Central hall for The Gathering (Outlander 4)

Repeating scene for Rent: the line of male tenants bringing money or barter to Ned Gowan (Outlander 5)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been asked to review an excellent book, Descendants of Waverley: Romancing History in Contemporary Historical Fiction by Martha Bowden, and having begun reading it, though Bowden does not instance Gabaldon’s Outlander (nor for that matter Graham’s Poldark), these two series are the many-great grandchildren of Waverley. For Gabaldon this is by way of DuMaurier, who also indulges centrally in romancing, allusive textuality, and fantasy myth-making. I don’t want tonight to dwell on these but rather something more obvious: Episodes 4 and 5 of the mini-series cover a sliver of Gabaldon’s book, Outlander (Chapters 10 and 11, Oath-Taking and Conversations with a Lawyer) with intense elaboration so as to build a picture of a rich Scottish cultural world worth living in, and one of many pleasures for men and women alike, and to show how the English colonialist armies, and resulting Scots and English protection rackets impoverished a subsidence people, and sought to exploit, kow, and punish them at every opportunity.

Scottish farmers homes burnt, crops destroyed (Rent)

This is the post-colonial tapestry of the series that allures and interests me. Though I’ve put the first two of my blog on the first season on Outlander on my general cultural blog (Sassenach, and Castle Leoch and The Way Out), I feel these two episodes belong with 18th century matter. There is little movement forward of the story; instead what we get a dramatization of the reasons for Culloden, and how it came about. All Scott’s Scottish history Waverley novels center in some aspect of the Scots rebellion, dwell lovingly on its traditional culture, and if they come out on the side of progress, toleration, enlightenment (reason, “scientific” or probablistic explanation). Gabaldon differs mostly through the heroine’s perspective which is to try to stop this disaster for the Scots from happening. Through flashforwards (we could call Claire’s memories), we learn from Claire’s 20th century husband, what happened at Culloden.

Claire (Catrionia Balfe) and Frank Randall (Tobias Menzies) on the field of Culloden (Rent)

The film-makers take Gabaldon’s anti-British point of view on board and make it stronger

The band come across two crucified (tortured) dead corpses of Scotsmen

What I enjoyed was the loving recreation of Scots culture for two hours, and threading through these of continuing slow development of a friendly and trusting relationship between Claire and Jamie (Sam Heughan): where she keeps him company, tends to him, and he in turn rescues, tries to understand Claire who he stops from a wild impossible escape to nowhere:

Jamie: “How far did ye think ye’d get, lass, on a dark night with a strange horse, with half the Mackenzie clan after ye by morning?
Claire: “Won’t be after me. They’re all up at the hall. And if one in five of them is sober enough to stand in the morning, let alone ride a horse, then I ‘ll be most surprised.”
Jamie: “Running away on a whim just because the men are drunk? On a whim?
Claire: “You know I’ve wanted to leave here for weeks. And I know exactly how many sentry posts surround the castle. And I know how to make my way through the forest and find the road back to Inverness.”
Jamie: “Well, that’s a very sound plan, Sassenach — Or would be, did Colum not post extra guards through the woods tonight.”

Many details are added but none contradict the thrust of the novel. My favorites are the conversations of the witty, thoughtful lawyer, Ned Gowan (played exquisitely well by a favorite actor of mine, Bill Patterson), with Claire. He may appear to tell her much, but only confirms enigmatically when she is beginning to see: she had thought Dougal MacKenzie (Graham McTavish) was sluicing off money for himself (a second extraction from the deluded tenants) when he is gathering funds for an envisioned coming campaign. As when they speak a John Donne poem together:


Claire: Absence.
Absence, hear thou my protestation against thy strength, distance, and length.
Do what thou canst for alteration
BOTH: For hearts for truest mettle.
She: Absence doth still and time doth settle.
He repeats: Absence doth still and time doth settle.

The verse also functions to let us know Claire is still missing Frank, longing to re-join him in the 20t century.

I’ve suggested the dramaturgy of Outlander is so much better than many of the episodes of the new Poldark and studying the scripts for these episodes has suggested to me why: Gabaldon’s film-maker trust her text. They feel no need to fill it out, to change the characters, to complicate the action by having parallel lines of stories, all quickly juxtaposed, lest we get bored or restless. They luxuriate in the text. There is time to develop the contradictions in relationships: it is humiliating to Jamie to have to strip his shirt off as an exhibit to seduce people into giving money, and his uncle must tear it off the first time; when Jamie threatens not to participate, the uncle threatens and pulls rank.

