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

Fires were started (outside the usual assembly room dance)

Elizabeth (Lily James) swinging her battleaxe

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mother and child

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

Thrones play a big part in the sets

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot was made of common distaste for bugs.


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

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

The de rigueur breakfast scene

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


The world as ruin, on fire from bombs

Elizabeth crawling through to reach an apparently dead Darcy

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

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

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

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

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

Wickham early in the film

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

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

It’s a film you could think about.


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

Matt Smith marrying everyone else

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

Darcy and Bingley — typical moment between them

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

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

A group scene

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

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JameasRosamundPike (1)

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

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

The city as ruins


Elizabeth gone mad and Jane in open distress

The film’s last still before the credits roll


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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

Jonas Hacker, Alasdair Kent, Clarissa Lyons, Scott Suchman

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

A trailer on-site

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Woodhouse continues to be concerned for Harriet’s health

We tend to dismiss these as just literalism made fun of (which they are), or revealing of a particular character’s obsessions (which they do): the criteria an absurd literalism; we see how the Admiral cannot enter into art conventions at all because he has led a life at sea; Mr Woodhouse is this hypochondriac, no flattery of Emma is to egregious for Mr Elton to utter. Their egoistic points of reference our own responses to such conventions in art more self-conscious. We could see them as part of a skein of self-reflexive commentary on art which is consistent across Austen. The drawing of Harriet’s picture is prefaced by a discussion of what makes a good likeness: it appears not to be accuracy per se, as Emma felt she’d gotten down her sister, Isabella’s and John Knightley’s children well enough. What is to be avoided is the insipid, what sought for vivacity, an energy of a particular individual’s felt life.

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

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

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

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

In P&P Elizabeth staring at Darcy’s picture is a trope going back to Greek romance: the lover’s state of mind is what is doing the falling in love. It’s when she is planning, dreaming of her coming tour to the Lake District we see this specificity criteria emerge. Readers seem to remember the first half of Elizabeth’s effusion, it’s the second half that tells us what kind of descriptive travel writing Austen appreciated. Italics Austen’s:

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

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

A Gilpin depiction of Dove Dale, Derbyshire (!)

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion have the most complicated aesthetic discussions of Austen’s books, but when it comes to how to reading any artistic depiction, throughout all the scenes and conversations in Austen’s novels and letters what Austen demands herself is versimilitude, and accuracy. Not just her characters demand literalism as a criteria for judgement. It is she who mocks these pictures, these descriptions as absurd partly because they show the artist has had what she sees as lapse of mind. Nothing is being observed from nature. All vague or inward. She does not respect conventions as such, not consciously.

In S&S upon Edward Ferrars’ expressing his dislike of hypocrisy in pleasure (“affectation”) by refusing to admit he has strong preferences too, Marianne tells her objection to popular art (cant):

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

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

In Mansfield Park Fanny Price, has to face continual deflations; no illusions let pass; typical the dialogue in the chapel where Mary Crawford objects to her sentimental mush over prayers, Edmund corrects her too on by the sober grounds (an awareness of his own limitation and here in the form of death:

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

Fanny (Sylvestre LeTousel) left alone to dream over her and William’s letters and his exquisitely detailed map of his ship (the map not in Austen. 1983 BBC MP scripted Ken Taylor)

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

Only Gilpin appears to have been exempt from this egoism (see Davies’s Elizabeth above), and there because of the concrete topography, and that she enjoyed traveling through reading travel books, though here too she will poke fun at too strict an adherence to principles in lieu of capturing the reality. See “Enamoured of Picturesque at a Very Early Age”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen on her way down to meet Ann Radcliffe, her subjective life and the surrounding house become pictorially gothic (2008 Becoming Jane Austen, scripted Kevin Hood and Susan Williams)


Women’s Work: a Medley (1861) [I have not come across an image in color]

She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself. — Jane Austen, Emma (precursor to Yonge’s Clever Woman of the Family, illustrated by Claxton)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m happy to be able to say that my second choice for 19th century women artists, Florence Anne Claxton (1838-1920) is no longer as obscure as I had flattered myself she was. From recent books on Victorian women artists, and articles on Florence’s life and art, I can offer a brief life, information about her sister, Adelaide Sophia Claxton [Turner] (1841-1927), also an illustrator and painter, and more than the two famous images of Florence’s work that I first center on. I was drawn to her satire of the hegemonic stereotypical ways women were depicted in her era and Pre-Raphaelite depictions of women, and then startled when I read that she had killed herself. Although during my time writing foremother poet blogs, I all too often came across suicide as the close of a poet’s life, Claxton is the first suicide I’ve encountered among women artists.

Florence Claxton’s one known (and when she is mentioned most frequently reprinted) painting is Women’s Work: A Medley, a parody of Ford Madox Brown’s Work


It also fits in with large-scale group paintings like Frith’s Railway Station (1862), G.E. Hicks’s General Post Office (1860), and Egley’s Omnibus Life in London (1859). While Brown earnestly inculcates the work ethic as conferring dignity and value on people of all classes, Claxton exposes the limited nature of what women were permitted to work at (and not for money). Here is Deborah Cherry’s exegesis from her Beyond the Frame (one of my central sources of information for Claxton):

At the dead centre of the painting is a seated man. Two young women practise their accomplishments, another gazes at her reflection in a mirror. Behind him, on either side of an image of the golden calf, are family groups. To the right, a woman in brilliant yellow consults lengthy tabulations; she is closely watched by two professional men. Three governesses crowd around a small child in the left foreground, while on the right a woman is slumped on the ground before a closed door. The only figure to escape the pit-like centre of the painting is an artist who, having scaled the wall, sits sketching landscape; another attempts to follow her. In a fissure in the wall, an imperious figure points out to a group of indigent gentlewomen a view of sea, ship and shore.

