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Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane (BBC Strong Poison, 1987) — iconic


Viola in Twelfth Night (1970s) — early in her career, a quick poetic presence


As Brutus in Julius Caesar (2012) — more recently

In a context in which unmarried women were viewed as either innocent virgins, whores, or old maids, it was refreshing to play a Beatrice who is sometimes in-between. If she is a virgin, she is not innocent; and her love/hate for Benedick is a long-standing love/hate exclusively reserved for him, therefore she is no whore. Old maid she may be, but her self-professed scorn for the state of marriage and her one-off originality safeguard her from any pity. In my own life I had experience of this fragile state and had occasionally worn a similar masks (Harriet Walter, “Beatrice,” Brutus and Other Heroines)

Friends and readers,

Another of my actress blogs. I’m in the refreshing position of writing about an actress whose work I have long followed, love well, whose face as Harriet Vane I have used as my gravatar on my longest running blog (where I still sign Miss Sylvia Drake, from Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night) — almost all my actress blogs have been about 18th or 19th century British actresses (two exceptions). At the same time she is one of a number of British actresses since the profession began who writes well, about her art, about theater, and playing Shakespeare’s characters — it was such actresses, those who left interesting memoirs (as well as those who went into directing), who have been responsible for the rise in status serious actresses have enjoyed since the later 19th century.

I became aware of how special she was (that it was not just a subjective idiosyncrasy that made me aware of her presence wherever I saw her & would watch more attentively) when I came across her memoir of her time directing and acting in a company of actresses who were doing all female Shakespeare plays: Brutus and Other Heroines (Nick Hern, 2016), wherein she indeed played Brutus and Henry IV (Bolingbroke), not to omit earlier productions where she was Ophelia (early in her career), Helena and Imogen (she is especially proud of these, so more on this just below), Portia, Viola, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and even Cleopatra. Casting people is an art which does drive down to an archetype they can correspond to (or work against the grain): Michelle Dockery has been Hotspur’s wife, Kate; Keeley Hawes Elizabeth Plantagenet, widow and then wife of Edward IV; Sophie Okonedo, Margaret of Anjou and Cleopatra; Sally Hawkins, Duchess of Gloucester; Penny Downie, Gertrude; Lindsay Doran, Duchess of York, Sinead Cusack, Lady Macbeth (against type) and Judi Dench (defying this, so many).


In this volume she is with Juliet Stevenson the most insightful generally, with Fiona Shaw, the most self-aware (the editor and frequent commentator and voice is that of Faith Evans)

In reviews her performances are singled out, you can find her described individually when she has even a smaller role (nearly consistently in the better ones) — as conveying an intelligent presence, naturally witty, piquant, conveying when she wants a gravitas (and she can walk like a man as well as a Duchess), at times a light poetic presence (when younger), or yearning, recently in the contemporary Killing Eve (rave reviews) she has shown herself up to the hard edginess of a Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.


Dasha (BBC Killing Eve, 2020) — knowledge of the world making for an underlying melancholy

The trajectory of her career may be seen at wikipedia. She is the daughter of a respected actor, went to and succeeded at demanding academic schools, but preferred drama training to university, even though she had a hard time getting a place until the London Academy of Music and Art accepted her. She was a regular in the troupe with the Royal Shakespeare Company:


Ophelia with Jonathan Pryce as Hamlet (Royal Court Theatre production directed by Richard Eyre 1980)


As Beatrice, coming into her own, consulted in her costume

She was in theater in general for her first ten years, classic and good drama, continuing today; yielding to TV one-off dramas and serials by 1987 (one of her early roles the one I remember first, Harriet Vane — she favored detective heroines, mystery and spy drama even then).  She does what’s called quality drama in the TV serial type: she was powerful as Clementine Churchill burning her husband’s unwanted portrait up after his death:


Clementine Churchill (Netflix The Crown, 2014)

Then she became the present breaker-down of taboos (among other things, playing males); and in these last years, writing, directing and a patron of charities and encouraging young people to enter theater. I just love her appearances in documentaries where she will read exquisitely well deeply effective poetry (as in Simon Schama’s recent The Romantics and Us — along with Tobias Menzies). See her in a series of shots across her career in various roles in costume.

Sandra Richards in her important The Rise of the English Actress, makes Harriet one of her central portraits for recent (20th century) actresses (along with Emma Thompson, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson):

Harriet is one of those successful actresses who used her success to contest stereotyping (sometimes at the risk of being “unpopular on a set”); she also “gravitated towards plays and roles that treat issues on which [she] has strong feelings.” She chose political drama like John Berger and Nella Bielski’s A Question of Geography. A number of the roles she’s taken “question male prerogatives.” She was, early on, cast for one of the apparently most unpopular heroines in Shakespeare’s plays, Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well by Trevor Nunn, and she triumphed as a figure of integrity, deep sense of self and passion, partly thanks to Peggy Ashcroft there as Bertram’s mother, the Countess. She says that she must also in a role “still be identifiable as an ordinary person.” She did very much enjoy playing Harriet Vane, a match in unusual sexiness and intelligence for Edward Petheridge’s Lord Wimsey. In two of these stories, he may save her literally, but it is she who unpicks the case.

In my view she has a real penchant for the Psyche archetype at the core of the female detective story as it used be told.

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For me Harriet Walter’s writings on her art, how she works to act and what the plays mean are what makes her so special. She has helped to make me look differently at the plays and consider the actresses who dare inhabit Shakespeare’s women. She (and others in Clamorous Women) asks us to imagine what it’s like to be the only one or one of three actresses on a stage doing Shakespeare; of what it feels like when the director and adaptor (there is often an adaptor) are themselves unconscious misogynists, when they direct you with a lack of sympathy towards the character, re-arrange the scenes to make the character less sympathetic, imagine trying to complain! when what you want to do is change the director’s direction, see the character as a woman might.

I think especially in the cases of Helena of All’s Well that Ends Well and Imogen of Cymbeline — that until I read Walter’s comments, I had not realized how horribly both women are treated, especially Imogen who (like Desdemona) is threatened with honor-killing. I realize that in the case of the romance play, Shakespeare is in part following his atavistic and incoherent sources, but it is up to Walter (and her director and other actors) to makes sense of the character. Probably what is most entertaining and fascinating about her books is her analyses of all the characters she discusses (I can see how she would have done very well as an English lit major)– and she writes in the plainest of perceptive language.


Here she is with (as Posthumous) Nicholas Farrell, a superb actor who breaks all stereotypes of macho male, and would be impressive in projecting neuroticism and remorse

It seemed to me for both female characters, Walter’s choice was to imagine them personally courageous and sure of their integrity, and desiring their husband (as one might today desire some profession). Around such a conception she made sense of the roles. For my part I’m with Samuel Johnson and will never “reconcile my heart” to the callow selfish Bertram, but can accept that Helena could value him (and what a marvelous mother she’d get too!). The fairy tale and poetry of Cymbeline enables the reader/watcher to get further on one’s own, and draws us up over life’s irrational deep griefs. What Walter does is step-by-step tell herself (and now write down) what was her whole reaction and the details in it to the other characters’ demands on her. I felt I was rereading Shakespeare’s play from a wholly new angle, as well as how I might come on stage and who is there.

I was much helped by Fletcher’s Honour Killing in Shakespeare, indeed startled as much as I was years ago when I first read Charlotte Lennox’s 18th century Shakespeare Illustrated where Lennox said, why should Hermione rejoice when she’s lost 16 years of her life. Indeed, I had never thought of what was happening truly from the particular heroine’s POV. Who wants to spend 16 years in a dark room.

Honour-Killing in Shakespeare is not just how horrible is the behavior of all these males towards Hero (Much Ado About Nothing) but a reading of Hero’s lines which shows she is really attracted to Don Pedro, not keen on Claudio and who would be. A careful reading not only of the plays where the equivalent of honor-killing goes on, but the treatment of the women in the history plays (Henry VI had a number of complex fascinating women, an analysis of further story matter which suggests the paradigm in Shakespeare’s mind was not Eve but Susannah, falsely suspected, deceived, and ostracized by the males in her community is a core icon/myth for Shakespeare. Fletcher wants us to see that not only is Shakespeare not on the side of or indifferent to the misogyny of some of his material, but feminist himself (or proto-) in plays like As You Like It (Rosalind), Twelfth Night (Maria is as much an intelligent woman as Olivia is at least able to cope with her household when she puts her mind to it. What is supportive about this book is it close reads in the traditional readerly sense and then you can turn back to these actresses trying to cope with their parts (and other people coping with theirs and the whole theater/film crew). The book is so refreshing; even when you cringe or wince over plays like Titus Andronicus (the Philomel stories) you are asked to see what you are seeing as a woman might. I still am not sure that Shakespeare does not find Gertrude complicit (and cowardly, evasive) rather than drawn along, but the whole context of the world at that court is what you must account for.

True, there is nothing as clearly on the side of real women in the world of the early 16th century as in the tragedy of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (whom Harriet Walter has played). A moment of joy with her steward, now husband Antonio, and many hours (it feels like later) strangled for it by her brother.

I did find Walter’s reasoning over the treatment of Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew not persuasive — especially as I have read and seen Fletcher’s Jacobean The Tamer Tamed, where in fact the women are vindicated (I cannot recommend too strongly reading this play, in print, and seeing it if it should ever come near you — the RSC brought it to the Kennedy Center one year). It is also hard to make sense of Isabella in Measure for Measure, especially in context. Walter and other of the actresses are not beyond special pleading. To return to Clamorous Voices, I did find Sinead Cusack’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth as sensually in love with her husband, attached to him, making up for having no children left, and Juliet Stevenson’s ambivalent driving passion more gripping than the reasonable voices I’ve been following. But as each woman adds to a new way of reading Shakespeare, we can try to enable others to see with us when part of an audience, or teaching — or writing of one of his plays.

But I have digressed too far. This blog is a salute to Harriet Walter’s art as an actress so let me end here on her art as a comedienne: she steals the show, forever after filling the shoes (to use her word) of the bitingly hilariously selfish Fanny Dashwood in one of my favorite Austen films, the 1996 Sense and Sensibility (scripted by Emma Thompson):


“People live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them.”

Ellen


From the first Christmas special in Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Duchess, another old lady (from Downton Abbey, Christmas special closing Season 2, referred to below)

Friends and readers,

For this Christmas, I thought I’d share a Victorian ghost story for Christmas (that’s what they characteristically wrote most often for Christmas, ghost stories), happily even now still on line, and then offer a reading of it, which (I think) shows she is replying to Dickens’s still famous Christmas Carol.


A contemporary illustration that accompanied Oliphant’s fine late gothic ghost (self-reflexive), “The Library Window.”

