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Susannah as Cordelia in Lear (a part often taken by James Quinn (1693-1766)


Susannah as Belvidera in Otway’s tragedy, Venice Preserved (Jaffier, the protagonist, played by Garrick)

For 14 consecutive nights Susannah drowned houses in tears, and stirred the very depths of men’s hearts, even her husband’s, who was so affected that he claimed and obtained the doubling of her salary, Doran, Annals of the English Stage (19th century work)

An eighteenth century actress. My first of the new style actresses blogs: I tell the story of her life in story-biography style. I had a lot more information to go on than for Adelaide Labille-Guiard, so this is also clearly about women’s position in the society and the specific conflicts of Susannah’s life and career. I chose her because she is nowadays spoken of denigratingly. The recent form of feminism which shapes studies of actresses is an aggressive capitalist one, and Susannah’s life under this lens does not draw empathy or admiration — as it should, and does from her biographer, Mary Nash (1977)

Friends and readers,

As Adelaide Labille-Guiard was my first choice for resuming my women artists blogs because her life is so little known, so Susannah Arne Cibber is my first choice for 18th century actresses because nowadays she is spoken of disparagingly as a woman dependent on men, a woman who submitted to men because too much attention has been paid to the marital and sexual arrangements that she was coerced into to survive, and then (in court) publicly humiliated for, and not enough to the strength and talents with which she began and developed her first successful career, and then, astonishingly, recuperated her life and work (in the Irish theater) to again become one of the most valued singers of her age and a deeply moving tragedian. In later years her partnership with Garrick was so firm and her insight into what an actress needed for control and respect that she worked to become a manager-partner with Garrick. She could not overcome the prejudice (in Garrick) against women, but she did, until an organic disease (in her stomach it’s said) overcame her, live a fulfilling splendid comfortable life. And again (as I have in many of these sketches from the beginning) found a good biography, Mary Nash’s The Provok’d Wife (Boston, Little Brown, 1977) and a couple of informative recent articles (by Helen Brooks).


Thomas Arne by Zoffany

There is an odd disconnect between her parentage and the musicianship both she and her brother became as masterly at. Her father and grandfather (who died in Marshalsea Prison) were upholsterers (artisans), her mother a midwife and devout Catholic. From parish registers we know that between 1710 and 1718 Anne and Thomas Arne baptised 8 infants: 5 of them died quickly; Susannah was the fourth child, born February 14, 1714, the second of three to survive. Probably because the father was ambitious, he was able to recognize genius-level talent in his son, Thomas, and Susannah. Thomas was first sent to Eton and then apprenticed as a clerk to a lawyer; he rebelled and one story tells of Thomas learning to play the violin in secret. He acquired a clavichord, a player, mastered the keyboard. They lived in the Convent Garden area, and slowly Arne began to become part of the companies playing; knew the people, wrote and worked with them on music, and then produced superb musical events with them.  Eventually he became one of the best and important composers of the era (1710-78), and among his friends, the equally talented, Henry Carey (1687-1743) and Johann Freidrich Lampe (1703-51, wrote scripts).

By contrast, the father had paid for singing lessons for Susannah for years — no need to spend money sending her to the right school to be taught to conform. She begins to sing professionally; one of her earliest professional roles was in Carey’s Amelia. She sang her brother’s music. In this early time she sang in Carey’s Rosamond (play by Addison) and her “expressive sweet contralto” won Handel over (whose Deborah she sang) and was a runaway success at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1733). Unfortunately, she caught the eye of Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley, an obnoxious bully, sexually abusive of any woman he became involved with (his exhausted wife, Jane Cibber, married 1725, had just died), and her father by now in bad debt, she was confronted, bullied by him driven into marrying this man known as a vicious brute. She had been revulsed by Cibber, tried to hold out with her mother on her side. She had an earnest, melancholy sensitive character. There were worse men about, marriage was a form of protection (literally and from a reputation for promiscuity for unmarried actresses), and of course the two Cibbers were enormously influential in the theater.

At first Susannah was as prodigal as Theo (quickly pregnant), fitting herself into what he wanted; I would put it she accepts training by her father-in-law who recognized her capabilities. In the crowded scheduled super-busy Drury Lane, Susannah lands a break-through role in tragedy (she was hemmed in partly because roles were understood as belonging to the actress who first realized and made a hit with it), her first such role, in Aaron Hill’s translation of Voltaire’s Zaire as Zara.  Hill fancied himself knowing in dramatic art, Thomas Arne wrote the music  Her very frailty after giving birth for the first time was part of what appealed. She began to rack up (as it were) tragic and grave parts: Andromache in Philips’s Distrest Mother, Indiana in Steele’s Conscious Lovers, Amanda in Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. Meanwhile Theo was taking these braggart coarse roles (Pistol). Those writing about her next step talk of how naive she was, how she never did anything without a man’s approbation, calling her a “priestess of sensibility.”

But what was she to do and what did she do? she broke or tried to break her marital relationship. With all his physical bullying, driving her to work when she was pregnant, she had apparently established during the second pregnancy she was not going to sleep with him (he reproaches for this seethingly), and she moves to put a stop to being put into roles where she’d be publicly mortified. She had loathed how he spoke of and presented her as a “laughable public property.” Most of all of his insisting she take the role of Polly in Beggar’s Opera, which brought down on her Catherine Clive’s vituperative wrath. She had gone to Fleetwood for support, but he refused; nonetheless, she resisted taking Polly, insisted from now on she would decide what roles she took and what not. He went into a “cyclonic rage” and broke down the door of her dressing room, took all cash, her whole wardrobe, all her jewels, and sold it all. Basically the law gave him the right to strip her naked and leave her broke, with no shelter.

Lady Arabella: I won’t come home till four tomorrow.
Lord Loverule: I’ll order the doors locked at twelve.
Lady Arabella: Then I won’t come home till tomorrow.
Lord Loverule Then you shall never come home again, Madam.
— Vanbrugh, The Journey to London

It’s at this point William Sloper, the country squire who would make a crucial difference for her quiet eventually and for the rest of her enters the story. When later Cibber went to court and accused her and Sloper of adultery, it was said that it was Cibber who openly demanded she go to bed with Sloper for a sum of money Cibber would collect. Certainly he let the man visit his house. But an equally probable trajectory tells of how she had met Sloper at the Cibber home in Wild Court, and taught her to play backgammon. They would sit apart talking companionably; their temperaments were compatible.  His wife admired her in Othello; she learned of his splendid house, West Woodhay. He brought needed food to the house, disbursed money to half-paid servants.  Cannot it not equally and more likely be she chose this sensitive man, especially since Cibber began to resent him (especially when in prison)? Between Susannah’s salary and Sloper’s gifts, Cibber was doing very well when out of prison, but he wanted Susannah to be discreet, but now when he tried to get her to take Clive’s role of Ophelia in Hamlet (Clive was clearly unsuited for this role), Susannah would not even attend rehearsals.

The story is complicated, and includes the two lovers taking a flat apart (Blue Cross Street, Leicester Fields), moving again (Kensington lodgings), Sloper’s wife separating herself from him, then Cibber writing her a long crazed letter (Nash, 117-22), which Nash describes as hysterical, a mad, sly letter, so groveling and so menacing, so rambling and so calculating,” where there is also an assume “iron grip” on Susannah. She was now pregnant by Sloper; they capitulate for a while to the appearance of a menage a trois, — before throwing him out. There is another series of letters by Cibber. They flee to hide, but Cibber finds them out, goes after them with hired thugs and guns, and tries to wrest her from Sloper. She is dragged out of the house, but the two will not be parted. It all ends in a humiliating court case where Susannah is utterly shamed.  Even if the judge wanted to sympathize with her, the law was clear that it was Cibber who was the abused person; she, the vile sinner. Cibber asked for 5000£; the jury awarded him 10£. Some did understand Theophilus Cibber was as “depraved and rapacious” as the roles he played (Nash, 151).