Time is taken out to develop a “sub-palate of colors: for example, while on the road the color of the sky is white, the land pastel, all softened shades to create a mood of quietude in the land and sky. And the characters emerge inside the patterns:

Jamie addresses Claire against backdrop of tree designs

More than once Claire voices how much she likes the culture even though it is so masculinist — she is forced to listen to continual male boasts about crude sexual prowess (they do this at her).

Gabaldon and her writers after her are comfortable in making Claire in continual danger: when she tries to escape from the gathering she is stopped twice by men seeking to rape her; when Jamie sleeps outside her door to protect her, his action is not superfluous. It ought to be troubling that Horsfield and her crew are far less comfortable with Graham’s transgressive women, and turn them back to domestic creatures (see Scripts & Problematic parallels). Gabaldon has no cruel vindictive women — which slant is added on to the Poldark snobbish women by Horsfield — and no salacious sluts; Horsfield unlike Graham and the 1970s writers find no excuse for promiscuity on the part of a woman.

The feminism here is again in Claire’s casual relationships with other women: in these episodes of Scottish highland culture, she seems to enjoy herself with the women even when they soaking dyed cloth in heated piss


She as yet is willing to help Leoghaire attract Jamie (though female rivalry over the hero will come soon and be as strong as we find in Poldark) and this is used to bring out beliefs in love potions.
And she is deeply useful from her experience as a nurse in WW2. When during a boar-hunting in the Gathering, one man’s chest and thighs are severed by a boars tusks, and he lays dying in his chieftain Dougal’s arms, it is Claire who thinks how to ease the death by prompting from him memories of boyhood, home, and the beautiful places longing to live conjure up:



Claire: “Geordie tell me about your home.”
Geordie: “It’s near a wide glen, not far from Loch Fannich.”
Claire: “What’s it like there? I’ll wager it’s beautiful.”
Geordie: “Ah, ’tis.”
Claire: “In the spring Yes?”
Geordie: “The heather’s so thick, ye can walk across the tops without touching the ground.”
Claire: “That sounds lovely.”
Geordie: “Wish I could be there now.”
Dougal: “Oh, you’ll be there soon, lad.”
Geordie: “Aye. Will ye stay with me?”
Dougal: “Aye.”
Claire: “Yes.”
Dougal: “There you are.”
Claire: “There.”

In a scene directly afterwards when he visits her “surgery:”


Dougal: “You’ve seen men die before and by violence.”
Claire: “Yes. Many of them.”
Dougal: “Ye’ve done a fine job here as healer. Mrs. Fitz would have ye sit for a portrait if it was up to her. And, uh, I wanted to thank you personally for what you did for poor Geordie up there on the hunt.
Claire: “In truth, I did nothing. I wish I could have helped him.”
Dougal: “Ye did. Ye took him to a peaceful place, and that’s all any of us can ask when we pass …”


He then requires her to come out on the rental journey with the band. She earns her place as strong, pro-active, competent woman who in effect competes with men in all areas — but sex. She is more than the token woman taken on the road.

Riding out (The Gathering)

And of course, as I’ve said, in the over-voice, female perspective, control of the movement in time.

As the confines of the castle walls faded behind me like a bad dream, I took my first full breath in weeks. I had no idea where this journey would lead me, what opportunity might present itself. I could only hope it would bring me closer to the standing stones of Craigh Na Dun. If so, I was determined to reach them, knowing this time I must not fail.


Olive (Frances McDormand), Henry, her husband (Richard Jenkins), and their son, Christopher (at age 13, Devin Druid)

I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like — Austen on Emma

It is not enough for me to know what I have in me … [I want to be part of] Pierre and that young girl [Natasha] who wanted to fly away into the sky … so that my life may not be lived for myself alone while others live apart from it, but so that it may be reflected in them all, and they and I may live in harmony” Tolstoy’s Andrey in War and Peace)

Friends and readers,

Ever belated, I finished watching an unusually realistic and good mini-series, Olive Kitteridge (2014) (scripted Jane Anderson, directed Lisa Cholodenko, produced by among others Frances McDormand). adapted closely from Elizabeth Strout’s novel (2008) of the same name (won the Pultizer but that does not mean it’s necessarily bad, only that it’s deemed quintessentially mainstream American somehow and is good). I see it as a book directly in the tradition of quietly realistic ironically held at a distance novels, mostly by women, brought to its first fruition by Jane Austen. Olive Kitteridge is much more unlikeable than Emma (or Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks, and I was led to the book and movie because a friend talked about how all but two women readers in her bookclub hated the book because they hated the heroine.

