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The Great Picture by Jan Van Belcamp: it takes three panels to suggest Clifford’s outer life

We should ourselves be sorry to think that posterity should judge us by a patchwork of our letters, preserved by chance, independent of their context, written perhaps in a fit of despondency or irritation, divorced, above all, from the myriad little strands which colour and compose our individual existence, and which in their multiplicity, their variety and their triviality, are vivid to ourselves alone, uncommunicable even to those nearest to us, sharing our daily life … Still, within our limitations it is necessary to arrive at some conclusion, certain facts do emerge … Vita Sackville-West, Introduction, Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (1923)

The knowledge that his arrow pointed to that impossible mark [‘a duplication of an image in the mind’] was Boswell’s source of confidence. Other biographers might forestall his book, but that they could rival it he never, in his most sombre moments, conceived. Those others did not know that biography is impossible … Geoffrey Scott, in the Malahide Papers, as quoted by Iris Origo, in “Biography: True and False” (1984)

Friends,

This is me again working out evolving thoughts about biography and the relationship of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as modernist biographers. I’ve gone on to consider Maurois’s Aspects of Biography and define Woolf’s Flush as a canonical modernist biography. I’ve been reading Iris Origo’s short biographies and her essay on biography as well as Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles as two true sources for Woolf’s Orlando. And I’ve spent two to three weeks teaching Woolf’s Orlando.

One of the characteristics those who first wrote and theorized about biography after 1910 (the year when, we will remember, the world changed) as such, described the history of the genre, its development between the early modern period and 19th century, and then outlined and defined the type they were writing as “modern” all come to when they discuss the genre is its impossibility. It is impossible to write a text that truly accurately tells the life of an individual. It’s arguable that the way modernist biographies were written in the wake of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide, and longer examples of the same sort of thing (it’s not true that modernist biographies are always concise) like Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and self-reflexive experiments, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, were attempts to overcome the considerable complicated obstacles in the way.


Two chapters are inserted fragments of an autobiographical memoir by Sackville-West about her sexually free marriage, her lesbianism and love of her husband, whom she nonetheless exploited hard

Most of the time this continual reassertion is dismissed because the plain reality is that these writers and others (colleagues, friends, rivals, people privileged by living knowledge of the subject) went on trying to achieve such impossible feats in words, sometimes accompanied by pictures, anyway. My feeling is this blithe sliding over is also done because at the same time it has proved also impossible to persuade the countless readers of fat popular biographies (“great men,” lurid women) to stop looking at the text they are devouring as a compilation of facts from unquestionable documents that add up to what is seen as an existence telling to know about. The “common reader” so strongly yearned after by Samuel Johnson and then supposedly targeted by Virginia Woolf also will not accept frank fictionalization in their intake of biography, and are on the record (on the Internet and elsewhere) as regarding another modernist tenet (admission) that the greatest biographies are autobiographies in disguise as a convenient way to dismiss a book that contains a perspective or whatever information they might not want to consider seriously.

It will be part of my iconoclastic argument that the value of examining Johnson and Woolf’s biographical art in alignment from a modernist point of view is that both worked hard in pursuit of their repeated self-appointed or commissioned biographical tasks conceived in the most high-minded way, all the while coming up against their own bedrock accurate perception that what they aimed to do was highly problematic, if not quite impossible. It is important to see where they failed in order to recognize where they succeeded, not just to do justice to to under-recognized because not well-known or long texts, but to grasp in what biography inheres. I want to write up first how they understood the biographical process, its aims and its problems, which they never solved. My belief now after reading so much (including Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale) is that someone’s biography is a product in the mind of the reader and writer after a process of induced identification and empathy: this process requires several texts taken together.

How about that? a biography and autobiography does not end where the text ends at all? I have to return to Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in Fictional Woods, which was so essential for my chapter on Trollope’s Autobiography in my Trollope on the ‘Net.


Taking it down form its shelf

With this kind of outlook or basis, one can then move into biographical texts by them that have attained the status of masterpiece biographies, Johnson’s Life of Savage and Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography. These two texts have seemed to do the essential required core of biography, convey a complex living presence, mind and body, in the context of, or emerging from a historically accurate portrait of their society as these people experienced it. I admit to loving the Roger Fry after having read some of Fry’s writing and Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry as an artist and art critic, connoisseur, museum person, curator. Woolf also wrote biographical fantasies one of which post-modern attitudes would include a legitimately biographical: Orlando: A Biography. It’s a woman’s time-traveling fantasy perhaps inspired by the idea behind a tiny girls’ book by Vita Sack-ville West (A Note of Explanation). I’m not sure how I feel about Orlando. At some level I even dislike it, it’s too frivolous for me, at times silly, and deeply elitist. How should a biography be written? is some form of verisimilitude necessary? I think so, so Orlando doesn’t make the cut at all. In some of Johnson’s unfair Lives of the English Poets he allows the political perspective of the whole set or his own personal distaste for a kind of personality or literary style or stance to lead him into fictional biography, the most obvious his life of John Milton — where Johnson gets away with what he writes by using verisimilitude with a seemingly practiced novelistic art.

All these texts stand up to scrutiny only in the context of more recent biographical, autobiographical, critical and even fictional texts on and by the subject — they are printed with long notes and annotations. In the case of Johnson’s Life of Savage, I am convinced after reading Tracy Clarke that like Boswell, concluded Savage was at first simply lying and then became a self-deluded impostor. Johnson’s text is also egregiously misogynistic towards Anne Brett (who appears as Lady Easy, a bullied woman in Cibber’s The Careless Husband). Johnson captures the pity of this gifted man never being given a real chance to enter the aristocracy or gentry he was so determined to belong to; his strangeness in some ways, the angry, the mysteries, that he was thrown away. But what was he? Tracy comes much closer to capturing the real man. Woolf’s Fry cannot pass muster without Diane Gillespie’s long introduction and annotations (two thirds again as long as the book). It should be considered a literary biography, the kind I can hope to write about Winston Graham. Orlando just won’t do (I shall write on it separately next week): it’s a time traveling wish-fulfillment fantasy, telling of the life of a woman writer seeking an identity in society. For Johnson’s Thomas Gray two modernist concise biographies: one by Edmund Gosse and the other David Cecil can function as touchstones on what’s lacking in Johnson: they are both so much superior, as is Frances Mayhew Rippy’s Matthew Prior (an unassuming Twayne book).

Which are or what kinds of other biographical texts constitute Johnson and Woolf’s problematic attempts and successes? Thus far from my reading Johnson’s Lives of Dryden, Pope, Thomson and Collins, and Virginia Woolf’s short biographical essays about obscure and unknown women (one of Geraldine [Jewsbury] and Jane [Carlyle] is superior to Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights, gathered in the Common Reader, others in other collections (especially Memoirs of a Novelist) and still more in the Collected Essays. In all these the needed background, the panoply of other texts are the paradoxically long biographies of the treated literary figures which fail to address central cruxes of these lives which Johnson and Woolf do.

Flush: A Biography is a wholly successful modernist biography if we take what Woolf says in her two essays on biography seriously. (Another would then qualify: Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, a fictionalized life of Marie de Gournay from the point of view of her maid. A fictionalized biography.) So is Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen more insightful than Josephine Ross’s.

I’ve also been questioning the assumed great worth of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, thinking about how good John Wain is, how original and questioning Nokes, and the respect I once gave to WJBates’s book. About 2/3s the way through the listening to Bernard Mayes reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I’ve tired of it. Johnson is there all right, but I have realized I have been mis-remembering, elevating him, forgetting how he regards women as instruments for men to make children with, yes an obsessive Christian; Boswell further skews the portrait by his constant justifications, idealizing, omitting Johnson’s sex life (very troubled), misrepresenting Mrs Thrale. Every once in a while a letter by Johnson brings his deeply humane character through, his comments his sensitive morality towards everyone (an off-the-cuff argument showing how slavery can never ever be justified in human arrangement, a deep violation). Johnson nails precisely that something is deeply wrong with a society where the homeless and sick are simply ignored — with the leaders he says, as they must act first. But I’ve stopped listening (gone on to Gabaldon’s Outlander 3: Voyager, read by Davina Porter). I probably much prefer Johnson straight than Johnson through Boswell.

I ought to decide which of the several still respected biographies of Woolf stands up: Julia Brigg’s Inner Life, Phyllis Rose’s Women of Letters, Hermione Lee’s old fashioned huge tome, whose aims are nonetheless those of modernist biography. I admit I need to read through the first two.