West Woodhay house

It is from this nadir, Susannah climbs a long way back. It took a long time and to my way of thinking we ought to admire and respect her wondrously. She was pregnant, utterly shattered from shame and spent two years as if she were “a runway slave,” so fearful was she (and Sloper) that Cibber would make good on new threats unless (say) Sloper paid all his new debts; he advertised his case all over again, but still she kept fleeing (now with a young baby girl around whom Sloper and Susannah would eventually build a family life). Cibber was “still under a recognizance not to threaten or molest” Susannah and so he went to court again. Again he had to win because all law and custom was on his side; he was awarded 500£ (not the 10,000£ he asked for) and apparently he could not go to court again. I drop Theo’s story now: he sold his preposterous missives to the booksellers. He did continue to harass and threaten her and Sloper whenever he could; he drowned in 1758 crossing over to Dublin.

The two lovers disappear (perhaps from the British Isles) and the next time she emerges, it’s November 1741 and she is “under the protection of,” working with and for James Quinn and Friedrich Handel in Dublin. Again as told this is “amazing:” what “can explain the willingness of this timid woman to leave her retirement with William Sloper … ” Maybe she was not so timid; maybe her acting career was a raison d’etre of life for her; she had not chosen to be an actress (though she clearly sang from the time she was young, opinion is divided on her sophistication), but once started, maybe she loved the power over an audience, the accomplishment, the acting out of these different identities, the interaction with other actors. She didn’t have to invent a story, she could take someone else’s and express herself as an actress and through song.


Susannah Cibber by Thomas Hudson

Several elements went into her recovery of herself and her career. First she had a happy good relationship with William Sloper who admired her partly because of her career. He had money, connections, influence. Her first, and now in the second longer, phase of her career she made friends, was liked, she worked hard and had real talent for acting and singing and she had learned well on the job. She had grasped from what happened in courts and her hidden life, she was not as much Theo’s “chattel” as she had thought, but she did remain socially elusive except for when she and Sloper were at home in his country estate. Now her life is made up of her many many acting roles — mostly poignant, grave, or tragic. Nash says her singing was “mediocre,” but she riveted audiences. Charles Burney said how effective she was in recitative; there was an “emotional projection of words;” she was an actress when she sang. Nash writes: “there was something inconsolable, something irremediably melancholy about Susanna Cibber.”  (She seems to have had an opposite character to Catherine Clive.) It was with Spranger Barry (another of her partners on stage) in Romeo and Juliet that the lovers are described as “heart-rending.” She would also take virtuous heroines: she was the sorely-tried Aspasia in Johnson’s Irene.

She formed a strong partnership with Garrick (“the least promiscuous, the most conventional of men”); she felt safe with him; they made an effective couple on stage where the chemistry was transparent. Their highly performative letters survive and it is here we see her attempting to persuade Garrick to let her be a partner in the theater management or patent. Eventually she was the winner in her “wars” with Clive; the public stayed with this disgraced woman. Everyone knows how much Garrick did to make and keep Shakespeare’s plays central to the English stage. She was paid altogether an enormous salary while still in good health.


David Garrick, by Thomas Gainsborough

But her last years were marred by her “chronic stomach disorder” which emaciated her towards the end. She had to give up her heavy schedule. She did long for social acceptance by upper class women, be they titled or of the bluestocking variety, and never had it — neither did most actresses of the era. Mrs Siddons was a remarkable exception; so too Frances Abingdon. She never belonged to any group of women, and we find her maintaining close relationships with her family members: her daughter, her sister-in-law, Cecilia Arne (whom her brother mistreated), Sloper’s sister, Margaret Lethieulllier, who defied convention by coming to stay for long visits to West Woodhay.  Sloper and she hoped for much for their son; he was enrolled in Westminster but he died in the first year away in school. They educated Molly lovingly (in manners, musical accomplishments, an educated taste); she married a well-born clergyman, a love match, and was accepted by his community, but she died young, age 46. Susannah probably hoped for something more from her relationship with Garrick, though hard to say what; when he retired from the stage, it was a blow for her — he had regarded stage as having “almost civic importance” and had transformed Drury Lane. James Quinn, one of her strong supporters, died just two weeks before her. She died January 30, 1766, age 51.  She was buried not in Westminster Abbey itself (like Garrick, Anne Oldfield), but in the North Cloister, a sort of anteroom. William Sloper died three years after the death of their daughter. I imagine him lonely after the death of Susannah and his two children by her.

The one final command performance Garrick did before the king his heroine was Susannah Cibber and since the king wanted to see a comedy (and Susannah’s strength was in serious parts), the choice became Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife. Nash says Susannah had a “passionate fondness” for this role: a young woman “wretchedly married to Sir John Brute, who not only neglects, but loathes and even physically assaults her.” She is “tenderly wooed by Constant,” a discreet, eloquent, patient and faithful lover, and if she is not yet Constant’s mistress when the play closes, the idea is waiting to be fulfilled off-stage. So Lady Brute does not die nor is she reconciled or resigned to her husband. She asks herself: “What did I vow? … I think I swore to be true to my husband. And he promised to be kind to me. But he hasn’t kept his word. Why, then, I’m absolved from mine” (Nash 313-15). I have read this play myself and find the scenes of the husband with his wife, implied mistress, and servants distressing. Susannah could and did play her part with “special animation” and “poignancy.”


Jonathan Slinger and Alexandria Gilbreath as the Brutes (RSC, 2019)

If Jane Austen never got to see either on the stage, she knew of them by their reputations, books, and read the plays they were in.

Ellen


A Self-portrait

Friends and readers,

For my first of my new series of women artists I’m going to disagree with the some of the implications of the biography by Laura Auricchio, which book suggests a life and work where our heroine breaks through taboos, wins unusual recognition, fulfills her gifts, all while leading an independent life. She did indeed lead a courageous independent life if by that we mean she left a mistaken marriage quickly, was well-educated, trained in the best schools a young woman might find in France, and apparently lived as a single professional woman supporting herself and others for many years– in the face of all sorts of obstacles from ridicule to threatened possible imprisonment. The qualification is the result of her life-long relationship with her teacher and mentor, then friend and promoter, and finally lover Francois-Andre Vincent (his teacher had been Joseph Marie-Vien [1716-1809].) Following the records of her we find her continually doing what she had to do to get herself and her work accepted into what academies she could, obtain and paint paying clients (some of them remarkable people), and have her work exhibited in the right places. We find good and useful friendships (with other women, with clients). She survived the revolution, no mean feat, herself painting a series of National Assembly deputies, painting on into the last years of her life.

On a humane intimate level, it seems that one of the two famous pupils in her best known (beautiful) painting, of herself with two pupils, namely Marie-Gabrielle Capet (1761-1818) was Vincent’s daughter and became for Labille-Guiard a beloved (step)-daughter:


The other girl is Carreuax de Rosemond (d. 1788)

Marie-Gabrielle was lovingly painted a number of times (close-ups), e.g.,


Study of a Seated Woman Seen from Behind (Marie-Gabrielle Capet), 1789

She lived with Labille-Guiard and Vincent for many years; well past her (step-)mother’s death, she named Vincent as her father (and was his primary beneficiary). Late in life, Marie depicted Labille-Guiard surrounded by a group of male artists, while she paints Joseph Marie-Vien, to the side is an older Marie herself. She had become a painter in her own right calling herself Gabrielle Capet. A close-knit family of three artists. Adelaide’s father had been a successful marchand du corps de la mercerie, his shop was in an area of Paris which was a center for theater, music and dance, their street near the Louvre where the Royal Academy had its headquarters, with favored painters and sculptors living and working nearby. Madame de Barry was at one time an employee in her father’s shop. There had been 8 children (all but she dead by 1783). Her mother died in 1768, and a year later she married a neighbor, from whom she was legally separated in 1779. She married Vincent in 1800.

