Archive for January, 2010

Dear Friends and readers,

This is the story of a story that has been mistold.

I was reminded two nights ago of a woman who probably originally wrote a pro-revolution memoir, one which now appears  in its disjointed broken-backed way to be simply or unexaminedly royalist in outlook.  Grace Dalrymple Elliot’s (ca 1754-1824) memoir, Journal de ma vie, reveals something of the life of a woman of the later 18th through early 19th century who lived richly and among the powerful of three different countries at the price of acceding to giving up most of her close relationships with others.  It is known for its concentration on a crisis time:  Paris during the beginning of the terror. It has, alas, been framed and presented as a scandal memoir of the later 18th century because the writer was a woman who lived a sexually free life.

Since the overwhelming number of memoirs by women (and men too) of the era are by people who excoriate the revolution, write of the injustices and tragedies they experienced, as in Marilyin Yalom’s Blood Sisters, the memoir even in its present state is a valuable document.  The only two women beyond Elliot whom I know of who were for the revolution and left texts read today were Jeanne-Marie Roland and Olympe de Gouges — who were guillotined for their forceful public stances.  Charlotte Corday may be said to have make visible a memoir she might have written by killing Marat — her head was treated viciously after she was guillotined.   The irony is that Grace has been known by two super-luxurious paintings which frame her as the most privileged and secure of women — something we do see in her memoir was anything but true.   Few who read or look at European art will not have come across:

Grace Dalrymple Elliot  (1778) by Gainsborough (at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC)

Her claim to fame recently has again come from her Journal de ma vie durant la Revolution francaise, this time because Eric Rohmer based one of his non-comic costume drama movies set in the 18th century upon it.  Rohmer is himself not so much leftist or rightist, as unconventional and radical in his outlook. He died this past week.  he’s called idiosyncratic because it’s hard to categorize him.  Another of his 18th century films, a film adaptation of Henrich von Kleist’s Marquise d’O, about a woman who is raped during a seige by the man she thinks until the end of the story rescued her from rape: he changed the Kleist text into one which while it shows women just how tenuous and fragile is the respect and security they have in life, nonetheless exonerates the rapist and makes motherhood the woman’s allpowerful role.

In the first the Marquise, hitherto the beloved trusted darling of her parents is shut out of the family circle, told to get out of the house with nothing; she is utterly disbelieved when she says she does not know how she got pregnant (she was drugged and raped while unconscious); in the second we see her defy her parents and brother.  Since she has been married once (not for love, to an older man) to someone who left her a small property, she can flee from society.  We see her finding peace and solace only by retreating from everyone.  Kleist’s text is widlly parodic; Rohmer’s is grave, taking the story and characters utterly seriously. Alas in theaters patrons often laugh at what they are watching as "cool" voyeurs; Rohmer probably failed to make them identify at all with what they are seeing since the myths of the rapist as deviant and the woman as complicit are so strong still today.

When I mentioned this film on my small yahoo lists (Women Writers through the Ages and Eighteenth Century Worlds), Catherine de Lors (of Versailles and more blog a novelist who has just brought out her second novel set in the 18th century) remarked "is it not weird that a daughter of Presbyterian Scotland was sent to a Catholic school?"  I thought of Laura in Austen’s Love and Freindship wries "My father was a Native of Ireland and an inhabitant of Wales. My Mother was the natural Daughter of a Scotch Peer by an Italian Opera-girl.  — I was born in Spain and received my Education at a Convent in France (the 3rd letter). Such a mixture and cross-country moves were not unknown to romance because they were not unknown in reality among the upper classes of the day.

Another member of WWTTA, Patricia Brody, a woman poet, wrote in to sympathize with and show respect for Elliot, and ask for more information and sources.  I was again reminded of Austen who in her parodic History of England asked herself what must Mary Stuart Queen of Scots be "whose only freind [sic] was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight and myself" (her History of England, "Elizabeth").  Grace Elliot now has four friends, well three since the death of Rohmer.