Not everyone fails; indeed my favorite form of reading is the literary biography and many masterpieces exist in the genre. This summer I read one: Claire Haman’s Charlotte Bronte, and Iris Origo made a career as a writer because she wrote great biographies and diary-journals. One of the great books for me of the later 20th century is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: The confessions of a Romantic Biographer, which I taught three times in a class called Advanced Writing on the Humanities.

And I still believe that the key to understanding any one’s art is to understand their lives and that means reading the life-writing coming from and attached to the subject in all its forms. Wrong-headed biographies if they are intelligent and written out of sincerity and original thought are important in understanding writers too, e.g., David Nokes on Johnson and Austen.

This is where I’m at tonight on this project. I think I had better give this one up for a while. Put it away. And come back to it in May when the heavy teaching and most courses end. My thesis as far as I can manage is the value of studying these two writers seen as modern biographers is in what they teach us about biography in their successes and their failures, brilliant insights and misapprehensions and along the way about the people they create or misapprehend.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader, and invite any commentary on what you think of biography as a form or any of the texts I’ve cited. These have been thoughts I pushed out of myself with difficulty and then added to late at night and then early in the morning before dawn.


Isabel Coddrington (1874-1943), Evening 1925

Next up: blogs on Woolf’s Orlando and then (if I can only discipline myself once more to it) women artists.

Ellen

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Claire Foy and Matt Smith as the young Elizabeth and Philip in the first phase of marriage

Friends,

Peter Morgan’s (with a little help from Stephen Daldry) strangely powerful The Crown has been for the past two years among the best serial dramas in the subtle naturalistic BBC English style anywhere. It was nominated for and won a number of prestigious awards and if the critical response was at times ambiguous, those who praised praised strongly. I put this first on my Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two area, but over the two days I’ve had it up, I decided to move it here — as a woman’s film even if the script writer and chief producer are men.

The films depict slowly, at length and consistently a development of inexorable embedded emotional burdens each of the major characters finds he or she has to bear as a result of engaging in life with others. There seems to be no retreat for anyone, and as they age, they grow harder or more silent in order to survive. The individual situations of these privileged people are made to resonate with experiences the ordinary person can identify with, or watch Writ Large. Thus catharsis is achieved, at the same time as the British monarchical system is justified.

It belongs to a large number of films this year where a woman who has a questionable power is at the center of the film: from the PBS Victoria (with Jenna Coleman), Spielberg’s The Post with Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, Gabaldon’s Outlander with Caitriona Balfe the central core strength of all the stories. All tell the same tale of hidden power, power welded quietly, stubbornly and when at a price, still successfully. They descend from the old queen tragedies in the Restoration theater, the 17th century French romances by women, Shakespearean heroines all.

The key characters are Elizabeth (Claire Foy) with Philip (Matt Smith) as her partner, and their performances are extraordinarily convincing. At first I saw the films as a portrait of Elizabeth but by the end of the second season, he had emerged as important in the films as she (if not as powerful), because his presence constantly affects her, hurts her, leads her to betray herself (as does her staff).


Pip Torrens as Tommy Lascelles: he plays the repressive killjoy controlling the royal family (for their own good) — rather brilliantly, convincingly

It is curious how the villains and obtuse people in episode after episode are this household staff, as if the family and many politicians are helpless against them.

The two begin with an idealistic love, and after years where she is driven to not keep her promise to Philip to let him fulfill his desires and have a say in his choices equal to hers, and betray others like her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Peter Townsend (Ben Miles). Elizabeth allows herself to be bullied, as when she lets Philip force their son Charles to go to a school singularly unfitted for his character, so as to vicariously re-live own hard-won unexamined success over a wretched boyhood (Paterfamilias), they are barely able to endure one another. He humiliates her and threatens the monarchy by his semi-revengeful liaisons. She has made some wrong decisions (when she agrees to leave the house Philip was setting up for them and move to Buckingham palace, agrees to control his airplane flying, agrees to forbid Margaret’s marriage to a divorced man), but she remains queen (which is why she obeys) and that controls and gives her space and power.

Matt Smith is the program’s sly satyr, giving Claire Foy rare opportunities to know the pleasures of the appetite (including sex) divorced from duty. We see them come close together and then be driven apart. His advice, often cynical, is often proved right. For me the most moving scenes occur when they interact or their stories are told in tandem (as when at the beginning of the second season he is sent on a world tour). In the closing scene as he kneels and they bend over one another hugging, there is an acknowledgement of also a permanent estrangement, a gap never crossed again.


Ben Miles as Townsend, and we see in this photo how calm Margaret is with him

The other over-arching or major secondary story, which carries on through both seasons, depicts Margaret Windsor as thwarted from developing what talents she had, as not allowed to marry the man she loves and who loves her (except she give up her position and large income, which is of course unthinkable), and thus driven, as it were, forced makes a poor choice of an aristocrat, glamorous, cold, a cad, Matthew Goode as Tony Armstrong-Jones.


He renames her Beryl (second season)

Lesser characters contribute more over-the-top or overt drama. The Churchill myth is kept up by John Lithgow, with Kate Phillips as the in-love girl Friday, Venetia Scott. The Churchill matter seems to have stayed in the public consciousness (if recaps and commentary online tell us anything), and Lithgow is a powerful memorable presence. He fills the screen; like Ralph Richardson, our eyes immediately revert to him.


John Lithgow as Churchill charming Kate Phillips as Venetia Scott (who dies in the episode so eager is she to go to work in the fog)

But riveting also are the episodes featuring the resentful sneering de-throned Edward VIII (Alex Jennings); Alex Jennings is a Duke of Windsor unable to accept the position he choose; his clothes show him as pampered, perhaps rightly bitter at the way his family treats him, but also having lost perspective:


All Alex Jennings and Lia Williams as the ex-Mrs Simpson’s outfits are lavishly appointed and elegant

Maybe the most historically important episode in the series was the revelation of the Duke of Windsor’s knowing collusion with Hitler (Vergangenheit, second season): this is one of several episodes to include real film from the era, this case this Duke and Duchess and Hitler reviewing troops.

Some of the present debased or demeaning outlook on some of the prime ministers, such a Macmillan (Anton Lesser) was a weak cuckold (Sylvestre Le Tousel shows her continuing strength as a capable varied actress, here she is the appallingly mean adulterous wife), or Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) eaten up by jealousy of Churchill — all remind me of the way older historical Tudor dramas work. An re-enactment of Beyond the Fringe shows the public laughing at the ridicule the young intellectual actors threw at them, but the men (prime ministers) are too sensitive and become scapegoats. Emasculated males; once again, it’s the women who become the stoics holding on. On the other hand, the reactionary Mountbatten (Gregg Wise) is presented as kindness, gentleness itself, especially to the young Charles where Philip is asking too much with a narrow definition of manliness.

The expected is preferred, except curiously in the case of the Kennedys where an attempt is made to de-mystify them, which ends in scornful put-down of Jacqueline as utterly phony.

Among the tertiary recurring characters my favorites are the older women, especially Victoria Hamilton as the continuing to quietly grieve Queen Mary. One of my favorite episodes is about her attempt to retreat to a castle in the Scottish highlands and brief friendship with a minor aristocrat there who is not told who she is so that she can have an ordinary relationship with him (Pride and Joy, first season).


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother, Elizabeth

Note how in most of the cases the men are seen with women, with women as protecting, taking care of, or importantly mocking or undermining them. I love all the stills of Harriet Walter as Clementine:

Claire Foy’s face reminded me of Elizabeth Moss in Handmaid’s Tale, Caitronia Balfe in Outlander, Merryl Strep as Katharine Graham in The Post. All nominated or noticed for awards. They are all initially more trusting than most of the people around them. Then a mask forms round their tight jaws. Margaret is the woman gone neurotic, a common type in soap opera:

The two years of this serial drama have been rightly criticized on several grounds. First for the kinds of changes in real history and politics continually set in place. Of course history will be heightened, personalized, and our protagonists made somewhat sympathetic. But the very subtlety with which the actual historical record is interwoven with false perspectives suggests truer perspective could have been put in place.


Elizabeth with Jeremy Northam as Anthony Eden consulting her

Throughout both seasons Elizabeth is made to seem more pro-active than she was, and more compassionately concerned about the average person living in the UK. What is put before us is sometimes the opposite of what happened: thus it was not she who insisted on going to Ghana to mend the relationship but her gov’t ministers who insisted she go. In the first season (damningly), Clement Atlee, the man who did more to reform and make the UK into the decent social democracy with opportunity for all in a large community it became (until Margaret Thatcher put her hatchet to it, and the Tories and then Blair’s gov’t followed suit), Atlee is made into a minor non-entity in one episode, with Churchill’s time as prime minister becoming what was important and the key over-arching secondary story. Elizabeth is made to seem innocent or at least not at all to blame for the understandable revolt of the empire against the English, and that revolt not explained with any sympathy.