Where I part company from Auricchio’s study is I take Labille-Guiard’s work as an artist to have had (to use Germaine Greer’s words) an “illusion of success” rather than the real thing. Why? She paints as effectively and ably, with psychological astuteness Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun rarely achieves, in the earlier part of her career as she does the later. With a genius level talent for depicting aliveness, skin, textures, nervous brush strokes, moods, she never develops into anything else but a portraitist, and these remain oddly still. However later in her career she is forced to tone down the luxurious and rank- and reward-based accoutrements, extravagant costumes, furniture she seems to have delighted in painting, so that the portrait concentrates more than ever on the person’s face and body, yet she is essentially making the same kinds of portraits over and over. She flatters her clientele, has them lavishly enact admired norms (in the case of women breast-feeding, with children hanging all around them, or presented as deeply sensual), follows whatever she thinks will be approved of, and remains decorous (sometimes in the face of ridicule, implicit or open dismissal). When it’s not a case of elite requirements, she is hemmed in by new revolutionary codes. Late in life she shows her group hierarchical scenes are done out of more than commercial and respectable considerations, for she produces the same kinds of worshipful ancien regime type group hierarchical scenes she began with. Like Orwell’s horse at the end of Animal Farm, she cannot resist a ribbon, and elevates Madame de Genlis late in life with a satin and lace gown, “a spectacular headpiece of ribbon and lace” and (to me) unsettling green leather gloves:


Madame de Genlis

When she rises out of the usual, ordinary, expected, it’s because something in the person him or herself comes through or Adelaide’s own love for her subject lifts the painting.


Again Marie-Gabrielle Capet, 1798, a somber portrait – the girl smiles hiddenly

Or some inexplicable or unexplained allegiance, as in the emotionally intense strange


Portrait of Louisa Elisabeth of France (painted 1788)

Not the least fascinating element of the above often-reprinted image from Labille-Guiard’s portrait of the (once) Duchess of Parma with her two year old son, is that the Duchess died in 1759; Labille-Guiard was 10 at the time, so this is a probably a completely faked picture. Art criticism can go on and one about the combination of sentimental romanticism, hierarchical rococo neo-classicism, mothering in a fantastical hat whose feathers are repeated by the parrot on the one side, and white curtain to procure a shadow on the other, but it is as unreal a put-together set of alluring arms, hands, bosom, dress, with a waif-like child on a oddly sunny balcony (as if a film camera were spot-lighting the area) as you are likely to come across.

Auricchio’s study keeps to a sensible track. It may be read as a history of what helped but far more often stifled and got in Labille-Guiard’s way. In her early years of training (which included pastels), she studied with respected minor and well-known painters, one of whom, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793) was especially supportive of female artists, and nominated Adelaide for membership in the Royal Academy in 1783. In the first chapter she is attacked by the relentless comte d’Angiviller who did everything he could to exclude women from the Royal Academy and stop a commercial exhibition she was part of; at the same time she is supported by a bourgeois entrepreneur, Claude-Mammes Pahin de Champlain de la Blancherie-Newton (whew) who staged popular and varied art salons and praised her work strongly. She did learn to produce precisely the sort of work that was expected of her gender, class, even marital status. She also chose subjects which advertised, confirmed and validated her as in this or that network of support. I’ve chosen from this part of her career one which shows a favorite motif: the artist doing his or her work


Portrait of the sculptor Augustin-Pajou Modeling the bust of J.B. Lemoyne (a pastel)

Still she and other female artists were primary targets for virulent tracts presenting lewd gossip; she turned to the comtesse d’Angiviller against a gross libel that hurt a client. It’s no wonder her career stagnated. She seems never to have considered trying a landscape, a still life, anything truly expressionistic (like Angelica Kauffman). When she was strongly praised, she tried to use the moment to ask for lodgings in the Louvre, which she was not granted (but given a pension of 1000 lives instead). She also ran a school for other female artists. Dena Goodman has studied her work from this period and finds the way Labille-Guiard presents her women in what is clearly a public space (meant for men then) gives them gravitas and a place in the world.

Come the revolution, new fights and struggles (though over similar things) occur where she took a pro-active role for women and moderate reform; at one point she is mocked mercilessly. Transition was tough as fleeing aristocrats don’t remember to pay their bills, new patrons are needed, her worshipful style towards aristocrats not changing, she finds her one entry poorly received. Unexpectedly, she painted Robespierre, about which we are not told very much; discouragingly, this is another of her paintings to have gone missing. At this point she casts her lot (or informally joins) a group of political moderates; most of her paintings of this era remain untraced. Iconoclastic fervor destroyed one of her works. She retreats, retrenches, leads a quieter life; together with friends and family members she buys property, tries legally to secure income to Vincent’s daughter and another young woman and even continues to try to obtain lodgings in the Louvre.

Her work changes again, becomes smaller, less idealized, more somber. Now no women were allowed in the Royal Academy, yet we find her re-grouping and painting again. Two works from this later post-Revolutionary period:


Portrait of Joachim Lebreton — she is still keeping away from us the inner life of the more simply dressed and framed man — he was the head of the museum department of the Committee on Public Instruction, a leading art institution


Portrait of the Comedian Tournelle, called Dublin, 1799 — he had been imprisoned for performing Richardson’s Pamela (deemed controversial and unpatriotic)

I’ll end on an earlier work (for as I suggest the earlier works can be as good and interesting as her later), executed perhaps around the time she painted herself (1780), a portrait of her partner and husband, Francois Andre Vincent

Considered the leader of the neoclassical movement until he was usurped by Jacques-Louis David … [his wife paints Vincent] fully within neoclassicism … this painting is interesting for its wide range of colors, achieved with very little tonal variation … Labille-Guiard displays superb technical dexterity in color and tone which allowed her to perfectly integrate the foreground with the middle and backgrounds and the outlines of the figure with the surrounding space. The interplay between the lateral illumination of the face, the darkness of the other side of the face, and the light in the background contributed to an atmospheric school that would extend throughout Europe (Jordi Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art).

You could say she was a stubborn portraitist. She does not appear to have owned a cat nor painted any pet-companions.  One begins to find this in this era.  Her life-span id closely similar to that of Charlotte Smith.

Ellen


Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife (for the origin and my first adumbration of this perspective: What she said about Tudor queens)

I read history a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all … Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, I:14)

Friends and readers,

After all, for my first 2020 blog I have an innovative perspective on Jane Austen’s Juvenilia to share. For the coming JASNA to be held in St Louis, Missouri, in which the topic is to be Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, I sent in a proposal where I said I would demonstrate that in her The History of England, Jane Austen meant to burlesque the norms shaping the way “history, real solemn history” was written in her era, and to include and to defend not just infamous women, but forgotten and underappreciated ones. Her text goes beyond vindicating Mary Queen of Scots, and the Stuart kings and the English house of York, well beyond parodying Oliver Goldsmith’s popular history. She is a partisan defender of women, and places them in her text at every opportunity given, and ostentatiously refuses to make numinous figures out of powerful men.

This is a development from that proposal.


Mary Queen of Scots, contemporary portrait by Federico Zuccai or Alsonso Sanchez Coello


From 2018 Mary Queen of Scots (directed by Rosie Rourke); we see Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan as Mary and her ladies and David Rizzo: the most recent image

The effect of Austen’s attitude, tone, details, parody and insistent bringing in of women is to go beyond Tudor and Stuart history as it is usually found in books published in the 18th century: say Robertson’s and Hume’s histories of the Tudor and Stuart period, and what is found in Catherine Macaulay’s Whiggish history. I was going to quote from these works to show the way they are male-dominated, with a perspective that is top down and (ultimately) Big Man history even if the culture and social and economic life of the country is not ignored. This is a little book which should be included in the history of history writing by women.

