trust them to resume regular service on the lines I use in time to see the exhibit.

Seven or eight rooms filled with paintings, drawings, watercolors, an area for sketchbooks take you through the phases of Robert’s impressive career(click on one hour podcast art evaluation as biography to the right). His life takes you through an outline of the history of France: the ancien regime as experienced by the young man lifted well above his original station (his parents were servants in an aristocratic house) in Rome, and shoring up material for later years:

RobertColisseum
The Colisseum

loggiavillamadama
Loggia at Villa Madama (c.1760)

palacelouvregardens
This painting of the gardens at the Louvre from later in Robert’s career (post-1790) can also stand in for a room of gardens (pre-1790)

demolitionbastille
The Bastille in the First Days of the Demolition (1789)

Catalogue: “the painting … shows a setting sun illuminating the exaggeratedly huge fortress as it looms against an orange-tinted sky, seems to admirably capture the extraordinary surge of feeling that would lead in just a few weeks to the building’s total destruction …”

Then suspect for his associations and thrown in prison, almost executed,

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An inmate at St Lazare

Catalogue: “the identity of the man … is uncertain … [this is] a portrait of a cell with its spartan furnishings, augmented by such comforts as a couple of books, a somewhat ornate chest, and a small mirror. Hanging prominently on the wall is a hat with the tricolor cockade … [this sort of symbol had become] a kind of camouflage, simply to fit in and to avoid problems.”

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Women bringing in food at St Lazare

lucky release, and later career this time patronized by the state, involved in the transformation of the Louvre

Hubert Robert Tutt'Art@

The exhibit concentrated on and brought out beautifully the quiet learned and contemplative aspect of the man’s work. You are told how successful he was from a very young age, how hard working, how serious, how he loved to socialize (Vigee-LeBrun doubted he ate at home more than three times a year), how many real friends he had, and that he was certainly good at networking too. I thought to myself he was as much a survivor as Talleyrand or Madame de Genlis.

One of the striking things to me about the exhibit the day I went was it was not crowded. It’s well advertised and large, just the sort of thing that usually draws a crowd. It was a Sunday afternoon; elsewhere I saw lots of people hurrying, scurrying, peering close up. Instead there were people I’d call reading and academic types sitting at a distance from pictures, at the center of a room contemplating what they were looking at. No one stood in my way. However successful in his lifetime, Robert’s is not a popular art. It is not aggressively aimed at the viewer; nothing exaggerated in the psychology of the figures. Tellingly, Robert seems to have done hardly any portraits of recognizable people close up.

I bought the exhibit book (a few essays, a thoroughly detailed chronology, catalogue raisonne) although in hardback (a slight sale) when I was told there would not be a paperback. It disappointed me in how studiedly neutral and unanalytic the essays were. I wondered why. There is fine review by Phllip Kennicott, “Stroll ancient Rome with Hubert Robert as tour guide,” which ends perceptively on the mood the exhibit stirs in a receptive viewer (Washington Post).

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A Hermit praying in the ruins of a Roman temple (1760) — one of his many many capriccio

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Detail from A Hermit in a Garden (c1790 — not in the exhibit)

So a few thoughts. The exhibit emphasized the capriccios, how much that we see is learned fantasy. His art is also playful, comic, with unexpected salaciousness (which I doubt Austen would have liked and might have complained about to Cassandra). He can pander to patrons. Take the Hermit in his Garden: it’s an illustration of an incident from La Fontaine’s “L’Ermite”, itself from an anti-feminist medieval bawdy tale. A friar lusts after a girl, tricks her deluded mother into leaving her daughter with him, impregnates the girl who just loves the experience (see Joseph Baillio, A Hermit in a Garden: A new acquisition for the Speed Art Museum, 2001). Study the Laundress and Child:

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1761

There is something very mean in this fall of Madame du Barry — she was guillotined later; some of his patrons had resented her because she was lower class: “How the mighty are fallen?”

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She did not go gentle into that long night but fought ferociously on the guillotine scaffold

It may be that Robert never tired of company whose variety he never found uncongenial, but over a lifetime of long working hours, weeks, months, years, the pictures he produced focus on moments of stillness, solitude, study, vulnerability, people at work.

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The Fountain focuses on a disabled man

He doesn’t just juxtapose ordinary people going about their lives in these ruins as counter cheerful images, the wittiest of which may be the famous Ponte Salario whose upper center in woman trying to rescue her cat:

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I hope through the blur the viewer sees how she’s risking toppling herself down as she reaches out

He pays attention to poor and middle class people: the first is about the woman and her child in the Roman landscape:

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Catalogue: “the speed of the execution is especially evident here in the quick nervous delineation of the tree that takes up most of the page. In many ways it is a more intricately wrought ornament to serve as a framework for the two figures walking through the countryside than a product of nature … composed with great ingenuity and spirit … “

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Not in this one but others have people bathing tired feet

Catalogue: that he chose to draw such modest places is stressed.