Cherry quotes Susan Casteras (who wrote of Claxton in her review of Cherry’s Beyond the Frame in Victorian Studies, 45:2 [2003]:35-58), who calls it “one of the most soul-searching, acerbic and incisive paintings about the plight of contemporary womanhood (37-39):” women could not own their own property while married; it was extremely difficult for an unmarried woman to support herself independently doing respected satisfying work.

Claxton’s Choice of Paris: an Idyll (1860), “a detailed satire of the subjects, theories and techniques of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood executed in watercolor” (Catherine Flood, ODNB) is said to have caused a sensation:

ChoiceofParistwosides (Large)

Linda Hutcheon (quoted by Cherry) says it goes beyond this and ridicules vice and follies, urges a reform of attitudes and manners; it’s not assured because she could not rely on viewers to grasp its message (42). Jamie Horrocks provides a full exposition (“Broken Vows and Broken Homes: The politics of Pre-Raphaelitism in Florence Claxton’s The Choice of Paris, The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 24 [2015]:5-34, with a large scale reproduction of the interior side); William E. Freedman quotes a very long contemporary exegesis, which accompanied some reprints, showing that the painting probably puzzled many people not “in the know.” Just some of it: on the one side, the

interior, the left-hand compartment, the principal group is that of Mr. Millais present- ing the apple to a Pre-Raphaelite belle-ideal, whom he prefers to a figure of Raphael’s (from the well-known picture of “The Marriage of the Virgin”), and to a pretty, modern, English girl, dressed in the mode of the day, with plaited hair and crinoline complete. He carries in his hand a volume of Mr. Ruskin’s, and on the ground is a treatise “On Beauty”, by the same author. On the floor, also, are some of the famous apple-blossoms which Mr. Ruskin invoked the artists of England to paint, and the onions, as painted by Mr. Hunt, which that gentleman was so enthusiastic about last year. Behind these we see another Pre-Raphaelite worthy examining the feet of a female through a magnifying- glass, the textural surface of which he is copying minutely in his sketch book.

On the other, the exterior

we discern a young lady who is being dragged in at the window by the hair of the head, having lent too favourable an ear to the serenading monk beneath. Her fiery red hair has partly given way under the severity of the tension to which it is subject. Behind this figure is the famous Sir Isumbras of 1857, and in the foregound a picnic, where Mr. Hunt’s “Scapegoat” is anxiously waiting for some of the milk which a female (somewhat after one of the figures in Mr. Millais’s “Spring”) is drinking. The grave-digging-nun, and the sprawling figure of the girl sucking a straw, in the foreground on the right, will at once be recognized as of the same paternity.

The viewer could also pick out portraits of Raphael, Van Dyke, Joshua Reynolds, Millais, Ruskin (“Pre-Raphaelites in Caricature,” Burlington Magazine, 102:693 [1960):523-29). As one might imagine, one criticism of her work was that the images didn’t stand alone, needed explanation. The truth is satire often demands words: Hogarth, Rowlandson, need their titles and the lines that often accompany them, and occur in narrative series. Florence Claxton’s Scenes from the Life of the Female Artist (shown in the second exhibit of the Society of Female Artists in 1858), seems to have disappeared, and all we have is the description:

there is the ‘ladies class’, the studio, the woodland wide-awake, all the aspirations, difficulties, disappointments, which lead in time to successes. The little dog barks … the plaster head on the shelf winks with a certain dry amusement at its mistress, who is represented as painting a picture of the ascent to the Temple of Fame; the picture is rejected, and the disconsolate young painter is seen sitting back in comical despair, gazing at an enormous R, chalked on the back (Cherry, Painting Women, 85).

She meant to amuse, entertain, and teach, as will be seen in the title of her 1871 book of cartoons, The Adventures of a Woman in Search of her Rights, containing more than 100 pictures. Satire also comes from personal as well as ethical anger, from hurt. As with Joanna Boyce Wells, her words rather than her pictures have survived and must substitute. The following explication is from an exhibition where Florence’s pictures had scrolls, circles with words in them (Flagstones: “Ennui”), and funny references (“prickly thorns of Ridicule”)

The Four Ages of Man are represented: in the centre … all are equally the objects of devotion from surrounding females. The ‘sugar plums’ dropping from the bon-bon box represent the ‘airy nothings’ alone supposed to be within the mental grasp of womankind. A wide breach has been made in the ancient wall of Custom and Prejudice, by Progress – Emigration – who points out across the ocean. Three governesses, seen in the foreground, ignorant apparently of the opening behind them, are quarrelling over one child. The upright female figure to the right is persuaded by Divinity, and commanded by Law, to confine her attention to legitimate objects. Another female sunk, exhausted, against a door, of which the medical profession has the key; its representative is amused at her impotent attempts … (Cherry, Beyond the Frame, 40)

Florence depicted women’s worlds in the way of later Victorian or Edwardian women artists (Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, Helen Allingham) as in this of women fending for themselves and their children getting off a train and on a train station:

FlorenceClaxtonaTrainstation (Large)


Like a large number of the women artists I’ve covered, Florence was born to a family of painters: her father, Marshall Claxton (1813-81) had taken his wife, Sophia (nee Hargrave) and family to Florence, Italy, so he could study and there. Florence was born 26 August 1838. He seems not to have been commercially successful, and the family moved about. When her sister, Adelaide was born, three years later (1841), they were living in London, Southampton Street, Fitzroy Square, where many artists lived. He took them, a governess and 200 paintings to Sydney, Australia in August 1850, where the Hargrave brothers were trying to make a living: Richard was a settler-landowner in New South Wales; later a cousin, Lawrence Hargrave became an aeronautical pioneer. Four years later they sail to Calcutta, India; 1857 they return to England (but via Ceylon or Sri Lanka and Egypt).

An artistic career was not just a vocation for the daughters, but a necessary means of making a living. Catherine Flood lists the art schools they trained in. Florence signed a petition to the Athenaeum, calling for the admission of women into regular art academies, but regular money was in illustration where a woman’s lack of prestige did not weigh so heavily. Sketches by Florence from the 1850s show she had already show her talent for humor, and it was from these younger adult years before her marriage that the exhibited works described above emerged. The sisters were prolific, living together independently in London for a while, producing pictures commenting on topic issues for (among others) Illustrated London News, the Illustrated Times, London Society, English Women’s Domestic Journal.

secenes-from-women-artistsFlorenceCaxton (Large) (2)
From Florence’s Scenes from the Life of a Female Artist

It’s upon Florence’s marriage to a French photographer that we begin to lose sight of her. She moved outside the art world she had been in to Paris. The Woman in Search of her Rights came from these later years, and on the basis of this and a few other projects, Catherine Flood objects to Ellen Clayton’s characterization of Florence has having left “the artistic world” upon her marriage (English Female Artists, 1876). But again she had moved, this time to a periphery: she is said to have spent many years in Morocco whether as wife or widow is not clear (her husband died between 1881 and 1891). There is a difference between a life in London or Paris, and exhibiting and making books there, as opposed to selling paintings on china, porcelain plaques and teaching, which is what she did mostly. Flood then locates her in 1911 living in the Isle of Wight, estranged from her sister, Adelaide (who had become a successful commercial artist-businesswoman), living on an annuity from her mother. There are no children, and she takes “a fatal overdose of veronal” in a “carefully planned suicide” on 3 May 1920, it’s said because of “failing health, rising food prices, and a horror of losing her independence” (Flood).


Although Florence’s name is cited in a number of histories of illustrated books, where illustrations are reprinted, titles are missing, little is reprinted. According to wikipedia, the story of the woman who searched for her rights did not end well, and may be read as part of what Norma Clarke explains as the self-policing of Victorian women writers who hid their real lives and reinforced the system that crippled them (Ambitious Heights: Writing Friendship, Love, The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle 57-97):

a young woman falls in love with a dashing youth, but her parents do not approve and her lover leaves. She decides to pursue her rights. She loses her looks through the study of John Stuart Mill and; now made ugly, she pursues various careers, becoming a lawyer, a politician and a doctor, but eventually fails in all of her pursuits. She finally emigrates to the United States and marries Brigham Young, the polygamous Mormon leader. In the end, it turns out to have been all a dream and she ends with the words ‘thank goodness it’s only a midsummer night’s dream and I’m not emancipated’

The cover

Claxton apparently also ridiculed women in “Married Off: a Satirical Poem by H. B. (Henry Bergh)” (Walton, see directly below).

She did, though, illustrate Charlotte Yonge’s The Clever Woman of the Family in ways that show real sympathy for a story of a clever ambitious young woman who wanted to make it on her own. Susan Walton (“Suitable Work for Women? Florence Claxton’s Illustrations for The Clever Woman of the Family by Charlotte Yonge,” Nineteenth Century Gender Studies, 11:2 (2015), describes, reprints and argues both Yonge and Claxton’s attitudes were by no means antagonistic to extending the kinds of remunerative “suitable work” for “gentlewomen” outside the home. The novel first appeared in a conservative Christian magazine, Churchman’s Family Magazine. Walton thinks the life and work of Florence Nightingale played an important role in changing women’s minds about how work outside the home is not just selfish, ambitious, about a need for money, but and quotes Audrey Fessler’s reading of Yonge’s novel as about making “a good society to be one where the interconnectedness of every person in the community was fostered – that a web of relationships and responsibilities should be maintained in parish and neighborhood.”

We should remember that beyond hostility to women artists as such, the art world (high and low) presented women artists and women as deeply sexual (and therefore suspect). In this context, Claxton had been praised in the English Woman’s Journal based on Claxton’s Life of an Old Bachelor and Life of an Old Maid as “the one female exhibitor who means something, and says what she means … every stroke instinct with thought. … We think they are … the best pictures here, being so good of their kind.” She adds Colleen Denney’s voice to the way Claxton’s Work: A Medley was seen: “a “multi-layered allegorical portrait,” “a biting satire of women’s service to men; in essence, it reveals the state of women’s lives in 1861 and the ways in which their society marginalized them, whether they sought to stay in the domestic realm, or ventured beyond it into the public one.” Claxton might then be a good choice for Yonge’s book. Here is just one of the several illustrations reprinted and analyzed by Walton:


To me and those interested in Jane Austen, it’s telling that Yonge’s novel has been linked back to Austen’s Emma for its subject, stance, techniques.