The startling thing is how Austen surprises even the alert reader by how much she knows about obscurer women and men, and must herself have read in an alienated way, against the grain of her courses to get beyond common bogus distortions. The only cited date is a letter between Anne Boleyn and King Henry: that’s easy, it comes from Goldsmith. But one concise sentence referring to Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, is packed with suggestion: “The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it” (Austen, Juvenilia, Cambridge ed P. Sabor, 181-82). Parr did not just passively luckily outlive the king; she had to actively thwart his attempt to arrest her when her intelligent writing and political and religious views threatened (as Anne Boleyn had done) to go beyond what he meant to do by taking over the Church of England. Yet where can she have learned that Parr actively rescued herself — she is not included in Shakespeare or the better known plays about Perkin Warbeck (by John Ford).


Portrait of Anne Boleyn (1507-London, 1536), Queen of England. Painting by unknown artist, oil on panel, ca 1533-1536


From 2003 The Other Boleyn Girl scripted by Philippa Lowthorpe: Jared Harris and Jodha May as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

There is an excellent book on Katherine Parr’s life, reading, writing, intelligence by Linda Porter: Katherine the Queen, which I would have used. Also other good biographies of Renaissance women, of which there are many. Yes it’s true that Austen could not have time-traveled and read this book; rather she has to have read with alertness all the comments, assertions and counter-assertions on Tudor women in the romances and various histories of the era. In her letters in her later years she writes of reading history aloud with Fanny and Cassandra; she would have read the kinds of sources that went into Sophia Lee’s The Recess and later Walter Scott’s The Abbot and Monastery. Austen makes fun of the historical informative impulse in Scott after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, but in this earlier work we see she went for the same kind of material we find referred to offhand by Charlotte Smith and Anne Radcliffe (in her 1794 A Journey Made in the Summer [Germany into Italy was planned). Radcliffe has read astonishingly in the annals of the places she visits. Scott did not write out of a vacuum. It interests me how avid a reader Austen was of Scott, obtaining each volume as it came out (including, she was in time for, The Antiquarian)


Early depiction of Elizabeth Tudor (I) attributed to William Scrots


Glenda Jackson as the young Elizabeth, just come to the throne (1971 BBC serial drama)

A second context for her depiction of women in this young woman’s parodic didactic text will be her letters where she explains why she takes the adamant tone she does when defending a woman. In a letter to Martha Lloyd she remains fiercely on the side of “Poor Woman,” Queen Caroline of Brunswick “because she is a woman & because I hate her husband. She admits Caroline’s flaws but resolves nevertheless “to think that she would have been respectable if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first … “

— I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad. — I do not know what to do about it; — but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. —-(Austen’s Letters, ed LeFaye, 4th edition, 16 February 1813, 216-17).

I will argue the attitude of mind here, is one which pays attention to the original perpetrator of abuse, notices how harassment which claims love as its motive is a form of torment that inflicts misery on even unsympathetic women (Elizabeth I, 185-86). I counted no less than 18 women (Catherine, French wife of Henry V; Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; Joan of Arc; Edward IV’s bethrothed, Bona of Savoy [referred to, not named) and wife, Elizabeth Woodville, his mistress Jane Shore; Richard III’s wife, Anne (whom she denies was murdered by her husband); Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, his daughter Margaret who married the Scottish James V; five of Henry VIII’s six wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Katherine Parr [not named referred to as “the king’s last wife”], Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scot, Anne of Denmark). Some are not named and our narrator frets then that she does not know the woman’s name.

Hers is a history with plenty of women in it. I intended to go over and use the marginalia to Austen’s copy of Goldsmith’s History of England, and the copious notes found in the Cambridge Juvenilia volume edited by Peter Sabor. Austen’s History of England is an exuberant but also richly intertextual work.


From excellent forgotten 1970 Shadow of the Tower (first episode by Rosemary Anne Sisson): James Maxwell as Henry VII and Norma West as Elizabeth of York (also a poet)

I would have used Thomas Penn’s The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England; here is a YouTube, 15 minutes of an hour long lecture by Penn on the “most notorious invader of England” (he whole available on Amazon Prime) because he had so little right to the throne: Henry Owen Tudor

Finally I proposed to have some fun showing how Austen’s extraordinarily alert iconoclastic stances (as when she treats historical characters in the same way she does fictional ones by showing how she anticipates some of the more interesting film history and adaptations of our own era. I was going to bring in my laptop and show clips from older and recent film history and adaptations of novels set in the Renaissance era.

But my proposal was rejected and so now I’ll not do any of this. What a shame! It is speculation, not evidence. Meant to stir the mind to see Austen in another light as well as her era. Also to be feminist. I could have read part of Elizabeth of York’s (1465-1503) “sestina,” one of the earliest poems in English by a woman (see one of my earliest foremother poet essays):

I pray to Venus

My heart is set upon a lusty pin;
I pray to Venus of good continuance,
For I rejoice the case that I am in,
Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,
Of all comfort having abundance;
This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin –
My heart is set upon a lusty pin

I pray to Venus of good continuance,
Since she has set me in the way of ease;
My hearty service with my attendance
So to continue it ever I may please;
Thus voiding from all penseful diease,
Now stand I whole far from all grievance –
I pray to Venus of good continuance,

For I rejoice the case that I am in,
My gladness is such that giveth me no pain,
And so to sorrow never shall I blynne,
My heart and I so set ’tis certain
We shall never slake, but ever new begin
For I rejoice the case that I am in,

Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,
That all my joy I set as aught of right,
To please as after my simple suffisance
To me the goodliest, most beauteous in sight;
A very lantern to all other light,
Most to my comfort on her remembrance–
Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,

Of all comfort having abundance;
As when I think that goodlihead
Of that most feminine and meek countenance
Very mirror and star of womanhead;
Whose right good fame so large abroad doth spread,
Full glad for me to have recognisance –
Of all comfort having abundance.

This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin –
so that I am so far forth in the trace,
My joys be double where others are but thin,
For I am stably set in such a place
Where beauty ‘creaseth and ever willeth grace,
Which is full famous and born of noble kin–
This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin.

Note the puns.

The JASNA members would have loved this paper. I got the usual hypocrisy over how there were so many applicants and how they had to turn away so many excellent proposals for papers of merit. Papers are also chosen by who is giving the paper and what kinds of people the organizers want, who they are connected to, how they relate to Austen. My hunch is they hardly looked at it. If you tell me it is too learned, I will laugh at you. Much of it a stretch. And meant to be fun. But yes grounded in the era and Austen’s texts and those she liked to read.

Why do I not write it up and send it to Persuasions? the two organizers asked. Ah yes.  Right.  As they well know, because Persuasions prefers papers given at the conference. As my daughter, Izzy, said to me last year when we did not make some final cut to join 800+ at the JASNA in Williamsburg (even though we were quite early in registering online), what do we pay this yearly fee for? She belongs to two organizations, one professional, American Library and another which professes to be a combination of personal interest (fans) and scholars; in both cases your money guarantees you a space at the AGM. I suggested it was the periodical and newsletter.

Ellen


Jo (Maya Hawke) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) dressing in opening scene in the 2017 Little Women (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswill)

Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day … In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light, which was obscured in one direction by a hump of earth, in all other directions the land lying flat to the very verge of the sky. One of the swift and noiseless birds of the winter’s night seemed to follow them across the field, circling a few feet in front of them, disappearing and returning again and again — Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, Chapter 15)

Friends and readers a Winter Solstice/Christmas blog:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly, from her corner …. (Chapter 1)

Of course everyone remembers the opening line of Little Women, and (I hope) the opening sequence, where though the March girls are feeling they are among the deprived, are led by their ever vigilantly alert to the worst-misfortunes-of-others mother to go to a downright starving freezing family, sitting in rags in a hovel in the pitch dark, the mother having recently given birth to baby and give them their Christmas dinner (Chapter 2).