Henry offering flowers

What did they hate her for? I had asked. I’ve found out why: Olive keeps saying aloud truths and/or perceptions she has of other people that would hurt those people were they are there, and do hurt those people around her and are involved. Her comments are remorsely critical of others, corrosive. Such behavior or language is not a small thing: people can hate you for this if you keep it up; I’ve seen this and felt myself withered and burning in my mind with my efforts to throw off the mean observation. Olive does this it a lot, and in many situations, and especially when inside her family (husband and son). Strout has loaded the cards by making Henry, her husband, a deeply tolerant, kindly, sweetly romantic (he brings her flowers, candy, gifts), someone unwilling to unable to answer back lest he hurt her or someone else or make things worse; Henry is ever turning what Olive utters back to something kinder by looking at whatever is happening from a charitable point of view. This makes us feel very uncomfortable, hurt for Henry continually, and puzzled at such a heroine.

Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan) walking away

Beyond the rarity of making this character a heroine, Strout (and after her) Colondenko and Anderson, see Olive with sympathy, forgive her. At first it is hard to tell whether Olive loves or despises her husband or whether she is trying to lead her son to a finer career or is ashamed of him for not getting the very best grades in the classroom and thus intensely competitive. She is having or almost had an affair with a fellow teacher, in English, Jim O’Casey (Peter Mullan), who picks her and her son up every morning to take the four of them to school. The situation is resolved when Jim commits a suicide that is not admitted to because Jim drives his car into a tree while drunk. It’s hinted this is due to her rejection of him — and when her husband will no longer let him pick her and her son up for school and she accepts that. She is super-hard to the point of harassment over her son’s school-work; she allows no slack for him. When he challenges her with how generous she can be to others, she says I talk this way because you are my son. I say it’s one thing to insist on high expectations for your own, it’s another to denigrate.

Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) with Suzanne (Libby Winters) at the engagement

Henry’s first marriage to an upwardly mobile, self-centered young woman, Suzanne (Libby Winters), and what happens at his wedding one of these fashionable prestige events can disclose how the son and father respond to her and why some of why she is so rebarbative. Olive cannot stand her prospective daughter-in-law and assumes Suzanne will make Christopher very unhappy with her obsessive (like her mother who is there) concern for admirable appearance and rising in the world.

Olive, dress-making, POV Henry’s

Olive has made a dress for herself, deeply unfashionable, and somehow (like Widmerpool in Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time) all wrong, an embarrassment. She worked hard on it: it’s lovely material, filled with images of flowers. When Henry sees her in it, he tells her she looks lovely. It is not clear that he thinks so, but he is trying to support her as he knows her dress just won’t do. And he knows it. But her behavior at the wedding is openly alienated and alienating, and helps no one, cannot change her son’s new mother-in-law or wife.


But by the third and fourth episode when her son has married for a second time and lives in NYC, she has shown concern for who he married the first time, seems to pay attention to flaws in the second choice (two children by two previous men? well that’s the way life is now, Mom) and misses him. She is all alone because Henry has had a serious stroke, damaging his ability to respond to anything. She keeps him in the house as long as she can and then when he is put in an “assisted home,” she seemed devoted to him, coming everyday, checking on his condition, clearly bereft without him. Her only companion is her dog and radio. When she visits a friend who sends her condolences, she finds this woman loathes her for slights and punishments she inflicted on this woman’s son years ago and she now says the cruelest things she can think of. Olive is driven into further retreat and turning to Henry, but he cannot respond nor does he seem to know what is happening around him. It is too late to mend her relationship with Christopher (John Gallagher Jr) too. He’s at core deeply embittered; he has spent years at psychiatrists, which when he tells her about, she dismisses curtly. Now though she is alone, and in need of emotional support and company herself.

For myself I would have felt about Olive the way Christopher does at the end. I have a person close to me who similarly has a cruel tongue, partly out of irritation at me, and partly spite and embarrassment, anger at me for what I am. I find I cannot throw off such remarks and they dwell with me, I brood on them.

Christopher in the morning, Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) getting children ready for school — Olive is crying hard to the side

Christopher tries and tries to keep up the relationship, to please his mother but every once in a while his hurt and bitterness break out. He ages and is clearly so tired. His new wife is not tidy; cannot keep up with her children. Paradoxically it’s in her later relationship with him we can see an “upside” to her continual corrosions. The father now dead and Christopher divorced and remarried, he invites Olive to come and stay with them for a week, for his new wife is pregnant, and has two children by two previous men. Ann (Audrey Marie Anderson) could use some help. So while with this couple their older boy who is himself “difficult” keeps pulling at her dress and making a nuisance of himself and she cannot resist turning and slapping him. Her response reminded me of how Anne Elliot given such treatment in Persuasion, just takes it — and that’s not good either, for the child then begins to prey on her. For fun. Now her son and daughter-in-law are indignant at her and simply assume she’s wrong, she must apologize to the son and if the son can find it in himself to forgive her he will. This is nonsense. The boy was at fault. He deserved that slap. Olive is old, now alone, gives in, but rightly (I think) under such continual barrages of wrong-headed behavior on the part of the son and daughter-in-law leaves early. This prompts bitter recriminations by the son.