One can also glimpse satire on the social life imposed and sympathy for women and girls, in these four panels from the Illustrated London News attributed to both Adelaide and Florence:

florenceandAdelaideIllustraedLondonTimes (Large)

Florence’s woman artist is stranded in a flower show (taken so seriously from Mrs Miniver to Downton Abbey)

ArtistatFlowerShow (Large)

In 1863 she laughed at a “singing lesson at Minerva House:”


As I am of a serious disposition, and am often perverse enough to prefer the small mood images and vignettes in the New Yorker to their cartoons, I like the few in that vein I found:

Forence Anne Claxton -  watercolour over pencil, signed and date 1859 . This watercolour is a study for a larger work entitled "the Lower jetty, Margate" engraved for the Illustrated London News Oct 1 1859 p330

Florence Anne Claxton – watercolour over pencil, signed and date 1859 . This watercolour is a study for a larger work entitled “the Lower jetty, Margate” engraved for the Illustrated London News Oct 1 1859 p330

Another from this series:

Lower Jetty 1859watercolor

But her forte was the detailed satire and commentary, such as this:

Testimonials (Large)

She was, though, not laughing when she died, an old ill woman living alone whom her society would not provide adequately for and had actively worked (in the sense of its norms) to prevent her doing so for herself.


Huge vapours brood above the clifted shore,
Night o’er the ocean settles, dark and mute,
Save where is heard the repercussive roar
Of drowsy billows, on the rugged foot
Of rocks remote; or still more distant tone
Of seamen, in the anchored bark, that tell
The watch relieved; or one deep voice alone,
Singing the hour, and bidding “strike the bell.”
All is black shadow, but the lucid line
Marked by the light surf on the level sand,
Or where afar, the ship-lights faintly shine
Like wandering fairy fires, that oft on land
Mislead the pilgrim; such the dubious ray
That wavering reason lends, in life’s long darkling way.
— Smith, poem found in The Young Philosopher

Joseph Wright of Derby: Moonlight with a Lighthouse

Dear friends and readers,

This past month I read the only longer (4 full volumes) novel by Charlotte Smith not available except in the super-expensive Chatto and Pickering Complete Novels of Charlotte Smith: Marchmont. I cannot think of any rational explaining why this one has been left out. It is superior to those produced in various facsimile editions, as good or better those produced in good popular and academic style editions. I used my downloaded ECCO pdf texts supplemented by a xerox of all four volumes from the microfilms of these ECCO texts I made in the 1980s at the Library of Congress.

Unlike a number of Smith’s novels, it not only has a heroine’s subjective consciousness at the center, the heroine herself, Althea Dacres, is self-contained, pro-active on her own behalf, a persuasively mature intelligent presence. She is closest presence to Austen’s Elinor Dashwood in Smith’s oeuvre. Smith observes verisimilitude carefully, delineates (as she does in another later novel, The Young Philosopher), the actual money relationship of the frequently disparate relatives within an English kinship system at the time. There is a sophisticated analysis of the workings of law and custom dramatized.

Deep into this long novel there is a letter by Marchmont, the hero, to his friend Eversley (this is a novel partly told in letters) where he describes at length what he sees going on all around him, the conditions of prison existence where to get anything at all you must bribe someone; where the acceptance of living in prison for debt is so strong a whole set of industries and type jobs have grown around it, as well as families living “in the rules” (just outside the prison and some prisoners allowed to visit). It’s soberly devastating. She begins with how a person might feel who tells himself how he has long years ahead to live in this place and knows he shouldn’t be there, that it’s an outrageous and counterproductive injustice to put him there. (The creditors Johnson called vultures persisted in hoping rich relatives who were willing — both conditions rarely existed would pay to get the person out.) In her prison memoir Madame Roland has a section on what she saw as people expect to die: Roland brings out the rampant sexuality, prostitution and violence and raw coarse behavior that comes out (a bit of this is seen in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, but not enough). Smith has her hero reading Roland’s memoir which came out in 1796 so it’s possible Smith read Roland just before or during the time she was writing this novel. Smith does say the people are “profligate, daring and unprincipled,” “careless of consequences” for they have so little to lose.

First Marshalsea prison: an 18th century print

I find myself regretting Smith put this in a novel. It ought to have been published separately. OTOH, it is terrible to our hero and heroine (Althea is married to Marchmont by the fourth volume when he is incarcerated) to look around himself and see so much misery – what he sees happens to people who are led to see themselves as outcasts and everyone attached to them who stays living in sordid conditions of helplessness. Her experience is one of threats from sexual harassment which would bring upon her not only possible rape but the destruction of Marchmont who would insist on defending her honor.

Seige of Toulon, the attack: another 18th century print

Smith includes the horrifying siege of Toulon, and again most graphically, he desperate straits of the different people differently caught up in this story of “blood” and carnage over the course of the event. She emphasizes daily life, monthly life was like in the debtors’ sections and in various vantage points of a seige. The question is a woman’s one: how does one live, carry on regardless in such continuing conditions. We see famine from afar: smith remarks we are “creatures of accident” and refers to Leibnitz Pope, Optimism: she pictures someone asking, what use is this reasoning. She replies by reasoning, by showing these things happen, you may gradually remove abuses. If don’t do this, you are savage and nothing will change. She quotes Horace Walpole on the rightness of subordination at this point — ironically. It is a novel which tells of the failure of the French revolution but maintains its ideals are humanity’s hopes.