So now first you must read the story: gentle friends, it is not overlong at all: “Old Lady Mary”, one of Margaret Oliphant’s remarkable Tales of the Seen and the Unseen.

And now what it means, or how I read it:

Upon my first reading:

In brief a very old lady, ‘Old Lady Mary’, who is very rich and alone, takes the daughter of a distant cousin, nearly a child, young Mary, or Mary, who is without anyone else to turn to, into her house. She is all that can be loving and tender and good to the child as she brings her up. She is then told that she must make a will out which will leave her money to young Mary, but cannot get herself to do it. She must make some provision for this girl whom she has nurtured to become a lady without skills in any marketplace. But Old Lady Mary cannot face the reality she will die, has always herself been because of her wealth sheltered. (Like Austen’s Mr Woodhouse in Emma). Lady Mary also resents advice, and avoids the lawyers by playfulness. But contradictorily, because she loves the girl and knows how destitute the girl will be, writes a codicil, leaving everything to young Mary, but she hides it away.

She dies, and the young girl is left desolate.

The story proper begins here, and we are taken through the young Mary’s fear when her aunt dies, her sense of emotional loss, her humiliations at the hands of the family who take over Lady Mary, her guardian’s house. They don’t mean to hurt her, but they put her in her place. Mary is now their servant. Now at the very end of the story we are told it was finally found, but that is put last, a sort of coda, not part of story proper, as if what will ruin it and is not important! What’s important is the story as told from the point of view of Old Lady Mary after she has died — when she is a ghost, trying to make contact and reparation, so very anxious to make contact, and finding, alas, retrieval of the basic  situation seems impossible; it is too late. Her presence is felt but the human beings act towards her frivolously, foolishly. Ghosts make them uncomfortable, especially restless ones


Cover illustration to a volume titled Restless Spirits: John A. Williams for Mary Heaton Vorse, “The Second Wife” (1912)

For Old Lady Mary is desperate to make contact with the young Mary. She also wants more than emotional catharsis, forgiveness, and release. She wants to help her adopted child. (Think Tiny Tim.) She wants more than to compensate; she wants to retrieve, to make up for past mistakes, and finds she cannot make genuine contact. She has convinced herself her attempts, what she did was unselfish because there’s the codicil to be found and then the young Mary will own the house where she is now a servant. But she has to recognize not so.  Ghosts are laughed at or make people nervous. Their paraphernalia is absurd. Who takes knocks and dragging sounds seriously?

For me reading this Dickens’s A Christmas Carol leaps to mind. Scrooge retrieves so much via the enigmatic and silent ghosts. Like Gaskell (Trollope too), Oliphant while so admiring of Dickens, saw his flaws. Time cannot be retrieved, what we were, we still are.  What happened, happened.  The past is not suddenly to be undone.  Oliphant also has some fun gently mocking the way ghosts are treated in stories. Her story is done from the ghost’s POV.  The curious effect of this is to make us believe in Lady Mary as a ghost; to take her seriously.  Her tales of the seen and unseen are not for people who want titillation or reassurance.

The climax of the story is in a obscure but precisely described vision that comes to Mary. From all her troubles and the disquiet and upset brought on by Lady Mary’s efforts themselves (presented as comic), the young Mary grows ill, and, as in a dream, for a split second, thinks she sees Lady Mary who thinks she is seen. In that moment the girl holds out her hand and Lady Mary feels she has been forgiven. After all Old Lady Mary then feels she needs no nothing more. That’s it. At the same time we get a sense the young Mary and the old Lady Mary were face to face. But we are not sure. It might just be in the ghost’s mind! Young Mary never fully explains what she feels because people would laugh, and she’s not sure what she saw though she did from the beginning forgive & never hated her ex-guardian. She was taught by the old lady not to expect much. Mary is our modest Victorian heroine. Fanny Price, Jane Eyre, sans the rage. I ask my 2020 readers is not this more sophisticated and true to life than A Christmas Carol?

The last line of the story proper (as told by the ghost) is enigmatic: ‘Everything is included in pardon and love’. And then that sort of coda by an impersonal narrator which I told you about.

It’s very delicately done. All the wintry imagery. Scenes of snow, of darkness, ice abound. Early in the story there’s a remarkable moment in Lady Mary’s consciousness when she realizes she is dead. To me there is something in this which refuses the sentimentality of most ghost stories. One reason Oliphant’s ghost stories are so powerful is they are hard — her Beleaguered City reminds me of Camus’s La Peste. Whatever her religious beliefs were, Oliphant was not complacent about what if anything lies behind that “Open Door” (the title of another of her powerful ghost stories), this one taking place in Scotland. These stories might be said to belong to Scots gothic traditions.

As we all know, the ghosts make contact with Scrooge, and he retrieves himself, and is re-formed and the story ends in forgiveness and love. What we may not know is A Christmas Carol is highly unusual ghost story in that the ghosts are ultimately benevolent in purpose. It’s a comforting parable. In comparison, “Old Lady Mary” offers no certainty, and no sense of justice. The codicil is found by chance, and almost not found in that coda. We are also not told much about what happens afterwards except now the ghost appears no more to young Mary. Old Lady Mary can go wherever or rest wherever because she is satisfied with her illusion of contact. We assume things get better for young Mary, but don’t know for sure. But most ghost stories are mischievous, the ghosts malevolent, people who had nothing to do with the original evil act, are often shattered, they are Kafkaesque.

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Several years later:  I offer a qualification after trying to teach it to students and listening to their readings and replies:


The Lost Ghost, from a modern volume imitating Edwardian illustrations

The students wanted some redemption or hope beyond the idea young Mary will inherit enough.  They said there is a kind of general accounting: Old Lady Mary does not get to reach out to her niece directly, cannot have the satisfaction for sure which she is reaching out for soon after the tale opens. So the ghost is taught a lesson as are we the readers.  She could have had while they were still living the girl understand she was sorry for the way she made out her will; had she said something before dying perhaps somehow the girl would have guessed  the ghost was pointing to where the will was and the will would have been found quickly.  Plus it does happen that there is  understanding and forgiveness in the ambiguous encounter. Me to students: the final events are left ambiguous. We do not know for sure that the girl got the money she so desperately needed, but I will agree that enough is put before us to assume so.  Perhaps it was perverse of me  not to admit  this possibility …

Nonetheless, I was more than ever persuaded Oliphant had typical Dickens’ and probably other Christmas season texts in mind where all is made up for in a gush of end-of-story forgetfulness. She felt real life experience and whatever was beyond was not being taken seriously enough.

Again we have a heroine’s text in effect and this l’ecriture-femme, with its circular structure and ending. Much of the story is spent in Lady Mary as a ghost’s mind — that alone is very unusual. “Old Lady Mary” is even more unusual than Trollope’s “Christmas at Thompson Hall” — in that almost all ghost stories, we are not permitted to get close to the ghost. They are kept at a distance. Again, they are mostly scary, malevolent, Kafka-esque figures. Dickens’s benign ghosts are a high rarity. The intensely benign aim of ghost Lady Mary’s efforts is as rare. And to show us the ghost failing to reach, her grief, clumsiness, how these ambiguous wispy signals are the ghost trying is startling.  Margaret Oliphant did believe in ghosts — she imagined them as carrying over human emotions to this new supernatural state — rather like Dante whom her “Land of Darkness,”  another tale of the “seen and unseen” alludes to.


Games with the Planchette: Thomas barrow, footman (Robert James Collier), Mrs Patmore, cook (Leslie Nicol), Miss O’Brien, lady’s maid (Siobhan Finneran), Marigold Shore (Sharon Small, planted mistress of a guest male aristocrat (from Christmas special, 2nd season, Downton Abbey)


Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) to Daisy (Sophie McShea): Well I don’t believe they play boardgames … ”

Of course this could be fodder for a spiritual medium. To my mind this might show us how Oliphant understood the absurdity of what happens at seances. My outstanding favorite line from Downton Abbey occurs when the housekeeper speaks wryly to Daisy,  the kitchen maid’s question, “Don’t you believe in spirits?” that she does not believe they play board-games.

Oliphant was a firm believer in the afterlife. I should stress that. These are not the kinds of ghost stories where the story is strictly speaking a metaphor. In Oliphant’s case her husband, both sons, nephew and a niece all pre-deceased her. To believe they carried on elsewhere was apparently one way she could endure her raw grief and continual sense of desperate loss.

I found it a more moving story than I did the first time. I now think it’s a kind of twin to “Christmas at Thompson Hall” (see also Lucia Constanza’s talk), which I see as a tale of comic but intense social anguish, in the couple of ways I’ve suggested – a riposte to the over-expectations that this yearly ritual can inflict on people.


John Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

Ellen


I have listened to Nadia May (Wanda MacCadden is an alternative pseudonym) read aloud Jacob’s Room & find this the most appropriate of all the covers I’ve seen for this book

Friends and readers,

Last Saturday I had the privilege of listening to Alison Hennegan give a talk that took well over an hour on Jacob’s Room for the new Cambridge online (virtual) lecture series on the works of Virginia Woolf. Woolf and her writing is not the only topic Cambridge is developing different streams for: an upcoming one starting in spring is to be about Women Writers.  It includes May Sinclair (Life and Death of Harriet Frean), Sylvia Townsend Warner (Lolly Willowes), Elizabeth Bowen (The House in Paris), Rosamond Lehmann (Dusty Answers), 10 women authors altogether, 10 books; there is to be one on Jane Austen. I gather there are series organized around topics (I attended a separate virtual conference on African Literature this morning), courses, single books, themes. If this one by Prof (I assume) Hennegan is typical of the close reading, and the one on African Literature (about the history of publication in all its phases and angles), I wish I had the time and money to go to many many. A friend told me the sessions on Woolf’s Voyage Out and Night and Day were as stunningly insightful.

It’s my experience when I go to listen to a lecture or am part of a class, if I can take good notes and transcribe them afterwards I understand and remember so much more — of, barring that since I no longer can take down in sten what is said, get a copy of the papers at least, make concrete and centrally coherent some of what I remember, what I learned becomes part of my mental universe. Alas, there will be no copies of papers because they wouldn’t want to share individual ideas without the kind of credit accounting that is given someone when they publish conventionally (the peer-edited journal, the book published by the respected or university press). There was a hand-out sent by attachment, and at first I tried to take notes, but it became too much, and I was losing what she was saying as I struggled to catch up with what she had said. Now that I am aware of what are the obstacles (as it were) and what I should try to do, maybe I’ll somehow take out more in future as I’ve signed up for Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and closer to the time mean to sign up for some of the women writers and their novels.