But did you know that Christmas is a recurring incident in Alcott’s famous book, like winter, brought back repeatedly, most of the time (as in Austen) as a way of creating realistic time, so fleetingly, and but crucially too (this very unlike Austen), dwelt on at length so as to provide vivid vignettes of camaraderie and carefully mitigated disaster, and sweet human togetherness.


Little Women — iconic scene of girls gathering round mother to be read too — here though it is a telegram (1970 BBC LW, Angela Downe as Jo, scripted Denis Constanduros)

When Mrs March receives a telegram from the civil war front urging her to come to her husband who is very ill, it is mid-November, and much of ensuing desperate, generous, and comic action occurs in the cold, dark and snowy winter, including Jo selling her long hair to get up money for the mother’s train fare. The father comes home as a “Christmas present,” and the first order of business is to sit down to “such a Christmas dinner” as anyone would revel in (“the fat turkey was a sight to behold … so was the plum pudding …”, and all sit down round the fire, drinking healths, telling stories, singing, “reminiscing,” foregoing the planned “sleigh ride” until another day (Chapters 15 on and off through 22)

I had remembered from more than one Little Women movie (I’ve seen at least 7) the putting on of a play around Christmas, as a separate time, but looking at my old book for adolescent girls (Grosset and Dunlap, illustrated by Louis Jambor) I find Jo’s writing of plays, acting and directing in an amateur theater are all part of the opening sequence. The play, as we all recall, is an “Operatic Tragedy,” the story of a stalking villain, Hugh, who hated Roderigo, loves Zara, with cabalistic outfits, comic gothicism in five fun acts (Chapter 2)


Laurie (Peter Lawford) gives Jo (Katharine Hepburn) some kittens for Christmas (1931, LW, George Cukor)

When Jo goes to New York to become a professional writer, the season is again November, and her first meeting with Mr Bhaer (she learns to call him Professor only much later) is during the Christmas week when she is feeling especially lonely, and so is he, and they agree for her to read to him “these pleasant little Marchen together,” while he teaches her German. They read Hans Christian Anderson together too, and unexpectedly to Jo (but not to us) her “big, muddy, battered-looking” “Christmas bundle” arrives, “so homey and refreshing” that “I sat down on the floor and read and looked and ate and laughed, and cried, in my usual way.” “The things” are “just what I wanted,” and “all the better for being made instead of bought,” which must exclude “the books father had marked.” Mr Bhaer gives her “a fine Shakespeare … one that he values much.” “Poor as he is,” he has made a present for every person in the house, servants and children too. Downstairs “they got up a masquerade;” Jo is at first not going to go, “having no dress … ” but “some old brocades” are remembered, a loan of “lace and feathers” takes place, and Jo goes as Mrs Malaprop in her mask.” This is all in a letter which ends very happily with Jo’s vow to “take more interest in other people than I used to” as Marmee has advised (Chapter 33).


Jo (Winona Ryder) and Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Bryne) pouring over manuscripts and drawings in their New York lodgings (1994 LW, scripted Robin Swicord, directed Gillian Armstrong)

I have here emphasized how the earlier part of the book are more didactic and more obviously aimed at adolescent girls. The later part (once called Good Wives) shows a change of focus to include young women, especially when the book turns to Jo’s career as a writer in her parents’ attic and life as a single unmarried daughter in the house. And in the text, Christmas drops out of sight, and Jo meets her beloved teacher once again not in winter, but years later in the mud and rain of spring.

Izzy and I intend to go to Greta Gerwig’s new Little Women, which begins with Jo in New York, trying to sell a manuscript. Laura, my other daughter, has already seen it and will be publishing her review for Elite Daily on Christmas Day. Despite a probably valiant attempt to update the book, and turn Little Women into wholly adolescent girl/adult book (see interview of Gerwig by Gabrielle Donnelly), Gertwig will not be able to lift the material too far from the original to stay true to its ethics. For her too (LW is my sixth of ten most influential books) this is a seminal book, one she can hardly remember not knowing, so often and so far back has she been reading it.


Meg (Emma Watson) Jo (Saoirse Ronan) Beth (Eliza Scanlan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) (2019, LW, Greta Gerwig et aliae)

I signed up for a course in Louisa May Alcott’s books, where we will read all Little Women (using the Norton Critical edition), her Hospital Sketches (Applewood) and a Long Fatal Love Chase (Dell). I’ve blogged on Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg Jo Beth Amy: why Little Women still matters and on Louisa separately in Writing for Immortality.

So this is a looking forward to next year meditation too: I’m torn whether to buy the Norton (with its young girl picture) or the two Library of America volumes, edited by Elaine Showalter in paperback.

To conclude in the spirit of Alcott:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Mary Oliver

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From Previous Years:

For Christmas in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, her 18th century perspective


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

For Christmas at Trenwith and Nampara: two occasions at length in the Poldark novels


Christmas at Trenwith, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, frightened, first visit, questioned by Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha (Poldark, 2014, Season 1, Episode 4 — corresponding to the last quarter of Ross Poldark

Ellen


This is my favorite of all the fictionalized iconic images of Austen — it’s found in the gardens of Chawton House I’m told, 20th century, the sculpture Adam Roud who says it “represents” Austen as “daughter and sister as she walked through town” (see commentary and video)

A windy wet day? her head held high

Jane Austen was very much aware of her birthday, probably each year it came round. On at least two of such days, she wrote a poem upon the occasion, remembering. The finest is the one remembering the death of Anne Lefroy, a nearby companion-friend (however older and however this friend was instrumental in preventing her developing a true love relationship with Tom Lefroy, causing Austen at the time and for several years after much grief). At the age of 55 Anne Lefroy died from a fall from a horse on December 16th, in 1804. Four years later, in the fiction of the poem, to the day, Jane Austen wrote this elegy:

To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy who died Dec:r 16 — my Birthday

The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes.–
The day, commemorative of my birth
Bestowing Life and Light and Hope on me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth.
Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory!–

Angelic Woman! past my power to praise
In Language meet, thy Talents, Temper, mind.
Thy solid Worth, thy captivating Grace!–
Thou friend and ornament of Humankind!–

At Johnson’s death by Hamilton t’was said,
‘Seek we a substitute–Ah! vain the plan,
No second best remains to Johnson dead–
None can remind us even of the Man.’

So we of thee–unequall’d in thy race
Unequall’d thou, as he the first of Men.
Vainly we search around the vacant place,
We ne’er may look upon thy like again.

Come then fond Fancy, thou indulgent Power,–
–Hope is desponding, chill, severe to thee!–
Bless thou, this little portion of an hour,
Let me behold her as she used to be.

I see her here, with all her smiles benign,
Her looks of eager Love, her accents sweet.
That voice and Countenance almost divine!–
Expression, Harmony, alike complete.–

I listen–’tis not sound alone–’tis sense,
‘Tis Genius, Taste and Tenderness of Soul.
‘Tis genuine warmth of heart without pretence
And purity of Mind that crowns the whole.

She speaks; ’tis Eloquence–that grace of Tongue
So rare, so lovely!–Never misapplied
By her to palliate Vice, or deck a Wrong,
She speaks and reasons but on Virtue’s side.

Her’s is the Energy of Soul sincere.
Her Christian Spirit ignorant to feign,
Seeks but to comfort, heal, enlighten, chear,
Confer a pleasure, or prevent a pain.–

Can ought enhance such Goodness?–Yes, to me,
Her partial favour from my earliest years
Consummates all.–Ah! Give me yet to see
Her smile of Love.–the Vision disappears.

‘Tis past and gone–We meet no more below.
Short is the Cheat of Fancy o’er the Tomb.
Oh! might I hope to equal Bliss to go!
To meet thee Angel! in thy future home!–

Fain would I feel an union in thy fate,
Fain would I seek to draw an Omen fair
From this connection in our Earthly date.
Indulge the harmless weakness–Reason, spare.