This fantasy Fountain at Vauclause combines sublime mountains with small Chardin-like figures:

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This is a wild concatenation of images, and meditation on Poussin

Hubert Robert – private collection. Title: Le pont sur le torrent. Date: mid 1780s. Materials: oil on canvas. Dimensions: 416 x 616 cm. Auctioned by Christie’s in New York, on January 27, 2007. Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hubert_Robert_-_Le_pont_sur_le_torrent.jpg. I have changed the contrast of the original photo.
Le pont sur le torrent (mid 1780s).

He studied the materials from which buildings and cities were made:

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Demolition of Houses on the Pont-du-Change (1788)

From Age of Watteau, Chardin and Fragonard: “fascinating social and historical documents, charting with considerable topographical and human detail major developments in urban renewal in Paris. The city appears in its dual identity of social space and human construction …. chaos and the temporality of human endeavour prevail … [when he makes the people puny in comparison he shows the still lingering influence of] Giovanni Piranesi [but it] unheroic and against the grain of the celebratory ….

It’s a mood and stance that connect it to this fantasy Remains of the Palace of Pope Julius

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which forms a pair unexpectedly with

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Colonade and Gardens at the Villa Medici with Gentleman Sketching (c. 1759)

He is just so varied. Here is a rare sketch of his wife, Marie Suzanne Girouet-Roslin, “Madame Robert Sewing:”

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He often shows people creating art, involved somehow, and the charm here (there is no other word for it) is to see the people studying patterns for classical monuments while they sit inside one just going up as a ruin:

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I like best the small unnoticed details, rich coloration and drawing, and figures of people who can’t be brought into anything schematic: first the old man, how he’s dressed, from the Garden of the Italian Villa (the first picture way above)

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Then this small passage in one of his garden scenes — the original is much much greener, many shades of dark rich green:

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He draws Madame Geoffrin drawing for lunch:

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Many red chalk drawings were there and they are so appealing (hardly any watercolors though); some waiting to be “worked up” later into paintings; others curious visions in themselves, by no means all classical:

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I close on a portrait of Robert reprinted far less often than the robust figure Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun caught earlier in life:

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Robert in 1799 by Jean-Baptist Isabey

Ellen

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London bridge, galloped across by Lydia, then Darcy, then Elizabeth, and all back again (Burr Steers’s P&P and Zombies)

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Fires were started (outside the usual assembly room dance)

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Elizabeth (Lily James) swinging her battleaxe

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition — Elinor Dashwood, S&S

We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing” — Elizabeth Bennet, P&P

Dear friends and readers,

I’m in the peculiar position of having set out to damn this movie with faint praise, and dutifully reading the major reviews first, finding myself having more to say on behalf of the movie than most, and feeling what was so bad about the movie important enough to warrant explanation. Most reviews were a short paragraph or two at most: Peter Travers of Rolling Stone dismissed it cheerfully (!) as “utter nonsense;”; Manohla Dargis of the New York Times pronounced it “tedious and dull,” was irritated by reiterated motifs and jokes. Christie Lemire, one of those who carry on RogerEbert.com conceded some pictorial value, but it was so poorly done;; I went to Deb Barnum (Jane Austen in Vermont) hoping to fortify myself with praise there, but found that in fact she apologizes for her enjoyment and the movie.

This all agreed, despite the valiant efforts of this or that actor/actress. After an initial promotional showing in Maryland, P&P & Zombies never came near the movie-houses in my area (not DC, not in Northern Virginia, not exactly a backwater), and disappeared from movie-houses in friends’ areas around the country inside a week. Most Jane Austen movies, no matter how jarring the collocations, do very well. What was so bad? What went wrong?

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The Proposal scene, first phase (Sam Riley and Lily James)

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Second, they fight over a gun, before dengenerating into wrestling, hitting, and kicking match

I watched it twice, the first time swiftly through, the second much more slowly, taking a few snaps and paying attention to that or that. I didn’t dislike it the second time as much as I did the first (a common reaction I have to poorer Austen films). It’s memorable, a weird mirror. It shows the same turn for sudden blazing violence as even this summer’s Woody Allen’s Cafe Society includes. I argue despite its egregious flaws, it is not just failed entertainment.