Denise (Zoe Kazan) and young Henry (Brady Corbell)

The upside of Olive’s remarks is they are often accurate; she cannot bear the cant of the world, cannot bear the pretense of sentimentality. She seems to see too clearly how selfish is most behavior and how people are exploiting one another. Of course we could be charitable and say they are helping one another to sustain life decently. But often she sees the delusion and danger, self-destruction others seem to be headed for — this is not unselfish of her as often her jealousy is actuating her too. Henry becomes husband was attracted to a young girl; Denise (Zoe Kazan) he hired in his pharmacy who manifests a child-like dependence and worship of a young husband, another Henry (Brady Corbel); this Henry is killed in a hunting accident. (There are numerous deaths over the years in this story). The husband and another male friend had agreed to hunt with him, no one at all critiques hunting, though the husband is clearly no expert. It’s no wonder the friend shots the young Henry instead of the deer. Remarkable he did not also shoot the old Henry. Old Henry allows the girl to cling to him, and Olive resents this and sees the girl as a predator, but the way to stop the husband is not these bitter sarcastic ripostes, but to admit he is looking for someone else because she is so rebarbative, refuses to respond with kindness to his efforts to be kind her to her, cannot open up. If she sees this, she never acknowledges it. That would be to admit her vulnerability. Years later Denise who marries the other store clerk; Jerry (Jesse Plemons) whom she and old Henry encouraged to go to college and now has a very good job and is well educated; he now sees Denise as a fool and himself has as little patience with her as Olive. But what Jerry does not do is allow his remarks to become too explicit too painful.

The whole interest of the novel is in the significance of Olive’s tongue, truthfulness if you see it this way, counter-productive tactlessness if you don’t. No one wants to admit she has any truth on her side. It’s so inconvenient. People consult ease and convenience in the here and now first. In the movie there is no explanation for why Olive is like this. We do not see her childhood. There is no over-voice and we have only her behavior to watch and most of it in social situations. In the book the narrator keeps her distance, does not delve. When Olive is alone at story’s end we see her grieving but we also see her stoically just enduring everything as if she was not at fault for what has happened, which in a sense she was not. I want to stress that she’s accurate: her son’s first wife is materialistic cold horror, her son’s first wife’s mother-in-law one of the world’s typical phonies mouthing cant and pretending to have all sorts of happy feelings and all the while endlessly showing off. Denise is a limpet. She did drive her son to go to a better college and become a doctor (podiatrist).

Olive with Henry when they are aging and with their dog

Her problem is she is unable to express her point of view frankly as that would reveal her vulnerability. She is all guardedness. She pays heavily for her tongue in the end. As long as Henry is alive, she has the comforting pillow companion who smooths all. When the hospital staff pretend to obey her, do not contradict her idea that Henry can still react to her, it’s not out of kindness again, but as the easiest thing to do. When she is out of sight, they will care for Henry as they think appropriate — not much attention paid beyond the physical medicine and care for cleanliness.

Olive is not justified but her response to society is shown as understandable, or it’s forgiven. She weeps real tears; she is hurt herself. She seems not to understand that she has so hurt others.

I was a little grated on by the ending. She says she will stay alive as long as her dog lives. He grows very sick and has to be “put down.” So now she determines to kill herself.

Olive late in life with Kennison (Bill Murray) walking in a wintry park

In the meantime she has (as if it’s the easiest thing in the world) made an acquaintance with Jack Kennison (Bill Murray) of a man who is a widower; his wife died of cancer. He says life is now hell and she agrees. So he is like her: he can tell the truth. Yet they do not get along because their conversation is continually rebarbative: he is somewhat reactionary and a person who was at an Ivy League colleague (so above her in status) and she cannot bear to listen to Rush Limbaugh talk. yet in her loneliness, she invites him to come to dinner at a restaurant, and they begin to have such a direct spat, she gets up and leaves, takes a cab home. It is after this that we see her trying to kill herself with a gun in the woods.