Here I want to say that she was offering a way of reading Jacob’s Room which went past or ignored the problem of Woolf’s lack of interest in creating vivid living characters so that the text seems filled with memorable people who carry the meaning of the text, embody its themes, shape the inferences and what we learn from the book. She was moving at the level of utterances. She began with general remarks and the sort of summarizing of general themes one does with any novel discussion. So she said Jacob’s Room was Woolf’s first fully experimental novel. She characterized it as “an elegy to Woolf’s brother, Thoby, dead at 26, an elegy with a ghost of a man at its center; a death-haunted novel, which opens with Betty, Thoby’s mother, writing a letter filled with grief, loss, as she is a recent widow. I know when I wrote of this novel on this blog I emphasized how no-one I had read wrote about the book as a novel with a widow at its center, beginning, carrying on and ending with her. To this Prof Hennegan added that it is filled with vulnerable women, several of whom Jacob has liasions of different kinds but to none of them does he give of himself for real or truly. We are made to pick up the suggestions about their absent presences. The novel is filled with presences who are not quite there.

Prof Hennegan suggested that we might take Jacob’s Room to be a reply to Katherine Mansfield who criticized Night and Day for failing to address the war. Jacob’s Room showed is engendered by and continually aware of this war: we are watching this or these (Jacob’s friends and companions) young men, upper class, being exquisitely prepared, for professions, for leading a nation of peoples, for art, for invention, from academic to social education, from travel to building homes, lives for themselves end simply slaughtered senselessly — insofar as any true interest of their own. She thought one redemptive them is art outlast human life; art is the means by which human life is extended. The theme of education is central; she writes a prose thickly laden with literary allusion. Women in the book are presented as weak, unknowable and ultimately terrifying to men who however have all the power to do things women do not. She thought D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster have similar views. (I disagree that Forster presents women this way, but D.H. Lawrence might — to me DHL sees women as objects for men to fuck).

She felt the natural world is strong throughout the novel, that we watch boundaries between phenomena dissolve, everything intertwined, what people feel, do, do think, all dissolve. In my comment to her (which we were encouraged to write in the chat area) I offered the idea that I found in Woolf’s words and all they conjure up (characters, things, events) levels of past suggested, so that we continually find ourselves plunging into older and older eras, and then can leap to the present, that the words also take seriously the tiniest little object or piece of life and perceive it as attached to the largest and just as important and through our apprehension of this as we read the paragraphs we move through time and space sensually — geologic as well as historical, cultural, geographic, geologic. She appeared to like my idea, and I told of how hard it was to make people in a class like Woolf, enjoy her and that I tried to attach this texture of Woolf’s — which I found very emphatic but also tied to characters and stories in Jacob’s Room, The Years and Between the Acts. I had tried to make them see this and appreciate the texture by the students’ strong tendency to read looking for people or events that spoke to them in their lives. But as we talked (this was only a couple of minutes as she went on to the next person’s comment) and she said reading aloud Woolf was the best way to enjoy her, or imaginatively reading aloud slowly, I remembered this summer how well the short fiction had seemed to come across when I read it aloud and really emphasized close reading the utterances for themselves. Just bringing this home to myself made the two hours very worth while.

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Roger Fry, Carpentras, Provence (1930) — I include pictures by Bloomsbury artists, which I find consonant with Woolf’s fiction

In the body of her talk, Prof Hennegan went over various critics’ reactions to Jacob’s Room, and used these as jumping off points occasionally to show how the given critic was looking for something that Woolf did not want to supply, but more often how what they did write was perspicacious. W.J. Courtney thought Woolf unlike any other writer except Dorothy Richardson, in the discernment of nuances of character, “keen discernment of those small, inessential things which go to the making of a life … scores again and again. Her art is “impressionist” and influenced by “jazz”! (“in its tense syncopated movements, its staccato impulsiveness”). Gerald Gould found “beauty,” “lyrical passages — one, in particuar, about crossing Waterloo Bridge in a wind: she can make us feel what she calls ‘the ecstasy and hubbub of the soul'”. He did feel Woolf wrong not to help “the simple-minded reader” to make “connexions” in the fiction “clear.” An anonymous reviewer complains of “no narrative, no design above all, no perspective: [the book’s] dissolving views come before us one by one, each taking the full light for a moment, then vanishing completely.” Vanessa Bell’s cover illustrations were not liked because it did not represent anything seen in the novel. She included all Leonard Woolf’s notes on how many copies were printed by Hogarth Press, after the second impression how many had sold altogether, how much money they made on the book: £42 4s 6d which would today be
£2,402.32

Then 14 passages from the novel were discussed as examples of her techniques, themes, modes — on the ram’s skull; Mr and Mrs Plumer; women in King’s College Chapel; Betty Flanders pondering the nature of her dead husband; the problems of gender, the effect of sex … ; Sopwith entertaining graduates in his room, then years later these men, now mature, remember Sopwith; Jacob’s view of Florinda; an insoluble problem of beauty, in Florinda; the light over King’s Collee Chapel, the Women’s College garden at night; the poignant closing paragraph and sentence of the novel. She repeatedly came back to showing how boundaries of all sorts in the book dissolve away. I shall save these to study — I suppose the method is rather like Matthew Arnold’s “touchstones.”

I suppose I can bring forward here what I wrote elsewhere in this blog on the book when I first finished it:

Jacob’s Room begins as a widow’s story. No where is this mentioned in the literature. Mrs Betty Flanders’ husband died in an accident it feels like years ago, leaving her with three children — one so young it cannot have been that many years. But we are made to feel her husband’s death happened a long while ago to her. She is in Cornwall for the holidays and writing a Captain friend, Barfoot (he’s married so safe) in Scarborough. There is a painter about whom Woolf writes in similar ways to what she says of Lily Briscoe, color, and lonely people who don’t fit in: Mr Steele. On the beach, a little later Mrs Flanders hears the waves, the ship — her husband died of an accident at sea. We are told he left her impoverished, but Woolf’s idea of poverty is different from some of us it seems. She has a nanny, doesn’t cook her own supper, doesn’t have to work for money. But she is at a great loss with these boy children, hanging from her….

Woolf continually moves from inward presence to inward presence and by so doing uncovers a real feeling of living life which includes sex bought from prostitutes by our hero. Many of the presences come from utterly different classes in different areas of life. We also experiencing Jacob in a large variety of social worlds and deeds. Suddenly too the narrator will go into deep dream time on the place where the narrative has settled and allude way back in time so it becomes a movement through centuries, deep history embedded in people today One aristocratic lady likes such-and-such food because her ancestors have been enjoying it since their death, this partial recreation. The novel of manners or social life is left far behind.

Jacob’s Room is as de-centered as un-heroic as Roger Fry (her biography) as de-centered as The Waves, Between the Acts. While we can believe in Jacob, he is just a center knob in a wheel where all the spokes — all the many living presences and places come out of. I just love how he loves and thinks in terms of the Greek classics. This morning I listened to how Woolf manages to bring in tandem a sense of a desperately homeless (near) prostitute trying to get into the house where Jacob lives and other street people and the people at a party he went to — when he came home he thought how delightful to be with 10 new people (themselves beautifully captured), and we find a long reverie on the books at the British library, all by men, Jacob is spending his evening’s reading.

3/4’s through I began to worry about Jacob. I’ve read somewhere that he dies at the end — perhaps that’s why people say (carelessly) this book is about her brother. Jacob is the central node of the book, but it is in space equally about many people whom he comes across and spends time with. Especially women who are vulnerable. I am so touched with those women Jacob goes to bed with — this is indicated discreetly. They are the models paid to strip naked by his friends or at the Slade: ignorant, even dumb, without a chance in the world for respect or security or comfort. Prostitutes. His mother, the widow, whom the book opened with hardly goes any where in her life, hardly meets anyone outside her narrow class sphere and local area.

By near the end of the book Jacob has fallen in love with a married woman he meets while touring, but he has not connected deeply with anyone (not her either). He is not married. It’s hinted people think he’s homosexual and he writes to a male friend Bonamy. I can’t see any other ending but death. Probably in World War One. The book takes place just earlier. At the end of The Voyage Out Rachel dies. In the middle of To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay dies, and in the last third we are told of three other deaths of characters who meant something. I wonder if anyone has written about this urge to death in Woolf’s novels — probably, this one seems the saddest of all. We cherish this character as we are told his close friends do. Others say he is the best person they ever met. He never hurts anyone. He has truly intelligent (sceptical) attitudes towards politics. Acts with compassion and courtesy. The book is about life itself as a stream of feeling; she feels equally intense over say a crab or some other creature endlessly trying to say jump over something and it cannot.

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Carrington, The Baroque Harmony in the ice off the Labrador Coast, Tinsel in Glass (1929) =- part of the strange beauties in The Voyage Out are Woolf’s descriptions of the South American land- and seascapes our characters encounter

I wish Cambridge would put online the lectures on The Voyage Out and Night and Day that I missed. Since I can find nothing on Prof Hennegan’s lecture on Night and Day that seems to me interesting, let me say briefly it is much better until the very end (when there is a jejeune depiction of a love proposal and courtship so hot-house, idealized, naive, I was embarrassed by it), with some of the most interesting parts, the Mary Datchett story (a spinster who loves the hero and is carving out a life for herself dedicated to liberal political causes), Ralph Denham’s character and world (modelled on Leonard Woolf), and the meditations (in effect) on the problems of writing biography (the heroine, Katherine Hilbury is said to be helping her mother write a biography of her father, now dead, once a super-respected poet. I am very much looking forward to the the lectures I’ll go to on Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

Ellen


Tina Blau with her Painting Wagon — and huge over-decorated hat (1911-12) — a photograph


Spring in the Prater (1879) — a painting (black-and-white reproduction)

Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing this short blog on another later 19th into 20th century woman artist/painter long enough. I am not going to find any more material in English on her than I’ve already found. Tina Blau really is one of these superb painters who was been removed, erased, mischaracterized in the history of women painters and what usually accompanies images by her today. As opposed to most of the woman artists I’ve covered in this blog, she appears in not one of my several surveys and books of eras and narrower schools of women painters. Beyond marginalization as a woman, her pictures were simply replaced by others for decades in the 20th century because she was Jewish. Her paintings do not conform to the kind of gender shaping we find in most other women artists, nor does she make an emphatic impressionist place on walls — while it is true that most of the tiny figures in her landscapes are women, her interest is in large scale pictures of landscapes shaped by industry, agriculture, and cultural institutions. One is called Railroad Construction at Durnstein (1909). Here are two examples:


A Canal in Holland (click on all the images and most will become much larger and you will see their splendid beauty)


The Palace Garden of Prince Albert

Finally, after a bad experience when she submitted a beautiful large landscape to a central all women exhibit (her picture was rejected because it was too big, she was told, in an apparently discourteous offhand way), she refused to have her work exhibited with that of other women in all women venues — on the further grounds, that such shows will be denigrated, dismissed, marginalized by men, critics, academies. At the same time she was not included in some important exhibits coming out of movements (the Secessionists) because she was a woman.