I began to think I ought to write something about Elliot in my blog although it had been two years since I read the recent biography by Jo Manning, and several more since I read the memoir when during our discussions of James-Edward Austen Leigh’s 1870 memoir of Jane Austen, Diane Reynolds (of Austen-l and on my Women Writers through the Ages list too) asked about memoirs of the later 19th century and if I could cite others like JEAL’s.  Well, I know that Anne Halkett, 17th century Scotswoman whose autobiographical fragment I’ve put on the Net in an etext edition, has been remembered partly because a mid-Victorian clergyman republished her 1701 book very much in the spirit of Austen’s nephew; John Gough Nichols sought to defend Halkett by presenting her as conventional and caught up in a war and treacheries not of her own doing, not a woman who made a choice to live independently.  Grace Dalrymple Elliot’s as another such a memoir.  Instead of turning what materials she had into a biography, her Victorian grand-daughter brought out a censored version of her grandmother’s book which has survived because it was known as a scandal memoir. As I recall the memoir in French is clearly unfinished; it breaks off suddenly. 

We can known about Elliot because of her own book and Jo Manning’s biography of her (foolishly, embarrassingly) called The Amazing Life and Outrageous Times of Grace Dalrymple Elliot, Royal Courtesan.  The author, Jo Manning, also wrote regency romances so this is her area.  She also worked for Readers Digest as the director of the research library for the general books division.

By placing what Manning tells us in the context of other women’s memoirs of the era, Elliot’s life and that of her daughter and granddaughter, plus what I know of the era, we can try to make sense of it. So I begin by retelling Grace’s life and describing her Journal de ma vie using Manning’s biography and various other sources.


Despite the regency cover and ludicrous title of Manning’s book ("My Lady Scandalous" is also placed prominently on the cover), and more than occasional unexamined repeating of the scandal tradition’s perspective,  Mannings book is a sympathetic and eye-opening treatment of this woman usually remembered because Gainsborough painted her twice. In one of them (just above) she looks stunningly aristocratic-beautiful in the mode of the later eighteenth century; in the other, she has a softly melancholy look.

Gainsborough again, and around the same era

More than one brief survey of Elliot’s life may be also found online. What you discover is that Elliot’s book is still classified and has until recently been treated like so many women’s memoirs of the later eighteenth century where the woman lived a free sexual life outside marriage, as a scandalous lurid book no respectable intelligent person should go near, partly because ti’s probably filled with lies.  I went to a session on these books which showed how valuable most of them are and how unfairly treated (like the Marquise d’O in fact). I’ve rescued a mid-17th century one by a woman named Anne Halkett, a Scots spy and doctor who was once known for rescuing James II from prison and probable death; and am in the midst of putting up a 6 volume autobiography by another, George Anne Bellamy, once a famous tragic actress.

Manning’s book basically shows how marriage customs and laws (central to women’s existence then and in most places still now) operated on behalf of wealthy and powerful families, especially the male heir and men in general.  She also paints pictures of the times; Manning’s years as a regency novelist enable her to evoke places and she has good connections and her book is loaded with interesting illustrations.  She has unearthed all the documents about Elliott in France and you can fill in an outline of her time there and the places even if textual French support (from memoirs) is wanting. 

What I remember best is how often Grace Dalrymple Elliot was separated from this or that family member or friend: she grew up away from a nuclear family: when she was very young, her mother and father separated and she was sent to live wit maternal relatives (the maternal family got first chance at a child or were held more responsible); then when her mother died when she was around 11, she was sent to a convent school, perhaps France, perhaps Flanders. No one seems to have cared enough to make a record (the same held true of Aphra Behn who seems to have been sent to the continent for a convent education).