Jack had condemned her for not trying to phone her son after the husband died when she told him what her son had done to her and complained of when she visited him; she replies he didn’t tell me when he gets married for the second time. Jack says she should have called Christopher nonetheless, but also says he has not spoken to his daughter for two years. As she is sitting with the gun to her head, the phone rings. We have seen scenes where Christopher tries to get Olive to get herself a flip or cell phone and she refuse — she does not want to be at someone’s beck and call. We realize that after for years resisting getting a cell phone she has one. It’s her daughter-in-law, Ann, phoning her to say the baby has been born. The camera only allows us to see her bent over from the back: I thought it was the face of the agon of existence and left to our imagination. What a twisted tortured state of mind the woman must have. She turns and puts the gun away. As she then turns to us her face resumes her usual carefully neutral expression. But the next day she visits this man with flowers and lays next to him on the bed and they begin to talk about, and it seems they will become friends. he puts his arm around her shoulder. I thought this a kind of cop out. I have to believe in a good ending or it makes me feel worse Strout pulled down the curtain at a happier moment to give the story a semi-happy ending, or upbeat. Of course the next moment they could fight.

A friend said of this “What I liked about the ending of Olive Kitteridge was not that Olive found a new lover, but that the Swiss-cheese-like holes in her were finally acknowledged and covered by someone else. That’s sometimes the best we can hope for in love.” I can see the ending by no means negated all that had gone before, and in a sense confirmed it. But experience has taught me as an older widow, men do not go for older widows, people do not open up this way. Making a new relationship is not something easily done after a lifetime of disillusioning experience and becoming a very particular character. The novel and film suddenly dropped the pretenses of realism – which are its strength.

Alone now

I am alone now too but for the Net and think this is due mostly to my situation — it’s not a punishment. As Graham Swift says in his masterpiece, Last Orders, the important thing is not to take what happens in life as a punishment. I’ve been told Olive Kitteridge is a portrait of Strout’s mother. So maybe like Christopher she is exorcising this ill spirit. One could say that Olive being alone at last is meant to be a kind of punishment for what she is, which I take as problematic, but the fiction and film are truthful enough to hint that whether Olive had had a kinder tongue or not the world would have cast her aside once her husband was gone, because it would have no use for her. Only if she would give in, be like others, smile, let things pass, accept what is, will it smile at her and keep her company.

Maine snow, part of opening sequence of paratexts

The book performs as an Olive itself and so does the movie giving us the a truthful portrait of all the characters we pass by who are part of this rural Maine community. It is a study of small town life in Maine. Much attention is paid to scenery, to the modes of economic life. We see the sea so often, snow. boats. This means much to Strout (see Craig Morgan Teicher, “Maine Idea,” Publishers Weekly 255.5 [4 Feb. 2008]: 32). It’s an ethnography the way Annie Proulx’s or George Eliot’s novels are. I have bought both Olive Kitteridge and her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton. It belongs to the kind of novel I especially love: out of Austen, out of women writers of the 19th century, and men who write such novels too, often using a female at the center (Trollope sometimes, Henry James a lot, Colm Toibin all the time – I read each of Toibin’s novels as they appear).

I found the mini-series therapeutic. I thought the performances of all the actors superb. The music was slow and touching, full of codas. The filming of Maine caught key aspects of the place. I have tried to get down the experience for others and myself so as to share and try to understand it better. Unlike Olive, I welcome comments.


From The Graphic, Women reading in the London Free Library, from Lady’s Pictorial, 1895)

A Syllabus

For a Study Group at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Nine Monday late mornings into early afternoon, 11:45 am to 1:15 pm
4801 Spring Valley Building, near American University main campus, Northwest, Washington DC
Dates: Classes start Sept 26th; last class Dec 5th, 2015; Oct 17th cancelled.
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (gothic, 1818), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (“condition of England” novel, 1849), George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance” (a Clerical Tale, domestic fiction, 1857) and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester: A Tale of Contemporary Life (1883, not quite a “new woman” novel). We’ll also read on-line excerpts on women artists and the theater, travel writing by Harriet Martineau (abolitionist, de Toqueville-like US travels), journalism at mid-century (from Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, 1854), and 1890s suffragette writing (Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” 1913, and from an online Sylvia Pankhurst archive).

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, ed. Maurice Hindle Penguin, 1992. ISBN: 0140433627
Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, ed Macdonald Daly. Penguin, 1996 ISBN: 0-140-43464-X
George Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance,” from Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. Jennifer Gribble Penguin, 1998. ISBN: 0-14-043638-3
Margaret Oliphant, Hester: A Story of Contemporary Life, introd. Jennifer Uglow. Penguin/Virago, 1984. ISBN: 0140161023


Harriet Martineau, from her Autobiography (The Fourth Period). http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7103&doc.view=print
Caroline Norton, from English Laws for Women: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/norton/elfw/elfw.html
Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” Great Speeches from The Guardian, 2007: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches1
Sylvia Pankhurst Archive: Selection, https://www.marxists.org/archive/pankhurst-sylvia/index.htm