In the poem Jane says she has “mix’d emotions” on her “natal day” in 1808. On that day 4 years ago she knew she would never lay her eyes on Anne Lefroy again; her friend had been “snatch’d away.” An unexpected accident is a great blow. So now a day which gave her “Life & Light & Hope” is an occasion for feeling penetratingly a “bitter pang of torturing Memory.”

She then remembers her friend’s powers, what she valued her friend for: “Talents, Temper, mind . . . solid Worth . . . captivating Grace.” A friend to all, an ornament to the human race. This is going very high, but Austen likens Anne Lefroy to Samuel Johnson, and says that like him, when Anne Lefroy died, there was no substitute, “No second best . . . “None can remind us even of the Man.” (I read this phrase in Boswell’s Life of Johnson and that may be where Jane read it too.)

Vainly she searches. Not there, nowhere around her, only a “vacant space.” And so she says, she will conjure up a vision of her. “Fancy” is much kinder to us, an “indulgent power” — Austen’s idea of hope here is unlike Pope’s ironic witty utterance: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast/Man never is, but always to be blest.” Cool distance has become melancholy shivering: “Hope is desponding, chill, severe to thee!” Thee here can be Austen herself, probably is. So she turns to Fancy.

What does she remember. Not literal looks. Rather the woman’s psychological nature, their friendship, an asserted love for Jane herself, a voice harmonious I’m tempted to remember Emma Woodhouse who valued modulated voices unlike Mr Martin’s, but Austen knows better than to stay here: it’s what Anne would say, “sense . . . Genius, Taste & Tenderness of Soul . . . genuine warmth of heart without pretence,” and we cannot ignore the turn away from sensuality, sexuality, in that “purity of Mind.”

We are given a panegyric like Austen’s brother gave her: neither of them ever “misapplied” their Tongues, spoke and reasoned “on Virtue’s Side. In spoken words, Anne Lefroy sought “to comfort, heal, enlighten, chear,/Confer a pleasure, or prevent a pain — ” This is Popian poetic art: antitheses used for emotional instead of ironic reinforcement.

Can anything go beyond this? Yes. That she liked Jane, was “partial to her” from her “earliest years.” No small thing. Jane asks Fancy to allow her to see Anne Lefroy smiling with love at her. But no, “the Vision disappears:” “Tis past & gone — We meet no more more.” This “Cheat of Fancy” over a Tomb is short.

The poem ends with Austen hoping to be united to her friend once more after death, the dream many have had of death. There is a medieval picture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in a glass case) where we see pairs of friends clutching each other against a flowery flat green background; rows of these from top to bottom. Perhaps she says this terrible pain of having had her friend die, which creates a union of memory in her mind augurs a “connection” to be. She asks Fancy to “indulge this harmless weakness,” for that’s how she regards this idea.

“Reason, spare.” Reason, a deeply felt of reality from knowledge of experience tells her otherwise. Jane was not a religious woman.

This is almost a repeat of what I wrote on December 16th, 2011, when I was as yet unwidowed, and had not felt the true bereftness of grief. At the time I had not as yet visited Chawton House Library (as it used to be called), and only seen Chawton cottage once. Now I’ve been to Chawton cottage twice (once very thoroughly) and particated in a four day conference on Charlotte Smith at Chawton House Library.

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Romola Garai as Emma playing the piano after returning from a very ambiguous experience in an assembly ball (2009 BBC Emma, scripted by Sandy Welch), the most recent of the heritage-faithful type of adaptation (see list)

I have not yet found a way to blog regularly on Austen; my scheme to blog once a week on a book like Paula Byrne’s in the event turns out to be unworkable; I feel as if I’m using the book too invasively; one or two blog reviews a book is for most of them the ethical way to go about it. I had thought of collecting news items and did so this week:

1) the latest Emma movie, as written about most intelligently by Caroline Hallemann in a Town and Country article (followed by the latest Royal Scandal);

2) the latest “Jane Austen find” by Devoney Looser, as in fan fiction, really a letter possibly by Mary Russell Mitford. It’s behind a paywall at the newly semi-pop (trying for this) dumbing down TLS as “fan fiction or fan fact”, followed by some secrets hitherto unknown about Oliver Sacks. Mary Russell Mitford was a writer and neighbor, & is discussed perceptively in the most recent issue of Persuasion, ‘Jane Austen and Mary Mitford: A New Appraisal” by Azar Hussain (the essay not one of those online, alas). See also Oliphant on Mitford, Austen and their first biographers.

3) Janine Barchas at the Blarb for a Los Angeles publication, where she presents as a new find an essay on Arthur’s Miller’s (dreadful) radio adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It is not quite a new find; several years now I heard a full paper by Sylvia Marks on this adaptation; here’s a summary from an earlier blog here:

Sylvia Kasey Marks’s paper was on the 20th century great playwright, Arthur Miller and the 18th century forger, Henry Ireland. She discussed them as both appropriating the work or understood persona and style of someone else. In the early phase of his career Miller wrote radio plays, and some of these are dramatizations of someone else’s novel. She demonstrated that in Miller’s case we see him consistently change his original to fit his own vision. Unlike Ireland, Miller was not trying to find a new space in which he could create something unlike what others were writing at the time. He was building his career and operating within a considerable group of constraints (which include pleasing the audience). Sylvia told the whole sad story of Ireland, including a conflict with his father, and how we may see popular attitudes towards Shakespeare in some of Ireland’s writing.

It seems to me there’s nothing for it but to take the time out periodically and read a good book on Austen or by one of her near contemporaries (or on such a contemporary) and write a good review. It comes down to picking a book.  I will be returning to view and write about Jane Austen’s Sanditon, Anna Lefroy’s continuation, once again Chris Brindle’s filmed play and at length,

4) soon to air on PBS, Andrew Davies’ interesting (if finally a failure) attempt at modernizing extending and yet keeping within the Austen canon, Sanditon

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Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s portrait of Marie-Gabrille Capet (1798) — L-G specialized in portraits, at which she was very good, and which paid — early on she married unhappily and quickly left her husband so had to support herself

Last I have been developing blogs on actresses once again and first up will be Susannah Maria Arne Cibber (1714-66) and then fast forward to Barbara Flynn. I’m reading an excellent concise artistic biographical study of Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) for my first woman painter. Foremother poets are a intimidating cornucopia, but if I include prose-poets, maybe Virginia Woolf as seen in Night and Day (a very enjoyable insightful and underrated novel) will be my first — not that Woolf needs me to blog about her.

Ellen


A photograph of the wall at Lyme from the water side (contemporary) — see my review of Lucy Worseley’s JA at Home, book & film

Dear friends and readers,

I finally unsubscribed from Janeites on this past Sunday night, and will no longer be putting any postings on Austen-l — after being on the first list for more than 20 years and the second some quarter of a century. A sad evening. I asked myself if I learn anything about Austen on Janeites, now at groups.io (after considerable trouble and work) and previously at yahoo; do I experience any pleasure in ideas about her, gain any perspective on her era, contemporaries, the books or authors or people or places she was influenced, and the sad answer was no. Often just the opposite. I faced up to the reality that the listserv space is one Arnie Perlstein’s playground for preposterous sexed-up and male-centered (he is ever finding famous white males like Milton or more modern males in Austen) theories and from others who support him semi fan-fiction postings (such as the idea that Mr Knightley wrote or dictated Mr Martin’s letter to Harriet). The latest very long thread was once again about how Jane Fairfax is pregnant in Emma (I’m not sure if Frank Churchill or John Knightley was the candidate this time) and the idea the full fantasia of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is central to Austen’s Emma.