Grace did have a good education; someone taught her to write and she read, and so Grace Dalrymple (and she called herself Dalrymple in her last years) wrote a memoir of her experiences of the French revolution in its early phases and her time in prison (why she’s remembered) which shows real talent and reading.  we learn she was a paid spy and acted with courage.  As with other women, it has been treated as an incriminating document which shows what a liar she is (some have denied she ever was in prison), but in fact as far as we can tell while she confuses dates and names at times, it’s as accurate as such a document of hysteria and fear would be.  She saves one of the Duke’s followers from capture by keeping him under the covers in her bed, a scene Rohmer used in his film adaptation of the journal.  At the time it was depicted satirically and coarsely, and (alas) Manning repeats this tradition by supplying a similar scene of Marie-Antoinette’s escape as caricatured in the reactionary press:

How hilariouis to see people breaking into Marie-Antoinette’s bedchamber and her fleeing. The man on the pillow with a devil near him is Richard Price, a supporter of the French revolution. Thisis the level with which such events were treated.  Price’s house and books and life’s work were destroyed by mobs incited by local governmental groups; eventually Antoinette too was guillotined — after a trial which framed her as a incestuous vicious mother to her beloved son.

By contrast, Rohmer does takes Lady Elliot’s experiences seriously and gravely:

Elliot’s memoir concentrates on the 1790s and has been treated as an incriminating document which shows what a liar she is (some have denied she ever was in prison), but in fact as far as we can tell while she confuses dates and names at times, it’s as accurate as such a document of hysteria and fear would be.   And as with so many other women, it was published in an era after she died, by her grandaughter, Georgina Augusta Frederica Cavendish-Bentinck, a Victorian spinster who spent a quiet life of reading within her family miliue, (1811-83) out of a love and respect for her grandmother,  but the granddaughter would have brought up to very different values and known that her grandmother would not be symnpathized with and probably censored the book.  The modern English version shows that it was sold as a titillating "scandal" document — only there is hardly any sex and it’s very upright in stance.  Elliot is made to appear simply a strong royalist, mistress for a number of years of Philippe d’Orleans.

When a teenager still, Grace was married off sheerly for money to an Irishman, George Elliot, man who cared nothing for her emotionally and showed it, and when she had a baby who died, she left him because she had been isolated and neglected. She was matched with John Elliott through manipulating family connections, and because she was stunningly beautiful.  He was apparently very short and drawn to owning such a trophy.  She never had any liking for the man; they were incompatible; Elliott was a Scots physician to very wealthy and powerful people. He kept her apart from others for a while, and in the end like him, she took lovers.  She had a baby girl who died very quickly.  He got to divorce her for adultery, but at the same time he had three mistresses and several children who he left his property to in his will. He left Grace an annuity of 200 pounds a year too.  It was fine for him to have affairs, but not her. 

She then became deeply involved with George James Cholmondeley: this one relationship did apparently last all their lives though they never married — he did not let her starve or go quite homeless at the end of her life.  They were lovers on and off until the 1790s.  You find Cholmondeley applying for money for her while a spy; attempting to help her get her annuity paid, and when she died, paying for her burial.  Like Dora Jordan, she was in the end pensioned off cheaply and spent her last years in a French boarding house. 

It was in the 1790s that she went to France and and we hear of her as the mistress of the Duke de Chartres who then became Philipe d’Orleans or Egalite (and as such was guillotined).  She was a strong royalist and had been his mistress for a number of years, during which time she probably acquired the property in France which stood her in good stead or provided money at times. 

Rue de Miromesnil, a house Grace owned in 1794

Another girl was born, called Georgiana, out of an attempt to say publicly she was daughter to the Prince of Wales.  It is doubtful her daughter was the Prince of Wales’s daughter, and whatever affair Grace had with the prince, it was was of brief duration (a mere brief encounter). She was separated from this daughter almost immediately; and never knew her or her granddaughter. This reminds me of Hugo’s story of Fantine in his masterpiece, Les Miserables, also forced to separate herself from Cosette because the surrounding neighbors would not give Fantine a place to live, a job, any peace as long as she had an illegitimate daughter with her. The story that the child was the Prince’s probably stood the infant in good stead. It helped find her a family who might see an interest in keeping her. It might have been Colmondoley’s too.