The story is many-faceted and tonight I want just to suggest a few of the themes and modes of writing which emerge and are reflective of Smith in her later years; what differentiates this book. When the novel opens, Althea is being brought up by a sympathetically portrayed unmarried aunt, Mrs Trevyllian. When she won’t accede to a forced marriage to a fop-like thug, she is sent to a ruined house, and we have a realistic gothic. The ghost turns out to be the outcast hero, Marchmont descended from a line of Cavaliers whose history of punitive treatment gives us insight into the civil war conflicts and their aftermaths. They are worse in debt than mere bankruptcy (Marchmont must struggle to keep his father’s body from creditors who would hold it unburied as ransom for payment). The novel is famous among those who read 18th century minor fiction for its predatory lawyers, especially one Vampyre (others have memorable names like Tygerface). She is explicit about the oppression to most of the legal criminal justice and legacy systems. She shows smuggling going on continually; small people get caught and the punishment is harsh, but the practice is in effect otherwise ignored. Smith is prescient about the results of the just beginning Napoleonic conquest of Europe. What worlds.

Like Mansfield Park, there is in effect an inset epistolary novel, narratives by the hero, Marchmont, sent to Eversley, his and Althea’s loyal friend, like so many characters in Smith suffering from the wretchedness of marriage to a partner morally stupid, deeply committed to hierarchy and loving senseless social dissipation, egoistically vain. A long embedded novella told in omniscient free indirect third person form is done as a flashback, backstory: our displaced heroine is a servant girl, Phoebe, whose immiseration, emigration, shattered state from what happens to her and her family, and final rescue gives the novel a powerful post-colonial perspective: people who know nothing of the places they are sent to end up killing the people there, with profit seeming to go to invisible further parties. It’s poignant tale of girl maimed — of immense pathos.

Smith reflects on the world of publishing in the 1790s: this is the first text beyond those Kenneth Johnstone udsd in his Pitt’s Reign of Alarm to describe how writers were frightened from writing by the harassment and trials, imprisonment, loss of places to live, jobs, community support. Marchmont’s own reflections about how he daren’t publish or no one will be interested because what he writes will be seen as seditious shows why someone might put this in a novel. She has in this novel had him think about Pitt’s repressive measures against writers. She talks of how somehow it disgraces a person to tell of such an experience (as it would have disgraced her and actually still does to tell of her husband’s abuses of her); how much the success of a book depends on how it’s ushered into the public, how that sort of recommendation influences half the world at least. This is the first book I’ve read that this early brings up the writing life from this political and social capital point of view.

Frontispiece chosen by Smith for her book of poetry (“To the Moon”)

It has the flaws of her other novels: it moves too slowly at times; she is too insistent on her heroine’s exemplary goodness. If this is a flaw, as in all her books, we see a version of her father, utterly blameable and yet forgiven; her aunt who meant well; her stepmother presented as vicious. I like her acid tone, the rants against “the calamities of this best of all possible worlds.” The way she alone tells how families are by the system they find themselves in, and the heterogenous nature of their ties become engines of alienation. But others will find her not allowing enough space for better social moments in life. And it’s too self-conscious, too repetitive, the language not original enough. Not cliched and plain and honest, serviceable, and can move to theoretical analysis back to demotic dramatized scenes, but not what is found in her The Old Manor House, much less the poetry.

It seems to me to reflect her life at this time. We hear of what she had learned to turn to for whatever enjoyment, companionship, new knowledge, as reasons to stay alive after the death of a favorite daughter, estrangement from her eldest son, and her experience of the others most frequently as financial burden and emotionally twisted sites she had not the resources to sustain or respect and compatibility to direct. Books. This is a novel where the heroine finds “the love of books as the greatest solace and company the world affords.”

The deep-musing beautiful landscapes are found in all Smith’s novels, but here she shows her taste for the sublime. She finds release in a tempest. Yet the book begins and ends quietly: Althea at home with her aunt, and a delineation of routine days spent together. Althea at the close with Marchmont and their children with its reference to fortitude learned and how Althea’s life spreads comfort all around while not as beautifully written anticipate Mansfield Park and Dorothea in Middlemarch.

A scene from Scott drawn by Turner


Hubert Robert, Madame Geoffrin Drawing (for a cover, as it is a work French in feel) — let us say Lady Churchill pouring over her daughter’s letters, writing in reply

Dear friends and readers,

Since Love and Friendship is apparently doing well enough commercially that Whit Stillman’s film has not yet left general run theaters, and more and more people have seen it. Stillman’s re-titling of Austen’s mid-career epistolary novella has come under discussion. I thought I’d add a qualifying note in the form of this blog: Austen did not title her fair copy manuscript, it’s salutary to remember that except for the four novels she shepherded into print, we can’t be sure any of her titles represent her first or last decision or determined preference at all, if she had one.

Two of these four texts supervised by Austen herself, have had other names: Pride and Prejudice was for many years a long sharply satiric novel, possibly heavily epistolary denominated First Impressions. Austen told people in the “know” about her authorship, that Martha has read First Impressions so many times, that she might commit it to memory, in order to write it out and sell it herself. Sense and Sensibility began life as a brief epistolary novel, named after the two correspondents: Elinor and Marianne. By the time it was lengthened into the book Cassandra mentions as written 1797-98, it had become Sense and Sensibility.