I’m slightly ashamed to say why I disliked it so at first, but as this is why I argue the film is worth thinking about I’ll bring this out. I could not get myself to take it non-seriously. Had I been able to regard it as the smashing together of inane trivia from the conventions of Zombie movies with the plot-outline and most memorable or favored scenes of P&P, which in turn rendered all the Austen parts we have as themselves more inane trivia, then I would not have been disturbed. Damn it, I was.

The given of a zombie movie is there are these zombie creatures inhabiting wherever the movie is taking place, they are utterly distasteful looking — the worst kinds of ugly suppurating wounds, patches on people’s faces or whole parts of their bodies bleeding, filthy (filth is an important part of the visuals), curiously hideous; the face of the person grins at you, and it seems given a chance they would bite or attack you so that you become transformed into something similar. There can be poignant moments as if someone stepping out from a bombed area, some nuclear war:

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A mother and child

Only the zombies are not given the chance. The “good” or unpolluted (good = unpolluted, this is part of the worrying subtext) characters assault the zombies first. We are “treated” to the major principles in the film blasting these zombie creatures with bombs, blasts, fire, guns of all sorts, knives photographed close up, long rifles; the principles kick, smash, jump on, and blast out the zombies. Our five heroines we are told have been training as warrior in China (the usual place is said to be Japan), so too Charlotte (Aisling Loftus, Sonya from the recent W&P), over-the-top hideiously made-up is Lady Catherine de Bourgh who is treated as just delectable (Lena Headley) because of her warrior costume and black patch on one eye.

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Thrones play a big part in the sets

These heroines pass their days hitting one another, slapping, kicking; they walk about with guns. Darcy is a chief hunter-out and destroyer of Zombies, behaving like some doctor in violence.

Considering what goes on in US streets, the killing and violence of fear and hatred also across Europe and the middle east, engendered by this war on (so-called) terror, how can anyone regard this as trivial? it’s a reinforcement. There was Lily James, with a mean expression on her face, hair dyed dark brown (it is just one step too far to make Elizabeth Bennet a blonde), toting and stumbling over huge rifles as she stalked down streets.

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The gallant “Parson” Collins (Matt Smith), the only character in the film who is against guns (will not have them in his house), chivalrously turns to help Elizabeth during the walk to Meryton

I can’t laugh at these versions of slapstick. I never liked laughing at characters made to slip and fall and be humiliated. There is an underlying pattern of humiliation here — voyeuristic laughter at wounded horrors.

My dislike is founded on a deep rejection of senseless violence, of commercial uses of body imagery which debase and degrade the viewer’s sense of what violates whatever fundamental empathy or humanity we have (not a lot). Serious gothic is defensible as expressing deep grief, thoughts about death, the meaning of history in the present, victimization. The second time round I picked up the archetypal plot-design one sees in most spy-thrillers. Early on a bad guy emerges (evil in whatever are the terms of the movie), here Wickham (Jack Huston) and the audience glimpses this while we watch the hero (Colonel yet Darcy) fight this evil person and win and the characters slowly realize it. Like others more recently the hero here is saved by someone else in the nick of time: here Elizabeth, after Darcy has saved her in the nick of time several times — very like the film adaptation of Gabaldon’s Outlander where in the nick of time at the close of the first season Claire (Catriona Balfe) saves Jamie (Sam Heughan); hitherto it had been he who saved her in the nick of time. They too perform riding tricks aside the same horse.

I noticed too that the language used is that our political war filled world. The characters have no choice but to fight and be violent. I thought some of the language used about the zombies was racist (the way black people are talked about by those for allowing police to murder them at will); a friend who studies film as well as literary gothic said the zombies in some zombie movies seem to stand for immigrants. No idea of understanding in the movie anywhere but then the whole lift-off from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is simply exploitative. There was here and there the idea that life and death are connected but that was not structural as in say Branagh’s Frankenstein. So this is a deeply reactionary, fascistic film.

A lot was made of common distaste for bugs.

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In the above typically orange-and-black scene of manners (playing cards), the older man is attacked and destroyed without warning because he is supposed a zombie (it’s the same procedure the US uses for drones)

Human beings find insects horrible because they look so different from us, seem so mindless. So bugs are everywhere and we have to watch Lily James crush them with her hands, then drop a bunch into Darcy’s hands. Well, yes, yuk. But this sort of thing doesn’t do much for those wanting to increase respect for otherness in the kingdom of living things. This was part of a vein of foulness.