This is sad. Late in life, this daughter, Georgiana, did leave notes suggesting she was aware her mother suffered financially and emotionally from this separation.  Brought up in the Cholmondoley family, the child probably had every financial advantage the family could give her, and some social ones too, but I doubt her origin was forgotten. And what about her mother?  At some point as we grow older, we want meaningful relationships that are rooted deeply in time, memory, affection.  Since it was the Cholomondoley family, one assumes the baby was not Orleans’s either. In Grace’s will we see a deep concern for her daughter and her daughter’s daughter.  Parts of this will are reprinted by Manning.  Georgiana in order to marry and remain respectable did keep her sympathy for her mother to herself.

So it was the granddaughter, her daughter’s daughter, Georgina Cavendish-Bentink (1811-1883), who never married herself who was responsible for publishing Dalrymple Elliott’s memoir of her time in prison and experiences in France during the French revolution.  The book is said to have been rejected by the British Library.  Bentley, the Victorian publisher published it; the manuscript may have survived, but is now in unknown hands.  Like many of these women’s memoirs, it begins abruptly; is apparently cut off or censored (the last part is missing) and we cannot tell what was tampered with. 

Manning tells the life of Grace’s Victorian granddaughter among the rich of Great Britain and France very well — with respect and empathy for a reading woman.  You can see Manning’s gifts as a woman’s novelist coming out there.

Cholmondoley Castle, 1837 engraving

When I was in my 20s and very naive, an older male friend who was involved in politics told me that men want power so they can ride around in limousines, and be bowed to by everyone. Idealist that I was I scoffed and said surely some people have a desire to serve the public or an agenda.  He laughed. Now I think he had it somewhat wrong.  What many men and women too want is a the great house engulfed in the beautiful landscape (or, barring that, a luxurious apartment near a park) with a lot of servants to do all their work. Is this not the symbol of film adaptations of the past (and present too)?


Manning has a good annotated bibliography where she describes her sources and many books about women who did not lead "respectable" lives.  It would seem she was also partly inspired to write about Grace by Rohmer’s movie, L’Anglaise et le Duc, and her book includes an interview with the actress who played Grace in the movie,

Lucy Russell as Grace Elliot

There is also a thoughtful film studies essay on the movie in Manning’s appendix. 


On ECW and WWTTA, talking about the Manning’s biography and Elliot’s memoir, I critiqued the biography:  Manning’s book marred by repeated assertions of ideas the very text disproves (such as beauty provides permanent wealth and power) and by a kind of cliched language seen in the title; my guess is this comes from popular regency romances (Manning has published two successful ones).  More seriously, she provides no French context: she has nothing of French women’s memoirs, and does not appear to have read Madame de Genlis’s memoir — of enormous importance here.  Genlis was also mistress to Philipe d’Orleans around the same time Elliot was.  Grace Dalrymple Elliott spent a long time in France — twice. This is Manning’s one hole.  We don’t really get the feeling of how Grace became a Frenchwoman from her early schooling and again later in life (as did Fanny Burney later in life — except for Claire Harman’s book on Burney, one does not really get a sense of Burney as thoroughly French in many ways from her other biographers).  The title and general look of the book may make it sell more widely but it also has perhaps been an obstacle for its being taken as seriously as its content should make it.  I could find no reviews in journals and fear that it won’t help bolster Elliot’s reputation the way it could have. It does not treat the Memoir in a way that would stop it from being look at as a scandal chronicle. Far from that, the title re-emphasizes this category ("My Lady Scandalous").

I enjoyed Elliot’s Memoir.  I have it in English but read in the French version:  Grace Elliot, Journal de ma vie durant la Revolution francaise, introduced by Eric Rohmer (Les Editions de Paris, Max Chaleil, 2002);  Grace Dalrymple Elliot, Journal of My Life During the French Revolution (The Rodale Press, no date and the translator into English is not named). The French version is disjointed but is probably truer to the original manuscript. It’s in very easy French.  I felt it was the kind of French where I sense the person is half-thinking in English as he or she writes. The grammar of the sentences is reminiscent of English rather than French; that combined with the deliberate keeping to a general more limited vocabulary (like say Voltaire), so typical of the era, makes it a swift read. (Another author whose French reads like English grammatically is Henry Green.)