Illustrations for Gaskell’s Mary Barton

Jem saving a man from the fire

Mary to Jem: “Oh, Jem, Take me Home” (1905, Ivor Symes)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Sept 26th: Writing and other careers for 19th century women. Shelley’s Frankenstein (please have read the first third by this day).
Oct 3rd: For this week although we have no class, please have read the second third of Frankenstein.  Holiday
Oct 10th: Please finish Frankenstein for this day.
Oct 17th: Outside class:  read Harriet Martineau assignments. Class cancelled.
Oct 24th: Mary Shelley and  Harriet Martineau’s career, we begin Gaskell and Mary Barton (begun)
Oct 31st: Mary Barton
Nov 7th: Mary Barton, from Caroline Norton and other cases (law & custom)
Nov 14th: Gaskell and Caroline Norton’s careers; Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance” in context
Nov 21st: Oliphant’s Hester (probably the first half)
Nov 28th: Hester and Oliphant’s Autobiography and career: editing, domestic realism
Dec 5th: The Pankhursts, suffragettes and “New Women” novels. Tentative final thoughts.

A photograph of Margaret Oliphant when young, shortly after she married (1852)

A quick drawing of George Eliot, late in life, leaving a London concert (1879)

Recommended books:

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994. The best.
Coghill, Mrs Harry aka Annie Walker. The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M.O.W. Oliphant. NY: Dodd, 1899. Nothing better on Oliphant than this.
Clarke, Norma. Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love: The Jewsbury Sisters. Felicia Hemans, and Jane Carlyle. London: Routledge, 1990.
Mackenzie, Midge. Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. NY: Knopf, 1975.
Flint, Kate. The Woman Reader, 1837-41. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002.
Lupack, Barbara, ed. Nineteenth Century Women at the Movies: Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film. Ohio: Bowling Green State UP, 1999.
Mill, John Stuart. On the Subjection of Women (1861). Broadview Press, 2000.
Peterson, Linda ed. The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing. Cambridge, 2015.
—————-. Traditions of Women’s Autobiography: Poetics and Politics of Life Writing. Univ Press of Virginia, 1999.
Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert: suffragette and new women novels. A blog: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2015/04/05/elizabeth-robinss-the-convert-excellent-suffragette-novel/
Seymour, Miranda. Mary Shelley. London: Picador, 2000. Superb, original research.
Spark, Muriel. Mary Shelley. NY: New American Library, 1987. Short version of the life, insightful.
Stoneman, Patsy. Elizabeth Gaskell. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. Very good short life and works.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.
————. George Eliot. NY: Virago, 1987. Short life.
Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. NY: St. Martin’s, 1987. Excellent.


Shoulder to Shoulder. Script: Ken Taylor, Alan Plater, Midge Mackenzie. Dir. Waris Hussein, Moira Armstrong. Perf: Sian Philips, Angela Downs, Judy Parfitt, Georgia Brown. Six 75 minute episodes available on YouTube. BBC, 1974.
Suffragette. Script. Abi Morgan. Dir. Sarah Gavron. Perf: Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Marie Duffey. Ruby, Pathe, Film4, BFI, 2014

Talking Books: On CD:

For Frankenstein, Gildart Jackson the reader (Dreamscape, available at Downpour)
For Mary Barton, Juliet Stevenson the reader (Cover-to-cover, available at their site)

Ralph Hedley, Seeking Situations (1904)

Margaret Oliphant as a younger author (about 1860, from The Bookman, 1897)

She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter — Oliphant on Austen

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished a great novel, later 19th century (1883), and for the second time feel convinced Hester as much a masterpiece that people should read as any by George Eliot (but Middlemarch and Romola is in a different league), as any by Anthony Trollope, as many by Dickens, any by Thackeray (but Vanity Fair), yet I’m hard put to explain why or how because like Austen whom Oliphant understood so well Oliphant “never rises above the level of ordinary life,” and skewers “what is remorsely true.” The difference is that in this novel Oliphant is appalled and feels heart-broken over what she so despairingly sees.

Merryn Williams (in her literary biography of Oliphant) says of Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor (1891) what is true of Hester “its strength is in the way it explores and illuminates a painful situation.” In Hester we see how a woman make a shipwreck of her life because she behaves deeply well to someone near her (spouse, nephew, son), trusts him but because she also tries to control him, expects he will behave nobly in return, is deeply resented and out of bitterness betrayed. In Elinor the betrayer is a husband, and we discover that Elinor finds salvation in her relationship with her mother and her child. It’s not astonishing that what happens in Elinor parallels Oliphant’s imagined later life with her husband and mother (had either of them lived) but it is astonishing that relationship of the older single heroine of Hester, Catherine Vernon, with one of her much younger cousins, Edward Vernon, parallels Oliphant herself in her relationship with her sons. The novel can be read as showing that Oliphant understood that she was in part to blame for her son’s derelict irresponsible characters and yet that this outcome need not have happened; the son-nephew need not have responded with suspicion, mistrust, even anger at this high-minded giving of hers.