And of course it’s a white world: Nasser, the African leaders, I cannot find any stills online of these. It is unblushingly Anglophilic, even if there is perfunctory criticism of how the UK reacted to Nasser nationalizing the Suez canal. Eden’s behavior is seen as well-meaning and a political error. He is misunderstood and he misunderstands a new post-colonial world. A tremendous idealization of George VI goes on, astonishing speeches put into the mouth of the queen grandmother (Eileen Atkins) about the monarchy as if it were a mythic realm placed on earth by God for the good of the English people, far exceeding any divine right exegesis I’ve ever come across.


Eileen Atkins impeccably over-the-top theatrical as the Queen Grandmother — smoking on

I don’t find if marmoreal because of performances like these. Don’t underestimate Jared Harris playing the cancerous George VI, still slaughtering birds as he weeps over his daughter’s “hard” fates and sings “In the bleak midwinter.” Drenched in the sentimental.


Children with George VI admonishing them

All that said, the films function to build compassion and understanding, reciprocation as a basic stance towards experience. The good characters hold onto some kind of integrity and honesty not just because to make the public think they are so keeps them in power. They mean well, they feel guilt, they see themselves as involved in bargains. Each of the episodes is character driven, and while different recurring characters emerge as dominant in this or that or a couple of episodes, there are major presences we care about and watch age and mostly harden or grow old and move into retreat, often stubbornly trying to hold onto what they thought their lives were about when younger.

The scripts are superb and found online. One of the curiosities of the films is how little happens in any given one, at least outwardly. Yes sometimes there is a Suez crisis and we see much action, but more commonly we watch Claire Foy drink coffee. I often cried over a resonating pair of lines towards a given closure, such as Pilgrim’s Progress. This is typical of the woman’s film based on a woman’s novel. Elizabeth gives a new turn to old lines about how she is paying a heavy personal price for the sake of some larger whole or ideal, and I find myself unbearable touched.

The first season shows us the making of a woman, Elizabeth into a queen, from a young girl in love, engaged, dependent on her father (Lilibet), to her walking alone, alienated from those she loves in order to be this symbolic figure. The second season traces a gradual hardening where she is presented as now and again scolding (in effect) her prime minister and urging them onto a course of action she thinks the wiser: they don’t always obey but they don’t ignore her either. She grieves alone.


Elizabeth in the last episode, pregnant with Andrew, aware Philip has not kept his word to be sexually faithful

Even if by logic and space, we actually follow Philip’s story (including his young years in flashbacks) as much as Elizabeth, and the outer political world whether through the weather or political or economic crises, it is Elizabeth the film focuses on again and again, at each stage of her life. Here she is reading Walter Bagehot as a child and learning about the theatrical, the ceremonial (her) and the efficient, the legislative, the instrumental (everybody else):

Even if there are major parts for males, they are seen as the domestic woman experiences them, from a home-perspective. Other favorite episodes: on safari (Hyde Park Corner, the first season)

When Elizabeth hires a tutor to improve her academic knowledge (Scientia Potentia Est, the first season): I loved the actor who played the mussed-up uncomforable tutor clutching his briefcase.

The episode where we see her relationship with Porchester amid the horses today with memories of what was meaning a great deal more to her than him (she phones him, and he puts her off as an American lover walks into his room). This episode also includes the painting of Churchill in old age by Sutherland and Clementine’s burning of the canvas (Assassins, first season).


The Queen and Porchie

Some may like the episode where Mike Parker’s wife rebels and sues him for divorce based on adultery (A Company of Men, second season). What emerges for me are women standing alone. The bitterness of Margaret when what talents she had are not wanted and she finds herself living with a cold cad (Mystery Man, second season), so she renovates her quarters without regard to others. Most evidently Elizabeth by herself, apparently surrounded by aides, servants and of course swathed in money and protection, and yet somehow isolated and holding on. Finding herself pushed and prodded by conventions, turned into a statue, and having to pick out which customs are still operative and which no longer.

When I first started to watch the films, I loved the 1950s outfits,so carefully studied and accurate but gradually they are just the way one dresses, un-costumy.

I’m reading slowly the excellent thorough study of the time and film, Peter Lacey’s The Crown: The Official Companion. The history is corrected there. The changes justified. One of the pleasures are the photographs of the actual historical people juxtaposed to the actors: we see how closely aligned the choices for actors were, how their costumes are often recreations of the originals.

Some representative reviews, mostly ambiguous: The Telegraph rounded up a bunch and linked them in; from the New York Times on the second season (Goode was born to play the seductive Armstrong). Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair wanted to dislike the film but found it bloody compelling


Not quite gawdy?

I look forward to the third season, with a little trepidation that the change of actors will change the chemistry of the films too much or in directions I won’t care for. I don’t know the work of a number of the new actors: when I do, as Helena Bonham Carter for the aging Margaret, I can see it. I loved Olivia Coleman in Night Manager and can see her as a warm fundamentally sound older Elizabeth. Tobias Menzies (late of Outlander) as Philip when older is worrying: he often plays hard mean and cold people, yet he has his gentle psychological side as Frank Randall too (Paul Bettany said to have been considered would have been better at that).

It has emerged as something of a scandal that Smith was much much better paid than Foy; both my daughters informed me he is much better known, a star, while she with her superb performances as Amy Dorrit in Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit, the younger Nazi sister in the return of Upstairs Downstairs, as good as unknown. Even Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall doesn’t match Dr Who. I wonder. At any rate we are assured next year salaries will not be so gender unequal.

Ellen


Detail of Murray’s face from painting by John Singleton Copley


A print of Foster’s face under a large hat

Friends and readers,

The last of this set of foremother blogs: two women writers, very enjoyable to read: Judith Sargent Murray and Hannah Webster Foster; and several others whose lives show the American colonialist environment: Susannah Rowson, Sarah Wentworth Morton, and Leonora Sansay. Murray is a deeply appealing writer of feminist essays; Foster’s novel brought me close to tears. Leonora Sansay was the Creole mistress of Aaron Burr.

I am taking such a long time writing about this early modern American women writers course: I was away in Milan last week for more than 12 days, which has occasioned this hiatus. I hope to be more regular on this site from here on in at least for some time to come.

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

The last session in terms of the writing we read in Prof Tamara Harvey’s course was the most fulfilling because it was the most pleasurable and insightful as writing. Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), wrote fiction and essays, poetry, plays, and was an effective advocate for women’s rights. Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), wrote a epistolary novel still in print because it’s still read for its own sake, a prose commentary on education for women in the US, had two daughters who themselves became professional popular women writers. They write in an attractive available style, with sustained intelligent thought, and humanely. Both had careers in or through periodicals that appealed to the educated common reader of the era.

Like many a woman reader before me, I much enjoyed Murray’s essay On the Equality of the Sexes, which is an important text in feminist intellectual history. Calling herself Constantia, she anticipates Wollstonecraft in arguing that women are born with equal gifts to men and would contribute much to society, be better people if they were permitted to develop these. That it is the thwarting of these gifts, and inculcating of behaviors false to nature that inhibits their abilities. She anticipates Virginia Woolf too in showing how in a family the brother of such a girl is given all opportunities and she is repressed into instrument to support him and the family. The strength of her reasoning and a foundation in reading other feminist women writers (Mary Askew is quoted; also Charlotte Corday) show a wide range of reading in the classics and European authors.

She has a more overtly moralizing tone because in the US religious organizations were far more more forceful (taking the space that perhaps class adherence had in the UK), but her horizons are secular in aim. I delighted to discover she had read Vittoria Colonna (as the Marchioness of Pescara), and other Italian Renaissance women (Isotta Nogarella), Marie de Journay, Madame Scudery, Anne Murray Haklett and other women from the English civil war, and then the list of 18th century women writers is long and formidable (Genlis, Barbauld, Seward, Cowley, Inchbald, Smith; Radcliffe , Williams, Wollstonecraft). Alas one author she does not know was Jane Austen. Except for Austen, I felt Murray had been reading the same books I had. This is rare for me. Stories of an individual woman's capability in the public sphere are accompanied by an insistence in the importance of building women's self-esteem ("complacency"), as a foundation for economic independence. She was indeed radical. She reminds of me of other women in the later 17th century (Lucy Hutchinson) who were educated in a religious tradition (in her case "universalism") became devoted to a husband who helped her develop her gifts. John Murray was her second husband and it was his status (a rich shipping mercant) and career (a teacher) that enabled hers.