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The de rigueur breakfast scene

Aesthetically there was a continual jarring as the film-makers moved back and forth from Austen material taken straight (word-for-word when famous), in more or less quiet usual daylight colors, and zombie scenes. Interwoven absurdly the reading of Forsyte’s sermons. For a moment here and there an actor captured something of the original spirit of Austen’s book (Charles Dance, thrown away here as Mr Bennet — I hope they paid him big, Sally Philips as Mrs Bennet) but mostly the dialogues were made to feel silly and made no sense surrounded by this sudden outbreaks of brutal meanness. (I admit much of it might seem light or harmless if you compare it to what goes on in the popular and fleeting action-adventure, spy-thriller, macho male concoctions as in Games of Thrones, The Infiltrator. It’s more than that Furman’s pacing was inadequate.

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The world as ruin, on fire from bombs

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Elizabeth crawling through to reach an apparently dead Darcy

OTOH, the photography of London and the gothic imagery was effective, haunting, the mise-en-scenes of gothic places apocalyptic – the grey anonymous city. These set pieces reminded me of the sets created for Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant genuinely apocalyptic The Last Lover Left Alive featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston: this was an overly political gothic movie: the city the vampires (in this case) try to escape to or from is Detroit which has been deliberately sluiced and destroyed by super-wealthy (reminding me of similar characters in Our Kind of Traitor, the most recent LeCarre). Richard Davenport-Hines in his Gothic: 400 years of Excess, Horror, Evil and Ruin demonstrates that the gothic is as often used for radical and liberal visions as reactionary atavistic cruelty.

The most interesting aspect of the film was its gothicisms. How stable this kind of material is: someone coming to the movie from the 1790s who had been reading gothics could recognize it, only it was more Victorian, drawing more on the kind of detective gothic coming out of later 19th century books. I can see the origin of this in the fable of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff’s first costuming; in the latest version (Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro) finally the monster’s loneliness, the defiance of death, the strong attack on medicine as violating us was brought out; the zombie machinery just throws that all away but for the occasional look of forlonrness on a female zombie which is quickly erased as she snarls. The more general origin is not what’s called “terror” gothic (often female, often about intangibles, inward) but “horror” gothic (often male, misogynist, doing all it can to violate bodies in startling ways).

One movie does not a genre make but from what I observe in this one zombies belong to the male gothic, violate the body side of gothic. The Jane Austen woman’s film has become a male one. One of the famous stills — which is seen for a moment in this film as an unnamed woman zombie wanders through — is a mask of iron with slates over the woman’s face. This silences her– like taking out her tongue. So you can rape her at will. I’ve few pictures of wife abuse before the later 18th century but one shows a woman whom the court punished by putting such a mask on her face: the court was itself abusing her. (This makes me think of the present Republican insane-hate fest where they chanted at Hilary Clinton “lock er up,” the next best thing is lock her face, cut out her tongue, execute her).

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Our principals pass by a place that looks like George Bellows’s under Brooklyn Bridge, where zombies and others come out starving, looking for food, warmth, anything

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Out of a key church in the film, St Lazarus, come the 4 horseman in black, and then zombies and others half-crazed pour out

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Wickham early in the film

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Last seen, a kind of mad-dog terrorist (?) with a many-pronged iron tool

While the two genres utterly clash, beyond Jack Huston a credible, slowly emerging angry, and then enraged Wickham, Aisling Loftus a self-respecting Charlotte, Matt Smith a comically effective Collins, both Lily James and Sam Riley were almost almost moving their last scenes but one (the fatuous wedding, meant to be fatuous, made fun of) — reaching out to one another, the second proposal. When the Jane Austen material was to the fore, however rarely I thought of how Austen’s novels prima facie stand for civilized behavior at a miminum, which is not to be despised in today’s world.

It’s a film you could think about.

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The direct source, the men, & the sisters: side issues?

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Matt Smith marrying everyone else

Since Seth Grahame-Smith’s mash-up novel seems to me a gay send up of the archetypal heterosexual romance, I’ll mention I saw no homosexuality, no jokes I could recognize as gay . There is nothing homoerotic in this film unless you impose on Bingley’s usual dependence on Darcy (Douglas Booth as Bingley is made effeminate) and the enraged hostility of Darcy and Wickham (now developed from previous sequels) as homoerotic. Maybe we were to see the anti-violence Collins as gay. This shows a strong stereotyping, and it’s a stretch.