Thus although every time she did exhibit or her pictures went on sale by an art dealer, they sold for a lot of money (including the rejected one), and quickly (making her and her husband comfortably well off), and though she co-founded an Art School for Women and Girls in Vienna in 1897, with Rose Mayreder (1858-1938), where she taught girls and women for many years; she has nevertheless escaped the radars of most feminist books and displays except for those specifically about turn-of-the-century Vienna. Like the Cornish Newnham schools of painting, and Edwardian plein-air schools, she knew of and mingled with the expressionist and polished French schools and colonies of artists (a famous artist there is Jules Bastien Lepage who influenced Eliza Adela Armstrong Forbes). This can be seen in this magnificent landscape:

And here:

Famously the Austrian emperor at the time liked and (presumably) bought her work, e.g.,


Spring in the Prater (1882)

So she was singled out among the many women (there were increasing numbers of women) in the art colonies of Central Europe. This is a fabulous reproduction of one by a colleague: Olga Wisinger-Florian: it shows that her work fits into and belongs with a milieu other women worked in at the time


Falling Leaves — we see the exquisite colors, precision, and (so common) the woman and child and small animal

Blau took a trip to the Netherlands in 1875 and her work became strongly influenced by the “old Dutch masters.”


A Sketch from Holland (one of many)


Kanal in Friesland (1908)

She was part of a later 19th century aspirational world of painters — made fun of in parodic illustrations of the French landscape obscured by so many umbrellas and parasols:  one in L’Illustration, November 24, 1849, Englished as “Study from Nature by a Merchant of Umbrellas and Parasols” (see Women’s Art Journal, Spring/summer 2020, p 34). The photograph of Blau is remarkable because of her use of a straw baby carriage and attached easel.

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I find the reds in this twilight beautiful


This is a landscape described as “by the artist’s studio”

Her life is told in a couple of articles I list in the comments, and more briefly (but accurately) at wikipedia. I’ll leave the interested reader to find these (or email me) or be content with wikipedia. Here I just call attention to her father being a doctor and encouraging her strongly in her vocation and then profession of painter. She therefore studied with excellent artists, traveled to Italy, and made a few important and good friends who championed her work, e.g., Rosa Mayreder, A. F. Seligmann, a colleague at their school of art for women and girls. She does seem to have been adverse to advertising her work (networking) and would not follow or talk up a fashion because it was fashionable. She married another professional painter in 1883, the time together appears to have been happy, he died but 8 years later. She was thus mostly a single woman having to make her way, support herself. She had a studio in a beautiful park area in Munich for many years, and several solo exhibits, plus exhibiting with others. Around 1910 she began to photograph, document and try to set the record straight (she has been repeatedly described as the pupil of E. J. Schindler, when they shared a studio for some time).

How to put into words what is most remarkable about her art. I love the exquisitely precise detail of all that she sees in a landscape — there’s a geometry to the canals, polders, dikes, windmills. She is admired (celebrated) for her abilities to capture light, the colors of clouds, and for her own use of vivid and subdued colors. I am drawn to the peaceful order of the buildings, roads, and the people walking and gathering in groups.


April Day in the Prater (1889)


This is called Into the Light on some sites

When I look at her paintings like these, I find myself trying to remember the music and words for the songs in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (“Finishing the Hat” and “Putting it Together” especially) about music, order, art, harmony.

Ellen


The three covers before the TV series began

I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips. I blinked, disoriented, and by reflex put my fingers to my mouth. To keep the feeling, or to hide it? I wondered, even as I did so.
Jamie stirred and murmured in his sleep next to me, his movement rousing a fresh wave of scent from the cedar branches under our bottom quilt. Perhaps the ghost’s passing had disturbed him …

Dear Friends and readers,

As I’ve done before, although I’ve been blogging on the fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross, and the fifth TV series season, on my Ellen and Jim have a blog, two site because the series is just as much, perhaps more a creation of male film-makers (by which I mean everyone involved) as female, I want also to link in my review-essays here — the historical fictions are all of them very much women’s historical-romance fiction, and many of the directors, writers, producers are women, to say nothing of the brilliant actresses. It’s  also set in 18th century North Carolina.

I wrote four. One comparing the book and film season against one another and then in the context of the previous 4 books and seasons:


Ulysses’ story is much changed in the series; that’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded Jamie is bringing Ulysses to read (Ep 11)

Season 5: The Fiery Cross transposed and transformed

Then a second on Episodes 1-5 and a third on Episodes 6-11:


Claire’s over-voice narration binds together the 5th episode which moves back and forth from the 18th century to the 20th (Ep 5)

Outlander, Season 5: Episodes 1-15, Her Stories


Brianna and Claire walking by the ocean (Ep 10)

Outlander, Season 5: Episodes 6-11, Women’s Realm (birthing, birth control, breast-feeding &c); again anti-war, father-son-friendship Bonding

A fifth and last on the astonishingly good last (12).

Outlander, Season 5: Episode 12: The Rape of Claire


Claire’s dream: her beloved 18th century family & friends transposed to the apparent safety of the 20th century (Ep 12)

As I like to provide more than the links when I do these handy lists (I’ve done this kind of cross-blogging for Poldark, Wolf Hall, and a few other film series, let me add that beyond Gabaldon’s two Outlandish Companions (books 1-4, then 5-8), and the two books of The Making of Outlander type (Seasons 11 2; the Seasons 3-4), I’ve used for all my blogs since the first season began and I started to write about the books; wonderfully interesting and well written books of essays and encyclopedia like articles edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel: Adoring Outlander: fandom, genre, the female audience (just the first book, also called Cross-Stitch and first season); Outlander’s Sassenachs: gender, race, orientation and the other in novels 1-5 & TV, seasons 1-5) and written by her alone: The Symbolism and Sources: Scottish Fairies, Folklore, Ballads, Magic and Meaning, not to omit why the titles, covers &, up to book 5)


This covers the titles and covers of the books too

Ellen


John Opie (1761-1807)’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, circa 1797

Let us recall that 5% of the modern artists in the Art section of the Metropolitan museum are women, but 85% of the nudes are female … (See protest at Tate museum)

Friends,

It seems that any remembrance of Mary Wollstonecraft since her tragic early death from childbirth is  destined  to do her a disservice, e.g., how William Godwin’s loving memoir of her full reality in life became the basis of centuries of castigating disdain and rejection. But Joan Smith is spot on to say of the perhaps well-meant monument to her by Maggi Hambling, placed in Newington Green, London, it is “exceptionally obtuse:” “she was vilified for having sex outside marriage, causing her enormous anguish. The decision to portray her in an ahistorical & heavily sexualised way feels like adding insult to injury.”

Here is an enlarged photo. Click on the image and it’ll fill your screen.

It looks like a super-gilded ornament for the hood of a super-expensive automobile. Why this tiny toy-like object on top of a distorted plinth? The silver puts me in mind of the second suitor for the hand of Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It could also be a trophy, it’s the right size and feel for an Oscar given out at extravaganzas. Woman as trophy.  An action figure.  Have we not yet moved beyond an idea that the way to present a woman as woman is a sexualized body? No idealization or remoteness here: closely presented nipples  on realistic breasts (of course high ones — hanging breasts have long been a no-no in men’s imaginary) — and thick pubic hair.

Mary Wollstonecraft herself would been mortified, felt deeply humiliated. At no point did she come out for anything like promiscuous behavior. She was badly hurt by a partner, Imlay’s sexual treachery towards her. She loved the domestic life with her baby daughter, Fanny. Pride, self-esteem, dignity, education were what she was after for women. Is that no consideration? I grant many women have been renamed since the 1970s but I am among those who feel uncomfortable at the re-naming of someone who in her life was Ann Kingsmill Finch, Countess of or Lady Winchilsea to Anne Finch (the “e” was added by Myra Reynolds; Ann’s signature shows she spelt her name “Ann”). This is to change their identity.

A silver toy does not reflect Wollstonecraft’s identity. It is regrettable that Wollstonecraft should be so misremembered or misconstrued. She could have at least been granted the accoutrements of her trade: we see these generals on horses, in their uniforms complete with guns and horses. So why not a desk, pens, bronze depictions of paper? There are appealing depictions of dozens of women writers in drawings, paintings: one of my favorites is a photograph of Edith Wharton.

How unfortunate there was a campaign, and the result something so unlike the above. Now we could say the absurdity of monuments and lack of a dignified vocabulary for women is exposed, but I suggest better to pull it down, replace it or say she does not need to be Peter Panned. To my mind the tradition of turning people into statues is immediately susceptible to unexamined admiration, mockery (in this case), and use in ideological promotions.

People have spoken of mythic statues of heroes (Michelangelo’s David) but the giant David is not a real person in recent history, not a specific woman who really lived. He’s a Biblical figure about whom we know nothing for real. Mary Wollstonecraft left letters, journals, and is admired and is important for what she wrote out of her inner life and published especially her feminist tract vindicating the rights of woman. Michelangelo’s statue is also thoroughly idealized.

The context for Wollstonecraft is that of a real woman seeking to be respected as an independent person and that includes decades and hundreds of years of the kind of hypocrisy underlying Kenneth Clarke’s famous book on nudes (I’m with Mary Beard in her program about the “nude”), of the valuing of women as sex objects for men to enjoy, have babies from, be nurses for them.

I have more than once presented a statue of Jane Austen by Adam Roud found today in by Nicholas Church in the Chawton House Library grounds.

For me her love of walking, the rich vivacity of her imagination, the strength of her body, an independence of mind are all caught up in this attempt at semi-realism

By way of contrast, I add to that a recent life-size statue of Virginia Woolf by Laury Dizengremel, which was having trouble finding a place, has now received thousands of pounds, a reaction of members of the public to the Wollstonecraft monstrosity.

Dare I suggest that Hambling made a naked silver representation of a woman because it would catch attention; Dizengremel’s subdued tasteful depiction of Woolf in reverie, contemplative, relaxed, smiling (the way she is sometimes seen in photographs) was getting nowhere.

Perhaps I should file this under perverse sexual politics.