She wrote in magazines and produced fiction and a play centered on women as a group interacting with one anther rather than women seeking men (husbands, with courtship all the book would be about). Her The Traveller Returned and epistolary novel (really a series of essays with stories exemplifying), The Story of Margaretta is are over-didactic, with the latter more effective in showing how the development of sensibleness and abilities prevents women from making self-destructive miserable choices during the period of what might be called sexual and adult awakening (the theoretic point of say Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall).


Sarah Wentworth Morton, said to have been very pretty as seen in this portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Harvey wanted to stress how Murray was involved in building a career for herself and devoted what class time there was to a quarrel she had in print with another woman journalist and poet at the time, Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759-1846), who had called herself Constantia too. Morton’s husband had gotten Morton’s sister (staying with them at the time) pregnant, and the sister killed herself,and this private trouble emerged in public. Morton claimed the name was hers first, and she used it to signal her constancy to her husband.

I felt this focus undermined the respect for them Harvey was meaning to build. Morton wrote verse featuring non-white characters, a popular elegiac poem on behalf of abolition of slavery (The African Chief, based on the life of a slain St Domingo enslaved man) and Ouábi; Or the Virtues of Nature: An Indian Tale in Four Cantos, a European style love-conflict poem featuring native Americans (the story reflects Morton’s life troubles). These works sound much less readable than Murray’s (or Foster’s), but it used to be thought Morton wrote another epistolary novel, The Power of Sympathy (printed with Foster’s in a Penguin classics volume edited by Carla Mulford), with a believable enough psychological acuity.

It’s noteworthy almost all these early modern to later 18th century women writers were given these over-the-top romance names (Morton was also called Philenia & a Sappho), which had the effect of leading to their being taken less seriously than male writers.

Harvey spent all the time we had for Foster on The Coquette, which I have heard papers on before (see my report on a paper on The Coquette at the 2015 ASECS). There is nowhere near as much known about Foster as there is about Murray, probably because most of Foster’s publications are in fiction; essays invite a certain amount of autobiography, but The Coquette has been written about academically even frequently since the feminist movement.

The story is as follows: Peter Sanford, a libertine male seduces Eliza Wharton, a flirtatious young woman; he has no intention of marrying her (as beneath him), marries someone else while as his mistress she is gradually isolated; she becomes pregnant, gives birth, and dies shortly thereafter; no one attempts to go to her to help her. Ironically, there is information on the story’s source in real life scandal and death of an isolated mother and her stillborn baby.

What rivets the reader is the personality of the heroine, Eliza. She has escaped marrying a elderly clergyman she did not like, and finds herself pressured to marry another clergyman, Rev J Boyer, who is a decent man and would be a good husband to her but bores her as he attempts to control and thwart what are her enjoyments. Influenced by Richardson’s Clarissa, Foster has Eliza attracted to a rake, Sanford who is well educated and attractive, a secular young man; she is a reasoning secular young woman. Each major character has a separate correspondent and their voices are all individuated, believable.

The novel becomes a satiric philosophical debate on what is friendship. Eliza’s confidant responds to Eliza’s frank talk and real needs with mild but steady and unsympathetic moralistic scolding. What is proper entertainment? what do people want out of marriage? In this book they marry for money and rank, and Eliza’s refusal to follow this pattern isolates her, and gradually the novel turns into a poignant tragedy. She is never a libertine like Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Austen’s Lady Susan. Gradually her voice vanishes from the book, and we feel her punishment is unmerited. This is in contrast to a didactic parallel popular American novel by Susannah Rowson, Charlotte Temple (also with a source in real American life at the time). Forster’s book leaves the reader with a sense of grief for Eliza and indicts the rigidity of her society. It moves away from the religious morality of the time more than Samuel Richardson’s novel which equally indicts the other characters of his novel but rather for their greed or inhumanity or cruelty.

I found myself unexpectedly really enjoying reading the novel; it was a page-turner until Eliza understandably falls into her strained depression and moves towards death. She is so dependent on letters. I found tears coming to my eyes as I read about her death. She could not find a world to belong to and in this new country could not exist without one.


This may be a depiction of Leonora and one of her children (by John Vanderlyn)

Professor Harvey hurried on to bring in yet another American novelist of the era, probably a Creole Leonora Sansay (1773-1821), born Honora Davern, who became the mistress of Aaron Burr. Very like Jane Austen’s aunt Philadelphia, Leonora was married off to the powerful man’s client (Hancock was Hasting’s client); it’s not irrelevant both lives in colonies run by the empire of which they regarded themselves as a sort of member (women are only sort of members). As Hancock became obsessed with controlling the daughter who was fobbed off on him, so Louis Sansay eventually became intensely jealous of Leonora and violent, and she fled him and Haiti rejoining Burr and supporting him when his ambition led to his being accused of treason. Eventually after a few aliases, Leonora disappears from the public record; she appears to be yet another American woman writer of this era more interesting for her (amoral in her case) life than what she wrote.

If you followed along, the course did open a terrain of American women writers and their lives and the environment they had to live in politically, socially, religiously, one of dangerous wars, ruthless slavery and for most women obedience to repression or erasure. Judith Sargent Murray was a rare lucky woman in this colonialist world. For myself I most enjoyed communing with the women’s texts I had once known and had had no one to talk to about, and being introduced to new ones, though I concede had I had such a course as an undergraduate I might have been sorely tempted to research the origins of the women’s literature in America some of which when by women I do so enjoy today.

Ellen

Dear friends,

Although in the first session of Prof Tamara Harvey’s Early Modern American women writers, I regretted that she didn’t show the truly appealing poems of Anne Bradstreet or Sor Juana, in the second session on captivity narratives I had to admit someone today would not read the texts chosen by Mary Rowlandson and Phillis Wheatley for their subtlety, beauty, or true self-exploration. Again, as with Bradstreet and Juana, against all logic, natural emotion, and reason, Rowlandson interprets her horrifying experiences as evidence of God’s grace. Wheatley falls all over herself with gratitude to the Deity as well as her condescendingly kindly owners, then friends. Both are writing forms of captivity narratives. Rowlandson experienced the horrors of continual war: murder, destruction of communities, and then a hostage-worker. Wheatley was slave from a young baby, her gifts recognized and developed — up to a certain point.

The once enormously popular captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711), is printed with many different covers and additions to the text. Only a few of these today sport the original title, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God &c). While remarkably vivid and direct, Rowlandson presents a very limited view of what’s happening, of herself, of the Indians controlling her (enslaving, terrifying, killing, putting her and her neighbors and their children to work). The Indians are the savages (never mind the colonialists slaughtered them in thousands), she is the melodramatic victim heroine.

She just thrusts us into a layer-heavy experience. Her sister is dependent on her and killed immediately (this is seen as God’s way of rewarding her). Her baby dies during the march in her arms. The chapters are called “removes, so this is a journey. In the story we see her interacting with the Native Americans, in effect bargaining with them. She begins to know more about them as individuals and their customs; she suddenly uses their names. She eats their food, expresses kindness when she is treated decently. She is also at one point glad the native woman’s child is dead. She will in desperation take food from a baby’s mouth. She tries to change the outlook of those around her so they are not thinking how they are about to be killed. She also writes of other narrators like herself, other books so this text is not as unself-conscious as it seems. She presents herself as happiest at home. Her husband was a printer. Apparently he died and she remarried (became Mary White). The native American she is servant to is killed and she records this. There is no closure for her though: she tells us that since her experience, she can no longer sleep.

The text also functions as an exemplary conversion experience. I was interested in how she managed not to become a concubine while maintaining in her text not a hint of anything unchaste going on around her. Did the native people rape their captives: apparently they tended either to kill or adopt the person into their culture. It makes visible how continual and internecine fierce quarrels often resulted in mini-wars. There were native people who themselves converted to Christianity, and they were called (derisively) “praying Indians.” There are moments where she reproaches the English for not saving them. She was accused in turn: why didn’t you escape? why did you stay with them? Ironies: she is seen as having asked too much for herself when there was ransom bargaining. Her plight was real and she got very little sympathy (as victimized lower status women today often don’t).