Lady Susan (so-called) comes third in the succession of posthumous works after Austen’s early death (1871). Of these three, Northanger Abbey (1817) was titled Susan when it was sold in 1803 to Crosby; when we hear of it again in 1816 it has become Catherine. Family tradition says Persuasion (1817) was first titled The Elliots, whose appropriateness is signaled by its first French translator who called the novel La Famille Elliot [ou l’ancienne inclination]. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are Henry and Cassandra’s inspired choices; the pairing them as “sister-novels” (two Bath books?) the result of the way Henry and Cassandra printed them together, with the biographical notice by Henry.

In life Austen paid attention to what was worn (a 1798 ensemble overdress, fischu of European Cotton Silk) — something Lady Susan would certainly sell herself for

James Edward Austen-Leigh tells us that Lady Susan is untitled. We see we have a genuinely fair copy, all gussied up as if Austen was pretending she was publishing her book. This kind of psychological imitation is found in early modern women for texts they cherish and would like others to see in this permanent (more or less) form. So she must’ve cared about the book. Why not name it? Yet, as Austen-Leigh says, it has no name. Austen-Leigh named the book after its chief protagonist, but Austen might have preferred any number of thematic names. In the 18th century novels were named after the chief protagonist; an important theme; or the place the novel importantly occurs in. Following her predilection in her first four, she might have played upon the tradition of widows as hypocritically grieving, while conducting liaisons, so a thematic The Gay Widow (no pun intended) might be appropriate; given the way Austen is regarded the film-makers could scarcely have gone for Adultery Exposed. But maybe, just maybe Austen did have a an ironically amoral/moral title in mind in the manner of LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Eager to prevent Austen’s texts from being lost or hidden from the public any longer, later that same year (1871) JEAL published the fragment, The Watsons. Family tradition, confirmed by Catherine Anne Hubback (daughter to Jane’s brother Frank) who finished the novel with details which suggest a knowledge of the autobiographical backgrounds of Austen’s texts, is this was originally called (by Austen herself) The Younger Sister. This time JEAL was covering up. Sanditon came out many years later: 1825. This is Chapman’s title, calling attention to the unusual setting. The text is untitled in the manuscript, Frank’s grand-daughter declared it was called The Brothers, so like The Younger Sister an autobiographical allusion or source for the work is obscured. Gilson in his magisterial Bibliography also records “The Last Work,” perhaps as semi-comment on the author’s sad death, her weakness and silencing from her illness.

That leaves us with Mansfield Park, Emma, and what we have of titles for the so-called Juvenilia, among which is Love and Freindship (first published 1922) as Austen’s own.

Does it matter? yes. A rose by any other name smells as sweet; still, framing matters. When Stillman decided to re-name the work with a juvenilia name he could hope more Austen readers have read (and found hilarious) outside the famous six novel canon, he was not distorting Austen’s framing. Stillman has said he found Love and Friendship appropriate to the novella, but film-makers no more than authors are on oath when they discuss their book. No one in the novel confides in a friend, friendship is a function of your acceptability. Love too is meted out contingently. The letters are from Churchill, most to them from rather than to. How about The Churchill Letters? this seething place within.

William Westall, Rievaulz Abbey from Duncombe Terrace (as Austen’a taste for Gilpin and reading in Radcliffe and Smith when young suggests a liking for picturesque book illustrations) — Churchill from afar


Joanna Boyce, Heathgatherer (1859)

A passionate desire and an unwearied will can perform impossibilities of what seem such to the cold and feeble. If we do but go on some unseen path will open among the hills. We must not allow ourselves to be discouraged by the apparent disproportion between the result of simple efforts and the magnitude of the obstacles to be encountered. Nothing good and great is to be obtained without courage and industry — from Joanna’s notebooks, quoted by Pamela Gerrish Nunn, Victorian Women Artists, 151)

Dear friends and readers,

Between my last woman artist, in 18th century studies and women’s art, a well-known figure, Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807) and my choice for this evening, a return to obscure women artists, overlooked by most, their pictures not printed nor place with the school they belong to, Joanna Boyce (for short), I found myself composing “a life in nature” artist’s biography about the far more famous Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) out of my own memories of my husband’s fondness for her unique original art, and a lecture I heard and my reading about her achievement as a conservationist and farmer, carer for animals (and people too) in the Lake District. I urge anyone who comes over here for my woman artist series, to peruse my sketch. Unlike Kauffman and Potter, but like too many other women artists and writers, Joanna Boyce did not have time to fulfill and develop her genius as she died shortly after her third childbirth aged 30.

I draw attention first to her Heathgatherer (just above — the strong teal blue is perfect, Boyce has captured the thick linen shirt, the pale sky, the bristly heather), with its pale earthly feel, a painting even the few sources I found on her tend to overlook: according to Bridget Hill’s Women Alone: Spinsters in England, 1660-1850, gathering heath was a primary way women in agriculture made a hard and poverty-stricken existence if this was their only source of income through gleaning fields and selling what could be picked (21-27).

Boyce paints from a woman’s point of view and experience. She pictures young babies and women in ways a man might be embarrassed to paint:

Bo-peep (1861) — it’s earnest and alive with feeling (and in color)

Like her brother, George Price Boyce (1826-1897), her art also fits into that terrain of Pre-Raphaelitism which rigorously tries for precise landscapes to achieve a kind of photographic truth to nature:

Shanklin, Isle of Wight 1860joannaMaryboyce (Large)
Shanklin in the Isle of Wight (1859).