The novel is also about how hard it is for people to communicate with one another humanely. There are two parallel and admirable women characters: in character type, strongly ethical by instinct, highly perceptive, capable of reading with understanding people and books, not to omit business practices and courtship, Hester Vernon, is a young version of Catherine who is Hester’s mother’s cousin-in-law. As the novel opens, they are placed in hostile-feeling positions. Unknown to Hester, her father, John Vernon, was responsible for nearly destroying the family banking business and simply ran away (and died) to avoid having to cope; Catherine had also been in love with him when he chose Hester’s mother, a woman of feeble mind, obtuse, utterly conventional in all her ideas, thinking, feeling cant (as Samuel Johnson would have said). Catherine offers them a home, the house they had lived in, in the same spirit as she houses other of her indigent relatives. She is not generous spirited in mood to any of these relatives (in Vernonry) but then most (not Hester, who is too proud and decent, nor her mother who is too dumb) are endlessly spiteful, ungrateful, competitive. Catherine’s way of dealing with this is to smile at them; under the smile we can register Oliphant’s deeper sense of profound dismay kept at bay. What Oliphant shows us is a deep calm scepticism about all human professions of idealism, a justified cynicism. She’s been accused of being hostile to men: rather she is rare for not according them any deference when they are weak or lacking. In reality she can be just as hostile to women, but it’s not noticed. Hester then conceives a dislike of Catherine-Oliphant out a resentment similar to Edward’s, milder as the generosity is milder and the smiles not seen as often. Catherine herself cannot bear the remembrance of Hester’s father or his preference for Hester’s helpless hopeless mother. It is extraordinary how Oliphant is seeing through herself in this book.

The novel moves slowly. Hester at first tries to free herself by asserting she will take a teaching position. She finds no one will tolerate this: it lowers her, the family, she is told will make her miserable. All she is allowed is to live by her mother’s side and wait for some young man to ask her to be his wife. There is someone available in her small world’s stage and there are people who are capable of companionate supportive friendship. There are two further young cousins of Catherine, first, Harry Vernon, good-natured and as it emerges instinctively deeply ethical and far more generous spirited than any one else, but not perceptive, not active intellectually, energetic, or with much business sense (he has no competition in him) falls in love with Hester, courts, asks her to marry him, and is refused. His sister, Ellen, marries a weak man, Algernon Merridew, someone easy to lead, and sets up a housekeeping style well above their means, one which includes regular assembly dances. To these eventually come the grandchildren of two further pensioners (for once not Vernons) Captain and Mrs Morgan: Roland and Emma Ashton. Roland has all the intelligence, savoir-faire, and sophistication (it is he who tempts Edward to gamble in the stock-market without meaning to disrupt the Vernon bank) and he is drawn to Hester. Emma is a comical version (except ultimately it’s not funny) of the crass match-seeking impoverished young woman. The grandparents, and especially Captain Morgan provide Hester with meaningful talk, advice, companionship, daily small enjoyments of walking, eating together, passing time sharing whatever is passing.

The Morgans, in some moods, a further sensible young woman with children whom Catherine supports (Oliphant supported so many in her family, including brothers, brothers’ families when brothers died), Harry, and one of Catherine’s lower rank business associates, Rule (who works with her to save the bank twice) and at the novel’s close the sudden turn-around of Catherine when she has to take in that her beloved Edward hates her, and resumes her place in the bank, opens up to Hester and leans on her, all provide a foundation of believable sane and needed and natural reciprocal kindnesses. Nonetheless, the greatness whereof I speak emerges because the novel is also one of the bitterest realistic novels I’ve ever read. The intensity of inward pain, “her heart throbbing with wild suffering” (Chapter 51, p 453 in the Virago edition introduced by Jenny Uglow) Catherine experiences, the self-torturing anguish of realizing she has not been loved, not trusted, has been duped, deceived, not wanted all these years by her semi-adopted semi-son and heir, Edward, is as strong as any tragic emotion. That Catherine cannot allow herself to be beaten out of pride, because so many depend on her makes the weight of book have as much heft as Middlemarch.