For my part I thought the most effective places were where Rowlandson lets go and puts on the the raw emotion she is experiecing without knowing why or understanding herself: she is landed by her captors who are in canoes; they all come ashore, the people about her talk, laugh, are happy with their victory:

Then my heart began to fail and I fell aweeping, which was the first time to my remembrance, that I wept before them. Though I had met with so much affliction and my heart was many times ready to break, yet I could not shed one tear in their sight, but rather had all this time been in a maze (8th remove)

Apparently some Americanists try to argue these narratives were influential on the Anglo-European novel. They were read avidly out of curiosity to learn about the colonial experience and the American continent. Another captivity narrative by Hannah Duston shows as exemplary a murderous retaliatory heroine. Tamara Harvey ended this part of the session by talking of Jill Lepore’s book In the Name of War, which reveals the mindset we see around us today, the paranoid beset and beseiged, the notion that violence is a solution, that there is something special about the US experience is fully here. Wars of this era include King Philip’s, Metacun Rebellion, the Pequot war. It was all about slaughter. No wonder the Quakers were so anathemized. Lepore is today an excellent staff writer for the New Yorker. You can read Chapter 1 of her book here; hers is a book about the nature of war and how people write about it.

I regret to say I regard Phillis Wheatley’s neoclassic verse in the same light as Rowlandson’s prose: historically important but as poetry, thin, imitative, a rigid prosody, with a content where she shows that after she was literally freed, she continued to spout the (especially with regard to her) semi-hypocritical rhetoric used to disguise the aggrandizement, exploitation, destruction of the people native to America, the Africans kidnapped and enslaved, the indentured servants and convicts brought over from the UK. Perhaps I’m not being fair and there are many good lines if the book is studied carefully.This good paragraph comes from a poem to William Earl of Dartmouth:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Still, I have to admit it seems to me the scholar-critics want to avoid saying how unsatisfying the idiom of this poetry is. To see this clearly is to see the tragedy of her short life. Hers is the story of the lucky token exception with powerful patrons who recognized her gifts, and in return for presenting the Wheatleys as super-good people and behaving exemplarily (as the white colonialists saw this), she is protected — for a while. Wheatley was the family name; Phillis the name of her ship. There seems to be no memory of her earliest childhood. When she married, she found she had to work very hard for little money. The contemporary biographer blames John Peters, her husband for what happened to her. Dead children, herself very sick. Of course in comparison with most African people, she was treated like a princess, with respect, attention, and equivalent humanity.

Prof Harvey treated the volume and story from interesting angles (as she did Sor Juana and Bradstreet). Living in Boston was another stroke of luck; she showed us how Wheatley’s texts were marketed by looking at details in the titles of the poems. Wheatley was writing to middle and upper class women; there are elegies for the deaths of family members, for George Whitefield, a well-known Methodist; she addresses George Washington. In one epistle she writes of the Countess of Huntington and abolition movement; she writes to male aristocrats who were patrons. We see her in a community of well-connected people. Later there appear to be poems to or also about black people, a man manumitted at 40. She wants to associate with the local elite where she moves to, to admire a black nun, to think the city she lives in represents something great. Yet there is said to be an awareness in her of women across the globe who she might be like but had not had her luck.

The best book is Vincent Carretta’s Biography of a Genius in Bondage; I’ve met him at conferences and lectures, and heard him speak eloquently about Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano. We can see all that was available to a male once freed, not available to a female; Equiano lived a full life on his own while she had to marry, be dependent on her husband and died young of too many children and poverty.

I wish I felt more for these women from their books than I do. I can’t find a way into an attitude of mind so deeply guarded by religion and convention however clever Mary Rowlandson was. I can see that Wheatley survived and had what achievement and pleasure she did by somewhere deep in her fiercely repressing any anger. I find what is written about them resonates more.

Ellen


Pilgrim children dressed for church (17th century American art and dress)

Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours (Bradstreet, “The Prologue”)

In darkness foundering
Words fail the troubled mind.
For who, I ask, can light me
When Reason is blind? (Sor Juana, “On the effects of Divine Love”)

Dear friends and readers,

Among the delights I knew this early winter was to hear for the first time ever some American women writers I once spent hours and even weeks reading in the Library of Congress talked about intelligently and in words I could understand for the first time. It’s an odd feeling to have felt and thought about these women writers and their texts in the silence for long periods, shared my pleasure and thoughts with no one, and then suddenly confront a living constituency. I took a course at the OLLI at Mason in Early Modern American Women’s Writing. Four sessions of reading.

Not only the professor from George Mason, Tamara Harvey, had studied them thoroughly, but this was no dumbed-down course:  she cited articles, books, and talked of colleagues and students who also had read with interesting comments they made and perspectives written about. Had clearly discussed them in conferences, taught them to coming scholars. She took a perspective I had not thought of, and chose quite different poems from the ones I had so loved when I read their work in the 1980s on weekday nights and weekends in the Library of Congress reading rooms. I had looked at each as an individual and was absorbed by their life stories, chose the immediate personal texts, or texts that immediately appealed by their easy eloquence or wit or humor or pathos. Prof Harvey chose texts which could show the reader the origin and development of the American imaginary that is with us today. For all of them were born or writing or lived out their lives in the North American colonies and then US states.

There has been written a good sympathetic biography by a modern American woman poet, Charlotte Gordon: Anne Bradstreet, The Untold life of America’s First Poet. Anne emerges as a reluctant American, and you gain her full personal context:

I’ve never written about these American women writers in public before. The first two wrote texts which even at their most attractive show them thanking their God for dire punishments inflicted upon them personally, or when they try to assert their love of writing or desire to express themselves, they have first to argue for a right to write in the first place (which they seem to have to), in language so self-berating, so without any overt sense of their strong value, it’s hard to find several verses altogether unmarred. In her A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf complains the problem with 18th century poetry by women (in the UK) is they cannot forget themselves, are continually so aware of harassment, of embittering experiences as women, of obstacles set in their way for any kind of individual fulfillment, they are ever writhing with complaint. What about disfigurement and deformity & miseries which you feel you are forced to be thankful for? Religion has not just veiled and repressed the minds of women writers in the US, it makes them express patently perverse ideas.

That’s why I never made a foremother blog for Anne Bradstreet 1612-72). She’s a strong poet with an individual voice, as in this opening of some vereses upon waking up to find her house burning down (July 10, 1666):

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look …
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old

She writes of her children as chicks in her nest — she’s another woman poet who identifies with small vulnerable non-human animals:

I had eight birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest,
I nursed them up with pain and care,
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare … (“In reference to her children, 13 June 1659”)

She writes so intensely about her love for her husband, and what a good man he was (as all as her father), is guilty about the trouble she caused her (apparently) incessantly pregnant (and bodily miserable) mother, her fear herself of death from childbirth:

And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thy arms (“Before the birth of one of her children”)

I had stayed with the domestic woman’s art, her private life. Well, now I branched out over the week in my reading. I read four poems on the four seasons (summer “with melted tawny face, and garments thin”), filled with wonderful home-y imagery of her life. Tamara Harvey said her favorite of Bradstreet’s poems is “Phlegm,” which she said was about medical science of the era, and which I discovered when I went home and read my one paperback (The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Jeannine Hensley, foreword Adrienne Rich) is unqualified angry at the behavior and language of most people she encounters

Patient I am, patient I’d need be,
To bear with the injurious taunts …
I’ll leave that manly property to you,
I’ll love no thund’ring guns nor bloody wars …. (from “The Four Humors”)

It was still to me counterproductive for the professor to have picked out to concentrate on the worst stilted poems (admittedly by Bradstreet probably thought her most serious), as Bradstreet in epic form at length retells some Biblical or ancient history, and I thought to myself the other women around me (there was but one man in the class) will never seek out this woman’s book, but in these the professor found assertive feminist ambition (interwoven with the usual half-thwarted ambition) and comments allusive of American experience historically.

I now reread Rich’s introduction and found for the first time she too was interested in Bradstreet’s early depiction of the American experience: Rich stayed with the poetry one can read (descriptive) and we end up with Hart Crane by way of Cotton Mather. All those many years ago I had compared her to Anne Hutchinson, persecuted (like the French women of the 1790s,e.g., Madame Roland), speaking out, acting publicly on behalf of radical political beliefs. Now I see Bradstreet much more in a line with the political learned Lucy Hutchinson, down to having written an epic poem too (Lucy’s is actually readable), who, happily I have written a foremother blog for.