Christopher Newell describes this as a “delicious landscape sketch, with its beautiful effect of light through trees on the right and focus on the large block of rock standing in the foreground (in Pre-Raphaelite Vision: Truth to Nature, 69)

Newell has an entry for a painting of Holmbury Hill (in Surrey, where there is an iron-age fort), about which Joanna wrote she and her brother were

“‘hard at work sketching …. I have accomplished very little as yet but have three good subjects (landscape) commenced.’ The North Downs landscape was untouched, she thought, by the modern world, for there were ‘no visitors or tourists and very few human beings at all within the mile or two of us, but plenty of other beings. numerous from their being so seldom disturbed”

but Newell reprints no image. This anonymous impressionist image of the quiet countryside around the hill is not by her:

On Holmbury Hill

I include it to offer a Victorian painting of the area around Holmbury Hill. Numbers of paintings by her brother have survived which combines precision with atmospheric impression:

George Boyce, Black Poplars at Pangbourne (1868)

Joanna’s unfinished Sybil (1860) is not a witch (brother Pre-Raphaelites favor sorceresses as a theme) nor semi-pornographic with the same face so typical of the male Pre-Raphaelites. The delicacy of mood and apprehension of the woman’s face, and the absorption of the figure in choosing from sheets of paper she will work on makes it my favorite of all her work I’ve seen. She had been working on it when she died:


It’s just not true that there are no great, distinctive, and strong women Pre-Raphaelite artists. I’ve written of Rosa Brett (1829-82), included various images from the work of Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919), Eleanor Fortesque Brickdale as book illustrator), e.g.,


Elizabeth Siddal (1829-62), listed them and others, and mean to add a number more from Jan Marsh’s Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists, including eventually Marie Spartali Stillman (1824-1927)’s strange melanges:

Love’s Messenger (1885).

What is noteworthy about Boyce is how she does not rely on the spectacular, bizarre, or preciously antique, but more in the vein of Brett, leaves us with quiet exquisitely rendered presences and precise naturalism.


Joanna Mary Boyce (possibly made from a death mask)

Joanna Boyce’s life follows a pattern for women artists seen in the Renaissance family workshops, and in the 19th century as necessary promotion, connection, instruction and support (Deborah Cherry, Painting Women: visual art as the “Family Business,” 19-44). Her brother was George Boyce, a Pre-Raphaelite artist well-trained in schools, continually active in several different Pre-Raphaelite circles and a successful architect, who painted buildings too.

George Boyce, Tomb of Mastino della Scala (1854)

George Boyce’s diary is an important source of information for Pre-Raphaelitism today

Joyce’s father, George John Boyce, a wine merchant and pawnbroker (they functioned as bankers) encouraged her talent from a young age, took her to exhibitions, lectures (to J. M. W. Turner’s funeral), allowed her to enroll at Cary’s School of art, and traveled with her to Paris (1852) so she could study contemporary French painting. They stayed at Betws-y-coed in Wales where her brother came under the influence of David Cox. Her father’s death in 1853 was a significant loss because her mother discouraged her from being an artist. Joyce was taken to Torquay during her early grief, and wrote:

I began painting my sketch — unsatisfactory — idle — Have a sense of something wanting to give me energy — the dear encouraging eyes of my darling father, to whom alone I was sure of giving pleasure (Nunn, from Joanna’s notebooks 150)

She met the man who was to become her husband by 1849, Henry Tanworth Wells (1828-1903) and true to form, he was an artist too, a friend of her brother, an established and conventional portraitist and miniaturist who did not appreciate her unusual approaches. Joanna reminds me of a later Victorian woman artist Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912) because for a few years she resisted Well’s pressure to commit to him. Joanna used stronger words than have come down frmo Forbes, like “slavery,” “dependence” and “degraded” in explaining why she was reluctant. They first became engaged in 1855.

In the meantime she had attended various schools (1853, Leigh’s school of art, 1854 Government school of design), traveled to Belgium and the Netherlands (it’s possible she was hoping to train in Dusseldorf or Munich); she had wanted to study with Rosa Bonheur (1822-99) in France, but was instead enrolled in Thomas Couture’s atelier where there was a life class. We’re told of works that have disappeared (not saved?), a portrait of her pension landlady, a “Rowena offering the Wassail cup to Voltigern” (according to her brother “painted from a handsome Polish girl in Paris”). As she had loved Bonheur’s natural studies (scroll down for Bonheur’s Sheep Reclining by the Sea<), so she admired Delacroix’s use of color.