I also sent the ODBN life to the list (see below) saying that Martin Levy does not respect his subject nor have any understanding of what a woman’s life is or frame it in any proper context (such as I have just provided).

Catherine answered at first:

I haven’t read Manning’s biography, but I did read Grace’s Memoirs, or Souvenirs, as they are translated into French. The context is interesting: she was recounting her adventures in France to the English royal family, 20 years after the fact, and then decided to write down those narratives. They were apparently not meant for publication.

This is to say that she largely tailored her own story to fit her narrow audience. Many things in the Memoirs are obvious lies (MA trusting her, the mistress/confidante of her arch-enemy the Duc d’Orleans, with confidential missions) though some do ring true (the story of her arrest and the prison scenes).

I suspect her politics during the Revolution were much closer to those of the Duc, that is radical, than she cared to admit to her English friends decades later. The spying part is also swept under the carpet though one can guess at it (letter from Fox).

Martin Levy’s piece shows a complete lack of understanding of the French political situation, maybe based on a literal reading of her Memoirs. And yes, it is disrespectful. At the very least, one has to give her  credit for a lot of assurance, and a great sense of humor: registering her daughter as being the offspring of the Prince of Wales was something.

I sometimes wonder if the Memoirs are not likewise an exercise in making fun of her audience.

And then she added:

Here’s what my (French) edition of the Journal says: the text was "arranged" by Grace’s granddaughter. Fresh from our reading of JEAL’s Memoir, I wonder about a Victorian bowdlerization.  ‘

The foreword also says some of the prison scenes were not lived by Grace herself, but were transposed from the experiences of two of her friends.  So this is a hybrid memoir/fiction. These were verbal narratives made to the British royal family as "anecdotes", later written down upon the request of George III in 1801 (I was wrong about it being written decades later, in fact 10 years, more or less, but I maintain my take on Grace’s shifting political opinions).

Published in the UK in 1859 and right away (1861) translated in French, with multiple French editions thereafter. It was obviously a successful book here.

My edition (Editions de Paris Marc Chaleil) also has good  scholarly endnotes and a preface by Rohmer. What a pity he died lately, I loved many of his films and he certainly could reconcile costume drama and great cinema. But a full life and great career, which age barely slowed down.

As for the style of the Journal, it is consistent with a quickly jotted down verbal narrative, without any writerly self-editing. I assume Grace was perfectly bilingual, since she had been sent to a French convent as a child. In the Rohmer film, she is played by an English actress with an English accent, but Grace probably spoke unaccented French.


To conclude, Jane Austen uses the name Dalrymple for the pompous and petty Irish aristocracy the Elliots are so sycophantic before in Persuasion .So much for these aristocrats and their ways  She does show what a small world it was. this is one of several cases where we find Austen using well-known aristocratic names.

And what it’s worth, the ODNB life by Martin Levy:

Elliott [Eliot; née Dalrymple], Grace [nicknamed Dally the Tall] (1754?–1823), courtesan and writer, was probably born in Edinburgh, the youngest daughter of Hew or Hugh Dalrymple (d. 1774), lawyer, and his wife, Grisel Craw (d. c.1765). She had at least one sister, Jacintha (d. 1802), mother of the diarist Frances, née Winckley, Lady Shelley. Her father, who claimed descent from a kinsman of the first earl of Stair, was later an author and attorney-general of Grenada or of the Bahamas. Either shortly before her birth or in her early childhood, her parents separated and Grace was probably brought up at her maternal grandfather’s house. Following the death of her mother, she was sent about 1765 to a convent school in either France or Flanders. She was a tall, good-looking girl, apparently religious, but vivacious and susceptible, and fond of fashion and amusements. On 19 October 1771 she married the physician John Eliot (1733×6?–1786) of the parish of St Clement Danes, London, by special licence at St Pancras Church, and moved to his house in Knightsbridge. On 24 September 1772 she gave birth to a child who died soon after. Unfortunately the marriage was not a success. Apparently Eliot bored his young wife, and in February 1774 she embarked on an affair with the libertine Arthur Annesley, eighth Viscount Valentia in the Irish peerage (1744–1816). Eliot subsequently collected a mass of evidence against his wife and Lord Valentia; they were traced to a ‘bawdy house’ in Berkeley Row and to a bagnio in Leicester Fields; when she returned home it was noticed that her hair and clothes were dishevelled (LMA, DL/C/177), and during May the couple separated. In May or June 1774 Eliot commenced a suit for adultery against Valentia in the king’s bench, and in December he applied to the London consistory court in order to divorce his wife. The libel, however, was unproved and it was only after the case had gone to appeal that the judge was given leave to proceed to judgment. On 23 February 1776 Eliot was granted his divorce. His lawyers then presented a petition to the House of Lords and on 21 March 1776 a bill was passed in parliament. The case turned Mrs Eliot into a celebrity and she was much talked about in society. ‘Lord Valentia has preferred Dr Elliot’s pretty wife to his own plain one’, wrote Horace Walpole on 19 June 1774, ‘but I do not find that there was much preference on her side, but rather on the Doctor’s, for he has selected Valentia from several other lords and gentlemen who have been equally kind to the fair one’ (Walpole, Corr., 35.423).

In 1775 or early 1776 Mrs Elliott (as she usually signed herself) began an affair with George James Cholmondeley, fourth earl of Cholmondeley (1749–1827), a whig peer and perhaps the most fashionable of her early admirers. Gossip intimated that she hoped to marry the libidinous earl, and month after month the newspapers chronicled her movements. In 1778 she was said to be pregnant and living with Cholmondeley at his house in Piccadilly (ibid., 33.181n), and he commissioned her portrait from Thomas Gainsborough. During the spring of 1779 she went to France, where she made conquests of the comte d’Artois and the Anglophile duc de Chartres, and for a while the couple were separated. She returned to London with Cholmondeley in June 1781, and so began her reign as Dally the Tall, among the most notorious of London’s courtesans. Like her rival Mary Robinson (Perdita) and her friends Elizabeth Armitstead and Gertrude Mahon (the Bird of Paradise), she pursued her vocation at the highest level, counting George, prince of Wales (later George IV) among her lovers. In the summer of 1781 she briefly succeeded Mrs Armitstead as the prince’s chère amie, and during the autumn she was again said to be pregnant. ‘The Dalrymple has declared herself pregnant’, reported the Morning Herald on 24 December, ‘and taken care to have it well understood that Lord C—y cannot possibly lay claim to a single feature of the amorous produce’ (Bass, 192). Contemporaries puzzled over the child’s paternity­the most probable candidates were Charles William Wyndham, Cholmondeley, or the prince; Mrs Elliott claimed that the prince was the father. On 30 March 1782 she gave birth to a daughter, whom she had baptized with the feminine forms of the prince’s names at St Marylebone Church on 30 July: Georgina Augusta Frederica Elliott. The child was brought up by Cholmondeley with his other children, and no later than 1798 was given the surname of Seymour, when it was reported that she was to be presented at court under that name. Although the prince denied that the child was his, he was actively interested in her welfare. In 1808 Georgina made a splendid marriage to one of the sons of the third duke of Portland, Lord Charles William Cavendish-Bentinck. She died at her husband’s house in Grosvenor Place on 10 December 1813, leaving one daughter, who was also named after the prince: Georgina Augusta Frederica Cavendish-Bentinck.