Sor Juana, portrait by Miguel Cabrera (see essay by Elizabeth Perry in Early Modern Women, a Disciplinary Journal, 2012, Vol 7, pp 3-32)

The professor chose the same kinds of high ambition poems to stress in the case of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95). These are truly awful, some plays where allegorical Catholic figures declaim and dance, again with the twisted self-accusatory, self-assertions. Sor Juana was much worse off: illegitimate, the child of small landowners, she’d have no dowry and (reminding me of Galileo’s unfortunate daughter) was made a nun, and for a while let alone to read and study and write love poems to imaginary lovers (the poems reminded me of Andrew Marvell, somewhere between the metaphysicals and clarity of later 17th century verse). These were those I read, plus a few others to Mexican aristocratic women, sometimes on classical myths I could recognize (Pyramus and Thisbe!). I did remember one where she justified the enslavement of a girl. I seem even to have tried to read a book on her poetry, and got half-way through her life and religion (!) by Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, on “the entrapments of faith.”

No one to talk to, I somehow did not realize that what happened was she defied a bishop (guardedly, qualifiedly) and that was enough to lead all around her to quash her gifts, stop her writing; silenced, made to “do penitence,” no surprise she didn’t live long after this. Prof Harvey revealed also that Sor Juana was strongly hostile and aggressive towards native people in the US (for savage reprisals, strong nationalist), wrote blood-thirsty choruses,reminding me now of the sequences of “savages” dancing in the Americas in the film adaptation of Outlander (so we haven’t gone far in popular conceptions of African-derived rituals or native Americans, it seems). I began to see why I read only a third of the one volume of poetry I have (A Sor Juana Anthology, trans. Alan S. Trueblood, foreword by Octavio Pza) and never opened one of these half-crazed vision books (Sor Juana’s Dream, trans., intro, commentary Luis Harss), filled with guilt, agony, torturous versions of mystic neoplatonic readings of ancient kingdoms.


17th Century Spanish church (American, Yucatan, San Pedro)

Poor woman. I now think what I managed on my own was from her short period of joy, and reading over the week came to the conclusion she was a lesbian, and her bitter encounter with the bishop was preceded by equally crushing relationships with court women. She began as an innocent with a kindly good heart, naively reaching out to people expecting reciprocation:

And although loving your beauty
is a crime beyond repair,
rather the crime be chastised
than my fervor cease to dare.

With this confession in hand,
I pray be less stern with me.
Do not condemn me to distress
one who fancied bliss so free.

If you blame me for disrespect,
remember, you gave me leave;
thus, if obedience was wrong,
your commanding must be my reprieve …(“Excusing herself for silence, on being summoned to break it”)

So this time I read on into two-thirds more of my anthology of her poetry. It is equally hard to find a whole poem to share that is not painful. The fantasies of herself with the imaginary beloved in natural landscapes (reminding me of Anne Finch’s reveries) are lovely. There are long winding verses with deep grief at separation from the beloved, relief in his company where she can tell of her cares, “insidious memories,” awareness of the fleetingness of their beings. Some are addressed so directly and intimately to a lover (sonnets like Vittoria Colonna’s, but better, less repetition of the same imagery and more truthful) where she imagines him strangling her with a rope, teasing, vexing her with vacillations; in one she is widowed in a series called “Vicarious Love.” In the English translation, she’s at her best in short lines with four line rhyme schemes:

That my heart is suffering
from love pangs is plain,
but less clear by far
is the cause of its pain.

To make fancy come true
my poor heart strains
but, thwarting desire,
only gloom remains …
I yearn for the chance
to which I aspire
yet when it impends
I shrink ….

She has so few color words, I share this stanza for the sake of that word “green:”

Return, beloved one;
my weary life is suffering decline
from absence so prolonged.
Return, but if you stay away,
although my hope is fed by tears of pain,
I’ll keep it green till you return.

There’s a series on the relationship of convent to court. Any individual stanza gains its individual meaning from context so again it’s hard to convey why anyone would be drawn into these. There’s one on music which attempts to imitate music, a series on the self in the world (things are pretty bad, even learning is harmful for many). She recognizes the great cruelty of people, but also that hers are imagined troubles too, so some are “happy in their unknowing.” Paz finds her not so melancholy as I do since he follows her astronomical poetry and, through his religious belief, enters into her Dante like visions where she transfigures her longing spirit for love and understanding.

When it has come to the desired place,
It sees a lady held in reverence,
And who shines so, that through her radiance
The pilgrim spirit gazes on her (Paz, “Council of Stars”)

Nonetheless, in the dream book I mentioned, now opened and at least skimmed, this self-insight is not uncommon:

… to the undaunted spirit
that, disdaining life, determines
to immortalize itself in ruin.

I thought of the Renaissance poet, Margaret of Navarre’s Prisons, but perhaps for the modern reader, Emily Dickinson, Gabriela Mistal, and Elizabeth Bishop (drunk, lesbian, living at the edge of a world that did recognize her) would be more helpful in situating her among women. For art work, Remedios Varo (see my blog series, women artists) who spent her last years in Mexico and ended making surreal mystic fantasias.


Varo’s The Escape

I’ve four more, long 18th century women writers from this course on American roots, for our imaginary. The writer of a once widely-sold captivity narrative, Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711) and the neo-classical verse writing Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), in a deep sense a captive all her life; then journalist, essayist, playwright, poet, advocate for women’s rights (an American Mary Wollstonecraft), Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), playwright and still in print and read novelist.

I’ve spent this evening in the company of two great spirits.

Ellen


Fanny Price (Sylvestre Le Tousel) watching from window


How much better Mary Crawford rides (1983 BBC MP, scripted Ken Tayler)

Friends,

A few weeks ago now a member of Janeites@yahoogroups.com, brought up the subject of giving-giving in Emma. I never read this first email, so am not quite sure what the writer meant to convey, but did read parts of an ensuing interesting conversation on gift-giving in Austen’s novels. What interested me is how people talk about gifts sentimentally in the US and modern culture today (not tribal and traditional which are other worlds), but how we treat them for real. What is the voiced ideal for gift-giving and what is the reciprocal practice in life. And then, how in the later 18th century gifts were regarded (as mirrored in Austen’s novels), and the underlying caustic, hard tone Austen takes towards just about all instances in her fiction.

Today in the US, especially around Christmas-time, there has emerged a quid-pro-quo for gifts. People who work together have “draws” where they are obligated to buy a gift worth so-much and no more; family quarrels erupt because one person has bought a much more expensive gift for another and gotten a cheaper one in exchange. Note that word, exchange. Either the big giver is regarded as showing off, or the small token giver is regarded as doing something in bad taste, inadequately. There is another attitude, older, and about loving relationships, that a gift is something freely given out of generosity at the same time as it has nothing to do with charity. To give in charity is quite a different emotion and relationship. It’s supposed to be unbiased, disinterested, by someone not involved directly. When people give their children gifts, they are not engaging in charity. The myth of Santa Claus might be regarded as a device which hides they are the gift-givers and so their children are absolved of gratitude.


Fanny Price (Sylvestre Le Tousel) bringing home books to share with the unenthusiastic Susan (Eyrl Maynard) (1983 BBC MP, scripted Ken Taylor)

So how do gifts function in Austen’s novels: they show someone’s status; they can confer obligation the other character would rather not have; one character shows their power over another; gratitude is expected. From a gendered perspective, a man puts a sign on a woman, most often a necklace, to show that she has agreed to be his. They also reveal a character’s meanness or true largesse. Elizabeth Elliot’s idea of retrenchment is to give up buying Anne a token present in London each year — a gift which shows that Anne does not come to London with her, shows her higher importance. Mrs Norris cannot get herself to part with even the the most poor conditioned of prayerbooks, she gives William £1 and gives herself airs for having given the gift; when it’s revealed how little she gave by Lady Bertram, her sister (who gave him £15), Mrs Norris turns red because she knows she has been stingy, could have given so much more, so she turns on Lady Bertram as absurdly over-indulging the young man.

As complicated instances of the complexities and difficulties of generosity, Fanny Price out of the £10 allowance Sir Thomas gives her when she goes to live at Portsmouth, buys a subscription at a lending library so she can have the pleasure of reading but also sharing her knowledge with Susan, her sister. She is disappointed because Susan does not appreciate this gift as much as the powerful giver’s presence. She buys a fancy new knife for her spiteful young sister, Betsy, because Betsy has taken a knife a now dead Mary is said to have meant to give Susan but was snatched out of Susan’s hands by the mother who favors Betsy with the excuse Betsy is younger. Once given this knife, Betsy relinquishes Mary’s knife with disdain as old; Susan wanted it as a cherished memory device. In Austen’s books and I’ve seen in life people who judge ill or don’t care will give one child a gift in a family (or money) and not the other. They may claim they don’t want to show favoritism but they do. In the primogeniture culture egalitarian ways of thought were not considered a standard at all. So giving one boy and not others is just fine — but not in human feeling. People accepted it because they were so desperate.