I felt bad about deserting the list-moderator but it seemed to me the latest series went beyond previous in a tone of triumph and enjoyment which suggested one motive was to show contempt for the purpose of the listserv (and mockery of the helpless membership), which disdain and exultation the moderator (in effect) replied to by writing (as she has so many times before) with the purpose of the list:  its terrain was to read Jane Austen’s actual texts, discuss them, her era, and her real life. She has said also repeatedly how she dislikes these sexed-up “shadow texts” and how what is said about Austen, their content ruins her enjoyment of the books. A couple of people then told me (through the message mechanism on face-book) how they laugh at such threads — that reminded me of the way people enjoyed Scottie Bowman on Austen-l years ago (he had a gift for needling malice). One person had the courage to onlist explain she stayed only for sentimental reasons — remembering what was. Maybe it was the latter sentiment that determined me to face up to the demoralization and aggravation this particular kind of debasement of Austen the money- and career-making cult leads to.

Lest my last phrase be misunderstood what I am referring to is that part of the reason Jane Austen (as a name, a picture, a set of titles) has spread so widely is the pair of words makes money for many people and has been used by many to further their careers — from getting tenure, to heritage businesses, to touring oneself, to selling objects, to setting up tours for others (at a price), from business as far apart as the hotel industry (JASNA is kept expensive in order to keep the meetings smaller), to toy and knick-knack manufacturers and (at one time) séance mediums, to running sites de memoire.

It matters that while the secondary literature on Austen has grown exponentially, her oeuvre remains tiny and easy to read through in say less than two weeks. Yet I’ve met people at these JASNAs who at best have read 2 of the novels. And yes many of these participants will say they “hate” Mansfield Park; lately participants I’ve met suggest Mr Knightley is “really” in love with Jane Fairfax; they get this from some of the Emma movies. JASNA having finally “allowed” in panels on sequels is now not just flooded with them — you see it in the shop — one of the years the very topic was in effect these sequels and movies. JASNA grew to its present size after the first of the contemporary Jane Austen movies in 1995/96.

Maybe now with so many vying to publish about her, it’s not so easy to be published in journals, and fan fiction is no longer a publisher dream of an easy sell, but an essay on her, an umpteenth film adaptation of Emma will get further than than any essay on a “minor” (obscure) woman writer? Who has heard of Margaret Oliphant? Charlotte Smith? The situation may be similar for Sherlock Holmes as a name and set of titles — as well as a literal place Holmes lived in — as if the character actually existed. Readers can invest whatever they want into these post-texts (or sequels).

I find very troubling how reputable scholars have argued in print that it’s okay to tell lies, it’s okay if the printed material or what is taught is all wrong, is the product of political censorship, or if what is on display is salacious, misogynistic, just plain stupid. I objected to this supposed neutrality in Devoney Looser’s latest book. She implied it’s elitist to insist on accuracy and truth and explicitly undervalued the difference between knowledge and illusion, credible evidence and lies.

Group and social dynamics in cyberspace work differently than in real space, so one or two people can take over and ruin a listserv, silence everyone else; scapegoating is easy. So one of the things some site-owners (face-book moderators, listserve owners and moderators) whose platforms survive do is early on or soon enough establish parameters on what is somehow pernicious nonsense — Hardy Cook had a hard time at first with his Shaksper-l and now just forbids all stupidity over the idea that Wm Shakespeare did not write his books; these kinds of ideas circulate among lots of (foolish snobbish) people; or (as I have seen many times now), you say this face-book page is for this author and no other authors; discussions about contemporary politics are out; this is not the space to talk of movies or your favorite star-actor. Today Shaksper-l is a sober discussion of Shakespeare’s plays, the productions, real cruxes in the scholarship &c Athurnet years ago is another place where setting boundaries on theories of where the Arthur matter came from finally worked. I’ve seen this on face-book fan pages — more than one determined moderator is sometimes needed. Most of these kinds of posters fall silent without an audience to triumph over.

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On the Janeites list I had been trying with the list moderator to agree on a book of literary criticism or history about Jane Austen where each chapter would bring us to the text or her life again. We would try to post weekly on Austen through such a text. I had tried posting on the essays in the most recent Persuasions (as a text many members might own) starting in summer but few people were interested in serious analysis or any discussion at all, in reading such writing.

I have been having a difficult time keeping this blog going — with all the literary and film and other study (for teaching and classes I go to) I do in the other parts of my life, and had proposed to go back to series: of actresses, fore-mother poets, women artists, serial dramas based on the 18th century or film adaptations of historical fiction based on the early modern to early 19th century European cultures. But I know this excludes Austen. So now I’ll have an alternative thread if I can manage this: once a week or so, blog on a chapter on a book genuinely engaged with Austen’s texts, life, era. I’ll begin with Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Long range I’d like also to try for one of the books on the relationship of Jane Austen’s texts to the plays or theater of her time.

Accordingly, I have changed my header picture to a picturesque illustration found in one of the older handbooks for Austen, F. B. Pinion’s A Jane Austen Companion. Pinion’s is a beautifully made book (sewn, heavy paper, a lot of rag content in the boards). It’s filled with various kind of pictures (plates, photos, vignettes) where the material is written as clear essays critically surveying Austen’s life, the early phases of her writing, a chapter each for the major novels, topics like influence, her reputation. Places, character studies. Dulce and utile is a phrase that is rightly applied to this book. Manydown house is now gone: it was the Bigg-Wither home where Austen bravely went back on a weak moment where she said yes to an unsuitable man for her as an individual; and it was the place where assembly-type balls were held in her time. Thus it seems to me appropriate.


Susan Herbert’s parody of Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s Self-portrait with Two Pupils (1785)

Ellen


John Everett Millias, from Irish Melodies: “An Excluded Woman” — the illustration was not for Agnes, but it fits central aspects of her existence, an outlier, outsider, excluded by belonging nowhere

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished reading another of Margaret Oliphant’s neglected masterpieces exploring aspects of women’s lives; I’ve written about these as a group (Novels of Women’s Lives: Marriage and Career) and individually (The Marriage of Elinor: scroll down); tonight I want to bring into play one aspect important to many of them, the widowed heroine. One reason Agnes has been neglected is that its emotional power, psychological brilliance, and just startling accuracy about the way a grieving widow might feel only begins after the first quarter of the second of two volumes. That is, Oliphant does not reach her electrifying content until she’s somewhat more than half-way through. And it does not come to the abyss of despair until her oldest child, an 8 year old boy, is kidnapped by her powerful aristocrat relatives in its concluding chapters.

Why does she take all this time? because the extremis anguish Agnes Trevelyan (nee Stanfield) knows occurs as a cumulative effect of years of life. First her suitor, Roger Trevelyan, after meeting her must contend with his family’s angry objections and threats to disinherit him insofar as they can, and William Stanfield, her blacksmith (as he’s endlessly described) father’s worry that the marriage is not a good idea for Agnes. Only William Stanfield, her noble-hearted kind insightful father (whom most of the genteel characters look down on because he is a blacksmith) finally consents generously to this marriage.

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John Everett Millais — Frontispiece for Trollope’s Rachel Ray (it seems to me appropriate for Oliphant’s first conception of Agnes when we first meet her)

Upon marriage (we are past half the first volume) Agnes begins to grow up: she finds Roger may be above her in rank but he is inadequate as man and a spouse. In Italy at first Roger wants to keep her ostracized, wrongly fearing others will look down on her; she had been framed as a vulgar, low-coarse ambitious woman, stigmatized by the envious of her own class. The couple go to Italy, seemingly for a honeymoon, but eventually (it emerges) as part of Roger’s plan to avoid the consequences of his decision: work for a living, make an genuine effort to integrate his wife into his society, something she is capable of because she in nature, fine, intelligent, and has been educated by her father (mostly through reading).

The result is 7 to 8 years of isolation, with a few true friends for her and him (better types here and there) until illness, which turns out to be fatal drives Roger back to England and his and Agnes’s family, their community, Windholm.