Ellen


Elizabeth Bishop and her cat in a car

Dear friends and readers,

Of the many women poets I’ve written a foremother blog about, just now Elizabeth Bishop may be the best known — both for her poetry and about her life and letters. There is a recent consensus about her importance and transcendence (if that’s not too pompous a word). She is reprinted everywhere (though maybe her refusal to allow her poetry to be printed in all women anthologies has slowed down the dissemination); dozens of articles, several individual books, two biographies (at least). For this blog I recently read Megan Marshall’s partial autobiography, Elizabeth Bishop: a Miracle for Breakfast, and Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description. It’s easy to learn supposedly little-known facets of her talent too: such as she also drew and painted, as in William Benton’s “Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art” (New York Review)

It seems most of her pictures are of her travels; she liked to draw the places she lived in as a sort of visitor, or temporarily, her domestic spaces, and typical woman’s objects: so still life flowers presented from a overtly plain life angle:


Daisies in Paintbucket

From a very young age, she began to pile up awards— even when she had published little outside college newsletters or a slender number of poems. She is likened to the finest poets in tradition: as Emily Dickinson, about whom she wrote in a “poignant and pointed” review of a book of letters by Dickinson that has survived (Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Doctor and Mrs Josiah Gilbert Holland and also of Rebecca Patterson’s Riddle of Emily Dickinson (the riddle is Dickinson was lesbian). There she is also with Helen Hunt Jackson, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath (in Vivian Pollak’s Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference). I’ve now attended and myself led two zoom get-togethers of poets and readers happy to spend two hours and more close reading Bishop’s poetry. In both we felt we had hardly started and gotten through too few poems.

Paradoxically, this means I can write rather less than more about her, and the way perhaps to add to what is known is pick slightly less frequently printed poems.

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Again with her cat

About her life, I think it important to know that she was the daughter of New Englanders, one of whom, her father, was from a wealthy and well-connected (Brahman) family, from whom she inherited a legacy that kept her afloat (precluding the necessity of work for higher wages), and enabled her to go to good schools where she made the right connections: Walnut Hull School to study music as a girl led to Vassar College (1929) where she wrote and met (among others) Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark (whose Rome and A Villa is one of the most brilliant meditative books about a place I know), and Marianne Moore who became a dear friend (never a lover apparently), who mentored Elizabeth and helped her publish. Like Bishop, Moore avoided controversy by erasing references to her gender beyond the obvious, steering well clear of telling anything explicit about her personal life, or overtly political. According to Kathleen Spivack, like many women writers of her generation, Bishop internalized the misogyny of the 1950s. I can understand why she would want to protect herself against prejudice and the judgmental tendencies of the wider public.

She had a difficult childhood: her father died when she was very young, and her mother was institutionalized; she lived with different relatives and it took time for these people to realize and act upon the apparent reality that the child was more comfortable with her maternal relatives though they were the less educated, and not part of forward-thinking circles. From her young adulthood on, she suffered badly from depression and alcoholism (she alienated people, she lost time from serious work), and her history includes several liaisons, some longer, some shorter, with the most important woman a Brazilian woman from a pre-eminent political family, Lota (Maria Carlota) de Macedo Soares. Bishop lives with Soares in Brazil for years; alas, over this relationship, Soares killed herself. An important friendship with a male poet was with Robert Lowell; Elizabeth became involved with his troubles with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick (whom Lowell treated very shabbily and whose letters he plagiarized). Very late in life Elizabeth became deeply involved with a woman much younger than herself. There is an equally complicated history from her young to her later years of academic appointments.

She not only does not write free verse; from an artistic point of view, hers is a highly patterned poetry, using formal and stringent rhyme schemes, stanzaic forms, with continual subtle uses of assonance, alliteration (sometimes she seems to drill down into rhythms of anglo-saxon prosody across a line). Annie Finch has written about how this formality, love of patterns, is a characteristic of l’ecriture-femme, women’s poetry (see Finch’s The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self and A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women). Sestinas, villanelles, double sonnets, repeating tercets (a poem using just three rhymes). Her poems with the most moving content convey their ideas and articulated feeling through close visualized description and the verse musical refrains. She is a foremother poet’s poet, loving repetitive structures, imitative sounds for moods and evocations.

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I’ve chosen a few poems where I kept my inability in this blog to replicate stanzaic forms demanding indentation visual pictorialism in mind, and which I fancy might be less known and are not too long.

The first, as a Trollope scholar, her brilliant meditation on the part of Trollope’s North America where he visits Washington, DC, during the civil war and projects the depression and despair Trollope felt while there, partly a result of what he saw in the city.


South National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1863

From Trollope’s Journal

As far as statues go, so far there’s not
much choice: they’re either Washingtons
or Indians, a whitewashed, stubby lot,
His country’s Father or His foster sons.
The White House in a sad, unhealthy spot
just higher than Potomac’s swampy brim,
— they say the present President has got
ague or fever in each backwoods limb.
On Sunday afternoon I wandered, – rather,
I floundered, – out alone. The air was raw
and dark; the marsh half-ice, half-mud. This weather
is normal now: a frost, and then a thaw,
and then a frost. A hunting man, I found
the Pennsylvania Avenue heavy ground …
There all around me in the ugly mud,
— hoof-pocked, uncultivated, — herds of cattle,
numberless, wond’ring steers and oxen, stood:
beef for the Army, after the next battle.
Their legs were caked the color of dried blood;
their horns were wreathed with fog. Poor, starving, dumb
or lowing creatures, never to chew the cud
or fill their maws again! Th’effluvium
made that damned anthrax on my forehead throb.
I called a surgeon in, a young man, but,
with a sore throat himself, he did his job.
We talked about the War, and as he cut
away, he croaked out, “Sir, I do declare
everyone’s sick! The soldiers poison the air.”

John Bowen argues that Bishop’s double sonnet gives us an epitome, the core quintessence of Trollope’s North America: Trollope’s mood, central attitudes to the war. Bishop saw the same city many years later and had the same take on it. It is not a cynical perspective but an accurate response to aggressive militarist people, an unpretentious disquieting vision. She takes words from Trollope’s letters and wove them into her verse.

The next poem inspired a novel by Lisa Weiland about Bishop.

Paris, 7 A.M.

I make a trip to each clock in the apartment:
some hands point histrionically one way
and some point others, from the ignorant faces.
Time is an Etoile; the hours diverge
so much that days are journeys round the suburbs,
circles surrounding stars, overlapping circles.
The short, half-tone scale of winter weathers
is a spread pigeon’s Wing.
Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp feathers.

Look down into the courtyard. All the houses
are built that way, with ornamental urns
set on the mansard roof-tops where the pigeons
take their walks. It is like introspection
to Stare Inside, or retrospection,
a star inside a rectangle, a recollection:
this hollow square could easily have been there.
—The childish snow forts, built in flashier winters,
could have reached these proportions and been houses;
the mighty snow-forts, four, five, stories high,
withstanding spring as sand-forts do the tide,
their walls, their shape, could not dissolve and die,
only be overlapping in a strong chain, turned to stone,
and grayed and yellowed now like these.

Where is the ammunition, the piled-up balls
with the star-splintered hearts of ice?
This sky is no carrier-warrior-pigeon
escaping endless intersecting circles.
It is a dead one, or the sky from which a dead one fell.
The urns have caught his ashes or his feathers.
When did the star dissolve, or was it captured
by the sequence of squares and squares and circles, circles?
Can the clocks say; is it there below,
about to tumble in snow?

Written in 1937 while for three weeks in Paris Bishop seeks to capture the architecture of the place she is living in, uses the image of a star inside a circle to recreate the way Paris grew out from itself (as Hugo has it in his Notre Dame de Paris) here like a star-fish. We have the present grim winter time (the Nazis were making their inroads on Europe, whence the reference for a need for ammunition), with Dickinson’s image of hope now “a dead wing with damp feathers.” I love the way the registering of the fleeting and transient (a child’s snow fort becomes a child’s sand castle) becomes something eternally remade over the seasons, with the image of stone signalling Paris’s long history, its eternity in stone in its ancient buildings. The idea of time is carried through the second stanza: “can the clocks say; is it there below?” What there?

And for a last, this sonnet where I find Bishop keeping herself calm by making order and harmony through making a poem which can harnesses the very rhythms of her heartbeat and body as she writes and we read it. This is the way I read Jane Austen’s novels, say Emma: the orderly rhythm of her sentences, their elegance and deeply felt content within patterns soothes and keeps me calm, strengthens me. This is what Bishop is doing through her very finger-tips, her lips, her whole body healing. Is there any more beautiful evocation than that “moon-green pool” which reminds me of lines by Pope and Anne Finch [to be cited, and linked in]

And this Sonnet (1928)

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

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I conclude with a YouTube of Elizabeth Bishop reading a group of her poems at the 92nd Street Y in NYC in 1977.

Ellen


From the East Central region, American Society of 18th century Studies site: Art and Rarity Cabinet c. 1630 by Hans III Jordaens


Cassandra’s portrait drawing of Jane Austen graces the JASNA home page

Dear friends and readers,

Since 2000 I have gone almost every year to the East Central (regional ASECS) meeting, and I have gone to a number of the JASNA meetings. In view of the covid pandemic (now having killed 223,000 people in the US, with the number rising frighteningly daily), this year EC/ASECS decided to postpone their plan to meet in the Winterthur museum to next year and instead do an abbreviated version of what they do yearly.

By contrast, the JASNA Cleveland group did everything they could to replicate everything that usually goes on at at JASNA, only virtually, through zooms, videos, websites. It was an ambitious effort, marred (unfortunately) because (why I don’t know) much didn’t go quite right (to get to somewhere you had to take other options). It was “rolled out” something like the usual JASNA, a part at a time, so you could not plan ahead or compare easily or beforehand; but now is onsite, all at once, everything (at long last) working perfectly. I visited (or attended or whatever you want to call these experiences) two nights ago and last night, and can testify that since I usually myself go to listen to the papers at the sessions or lectures, I probably enjoyed the JASNA more than I usually do at the usual conference. If you didn’t care for what you were seeing or hearing for whatever reason, it was very easy to click away; you could see what was available all at once, watch far more than one intended to be given at the same time. You can skim along using your cursor …

IN this blog I offer a brief review of both conferences.

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A detail from one of Canaletto’s paintings from around the Bacino Di San Marco, Venice: a lady and gentleman

In our “Brief Intermission,” for EC/ASECS, on Friday, in the evening we had our aural/oral experience, a couple of hours together where we read 18th century poetry and occasionally act out an abbreviated version of a play; during the later afternoon we had one panel of papers, this one about researching unusual subjects itself. Saturday morning, there was one panel of papers by graduate students competing for the Molin prize (given out for excellence to a paper by a graduate student each year); than at 1 pm there was the business meeting (sans lunch unless you were eating from wherever you were while you attended the zoom), and the Presidential Address: this year a splendid one, appropriate to the time, John Heins describing the creation, history and grounds of Dessau-Worlitz Park (Garden Realm) in Eastern Germany, a World Heritage site, with the theme of trying to experience a place fully although you are not literally there by its images, conjuring up in one’s mind, the place we might like to be but are not in. I didn’t count but my impression was we had anywhere from 25 (the aural/oral fun) to 37/40 people for the four sessions. I enjoyed all of it, as much (as other people said) to be back with friends, see familiar faces, talk as friends (chat before and after papers).