We are supposed to admire Mr Knightley for wanting to give so many of his apples to the Bates’s and Jane Fairfax, he leaves himself (so his housekeeper says) with too few. We are also to see that he does not pay close attention to how much he gives; the point in his mind is not himself but the person he is trying to help

In the threads on this subject, it emerged that Emma shows more open gift-giving than the other novels, with a subtle interplay in Mansfield Park that each time reveals dependency, obligation, at its worst anger over a gift that the other person feels she should have had, at its best distanced practical patronage. In both Mansfield Park and Emma we have rich characters intermingled with impoverished ones. Emma Woodhouse gives as a sign of her upper class status and largesse, not the kindliness of her heart, or she makes a gesture, say to Jane Fairfax of arrowroot. The gifts in Emma are most often food. I would not call what she does charity as she has a real relationship with those who live in her village, on her property (as say tenants); it’s a way of being upper class. She is obliged to give. This is a hard view of giving: you give because if you don’t, you lose your status in the community — your position of power. Think of Emma’s mockery of how Miss Bates would talk if Frank married Jane. How good of him, how grateful we all are. Frank=power and Jane does want and need him for his strength, which depends on his self-sufficiency – as long as the Churchills keep giving him his place in their family as their heir-adopted son. I am not as sure of his self-esteem without that place as Mr Knightley seems to be. Mr Knightley is in no danger of losing his place.  Emma is scorning Miss Bates for being open about how she is supposed to be the grateful recipient as a secondary, very much tertiary dependent.

Fanny’s schoolroom is filled with gifts from her cousins who gave what they didn’t care about; Tom in particular is very generous with netting boxes, what he couldn’t want himself anyway. But Fanny values all these shabby things as a sign they mean well by her. We see they clutter up the attic room she is grudgingly given as a sitting room next to her bedroom by Mrs Norris as the old nursery the other Bertram children have outgrown. Fanny’s position is parallel to Miss Bates, but she knows to be silent and tactful about having to be the recipient of whatever is as a bye-product given to her.


Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) and Frank Churchill (Raymound Coulthard) hurriedly getting up from the new mysterious piano as Emma, Harriet and Miss Bates arrive on the stairway landing (1996 ITV Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

The most spectacular gift in all Austen is the pianoforte Frank gives Jane — only since the giver is secret it’s a terrific embarrassment. From time immemorial in Europe when a man gives a woman a present (a necklace or ring was most common) and she accepts it and wears it, that’s a sign she is his, attached to him. Engagement. In Anthony Trollope’s novels, young women resist taking such gifts with great intensity because that means they can’t back down; they have said “yes” unequivocally by this acceptance. Engagement meant being left alone so to break off would be to sexually compromise yourself. In Trollope’s The Vicar of Bullhampton a young women resists a fierce attempt to place a necklace on her; this way of seducing her is supposed to soften the aggression involved in pressuring the girl to marry the young man — after all once they are married, she will have to have sex with him. The gift is then a form of sexual harassment if the man is forcing himself or being forced on the young woman. Trollope’s Ayala’s Angel also include an imposed necklace (by a man) that is rejected (by the woman). In the Renaissance stories emerge of someone’s mistress demanding her lover give her the necklace he gave his wife and it’s exposed he did that. This happened to Vittoria Colonna (according to one gossip chronicle). When Henry VIII demands of Catherine of Aragon she give back the jewelry he gave her so it could re-carved as Anna Boleyn’s that’s about as cruel and humiliating slap as he can mete out.

It’s a sign of Frank’s power, his wealth, what he can for Jane. He can also force her to sing on even she’s tired: she loves to please him, but is physically weak and if we watched sensitive to slights while she plays. She knows her ability to play is seen as a function of her having to sell herself (as she puts it, into a slavery) as a governess. Frank is asserting ownership over Jane, conferring obligation; we see he cares little for her sensitivities and does not think at all what marriage to him for Jane might be like from her point of view. Mr Knightley is right to feel sorry for Jane’s choice in the end, and say Colonel Campbell is too sensitive a gentleman to have given a gift as a secret in public. Frank is like the person doing wrong who wants to be found out because it titillates him. Oh yes he knows she loves to play and he to listen and they had joy that way, but the joy is now spoilt.

Henry and Mary Crawford attempt to trick Fanny Price into accepting as a gift a lovely necklace from him; they try to persuade her it’s one he gave Mary a long time ago and so it’s now Mary’s and it’s not worth money, no longer attached to him. When she discovers that in fact he wanted to give he a new necklace from himself, she regards the incident as an instance of how Mary is capable of betraying her female friends. When Emma circulates the rumor that Jane and Mr Dixon were in love with one another, though he chose to marry Jane’s rich friend, she is sullying Jane’s reputation very badly: here too we find a woman betraying another.

Lucy Steele shows Elinor Dashwood the ring and miniature that Edward gave her to prove Edward is engaged to her; that he wears a ring (from her) into which a lock of her hair has been twisted is a sign he is hers. She puts a sign on him, showing her power and aggression. In her case, we can see how a grasping personality can make a gift she accepts into a sign of her power.


Lucy Steele ( Anna Madeley) telling Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) she and Edward have been engaged for 4 years


Lucy confirming this by pressing Edward’s gifts to Lucy into Elinor’s hand (2008 BBC S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

Lucy presses on Elinor the task of helping her and Edward to marry on the basis of female loyalty! She knows that Elinor has a brother who may have a parish position in his “gift.” No wonder Austen at the end of the novel said she was an instance of all one could gain if one were ruthless in pursuit and didn’t care what it cost you in things outside money or decency. Jane cannot bear to eat Emma’s gift of arrowroot. Emma later understands it would have choked her. Emma continually betrayed and needled Jane all book long. It’s striking how making a character the consciousness of a book pulls readers into favoring that character, for most readers end up liking Emma by the end of her book. It is Emma who notices that Frank’s obsession with Jane’s skin color does not bode well for the coming years of marriage.

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Henry Tilney (J.J.Feilds) explaining to Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) his father’s exploitative relationships with the world (2007 Granada Northanger Abbey, scripted Andrew Davies)

The subtlety of what gift-giving scenes in Austen dramatize was suggested by Diana Birchall in her contribution to this thread: I had written that Henry and Eleanor Tilney’s mother, a Miss Drummond, had paid a high price for the necklace her bethrothed gave her: her life (as in, according to Andrew Davies in his film of Northanger Abbey, 2007) Henry Tilney’s explanation to Catherine that his father “drained the life out of her”. So was vampirish. And I said it was not generosity because she brought the General, it was said, a large dowry. He wants his sons and daughter to marry in the same mercenary way he did.

Diana:

I’m enjoying this thread too, and am grateful to Ellen for mentioning “Miss Drummond” in Northanger Abbey, because I’m writing something about Gen. Tilney, and in spite of my fairly accurate knowledge of Austens texts, I had absolutely no memory of a Miss Drummond! Of course I delighted in looking up the passage, but must point out that it indicates that Gen. Tilney is not the gift-giver as Ellen remembers it (clearly the passage is not that memorable!). Miss Drummond married Gen. Tilney, but it was her own father who gave her her fortune, money for wedding-clothes, and the set of pearls. The passage reads thus:

‘Mrs. Tilney was a Miss Drummond, and she and Mrs. Hughes were schoolfellows; and Miss Drummond had a very large fortune; and, when she married, her father gave her twenty thousand pounds, and five hundred to buy wedding–clothes. Mrs. Hughes saw all the clothes after they came from the warehouse.’
‘And are Mr. and Mrs. Tilney in Bath?’
‘Yes, I fancy they are, but I am not quite certain. Upon recollection, however, I have a notion they are both dead; at least the mother is; yes, I am sure Mrs. Tilney is dead, because Mrs. Hughes told me there was a very beautiful set of pearls that Mr. Drummond gave his daughter on her wedding–day and that Miss Tilney has got now, for they were put by for her when her mother died.'”

I was wrong about who gave the gift: the general didn’t even have it in him to give his bride a necklace, but not about Austen’s emphasis (picked out by Davies). Similarly Mr Elliot talks of buying his daughter, Mary Musgrove a pelisse in order to get credit for the thought, without giving her anything on the grounds she is looking so red-nosed recently so obviously the warmth of the garment will just make her more unattractive (to him).