We must also experience more fully what a disillusionment Agnes goes through with his young man; she learns his is a petty, selfish, snobbish, idle nature; one of his few admirable traits is that gradually he learns to appreciate her through their years of “living on nothing at all:” borrowing, cadging, his father-in-law sending lump sums (whom Roger verbally abuses anyway), some gambling.  Oliphant shows us what it is like to live on nothing a year, abysmal, humiliating. Roger sees Agnes’s fine nature but also experiences her as a boring burden (his is a corrosive wittiness), who has also laden him with three children. She contributes nothing to the household as he sees this. When they return to England, they find that her father had built a beautiful house for them when he still expected his son-in-law to make a good living; they move in, and somehow William Stanfield keeps them afloat.

Agnes has known much emotional pain from time, circumstance, her situation and chance: she once had a close loving relationship with her father, and these years have estranged them not because they are angry at one another, but because they are unwilling to be disloyal to her husband, to face up to the realities of their lives. These include her father having remarried a deeply amoral stupid woman, jealous and envious, resentful of anyone who seems to have more than she, someone (we gradually learn) who has lived by semi-prostitution and had two sons born illegitimately from Roger’s own contemptible baronet of a father, Sir Roger Trevelyan.

This is yet another book by Oliphant which has the obsessively recurring male worthless in terms of any work he does, often drunk, often lying, irresponsible; not only does he waste money but he is sexually promiscuous and he lives in a predatory manner — off others. Give him any power and he inflicts himself and misery on others. I suspect this composite figure is her younger brother who she eventually paid in effect to stay away, with aspects of her husband, older brother and specific other men she’s seen or known thrown in.

She also has a cold spiteful sister-in-law, Beatrice, who is presented as also envious, and resentful because she is unmarried, has to live with Sir Roger, somehow (like Lily in Wharton’s House of Mirth) cannot get herself to marry a rich young man simply for his money. Agnes is innocent of malign feelings and has no idea how dangerous Beatrice could be to her or her children. After Agnes’s husband dies, and this sister-in-law and the father-in-law attempt to wrest custody of her beloved boy, Walter, from her, she does know. The court case goes nowhere because Roger did not leave a will specifying his son should be returned to his family for schooling, and because the judge interviews and discovers Agnes to be a valuable mother. Sometime after this Beatrice concocts a plan to kidnap Walter through Stanfield’s wife’s illegitimate children (her nephews though the book never uses this term of them).

Oliphant is not wholly unsympathetic to Beatrice Trevelyan: in her the condition of a spinster dependent on a cold indifferent father who will not give her much money is explored. It is only when Beatrice is discovered to have worked to kidnap Agnes’s son, that the book sees her narrowly as simply poisonous. In fact the portrait of Beatrice at different points of her life across the book is complex.

In this later part of the novel, the kindly noble male, brotherly, who loves the heroine selflessly for years, and turns up in other novels is her as Roger’s old friend: Jack Charleton understands how to navigate the court system, and custody of her child is not taken from her. As with the other male figures of this type in other novels (The Marriage of Elinor has such a male), our heroine does not appreciate Jack. She does yearn for affection from him, and is gradually turning to him, capable given time of becoming his wife, but not once she loses her boy. Agnes blames herself for the kidnapping of the boy because she was writing to a (in effect) love letter from Jack so did not miss her son at first.

There are a few women Agnes meets her or knows who are decent people — serious, truthful, capable of love and concern for others, but the novel’s third central worthy character whose presence is part of the core value to Agnes of her life is her son, Walter. His abduction leads to the tragic final chapters of the book. Her beloved son dies trying to escape from his captors – he jumps out a window and crushes his body.

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John Everett Millais, said to be a print for Trollope’s “A Widow’s Mite” (where however there is not literal widow; the short story is an exploration of this parable)

So to the hidden life in this book as in others (Hester comes to mind) by Oliphant disclosed to us: long passages about widowhood as experienced by Agnes once Roger dies, shorter but heart-breakingly intense once her son dies. On widowhood Oliphant produces the most accurate truthful kinds of utterances, more central than those I’ve ever read — the closest about widowhood is Julian Barnes in the last third of his Levels of Life; the closest about how a mother can die before her body physically dies, just be there breathing on, doing what you are expected for others is in the last pages of Elsa Morant’s Storia, where after her 7 year old son dies of an epileptic fit, brought on by the school authorites, and the murder of his dog (the police) Iduzza is said to live on for 9 years, but only in her body. So too Agnes.

It’s hard to find a single passage (Matthew Arnold-like) as revealing touchstone, for like many fine novels, the language’s force also depends on cumulative effect. Agnes is not in fact literally alone: she has an 8 year old boy, two babies, one an neonate, the other not yet toddling, her father lives in a house within walking distance, and yet she has this experience of “utter loneliness which the most solitary of human beings could not have surpassed … ” Yet her desolation is unbroken, and among the phrases saying why I pick this:

there was nobody to share the burden that was heaviest. Henceforward that closest bond was rent for ever and ever. Nobody in the world could say ‘It is my sorrow as well as yours.’ She had to take it all upon her, by herself and cover it up and keep it from injuring or wearying the others, who had so little to do with it. This was also a thing quite natural, and of which no one had any right to complain.

Oliphant has just before built up to “the only real hardships in existence are those that come by nature — the only ones that are inevitable an incurable, and form which there are no means of escape.” Of course this was Oliphant’s case, surrounded by people — dependent on her once her artist-husband died, leaving her nothing but large debts and three children.

We move through the burial, the funeral and just after and with Agnes discover that she cannot go back and pick up with others what was before her marriage. Like her father, her marriage has altered her and him: Changed circumstances, long absence, and “what was still more important, the character of wife, had made between Agnes and her father a separation which had nothing to do with external obstacles.” She cannot confide in him any longer nor he her.

Oliphant describes the difference of a child’s grief for the loss of the father and hers, the child’s quickly exhausts itself, nothing left after a bit and Agnes “had already gone beyond his reach without knowing it …” — that’s also true if you turn to an animal for companionship beyond a certain point.

Then when Walter is kidnapped, she shows the helplessness of the child against adults determined to bully that child into doing what the adult wants. It is frightening and should be read by all people who vote for leaders who separate families and put children in prison.

From the final two pages of Agnes:

The vicarious life in which most women spend the latter part of their day might still remain for her; but her own life was over and done and she was not one of those who live till they die. So that I have told you all her story, as well as if I had put a gravestone over her and written the last date on it, which may not be ascertained for many years … grant to [women who have no other heritage] at the end of their many days a sweet life by proxy to heal their bitter wounds.

Agnes does have her two daughters, and her father.

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A 19th century engraving, Sorrento

Oliphant knew she was describing complex feelings and realities most novelists of her time eschewed. So she provides a preface in the Tauchnitz editin (Leipzig, 1865) where she warns the reader her book will cover material most novels never get to. She says “the great value of fiction lies in its power of delineating life” and to do this she must depict what happens in the later chapters of our existences. Novels teach us by revealing “sentiments which may be in many minds, but which none would care in their own person to give expression to.”

At any earlier point, before the boy dies, Oliphant felt Agnes needed work; she is at a disadvantage because her father support her — not having to work for a living in effect. Oliphant knows that her writing was what her life became – and had been before too, but differently. The same person living a different life.

I should remark on the beautiful evocative descriptions of Italy, Sorrento, Naples, Florence — it’s clear that Oliphant herself responded on a deep level to the landscape, cultural life, and art of Italy. It’s clear from her life that Oliphant herself loved to travel: she enjoyed research books on Italy and France because she could go there.

Oliphant declares firmly that Agnes’s experience was “no tragic exceptional case … she had only the common lot, darkened by great sorrows, but not without consolation.”  This is one of many places in her writing where Oliphant questions God, and puts before us the difficulty of believing there is a good God, for who, she asks, could “be cruel enough to deprive a mother of her child,” and here “God, who was supposed to be love, had done it.” (Only the more recent scholarly literary criticism of Oliphant broaches this topic with candor).

Ellen