Oliphant kept saying to herself in her autobiography, she wrote as well as George Eliot; she misses the greatness of Eliot’s book because her foundation for her tale is far narrower, and when she widens out (as in The Ladies Lindores) she becomes too defuse (see my review in “The Scottish Angle”). She does (to use Henry James’s phrase) “ful[ly], pleasant[ly], reckless[ly], rustle over depths and difficulties” (quoted by the Colbys in their The Equivocal Virtue, p 138). The novel’s sequel, Lady Car (which I’ve just begun reading), narrows the focus to an inward utter disenchantment of wife (“unable to contend with the wild seas and billows [of inner life] that went over her head”) with husband, of Lady Car’s subsequent bewildered self alienation, and alienation from her son, takes us again into this area of quiet brutality Oliphant excelled in and recognized in Austen. (See also my Phoebe Junior among others.)


As previous generations distorted Oliphant because she would not present herself as vatic (Woolf says she sold herself, is “smeared” by her willingness to be prolific to provide money for her son’s at Eton), so now I find there’s a strong tendency to praise novels whose heroines attempt and succeed at remunerative careers (Kirsteen. which is very good but not that typical); Elisabeth Fay (a fine biography of Mrs Oliphant as a writer) wants “resolution,” something upbeat and progressive, redemptive, hopeful. What then to do with Oliphant’s harrowing ghost stories? Arguably her The Beleaguered City, Camus-like in its despair, is her greatest work (a novella). If you can read Italian (I do with effort) Beatrice Battaglia’s essay on Oliphant’s gothic Dantesque “Land of Darkness” (in La Critica Alla Cultura Occidentale nella leteraturea idstopica inglese), makes a case for Oliphant as a gothic artist and in her ghost stories visionary.

“The Library Window”

I recommend also a chapter by Linda Peterson in her Traditions of Victoirian Women’s Autobiography, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, and Robert and Vineta Colby’s essay on “The Beleaguered City: A Fable for the Victorian Age,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 16:4 (1962):283-301.

To return to Hester. My idea is not to be discouraged because probably you (or I) will not get near reading all 147 of her volumes (that number is the Colby’s and includes Oliphant’s biographies and literary history), much less a good deal of her excellent scattered journalism. Henry James called her the “great improvistrice” (a female Trollope). Find and read the best: they are gradually making their way into print through the spread of facsimile editions. You will find as an anonymous Quarterly Review writer said “She approached very subject from a woman’s point of view … believing and professing that a woman’s estimate of life is generally to be preferred to a man’s” (Williams, p 57).


Kellie Castle

Claire (Catrionia Balfe) and Jamie (Sam Heughan) amid the ruins of a Benedictine Monastery (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 3, The Way Out)


I am returned from Cornwall and have begun watching Outlander, Season 1 for the fourth time. At midnight usually.

Yes. I have snapped stills from all 16 episodes thoroughly. I have read the novel as a script. I have downloaded all 16 scripts from a site which specializes in TV scripts. I have gotten myself Outlandish, a companion. What could possess me? (Stay tuned for tomorrow’s blog.)

Rather than pay money for yet a fourth tier of TV (surely I give Comcast enough money each month), or joining Amazon Prime where it aired on British sites (so I’m excluded anyway), I’ve tried other paths. I asked Daughter No 1 to download the series off Pirate Bay. She doesn’t have the time. Daughter No 2 is very law-abiding. So before I left on my trip, I ordered it on-line and have to wait. But this morning a friend told me she bought a copy of this second season on ebay for $16. I went over to ebay and discovered I must use paypal. Jim told me never to use paypal and I have a vague memory of reading warnings about what can transpire. I have just been fleeced, truly robbed of a lot of money, by Expedia. Beyond that it seems I must participate in bidding. Yuk.


Mr (Desmond Barrit) and Mrs Allen (Sylvestre Le Tousel) in Andrew Davies’s 2007 Northanger Abbey, come to invite Catherine to at long last try Bath.

Then I remembered Mrs Allen and reread NA, Chapter 6, and found what did more than help; Austen suggestively amused me:

Isabella Thorpe: “It is so odd to me, that you should never have read Udolpho before; but I suppose Mrs. Morland objects to novels.”

Catherine Morland: “No, she does not. She very often reads Sir Charles Grandison herself; but new books do not fall in our way.”

Isabella: “Sir Charles Grandison! That is an amazing horrid book, is it not? I remember Miss Andrews could not get through the first volume.”

Catherine: “It is not like Udolpho at all; but yet I think it is very entertaining.”

Isabella: “Do you indeed! You surprise me; I thought it had not been readable.

I have always remembered this passage as poor Mrs Allen endlessly rereading this unreadable book because not many books come her way.

I no longer feel as alone in my state of deprivation.


Ellen considering the nature of Austen’s humor and how through her wry irony comfort is on offer, bonding author and reader together.

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:


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

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.

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:


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.

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



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:

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 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:

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):

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:”



“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.


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.

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.