Again we have her words at least. She wrote a column, “Remarks on some French Pictures at the late Exposition in Paris” (1855), a five-installment review of an academy show (1856). Her remarks fit into what John Barrell in a recent review of David Solkin’s new survey, Art in Britain, 1660-1815 (LRB, 38:11, 2 June 2016) suggested was occurring slowly over the later 18th century: English art was freeing itself from a cultural cringe to a false hierarchical vision of the classics, European history painting, and imitations of minor Italian Renaissance paintings. Like Anthony Trollope in his essays on his trips to galleries, Joanna praises the Englishness of recent English art: she defends the Pre-Raphaelites, naming Ruskin and an important painting:

The Pre- Raphaelite movement has done some good, and will do more; and the extravagances that its leaders fell into in some of their first pictures, such as Millais’s Carpenter’s Shop, were but the necessary results of a great change … they have taught us by their pictures, aided by Ruskin’s words, that an artist’s strength lies in a child-like sincerity, and in the shunning of pride, which is always allied to servility. If Frost and Pickersgill, and two or three other young men who were talked of as ‘rising artists’ some years ago, had learnt the lesson, we should not find them sinking deeper and deeper into the slough into which indolence and pride have led them … The ridicule and the narrow-minded criticisms that have abounded in the press against the Pre-Raphaelites and their champion have fallen harmless – so far, at least, as the principles for which they have fought are concerned. The great men in the group have walked calmly onward, heedless of the strife of trivial tongues, and the walls of the Academy during these last few years have been but the theatre of their triumph.

There is a touching aspiration, refreshing idealism, and she adheres Ruskin’s vision of ethical understanding through an aesthetics drawn from nature

Six picture exhibitions are now open in London, containing all that our artists have been able to accomplish for 1856. Have they worked that we may be mentally and morally the better for their labours, or merely that our purses may be lighter, and our rooms furnished with pleasing pictures? Money, we know, with artists as with other men [sic], is unavoidably, and not always prejudicially, a main incentive to sustained exertion; but let us hope that a simple love of nature and art, an earnest striving after excellence, and, with some at least, impatience to give forcible utterance to the multitude of thoughts within, have had their place too.

Her unfinished Gretchen (1861) suggests she would have taken themes from romantic poetry of the previous era

Gretchen 1861 Joanna Mary Wells 1831-1861 Presented by the artist's daughters 1923 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03814

From Vigue (Great Women Masters of Art 217): She adapted the languid expression of the model to a narkedly dramatic scene. The woman stands, observing the viewer frontally while she protects a frightened boy who takes refuge in her arms. Though the artist uses a cldearly Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic, the influence of rmantic painting is evident in the woman’s expressive stance. In the formal conception of the painting lies a compositional simplicity that enhances the Romantic vision and emphasizes the maternal expression of the whole. The artist composed the work based on the expressiveness of gesture and emphasized the ephemeral instant of the embrace through tenuous illumination.

Joanne lists as works she means to do “Undine,” “Autumn, from Keats,” “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid,” “Lady of the Castle” and “Charlotte Ridley as “Catherine Sforza” (Nunn 155).

She set out with friends for Italy in 1857. She learnt Italian, her notebooks are filled with sketches of passing people she saw, places visited, portraits. By the end of the year (December 7th) she had married Wells

Returning to England, they set up house in 1859 in Upper Phillimore Gardens, and had built a country house at Holmbury Hill in Surrey. Joanna had two children while continuing to paint and exhibit. From among other paintings, the forefulness of her La Veneziana was praised in the Saturday Review and Athenaeum:


A few months later an obituary notice appeared. After another baby (named Joanna Margaret) she succumbed to gastroenteric fever, July 15, 1861. Immediately after she was (naturally) highly praised but the terms used suggest her work: “remarkable for warm, deep colouring and a true feeling for pigment.” But it was the sense of a powerful presence in her figures that impressed people (Nunn 158).


Joanna’s Head of Mrs Eaton is her most frequently reproduced image, and perhaps the most familiar one by Victorian woman artists to readers and viewers today:

Head of a Mulatto Woman by Joanna M. Wells” (inscription on back of frame)

Critics today are attracted to the sitter’s identity as a woman of colour. She worked for D.G. Rossetti, Rebecca Solomon, Simeon Solomen, Albert Moore. In Beyond the Frame, Cherry describes it:

This delicately modeled and finely pointed oil study of a head in profile facing left portrays a woman with a calm, meditative expression, set before a deep green ground. Threaded through her hair are strands of turquoise beads, pearls decorate her ears, and over her shoulders are draped swathes of a shimmering fabric striped with white and dull gold (Cherry 140)

Compare Vigue (217): Mrs. Eaton’s face appears with a rigid expression that transmits strength and character. The painting represents the model in profile and perfectly renders the stylized form of her neck and the details of her coiffure. In the center of the image is an earring that centers the composition … On the basis of this small point of light, the artist designed a balanced and homogenous composition. The attention of the viewer is gained through a studied distribution of light. In the foreground, the light colors of the dress prevail and the eye ascends along the neck until it reaches the tenuous clarity of the face … this combination of different grounds of light … produc[es] a very structured visual path through the pictorial space. The same is true of the quality of the brushstroke: … fluid … in the dress … the face … much clearer

The most highly praised in her era (by Ruskin among others) is this delicate fresco-like Elgivra (1855), who, while facing right with head tilted towards the viewer, also like almost all of Joanna’s statuesque images of women does not make eye-contact with us:


Vigue: the artist used color as a medium of expression. The woman, with a dark blue dress that covers her to the head, is located in the center of the painting, inclined toward the right. The contrast between the blue of the dress and the grayish color of the background is serene.

While face is central (she is the heroine of the story), it’s “more brightly illuminated than the rest of the painting,” the ” woman has a downcast air, with a meditative, slightly sad expression (216).

There’s a subtle psychological moment to be read in all Joanna’s figures. I am intrigued by their quiet and meditative expressions which convey Joanna’s proud sense of women’s intelligence and fortitude (a favored word in the 18th century).



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