Sometimes I find when one is exploring a new topic, or one I hadn’t thought about before, it’s useful to remember cognate uses of a word. So gift is also used of someone who is born with “gifts” for say singing, or writing, or acting. We say of Pavarotti after we have listened to him sing “Nessun dorma” (from Puccini’s Tosca) “it’s a gift.” By that we mean something freely given, something he got from his genes, something he need not have done anything for. He was born that way.

We have a comment by Austen on this kind of thing too and again she is caustic. She says of how Mary Crawford is so admired for her horsemanship, her nerve and boldness on a horse, that she was the admiration of all based on what she inherited in her genetic disposition for fearlessness and her strong body. She did nothing for this — after all Pavarotti trained his voice. The implication in Austen over Mary on a horse or playing cards is the admiration is misplaced because people admire such a character because they think the person is responsible, when it’s their genes. Nothing Mary goes in the book suggests she will work hard at anything — reminding us of Emma who makes up lists of books to improve herself with, and only practices the piano when she feels momentary envy because someone with gifts who has worked hard to perfect her has outdone her in pubilc. Jane Fairfax is gifted and then works hard to be a good pianist – for her efforts, though, Harriet Smith sneers at as someone herself (Harriet) who is not being sent out to work. Yes no one would spend the money to train her as Colonel Campbell has generously done for his friend’s orphan daughter.


Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) trying to persuade her father (Benjamin Whitlow) she is marrying Darcy for love (1995 BBC P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)

Diane Reynolds brought in a larger philosophical perspective.

Ellen’s comments highlight what I have been thinking about, that gifts are a prime example Derrida uses to explain aporia or paradox in language. He argues there is no such thing as a real gift, because a real gift would confer absolutely no obligation on the recipient and the recipient wouldn’t know it was given. Yet, a gift implies a giver and recipient. Gifts by their very nature are not supposed to confer obligation and yet they always do, if only the obligation of a thank you. This is not just in Austen’s time, but across western culture. The word “gift” is a convenient contradiction, a way to try to soften the power. Of course, Austen never misses a beat on how power works.

I think of the gift of £3,500 [sum researched by Diana B] Darcy supplies for Lydia’s dowry and for a commission for Wickham that essentially buys Elizabeth for him. That’s a huge sum in today’s money, so Elizabeth was a costly — and quoting Richardson “an amiable bauble_ -— much more so than Jane Fairfax. Austen is careful to set up that Elizabeth has already softened to Darcy and would be ready to accept a marriage proposal anyway — if only to be mistress of Pemberley! — but Darcy’s “gift” undeniably clinches the deal — and a transaction it is.

Gift gifting is clearly a sign of power — we see all the netting boxes from Tom on Fanny’s table, showing both his power to give gifts and her relative unimportance — netting boxes are not exactly high-powered presents. Fanny’s power in Portsmouth is shown in her ability to bestow presents, thanks to Sir Thomas’s providing her with standing money; her powerlessness is in her inability to leave — and she knows very well she doesn’t want to be obligated to the Crawfords for the gift of transport.

But what of other of Fanny’s room decor? She apparently scavenges the trash — finds what other people have discarded — to furnish her study. Are these discards that Fanny obtains, in part, through metaphoric “dumpster diving,” gifts? Or has she earned them through her own ingenuity in salvaging them? (Some of them were obviously given to her as discards.) Are discards gifts?” Did she compete with the servants for this stuff?

And what of the cream cheese and eggs Mrs. Norris sponges? Do they count as gifts?

I offered the idea that Mrs Norris was based on Jane’s aunt, Jane Pierrot-Leigh, who was a petty thief, and was almost transported for theft of a card of lace when caught — and she counter-accused the shopkeeper of entrapping her in order to blackmail her. It’s obvious from the trial hearing and another time she tried to walk out of a shop, this time with a plant, she persuaded herself, as does Mrs Norris of the housekeeper, she had the right to these small items, they were in fact given to, meant to be hers.

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In Whit Stillman’s 1990 Metropolitan (appropriate of MP) Aubrey-Fanny buys herself a set of Austen’s novels for Christmas

We had by no means exhausted the subject or instances of gifts in Austen however defined. A view of gift-giving which emphasizes an idealizing perspective is found in Lewis Hyde’s famous book, The Gift. He agrees no gift is freely given (he begins with tribes) and yet when it’s a case of sharing one’s creativity (because we want to) in making beautiful meaningful things and experiences, we transform our world and experience (here he has moved on from tribes to a modern urban world). He attacks our commodity and money-driven market world. I’d use as an instance of his theory the architect (probably not that well paid originally) who built Mansfield Park left behind him a locus amoenus for people to find pleasure in. Hyde’s book is well-meant: he wants a return to a true gift-giving exchange to transform people. But as we see in Mary Crawford’s gifts, Jane Fairfax’s, Anne Elliot’s, Marianne’s, Fanny’s, gifts don’t work out in the real world necessarily to spread harmony and transform the world. I don’t say love and friendship cannot be embodied in a gift: it is in fact a natural way of embodying the feeling; we say to someone your life is of value on their birthday by giving them some gift.

Austen begins her texts as a satirist but as she revises and becomes realistic she seems to take in the complexities of whatever she is targeting. By the time of final text she has reversed her more shallow burlesque stance in the context of thick realism, and explores her topic to the point she reaches complex emotional ironies. I’d put the lesson that emerges this way: in her mature novels Austen reveals gift-giving to be part of a relationship where the giver has power over the receiver, the vulnerable person, someone in need or in the subaltern position. Thus you had better understand the nature of that giver before accepting the gift if you are in a position to refuse.

Ellen


Photo of Virginia Woolf by Barbara Strachey (1938)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Eight Mondays, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
March 5 to May 9
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss four of Woolf’s later books: two playful satires, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], owned (so she thought) by the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Orlando, a biography cum novel, which is also a time-traveling tale through literature and culture and gender changes from the Renaissance to our own times; two books written during the crisis time just before and as World War Two began: Three Guineas, an essay analyzing the origins of war and suggesting how we may prevent future wars; and Between the Acts, a novella in which a group of characters put on a historical pageant. The contexts will be literary (about biography, fantasy, historical novels), political, and biographical. We will see clips of the film adaptation, Orlando, in class. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these original, delightful and serious books.


Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. “The new Biography,” available at the Internet Archive in Granite and Rainbow. I will send this by attachment.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639
Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. ed. introd Melba Cuddy-Keane. Harcourt, 2008. ISBN 978015603473

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.

Harvard has digitalized Virginia and Leonard’s photo album of life at Monk House, their home, and you can view the album here. Many of Woolf’s central long and shorter texts may be found on Project Gutenberg Australia:


Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 5: 1st session: Introduction: Woolf, & the art of biography, Begin Flush

March 12: 2nd session: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning

March 19 & 26: Class cancelled: Read essays, “The New Biography” and “The Art of Biography” on your own.

April 2: 3rd session: begin Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, as and about biography

April 9: 4th session Orlando: history, time-traveling novel, tranvestite tale;

April 16: 5th session Orlando, we’ll see & discuss clips from the movie; begin Three Guineas

April 23: 6th session Three Guineas: political context, anti-war, anti-patriarchy, anti-colonial

April 30: 7th session Between the Acts as historical pageant, as history

May 7: 8th session Between the Acts: as a novel with story & characters. Last thoughts.


Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Barrett, Elaine. “The Value of Three Guineas in the Twenty-First Century,” online at Academia. edu: http://www.academia.edu/7822334/The_Value_of_Three_Guineas
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Fleishman, Avrom. On “Between the Acts,” “Experiment and Renewal,” The English Historical Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971.
Karlin, Daniel. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence. Oxford: OUP, 1989.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. A novel from EBB’s maid’s point of view.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam, 1973. (Important text for understanding Vita Sackville-West).
Orr, Douglas. Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses. Clemson University Press. 2004. Online as a pdf: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1017&context=cudp_mono
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. NY: Oxford, 1978.
Rosenbaum. S. P. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary, rev. edition. Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press, 1975.
Sackville-West, Vita. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.
——————–. All Passion Spent. Virago Press, 1983.
Snaith, Anna. “Of fanciers, footnotes, and fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush, Modern Fiction Studies 48:3 (2002):614-36.
Trombley, Stephen. All that Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine. NY: Continuum, 1982.


Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)

Ellen