I will single out only a couple of papers from Friday’s panel. First, Jeremy Chow’s paper, “Snaking the Gothic” was in part about the way animals are portrayed in 18th century culture, focusing on snakes. It seems the identification as poisonous (fearful) led to their being frequently used erotically. I found this interesting because of an incident in one of the episodes of the fifth Season of Outlander where a bit from a poisonous snake threatens to make an amputation of Jamie’s lower leg necessary but a combination of 20th century knowhow, and 18th century customs, like cutting the snake’s head off, extracting the venom and using it as an antidote becomes part of the way his leg is saved. In other words, it is used medically. Ronald McColl, a special collections librarian, spoke on William Darlington, American physician, botanist and politician whose life was very interesting (but about whom it is difficult to find information).

People read from or recited a variety of texts in the evening; I read aloud one of my favorite poems by Anne Finch, The Goute and the Spider (which I’ve put on this blog in another posting). I love her closing lines of comforting conversation to her suffering husband.

For You, my Dear, whom late that pain did seize
Not rich enough to sooth the bad disease
By large expenses to engage his stay
Nor yett so poor to fright the Gout away:
May you but some unfrequent Visits find
To prove you patient, your Ardelia kind,
Who by a tender and officious care
Will ease that Grief or her proportion bear,
Since Heaven does in the Nuptial state admitt
Such cares but new endeaments ot begett,
And to allay the hard fatigues of life
Gave the first Maid a Husband, Him a Wife.

People read from novels too. This session everyone was relatively relaxed, and there was lots of chat and even self-reflexive talk about the zoom experience.

The high point and joy of the time to me was John Heins’ paper on Worlitz park: he had so many beautiful images take of this quintessentially Enlightenment picturesque park (where he and his wife had been it seems several times), as he told its history, the people involved in landscaping it, how it was intended to function inside the small state, and the houses and places the different regions and buildings in the park are based on. He ended on his own house built in 1947, called Colonial style, in an area of Washington, DC, from which he was regaling us. He brought home to me how much of my deep enjoyment of costume drama and BBC documentaries is how both genres immerse the viewer in landscapes, imagined as from the past, or really extant around the world (Mary Beard’s for example). He seemed to talk for a long time, but it could not have been too long for me.


Amalia’s Grotto in the gardens of Wörlitz

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Andrew Davies’s 2019 Sanditon: our heroine, Charlotte (Rose Williams) and hero, Sidney Parker (Theo James) walking on the beach …

I found three papers from the Breakout sessions, one talk from “Inside Jane Austen’s World,”, and one interview from the Special Events of special interest to me. (Gentle reader if you want to reach these pages, you must have registered and paid some $89 or so by about a week before the AGM was put online; now go to the general page, type in a user name and password [that takes setting up an account on the JASNA home page]). The first paper or talk I found common sensical and accurate (as well as insightful) was by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, on Andrew Davies’s Sanditon. They repeated Janet Todd’s thesis in a paper I heard a few months ago: that Austen’s Sanditon shows strong influence by Northanger Abbey, which Austen had been revising just the year before. Young girl leaves loving family, goes to spa, has adventures &c. They offered a thorough description of how Davies “filled in the gaps” left by what Austen both wrote and implied about how she intended to work her draft up into a comic novel. They presented the material as an effective realization and updating of Austen’s 12 chapter draft, ironically appropriately interrupted and fragmentary. I will provide full notes from their paper in my comments on my second blog-essay on this adaptation.

The second was Douglas Murray’s “The Female Rambler Novel & Austen’s Juvenilia, concluding with a comment on Pride & Prejudice. He did not persuade me Austen’s burlesque Love and Freindship was like the genuinely rambling (picaresque) novels he discussed, but the characteristics of these as he outlined them, and his descriptions of several of them (e.g., The History of Charlotte Summer, The History of Sophia Shakespeare – he had 35 titles), & James Dickie’s study of cruelty and laughter in 18th century fiction (Doug discussed this book too, with reference to Austen), were full of interesting details made sense of. Of course Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth, as we all remember, goes rambling with her aunt and uncle in Derbyshire and lands at Pemberley just as Darcy is returning to it.


There have been some attempts at good illustration for Catherine, or the Bower

Elaine Bander’s paper, “Reason and Romanticism, or Revolution: Jane Austen rewrites Charlotte Smith in Catherine, or The Bower” interested me because of my studies and work (papers, an edition of Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake, many blogs) on Charlotte Smith. She did not persuade me that Austen seriously had in mind Smith for the parts of her story (was “re-composing” Smith’s novels). But hers is the first thorough accounting for this first and unfinished realistic courtship novel by Austen I’ve come across, and on this fragment’s relationship to an 18th century didactic work by Hannah More, to other of Austen’s novels (especially the idea of a bower as a sanctuary, a “nest of comforts”, character types, Edward Stanley a Wickham-Frank Churchill). I draw the line on the way Elaine found the aunt simply a well-meaning dominating presence: Mrs Perceval is one in a long line of cruel-tongued repressive bullying harridans found across Austen’s work. Austen is often made wholesome by commentators — I find her disquieting. Elaine suggested that Juliet McMaster (who gave a plenary lecture, and told an autobiographical story for the opening framing of the conference) in a previous Persuasions suggested a persuasive ending for the uncompleted book. Her talk was also insightful and accurate in her description of Smith’s novels, their mood, their revolutionary outlook and love of the wild natural world: “packed with romance and revolution, bitterly attacking the ancien regime, injustice, describing famous and momentous world events, including wars — quite different from Austen (I’d say) even if in this book Austen does homage to all Smith’s novels.

As to “Special Events,” I listened briefly to an interview of Joanna Trollope and her daughter, Louise Ansdell (someone high on a board at Chawton House – why am I not surprised?): Trollope, I thought, told the truth when she said young adult readers today, let’s say having reached young adulthood by 2000 find Jane Austen’s prose very hard to read. What I liked about these comments was they suggest why it is so easy to make movies today that are utter travesties of Austen’s novels (the recent Emma) where say 30 years ago movie-makers were obliged to convey something of the real mood, themes, and major turning points of Austen’s novels.

“Inside Jane Austen’s world included talks about cooking, what to put in your reticule (and so on). Sandy Lerner re-read a version of her paper on carriages in Austen’s time that I heard years ago (and have summarized elsewhere on this blog). Of interest to me was Mary Gaither Marshall’s discussion of her own collection of rare Austen books, including a first edition of Mansfield Park (she is a fine scholar): she told of how books were printed (laborious process), how the person who could afford them was expected to re-cover them fancily, the workings of the circulating library &c. She said her first acquisitions were two paperbacks which she bought when she was 10 year old.

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This last makes me remember how I first read Austen, which I’ve told too many times here already, but it is a fitting ending to this blog.

On Face-book I saw a question about just this, from the angle of what led someone to read Austen’s books in a “new” (or different way), without saying what was meant by these words — as in what was my “old” or previous way of reading her. I can’t answer such a question because my ways of reading Austen or eras do not divide up that way. But I like to talk of how I came to study Austen and keep a faith in the moral value of her books despite all that surrounds them today, which go a long way into producing many insistent untrue and corrupted (fundamental here is the commercialization, money- and career-making) framings.

So I wrote this and share it here: Years ago I loved Elizabeth Jenkins’s biography of Jane Austen, and that led me to read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I must have been in my late teens, and my guess is I found the Jenkins book in the Strand bookstore. I had already read (at age 12 or so) Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; and at age 15, Mansfield Park. Nothing inspired me to read the first two (part of this person’s question), but that the first two were there in my father’s library among the good English classics. The third I found in a neighborhood drugstore and I was led to read it because I loved S&S and P&P. MP was not among my father’s classic libraries The first good critical book I remember is Mary Lascelles on the art of the books, then Tave’s Some Words of Jane Austen. So as to “new way of reading her” (intelligently), when Jim and I were in our thirties at a sale in a Northern Virginia library Jim bought a printing of the whole run of Scrutiny and I came across the seminal articles by DWHarding (a revelation) and QRLeavis. I do not remember when I found and read Murdock’s Irony as Defense and Discovery, but it was the first book to alert me to the problem of hagiography and downright lying (though Woolf very early on gently at that (“mendaciou”) about the Hill book on Austen’s houses and friends).

When I came online (1990s and I was in my forties) of course I was able to find many books, but the one that stands out attached to Austen-l, is Ivor Morris’s Considering Mr Collins, brilliant sceptical reading. There are still many authors worth reading: John Wiltshire comes to mind, on Austen-l we read together a row of good critical scholarly books on Austen. Today of course you can say anything you want about Austen and it may get published.

I saw the movies only years after I had begun reading, and the first I saw was the 1979 Fay Weldon P&P, liked it well enough but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The 1996 Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee/Emma Thompson) was the first of several movies to change my outlook somewhat on Jane Austen’s novels, in this case her S&S.

Since Jane Austen has been with me much of my life, of course I welcomed a chance to experience some of the best of what a typical JASNA has to offer, since nowadays I & my daughter are regularly excluded from these conferences. After all those who have special “ins” of all sorts, I am put on the bottom of the list for what room is left. I regret to say she has quit the society because she loves to read Austen, is a fan-fiction writer of Austen sequels, enjoyed the more popular activities, especially the dance workshop and the Saturday evening ball. She is autistic and rarely gets to have social experiences. She had bought herself an 18th century dress and I got her a lovely hat. They are put away now.

When was I first aware there was an 18th century? when I watched the 1940s movie, Kitty, with Paulette Goddard — you might not believe me, but even then, at the age of 14-15 I went to the library to find the script-play and I did, and brought it home and read it. I fell in love with the century as a set of texts to study when I first read Dryden, Pope, and the descriptive poetry of the era — just the sort of writing that describes places like Worlitz Park.

Ellen


A mid-18th century illustration of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison: Grandison rescues Jeronymo


Jamie as a young Scots farmer (a memory of himself from Outlander, Season 1, Episode 2, Castle Leoch)

I attended (went to?) a superb talk on Sir Charles Grandison sponsored by the Digital Seminar group at Eighteenth Century Studies, and found it so stimulating I managed to take good enough notes to at least give the gist of the talk, and then compare what was said to contemporary startling instances of male virginity (in Outlander, my current addiction). What was particularly valuable about Rebecca Barr’s talk was how she related the misogynistic anger at the core of male virginity (weaponized, a way to control women) not only to characters in novels (St John Rivers in Jane Eyre), but also to what we saw in Brett Kavanaugh.