During the next few years Mrs Elliott continued to divide her time between London and France, before settling down towards the end of 1786 with the duc de Chartres (now d’Orléans) in Paris. For many years she occupied a house in the rue de Miromesnil and a villa in the arrondissement of Versailles at Meudon. Her intimacy with Orléans and other aristocrats brought her the patronage of Marie Antoinette, and she was a close observer of the machinations of Orléans during the revolution. Her Journal of my Life during the French Revolution (published in 1859) is a novelized account of her conduct during these crucial years and is an important, if unreliable, source of social and political history. Some of her opinions on the revolution may have been formed with hindsight: her politics were royalist; she argued that the duke was not naturally wicked but the dupe of more clever men, and that following the storming of the Bastille he should have offered Louis XVI his services. Some of Elliott’s best stories have been attributed to her friend the widow Mrs Meyler, and she has been accused of factual inaccuracy (The Times, 26–7 Jan 1859) or of falsification (Bleackley, 234–6). She was, however, undoubtedly brave. She apparently witnessed some of the revolution’s most evocative events, such as the return of the royal family to Paris after their flight to Varennes (1791) and the public display of the princess de Lamballe’s body following her atrocious murder (1792). She records acting as an agent for Orléans and for Queen Marie Antoinette, carrying messages to royalist groups, and, on the queen’s behalf, to the Austrian government in Brussels in 1790. Her concealment of the marquis de Chansenets at her house in the rue de Miromesnil in 1792 was noted in London during June 1793:

He fell out of a window on a heap of dead bodies, & continued there till every body was gone away, & then got to Mrs Elliot’s who put him into her matress & laid upon the bed when [the guards] came into the room to search for him. (Earl of Bessborough and A. Aspinall, eds., Lady Bessborough and her Family Circle, 1940, 94)

During the terror Elliott’s connection with Orléans exposed her to harassment and threats, and at some point she was imprisoned in the Recollects at Versailles and possibly in other prisons. In the Recollects she met the elderly atheist Richard Gem, who ‘cried the whole time’ (Diaries and Correspondence of … Malmesbury, 3.304). Each day she suspected would be her last, and the privations she endured until her release on 4 October 1794 were cruel and horrifying. Yet she was comforted by her religion. During the winter of 1796 she met the diplomat Sir James Harris, and was full of ‘curious anecdotes’ about the duc de Lauzun, the duc d’Aremberg, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Orléans. A later report says that she was followed round Paris by a ‘numerous Court of Frenchmen’, and that she sparked an affair with one of Napoleon’s brothers­merely, she said, to have something to talk about (Granville, 1.285). She was in England in 1798, 1800, perhaps in 1802, and possibly thereafter. Her niece Lady Shelley, who met her about 1802, describes her as ‘the most beautiful woman’ she had ever beheld, and dressed in the ‘indecent style of the French republican period’ (Diary, 1.42). Apparently this was the only time that Elliott met her admiring niece, as family visits were not encouraged. Although Elliott received annuities from her late husband’s estate and from the prince of Wales, she experienced financial difficulties during her last years. She died at Ville d’Avray near Paris on 15 May 1823, after what appears to have been a long illness, and was buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris. Her tombstone was removed in 1992.

Sources: H. Bleackley, Ladies fair and frail (1909) · G. D. Elliott, Journal of my life during the French Revolution (1859) · LMA, DL/C/177, 203, 279, 557, and 639; P89/MRY1/007 · LPL, Aa71/10, B18/48, D669, E41/152, and G142/28–30 · JHL, 34 (1774–6) · Diary of Frances, Lady Shelley, ed. R. Edgcumbe, 2 vols. (1912–13) · Lord Granville Leveson Gower: private correspondence, 1781–1821, ed. Castalia, Countess Granville [C. R. Leveson-Gower], 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1916) · Diaries and correspondence of James Harris, first earl of Malmesbury, ed. third earl of Malmesbury [J. H. Harris], 4 vols. (1844) · The manuscripts of the earl of Carlisle, HMC, 42 (1897) · Walpole, Corr. · R. D. Bass, The green dragoon: the lives of Banastre Tarleton and Mary Robinson (New York, 1957) · Royal Arch., GEO/30272 · The correspondence of George, prince of Wales, 1770–1812, ed. A. Aspinall, 8 vols. (1963–71) · Ramblers Magazine (1782–3) · Ramblers Magazine (1785) · Town and Country Magazine, 6 (1774) · Town and Country Magazine, 9–10 (1777–8) · Town and Country Magazine, 14–15 (1782–3) · private information (2006) [J. Manning] · J. Manning, My lady scadalous (New York, 2005) · A. Stewart, ed., The minute book of the Faculty of Advocates, 3: 1751–1783, Stair Society, 46 (1999)