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Darcy and Bingley — typical moment between them

A friend said of “the men, who in the Austen book we see idling like a bunch of Ken dolls, [are] engaging in activity, even if that activity was killing zombies. As one interested in what Kenneth Johnston calls the white spaces in Austen’s novels, I appreciated at least a depiction, if extremely fanciful, of what the men do when they aren’t hanging around drawing rooms.” Yes but I wished they could find something else beyond killing as a trade. A mirror of our time? the US gov’t makes only military jobs. We have girl-power chicks readying themselves with guns

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A debate broke out on Janeites because one person (Arnie Perlstein?) claimed tha the film developed a subtext in Austen of Elizabeth’s intense jealousy and rivalry with Lydia, here turned into a kind of hatred. Lily James does seethe at first at the usual sullen spiteful version of Lydia (Ellie Bamber)

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A group scene

The film lacks all subtlety except when Austen material comes through. But this idea is such a tiny element — if you blink you’ll miss it. It starts early on, but is no more prominent than the standard bad behavior of Lydia in this film (she tries to humiliate and scorn her sisters); it’s also overturned because of the stupidity of spy-thriller conventions (more just in the nick of time stuff). Our victim-heroine Lydia is lured into St Lazarus castle and without explanation we next see her chained in a dungeon. Darcy knows where she is (so a tiny hint from the original book) and risks all rescuing her; then Elizabeth knowing where he went, rides after them, and of course rescues them both and the two girls hug in a wooded wasteland at some convenient split second.

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JameasRosamundPike (1)

In the Austen domestic comedy and romance sequences, the costume designer costumed Lily James to look like Jennifer Ehle; some of her dresses were exactly those of Jennifer Ehle; Jane’s (Bella Heathcote) costumes were same as Jane’s (Rosamund Pike) in Joe Wright’s films.

Maybe it’s too much to call this gothic Jane a significant mish-mash, but it should not just be dismissed. Compare them in gothic guise:

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The city as ruins

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Elizabeth gone mad and Jane in open distress

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The film’s last still before the credits roll

Ellen

L'Opera Seria zie www.reisopera.nl Photo: Marco Borggreve
Netherlands’ Nationale Reisopera — L’opera seria

Dear friends and readers,

Although Kim Witman’s crew has been vigilant to prevent photos of the production this summer of Florian Leopold Gassman’s mid-18th century parody of the conventions of an opera subgenre since the 20th century dubbed “serious opera” from reaching on-line sites, I thought I’d recommend seeing almost any version of this opera anyway. (It’s hard to convey in a review the experience of a production or film without a few varied pictures.) If her superbly inventive, beautifully sung, and richly amusingly staged L’Opera Seria is re-mounted anywhere rush out. The opera has been revived over the past couple of years in Europe (she watched a pirated one from Berlin before deciding), and Witman hopes to see more revivals than hers, but also hers again.

There have not been many reviews, but these have praised the production lavishly (Pat Hilary Stroh, Opera Marseille). In the pre-show talk Witman talked of how hard it had been to get the orchestration of the opera, and that the opera demands virtuouso singers with a varied range unusual for opera companies. These are formidable obstacles in mounting it. She also said its title misleads us: in fact the term “opera seria” for pre-Mozartian serious opera was a 20th century critical invention. She worked to universalize at the same time as using the allegorical roles to refer to a living directors (and other specific individuals in the opera world). Even in this updated version (modern references are substituted for contemporary ones, modern costumes and modern mores in pantomimes), she has provided an enjoyable education in 18th century dramaturgies, opera assumptions and history (which comes into it), gentle but ceaseless satire on the commercialization of art (this then an old trope).

Act I shows everyone discussing, deciding to do, planning the production, enunciating ideals and norms, and ego assertion; Act II the rehearsals

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Jonas Hacker, Alasdair Kent, Clarissa Lyons, Scott Suchman

and Act III a portion of the enacted sung opera. The central act is a marvelous funny rendition of 18th century theatrical, marital, sex, and writing/rehearsing/art norms. They were bold in their use of imagery: Alexandra Flood as Porporina had to sing absurd lines about dolphins and fish battling and fornicating, and the stage business included two actor-singers playing stage hands donning dolphin outfits at their stomach and back, lending a good deal of salaciousness to the moment. Act I was not quite as funny to a 21st century audience as it could have been (it was too staid), and Act III is in danger of boring the audience as it’s just this endless hieratic ending. The first was offset by concentrating on how each participant from ballet master to costume designer was in the throes of protecting their property. For the last some of the actor-singers were in the audience to shout boo, and cheer them on, make startling remarks, and the costumes were just so outrageous, and so many, that the audience was not permitted to lose itself elsewhere. Izzy thought the opera needed the intimate atmosphere of the house for us to get the nuanced but swiftly moving depictions of each of the principals.


A trailer on-site

This was our only time at the Barns for an Opera at Wolf Trap this summer, but it was well worth the drive and money. The other two productions were La Boheme (at the Filene Center). a popular warhorse, concerts by the Filene artists, and Britten’s Rape of Lucrezia. The reviews of the other two productions and the concerts have been highly favorable — and seem not to be just hype. I’m told the story of Lucretia is thought to “put people off,” be “too gloomy,” what they would rather forget, but I have seen it at Castleton Festival and know Britten’s take is deeply humane and feminist. The performance brochure included a perceptive, semi-angry essay by Germaine Greer on “the Necessity Narrative of Evil” (about the nature of rape testimony and the necessity to tell).