Gentle friends and readers,

Have you guessed what Grandison and Fraser have in common? both were virgins on their wedding nights. Yes.

I today attended a very interesting Open Digital Seminar (zoom lecture and meeting) today sponsored by Eighteenth Century Studies, a talk delivered by Rebecca Anne Barr, Lecturer in Gender and Sexualities at the Faculty of English, at the University of Cambridge, “The Good Man on trial, or male virginity and the politics of misogyny.” It fascinates me because the pattern she uncovers is the same one found in Outlander for the two top heroes, Jamie Fraser and his eventual son-in-law, Roger Mackenzie Wakefield, and helps explain what I thought paradoxical oddities of attitudes in women readers especially (but also men) towards sexuality in other heroes of today’s historical romances. As usual this is by no means all Ms Barr said; it is only an outline with the particulars I could get down in my notes.

Rebecca Barr argued (and demonstrated from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison) that by a combination of mood techniques (including humor) that male virginity is used to create rhetorical and actual power for men to control female sexuality. Unexpectedly perhaps this characteristic usually demanded of women before marriage, and thus associated with women, when found in, indeed insisted upon by a man, enables him to persuade women to accept his power over them. “Male virginity becomes “a key constituent of an intrinsically reactionary arsenal of public virtue.” I think most people who have read Grandison remember that Sir Charles was a proud virgin and after marriage chaste man. What was startling was Ms Barr went on to display a photograph of Brett Kavanaugh a couple of days after Christine Blasey Ford, under oath, accused him of leading a group of male fraternity members at a party to strip and gang-rape, or (as the individual case might be) humiliate her. The photograph was said to have caught  Kavanaugh insisting he was a virgin until he married.


This is not the photograph Ms Barr showed, but another where we see how he yelled during the hearing, so fiercely angry did he let himself become (on whose advice I wonder? — click to enlarge)

I had been told but forgotten that with his wife to one side of him, and Kelly Conway on the other, he vehemently asserted that he could not have done such a deed because he was a virgin. His description of himself in high school and college as an intensely shy, sensitive, moral young man (=good) was a show-stopper. He was asserting an intense femininity of himself, aligning himself with a “feminine niceness” — at the same time as he spoke in an enraged, choleric voice, shouting his words, to make chastity the bedrock of (his and all) male goodness. A man who did lead a group of fraternity guys to rape women who were so foolish as to come to their parties.


Clarissa (Saskia Wickham), (1991 BBC Clarissa, scripted David Nokes)

Ms Barr asserted that in Richardson’s Clarissa, the rake is the worst sort of husband; in Grandison, chastity and virginity guarantee the best sort of husband. She went on to talk of how in Clarissa Charles Hickman, it is suggested, is a delicate chaste man, mocked and ridiculed by Anna, he is as part of his character a gentle, kind, loving and protective husband. (A little later she said that Mr B in Pamela II anticipates Sir Charles.) This derision of Hickman was (in effect) echoed by Terry Eagleton who in his famous book on The Rape of Clarissa wrote an acerbic dismissal of Sir Charles; bluntly he remarked that in a patriarchal society it does not matter if the man is chaste or not. There is no price, no value put on a man’s virginity, such a virtue would be a personal characteristic with no general inference; this critic was repulsed by this assertion of Sir Charles. Ms Barr disagreed and argued that Richardson’s ploy here is more relevant than ever even if such a virtue is kept silent. Hickman, yes, is made a joke out of, he is despised by Anne as meek; she does not know whether to pity or laugh at him; he looks guilty like someone who committed a fault.

But Richardson is careful to align and attribute to Sir Charles all other usual male characteristics: physical bravery, virility when tested, wealth, intelligence, the prestige of rank, socially able. His kin all around him adore and value him, and call him “a good man;” this “womanly private virtue” becomes a sort of weapon in his repertoire to assert his superiority to other men and to the women involved with him. They have to come up to his chastity, themselves be just as “good.” This is not a form of feminism, or femininity but “triumph of discipline,” all the more because it is asserted he has a hot temper, is proud, not naturally timid at all. In this way the male is exalted, and the women all around him made to dwindle into fallible people.

Philip Skelton, one of Richardson’s correspondents, responded to this portrait by demanding that Grandison “be persecuted” and be paired with a “bad woman” (of course the worst trait given a woman is drunkard so she should be a drunkard, slattern), and if Sir Charles is able to cope with such women, it will make him a favorite among female readers. (Whether Skelton was alive to the irony of this I couldn’t tell.) Ms Barr pointed to passages in Grandison where we are told Sir Charles would have agreed with God to annihilate the first Eve and produce a second one, and she suggested that Harriet is the second best in the novel. Sir Charles loved Clementina first. Richardson’s correspondents, Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Carter (two friends) also voiced that less than moral attitudes would characterize women’s responses to Sir Charles’s women — they saw other women as wanting to possess Sir Charles themselves. Ms Barr reminded us that in Jane Eyre, St John Rivers is a austerely chaste man who appeals intensely to Jane, but who would suffocate her with his intensity and offer her a torturing kind of love; he could become an unnatural tyrant over her. Bronte is showing us how such a good man oppresses a heroine. Male virtue here is weaponized when virtue (self-control) extends to virginity; it can be an excuse for male virulence, male rage, his frustration is implicitly sympathized with.

Ms Barr ended her talk around this point; she has written a paper on this topic, which will appear in the next issue of Eighteenth Century Studies; the paper is part of a book project.

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Jamie and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), “The Wedding Night” (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 7)

There was time for a question and answer period through chat or through making yourself un-muted and visible. I just found it irresistible to tell of how Jamie Fraser turns out to be unexpectedly a virgin when it is time for him to marry Claire — in order to rescue her from the probable beating, torture, imprisonment and rape by the evil villain of the first books and seasons of Outlander, Black Jack Randall. By contrast, Claire has been married and at first she is supposed to be teaching him. He does not need much instruction: it turns out he has kissed and “made out” many a girl; they just didn’t consummate. Why not, we are not told. Ms Barr was right because this state of gentle purity does give Jamie a special status — especially because he has all other male traits, and he says and makes good his promise to keep Claire safe as long as she stays by him.


Brianna (Sophie Skelton) beginning to understand that Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin) wants an engagement and marriage as the price of a relationship with him (Outlander, Season 3, Episode 4, Of Lost Things)

I also realized that the second generation hero of the romances, Roger Wakefield, exhibits a similar superiority and gets to control Brianna, Jamie’s daughter by Claire, because he will not have sex with her unless they become engaged and are about to be married or married. She wants to be free and have sex with him as she pleases and then return to university to finish her degree. If they feel later they want to continue the relationship, fine. If not, fine. She has committed to nothing, with no promise of fidelity either. Well, he’s not having that, and they quarrel fiercely over this. Needless to say, Roger wins — after all Brianna will and cannot force Roger to fuck her. Slowly and surely, Roger comes to dominate Brianna (mainly because she wants a relationship with Roger and can only have it on his terms) though she struggles against his asserting her right after they are “handfast” (have a private ceremony between themselves with God presumably looking on). And then she is punished because now alone she is quickly raped when she attempts to go into a tavern and be accepted as an equal human being to the men there.

Roger does suffer terribly. Later in the evening, Brianna is raped by Stephen Bonnet, and when, having discovered Brianna has returned to her parents, Roger seeks her there, Jamie and Brianna’s cousin, Ian, think he is the rapist, beat him ferociously, and sell him to the Indians. So Roger is enslaved and humiliated and treated horribly for a long time. But when the ordeal is over, he has won.

Similarly Jamie is persecuted because Black Jack Randall is homosexual and deeply attracted to Jamie and captures him, and beats, tortures him, threatening to rape and kill Claire; he shatters Jamie (this is what torturers do) and rapes him to the point that Jamie loses his sense of an identity, and agrees to accept Randall. So Skelton’s demand that the male paragon be persecuted as part of the complex icon here is repeated in the 21st century.


Jamie’s Agon (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 16: To Ransom a Man’s Soul)

It may be that Hickman is made fun of, is “a comic figure” with little power over Anna Howe, whom he is pathetically grateful to marry. But it was noted that “if Lord G, Charlotte Grandison’s husband, is similarly ridiculed” for not being able to control his wife or stop her from domineering over him; nonetheless. “the marriage disciplines her.” She must accept pregnancy and breast-feeding his child. He is “second best to Charles, whom Charlotte would have married if Charles has not been her brother.”

Several other people offered ideas and parallels to Sir Charles in eighteenth century characters and twentieth. Richardson is “re-fashioning the rake,” and making a “new culturally attractive” moralized “Christian” icon. Carol Stewart offered the idea that by presenting a male this way you detach heterosexuality from agency. A character can be forceful and active and not heterosexually involved with anyone.

Ms Barr responded that there is a “heterosexual pessimism” at the core of this kind of icon; heterosexuality is not presented as good for people; sex is distrusted; we are committed to love and to sex, but it is not necessarily in our best interests to be sexually active; it can be against our interests; the best thing you can do is resign yourself. You end up with a resigned or deflated happiness. Harriet is a second best choice. The sexual life of Sir Charles and Clementina is deeply troubled.

This reminded me of the attitude towards sexuality in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country where sex causes anguish and grief, especially to homosexual or emotionally vulnerable and tender men. It can lead to heroines marrying someone who is non-congenial and with whom life is a form of deprivation.


The self-tortured James Moon (Kenneth Branagh) (1987 A Month in the Country, scripted Simon Gray)

There was talk of the second Eve or Lilith as an icon in 19th century fiction. That these underlying complexes of feelin suggest why Sir Charles is attractive to women readers — or was. George Eliot is said to have loved the novel. There is an eroticism in this femininity, or feminine aspect of a man. I know this to be true of Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser.

I also know in the case of Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, the readership is ferocious in denying that he raped Elizabeth Poldark — they dislike intensely any reference to any liaisons he may have had before he marries Demelza, and in the book any hints that he has affairs while an M.P in London are kept very discreet. It should be said that most of males in the Poldark series show no trace of homosexuality; they and the women characters, though, have strong same-sex friendships.

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St John Rivers (Andrew Bicknell, very handsome, brooding, absolutely chaste (1983 Jane Eyre, scripted Alexander Baron, probably the best of the 20th century adaptations)

The meeting concluded with bringing up a global dimension. We were reminded by one of the people who introduced the session that St John Rivers is a missionary going to Africa to convert African people to Christianity. He wanted Jane to be disciplined to be part of his imperial project. Jane, though, says the demands of such a role would have killed her and much prefers to return to Rochester to make a home for herself and him. That missionaries are aggressively destroying the identities of “other” people, and St John would have regarded Jane’s death as “collateral damage” in the way the US regards all the native peoples we destroy. In some post-colonial formulations, these “other” people become “spectral bodies” who will then be dominated.

This made me remember the fate of some of the Native Americans or Indians that the Frasers interact with in Drums of Autumn, and that the woods of North Carolina are haunted by the revenant of Otter-Tooth, a young man once called Roger Springer, who came from the 20th century back to the 18th and was assimilated into an Indian tribe, was killed “as a troublemaker” and now is an apparently grieving ghost haunting both present and past.

I may be overdoing these parallels, for, as we move away from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, Bronte’s St John Rivers, and the hypocritical thug-rapist, now Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, we lose sight of Ms Barr’s central core point: literature’s male virgins have a peculiarly misogynist anger at their core. Perhaps one of the differences in more humane 20th and 21st century literature is that homoeroticism and homosexuality form part of the complex of sexuality openly shown to be part of male iconic characters.


Jane Eyre (Ruth Wilson) (2006 TV JE, scripted Sandy Welch)

Ellen

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –-
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
— Emily Dickinson


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in her surgery (Outlander, Season 5)


After she is gang-raped in the 12th episode — she does need Jamie (Sam Heughan) to enable her to live the life she wants safely in the 18th century: without him, she would not last a month, and he would be lost without her, Brianna and now Roger …

Dear friends and readers,

A note to say I’ve not given up blogging on this site, but I am in an interim. I am slowing down and the teaching I am doing, classes I am following are taking up what strength and energy I have and so have put aside for now blogs on women poets (next up will be Elizabeth Bishop), painters (Tina Blau who paints just during the later 19th and early 20th century where I find so many women painters whose work deeply appeals to me), and actresses (next up a contemporary, Harriet Walter). I am instead working on a few related projects.

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Sometimes this is called Into the Light (on Tina Blau)

I’ve started new or renewed older projects. Sometimes I forge ahead for a whole day, often at night. Once again I have watched and loved an Outlander season, 5, taken mostly from The Fiery Cross, with some material from A Breath of Snow and Ashes. The film-makers have brilliantly transposed the best in this fifth Outlander boo, and so consistently beautifully, I’m tempted to say it’s the best season since the first. I’ve found two academic essays, a book, and mean to start blogging soon.

My ideas for my Poldark book have morphed to what I can do and it will be a book finally on historical romances, arguing for the value of these two, and perhaps a selection of others which enter into the point of view in these two series of books and in the Outlander films that I love so much. I want also to dwell on Cornwall & like marginalized “edge” places.


The journey from Norland to Barton Cottage for the Dashwoods (from the 2009 Sense and Sensibility)

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I am again watching the Austen movie canon, and recently finished three of the earlier BBC TV serial type versions: the familial drama, with love stories at the center: the 1971 Sense and Sensibility, the 1971 Persuasion, and the 1972 Emma. I am getting my act together on the ways in which they resemble one another, their real successes in conveying faithfully the inner world of these three novels.


Patricia Rutledge as the deliciously funny, rowdy and intrusive but well-meaning Mrs Jennings (1971 S&S, scripted Constantduros)

They do have the depth of emotion that are required and also the comedy — in the 1971 S&S, Patricia Rutledge is the most brilliant Mrs Jenkins I’ve ever seen and Fiona Walk the same for her highly sexualized Mrs Elton. What unites them is a real faithfulness to the literal as well as the true thematic emphases of Austen’s books — when in the 1971 Persuasion Wentworth (Bryan Marshall (who now I think of it played Rochester in a similarly early and very good Jane Eyre) arrives and the two actors silently interact — they are very strong presence and then the film opens out — so to speak. Out in the landscapes and gardens of some southern parts of England. The script is enough to convey the original tone and feel of the book, and it even gets better when they go perhaps to Lyme itself (they seem to on the cobb), lots of filming of the waters, the sky … No one has had the guts to present the hard ironized view of Emma as a bully, snob, and guarded when it comes to heterosexual sex that Glenister and Constantduros did in 1972.  No one played it as exquisitely lightly as Doran Goodwin.


Emma (Doran Goodwin) beginning to be aware she has made of Mr Elton an aggressive suitor (1972 Emma, scripted also by Constantduros)

The movies for cinema have still been mostly of the screwball (from the 1940s MGM Pride and Prejudice, to the 1996 Clueless and latest Emma travesty) to eye-candy (1996 McGrath Emma (Gweneth Paltrow starring) and 2016 Whit Stillman Love and Friendship (mistitled), to wild mis- and effective cultural appropriations, e.g., 2004 Bride and Prejudice (Gurinder Chadha), the 2010 queering of making violent Jane Austen and Zombies (Graham-Smith) ….

I could do it by source: watch all the Persuasions in a row, all the NAS — the problem would be there have been so many P&Ps, S&Ss, and now Emmas (with that last cinema travesty returning to screwball burlesque, with a coda of absurdly sexualized soppy romance). But this would turnup less general insights though perhaps more about the individual Jane Austen novels …

I carry on working on my review of a book on Jane Austen and the arts.

I am seeing the book as a whole as indicative of the state of Jane Austen studies today: Particular sub-theses: yet another set of writings doused in hagiography, uncritical celebration over the reality underneath the reach of Austen’s celebrity and the money-making powers of her name … sleight-of-hand and strained language to attach Austen to religious movements, areas of knowledge, and popular or super-respected artists, interesting in themselves but having nothing to do with anything truly present in her fiction, novels or life … A group of words which refers to a set of particulars in characters and stories … are replaced by words from a set of concept drawn from legal philosophy … Scholars work very diligently on the most unforthcoming bits of text … extravagant improbable assertions of flawlessness and originality …

I won’t write separate a blog on this material. It is too demoralizing: how lightly Virginia Woolf managed to pass over the “mendacious” (her word) Hill book on Jane Austen and her Home and Friends [actually houses she dwelt in] …., when I think about it I think how several of these essays could have made such fine books if not so inappropriately justified with skewed perspectives. In his skimmingly light analysis of the misreading of Austen today, Louis Menand of the New Yorker does not begin to go into nonsense, scams, delusions

I read or tried to read Kipling’s “Janeites” in context for the first time: it was published in a series of rabidly imperialist sketches of soldiers’, colonialists, Indian natives’ lives between 1882 and 1889:

Well, I’m thinking it may be be totally ironic. I know the jist: it tells of these soldiers who read Jane Austen because she is such a comfort when you are fighting and killing and dying. Could it be that Kipling meant to mock the growing cult that had begun with the publication of Austen’s nephew’s memoir, rightly sent up by Henry James because it had been taken up by publishers who witnessed the sudden sales of Austen’s novels read in this sentimental way. The illustrations by Hugh Thompson clinched this.

If so, he had failed utterly because it is usually read straight and to tell the truth it seems to me that the text won’t support the idea it is a mockery. It goes on too long. It is too affectionate. When you write satire or burlesque you need to play fair and indicate this somehow. When you don’t, you end up like Defoe after he wrote The Shortest Way with Dissenters — exterminate them! – in a pillory and parts of your body broken.

But Kipling’s story has been ever so convenient for today’s worshipful misreadings

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While I also work as best I can on my review of the new standard edition of Anne Finch’s poetry (much to re-read and consider), I am again reading about what is specific to women’s poetry, more than one book, and how the women poets from the 17th through 21st century mine the same extraordinary terrain. Just now I’m reading Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry, edd. Yopie Prins and Maera Shreiber and Readings in Renaissance Women’s Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance 1594-1998, edd. S.P. Certasano and Marion Wynne-Davies.

Dwelling in Possibility turns out to be a sincerely thought out book on the state of thinking today on women writers by feminists and people who study women’s literature (not always the same group). I am so pleased to have explained to me and put together the very different strands of feminist outlooks studying women’s books today — including the “long” poem and why when it’s by women it seems to bore a lot of readers; and the sonnet or love lyric, and why it has been marginalized — a private world — and often dealt with as fictional (these are all conventions &c — when the men write them). Finch tried to write long poems and she wrote love lyrics (if not sonnets) and she attempted to feminize those male genres she was brave enough to write in, writing love lyrics from her own vulnerable point of view. It would seem that while much closer to the manuscripts Dickinson left than Johnson’s edition, Franklin is not true to their incoherent (they are crowded together sometimes, go to the end of page) and half-wild appearance. They are written in her heart’s blood.

Especially insightful is Claudia Thomas’s Alexander Pope and his 18th century women readers. She is far more truthful than the present Finch scholars in showing how ambivalent and estranged was Finch’s relationship to Pope as at the same time Finch participated in admiring and exchanging sentiments with a man who (like Rousseau) paid women the compliment by paying attention to and speaking to them through his translations and epistolary verse.

Readings in Renaissance Women’s Drama manages to convince me that these early plays by women are of interest — one essay by Wynne-Davies herself (now I have seen her in a Future Learn on the Sidneys which dwelt on Mary Herbert Sidney’s play, The Tragedie of Antony (he of Cleopatra fame), and Mary Sidney Lady Wroth’s play, Love’s Victorie — is about what it must have been like to write such plays in vast country houses during times of court exile and also war. She reminded me of what DuMaurier’s imagines of Menabilly (a great house in an estate) during the time of the 17th century civil war (The King’s General) — DuMaurier’s book connects back. Finch wrote hers from the seclusion of a great house too, and to protect herself from jeering and abrasion and probably scolding while she was deeply depressed –at least when around others.


Derek Jacobi and Eileen Atkins in a long ago production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning (alluded to centrally in one of Winston Graham’s mysteries)

I doubt there are ten people in the world who might understand why I find such joy and peace when I am engaged in reading about earlier (in time) and learned women’s poetry, drama, novels and memoirs and some of these themselves.  Or watching older and costume drama movies.

(Maybe there might be a few more who would understand my similar feelings for reading Trollope, whose books I teach regularly; I am also looking forward to V.S Naipaul’s A Bend in the River this term as part of a class on Kipling and colonialism (whence my reading “Janeites” in context). One of my favorite contemporary books by men is his The Enigma of Arrival. It’s not coincidence this more understandable escape is art by men.)

My context: during this pandemic and under the vicious rhetoric and violence of the Trump junta I feel I am living in retreat from a full-scale war on all decent ordinary people.

‘We are all offending every moment of our lives.’ — Marianne Dashwood, Austen’s S&S (1:13)

‘My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy.’ –Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)


Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane in Strong Poison (according to Francesca Wade in one review the character was called a Bloomsbury bluestocking … she is my gravatar or image for my first old Sylvia I blog)

Ellen