Ellen

PaintingHer
Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) while Mr Elton (Dominic Rowan) looks on (1996 A&E Emma, scripted by Andrew Davies)

Ekphrastic: a graphic, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined. From the Greek, “out” and “speak” respectively.

Friends, I’ve been wanting to connect Jane Austen to my series of women artists, or at least pictures in some way since I began the project. Today Diane Reynolds’s delight in Austen’s use of the literalism of Admiral Crofts’s reaction to a sublime picture of tiny individuals watching a ship flounder at sea in a shop window in Persuasion showed me the way. So, a meditative blog on how Jane Austen treats pictures she creates by words and how she treats visualizations, and how in her texts the two are seen to influence one another:

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Admiral Crofts (John Woodvine) amused at the picture he describes to Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) in the window shop (1995 BBC Persuasion, scripted by Nick Dear)

it so happened that one morning, about a week or ten days after the Croft’s arrival [in Bath], it suited her best to leave her friend, or her friend’s carriage, in the lower part of the town, and return alone to Camden Place, and in walking up Milsom Street she had the good fortune to meet with the Admiral. He was standing by himself at a printshop window, with his hands behind him, in earnest contemplation of some print, and she not only might have passed him unseen, but was obliged to touch as well as address him before she could catch his notice. When he did perceive and acknowledge her, however, it was done with all his usual frankness and good humour. “Ha! is it you? Thank you, thank you. This is treating me like a friend. Here I am, you see, staring at a picture. I can never get by this shop without stopping. But what a thing here is, by way of a boat! Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be, to think that anybody would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that? And yet here are two gentlemen stuck up in it mightily at their ease, and looking about them at the rocks and mountains, as if they were not to be upset the next moment, which they certainly must be. I wonder where that boat was built!” (laughing heartily); “I would not venture over a horsepond in it.” (Persuasion 2:6 or 18)

I’m also fond of the passage in Emma where Mr Woodhouse objects to Emma’s painting Harriet without a shawl out-of-doors as all in the family and friends fall to discussing this “likeness” that Emma has taken of Harriet:

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Mrs Western (Samantha Bond) leading the discussion, next to her Mr Elton, to the back Mr Knightley (Mark Strong) and Emma and Mr Woodhouse (Bernard Hepton) (1996 Emma scripted by Davies)

“Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted,” — observed Mrs. Weston to him–not in the least suspecting that she was addressing a lover. — “The expression of the eye is most correct, but Miss Smith has not those eyebrows and eyelashes. It is the fault of her face that she has them not.” … “You have made her too tall, Emma,” said Mr. Knightley. Emma knew that she had, but would not own it; and Mr. Elton warmly added, “Oh no! certainly not too tall; not in the least too tall. Consider, she is sitting down — which naturally presents a different — which in short gives exactly the idea–and the proportions must be preserved, you know. Proportions, fore-shortening. — Oh no! it gives one exactly the idea of such a height as Miss Smith’s. Exactly so indeed!”
“It is very pretty,” said Mr. Woodhouse. “So prettily done! Just as your drawings always are, my dear. I do not know any body who draws so well as you do. The only thing I do not thoroughly like is, that she seems to be sitting out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders–and it makes one think she must catch cold.”
“But, my dear papa, it is supposed to be summer; a warm day in summer. Look at the tree.”
“But it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”
“You, sir, may say any thing,” cried Mr. Elton, “but I must confess that I regard it as a most happy thought, the placing of Miss Smith out of doors; and the tree is touched with such inimitable spirit! Any other situation would have been much less in character. The naivete of Miss Smith’s manners — and altogether — Oh, it is most admirable! I cannot keep my eyes from it. I never saw such a likeness.” (Emma 2:6)

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Mr Woodhouse continues to be concerned for Harriet’s health

We tend to dismiss these as just literalism made fun of (which they are), or revealing of a particular character’s obsessions (which they do): the criteria of Mr Woodhouse and Admiral Crofts consist of an absurd literalism; we see how the Admiral cannot enter into art conventions at all because he has led a life at sea; Mr Woodhouse is this hypochondriac. Further that no flattery of Emma is too egregious for Mr Elton to utter.

But their egoistic points of reference make us remember how we respond to the conventions of art and forget what precisely is put in front of us visually. We become more conscious of what we are enjoying, and critique whatever conventions are in play: say that of two men contemplating the sea even if in a tempest (which may have been chosen to allure the unthinking view attracted to the sublime).

I suggest we could see these as part of a skein of self-reflexive commentary on art in Austen, often aimed at exposing the problematic nature of romantic texts and images. We also see more deeply what is wanted that escapes explicit conventions:  the drawing of Harriet’s picture is prefaced by a discussion of what makes attractive visualization: it appears not to be accuracy per se, as Emma felt she’d gotten down her sister, Isabella’s and John Knightley’s children well enough. What is to be avoided is the insipid, what sought for vivacity, an energy of a particular individual’s felt life.

We can extrapolate out further: for example, I’d lump with these two, Catherine remembering while on a tour of Northanger Abbey Mrs Allen’s comment that from her reading of gothic descriptions of abbeys and castles, Mrs Allen was often “amazed” to think how the kitchen staff got through all their work with such inadequate equipment. Well, the case is altered in the well-appointed kitchens of the Tilney abbey, which the General is determined Catherine will appreciate:

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Neither NA film shows this in-house tour, and the graphic novel (JA’s NA, Nancy Butler, Janet Lee, Nick Pilardi) pictures non-functioning fantastic rooms, the opposite of what Austen writes and Catherine was awed at

[but] “Catherine could have raved at the hand which had swept away what must have been beyond the value of all the rest, for the purposes of mere domestic economy; and would willingly have been spared the mortification of a walk through scenes so fallen, had the general allowed it; but if he had a vanity, it was in the arrangement of his offices; and as he was convinced that, to a mind like Miss Morland’s, a view of the accommodations and comforts, by which the labours of her inferiors were softened, must always be gratifying, he should make no apology for leading her on. They took a slight survey of all; and Catherine was impressed, beyond her expectation, by their multiplicity and their convenience. The purposes for which a few shapeless pantries and a comfortless scullery were deemed sufficient at Fullerton, were here carried on in appropriate divisions, commodious and roomy. The number of servants continually appearing did not strike her less than the number of their offices. Wherever they went, some pattened girl stopped to curtsy, or some footman in dishabille sneaked off. Yet this was an abbey! How inexpressibly different in these domestic arrangements from such as she had read about — from abbeys and castles, in which, though certainly larger than Northanger, all the dirty work of the house was to be done by two pair of female hands at the utmost. How they could get through it all had often amazed Mrs. Allen; and, when Catherine saw what was necessary here, she began to be amazed herself” (Northanger Abbey 2:6 or 23)

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Davies substitutes a development of a few lines where Eleanor Tilney (Catherine Walker) confides in Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) in a woodland walk her mother had loved (2007 NA scripted by Andrew Davies)

In P&P Elizabeth staring at Darcy’s picture is a trope going back to Greek romance: the lover’s state of mind is what is doing the falling in love.

 

It’s when she is planning, dreaming of her coming tour to the Lake District we see something more original: it’s a criteria of specificity, the sort of thing that leads to literalism. What is literal is real, and its a core insistence on getting as close to literal probability that is central to Austen’s structuring of her novels as well as her chosen moods, stories and dramatized events. Readers seem to remember the first half of Elizabeth’s effusion, it’s the second half that leads us to this further path.  Elizabeth is telling us what kind of descriptive travel writing Austen thought worth the writing and reading.

 

Italics Austen’s:

… she had the unexpected happiness of an invitation to accompany her uncle and aunt in a tour of pleasure which they proposed taking in the summer.
“We have not quite determined how far it shall carry us,” said Mrs. Gardiner, “but perhaps to the Lakes.”
No scheme could have been more agreeable to Elizabeth, and her acceptance of the invitation was most ready and grateful. “My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” (P&P, 2:4 or 27)

Tour
Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) is placed in a clearly delineated landscape (1995 A&E P&P scripted by Davies) and is reminiscient of

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A Gilpin depiction of Dove Dale, Derbyshire (!)

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion have the most complicated aesthetic discussions of Austen’s books, but when her qualified acceptance of the picturesque, the sublime, melancholy and romance, and comments on history are factored in, Austen still demands  of herself as the foundation of her story and its actual events verisimilitude, and accuracy (probability). She is on the side of characters who demand we include an appreciation of what is literally there as part of our criteria for judgement.

To return to Mr Woodhouse, Admiral Crofts, Mrs Allen: it is Austen who mocks these pictures, these descriptions as absurd partly because they show the artist has taken advantage of a lapse of mind in the origin text or viewer. Nothing is being observed from nature. Try to scrutinize and you come up against vagueness, nothing there-ness, non-life. In S&S upon Edward Ferrars’ expressing his dislike of hypocrisy in pleasure (“affectation”) by refusing to admit he has strong preferences too, Marianne tells her objection to popular art (cant):

“It is very true,” said Marianne, “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Every body pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind; and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning.” (S&S, 1:18)

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Unnoticed: a good deal of quiet landscape beauty and talk about art, picturing it together: Elinor (Irene Richards) and Edward Ferrars (Bosco Hogan) (in the 1981 BBC S&S, scripted by Alexander Baron)

In Mansfield Park Fanny Price has to face continual deflation; having no status, her romantic illusions are not let pass; typical is the dialogue in the chapel where Mary Crawford objects to her sentimental mush over prayers, Edmund corrects her too on  soberer grounds (death itself which monasteries are supposed to deal with, graveyards which contain the results from such heroics, the realm prayers attempt to reach and banners glorify):

They entered. Fanny’s imagination had prepared her for something grander than a mere spacious, oblong room, fitted up for the purpose of devotion: with nothing more striking or more solemn than the profusion of mahogany, and the crimson velvet cushions appearing over the ledge of the family gallery above. “I am disappointed,” said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. “This is not my idea of a chapel. There is nothing awful here, nothing melancholy, nothing grand. Here are no aisles, no arches, no inscriptions, no banners. No banners, cousin, to be ‘blown by the night wind of heaven.’ No signs that a ‘Scottish monarch sleeps below.’”
“You forget, Fanny, how lately all this has been built, and for how confined a purpose, compared with the old chapels of castles and monasteries. It was only for the private use of the family. They have been buried, I suppose, in the parish church. There you must look for the banners and the achievements.” MP 1:9)

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Fanny (Sylvestre LeTousel) has to have her own nest of comforts to dream over her and William’s letters and his exquisitely detailed map of his ship (the map not in Austen. 1983 BBC MP scripted by Ken Taylor)

In her letters, where she and Cassandra talk of paintings (the Anglo-cum-Indian painter, Wm Hodges) or pictures in novels (mostly landscape and print, as John Glover) her attitudes are shaped by how she feels about the people involved (very ambivalent over William Hastings and his second wife) or the texts illustrated (Glover of a woman’s novel she has mocked). Is the picture in the exhibit like her own characters? Mrs Bingley’s favorite color.  Mrs Darcy whose image Mr Darcy would keep to himself? Then she enters into what she sees.

Only Gilpin appears to have been exempt from sharp criticism (see Davies’s Elizabeth above), perhaps due to the concrete topography, perhaps that she herself traveled through reading books with illustrations, though here too she will poke fun at too strict an adherence to principles in lieu of capturing the reality. See “Enamoured of Picturesque at a Very Early Age”

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I’m drawn to this reproduction of an actual page in a book: writing in the margins here is not defacing

I’ve been reading Anthony Trollope’s Small House of Allington where Trollope makes similar demands upon and fun of a few famous books — so his narrator as Bell Dale (a version of Elinor Dashwood) says of Pilgrim’s Progress the problem is all the characters are mad, they are not a well lot, half distraught all the time, when they are not rejoicing. Trollope sweeps away the genre of exemplary allegory and applies to this work a sophisticated psychological outlook — like his own. As he does mean to point out the absurdity of what presents itself as teaching profound lessons, so Austen at least in the case of the sublime-picturesque in the art of her era deflates as silly or not thought out pomposity.

she confessed and lamented her want of knowledge, declared that she would give anything in the world to be able to draw; and a lecture on the picturesque immediately followed, in which his instructions were so clear that she soon began to see beauty in everything admired by him, and her attention was so earnest that he became perfectly satisfied of her having a great deal of natural taste. He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side-screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape (NA 1:14)

For readers like me (and I daresay others who laugh with delight too) we find the mocking fun infectious, because it’s a form of liberation. Principles must yield to actuality. We are not required to shut off the critical part of our mind. It can also be a joyous release because the conventions of a solemn or vacuous work of art lose their grip.

It’s where Austen catches at what’s jarring, and sees disjunction that we pick up snatches of her intuited theory of verbal and visualized pictures.

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Catherine, Henry (J.J.Feilds) and Eleanor Tilney climbing Beechen Cliff (2008 NA)

“I never look at it,” said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, “without thinking of the south of France.”
“You have been abroad then?” said Henry, a little surprised.
“Oh! No, I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through, in The Mysteries of Udolpho (NA 1:14)

08BecomingJaneAnneHathawayClimbingStairs.jpg
Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen on her way down to meet Ann Radcliffe, who Austen read intensely, was influenced by in her creation of a subjective prose style and whose pictorialism I assume she admired (2008 Becoming Jane Austen, scripted Kevin Hood and Susan Williams)

Ellen

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