Archives Nationales, Paris · LMA, consistorial court MSS, corresp. · LPL, corresp. [copies] · Royal Arch.

Likenesses: T. Gainsborough, oils, 1778, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York · T. Gainsborough, oils, 1782, Frick Collection, New York [see illus.] · J. Brown, engraving, 1859 (after R. Cosway), BM, NPG; repro. in Elliott, Journal of my life 

Martin J. Levy, ‘Elliott , Grace (1754?–1823)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/8675, accessed 19 Aug 2007]

Grace Elliott (1754?–1823): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/8675


This has been the story of a story that is still being mistold.

Read Full Post »

 Dear Friends and readers,

A small group of us have just finished a reading and discussion of a centrally important book for Jane Austen studies:  the 1870 Memoir of Jane Austen written by her nephew, James-Edward Austen-Leigh. We spent 11 weeks on it, and during that time I also read and sent along  to the 3 or 4 lists we did this on (Austen–l, WomenWritersAcrosstheAges, Janeites and sometimes EighteethCenturyWorld, the last three on Yahoo) poetry by James-Edward’s father, James, Jane’s eldest brother.  Some of these are addressed to Edward, and most are like him in tone and stance towards the world.

James Edward Austen-Leigh later in life

It’s very hard to take these 11 weeks’ worth of postings, which themselves were written by more than 10 people, with two of us more faithful than the others, and put them into a single coherent blog.  It would be time-consuming and arduous, and the postings are available on the Net through Austen-l archives (which I believe are open to the public) as well as the Yahoo lists to list members.  I’d also have to ask permission of the various people.  Still I would like to record here some of what was said, so I have picked out a few of the more coherent postings I wrote plus one of James, his father’s revealing personal poems.

For Week 1 and as an introduction which also went over the first chapter of the Memoir, I wrote:

I agree with Diane that this is an autobiography in disguise — which is common. It’s nostalgic and comes out of Austen-Leigh’s own need to rewrite his childhood and young adulthood.  Writing from memory (so I’m not checking sources as I don’t have time), I’d say he did not have such a happy childhood.  Mary Austen, his mother, was a narrow-minded unashamedly selfish and controlling woman — in his poems her husband apologizes for reading and talking about his reading.   While we can’t know the particulars, from Jane Austen’s MP, James Austen’s poems and all the biographers have been able to sift, ferret out, half-invent, it’s probable some romance happened between Eliza Hancock de Feuillide (later Austen) and James and Eliza and Henry while they were young, perhaps while doing a play, and years later Mary is still jealous and incensed all these years later.  James’s poems to his wife suggest deprecation, placating. Since in the family Eliza was known to be the biological daughter of Hastings, this could allow Mary an excuse to cut her dead. Mary was fiercely unashamed of her preference for her children over Anna. Finally another element which could have influenced Austen-Leigh’s childhood adversely was the elder aunt Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot who was taken in for petty thievery:  I’ve read how she really used her control over her money to make his and his wife’s life very difficult. They had to kowtow to her, and it was not until she finally died, they were free of her bullying. We have only some records from when he was married and there are documents in the form of letters, but we can surmize when he was a boy she could be a blight too.

From this memoir and JEAL’s Memories of the Vine-Hunt (which I’ve read) and Mary Augusta Leigh’s biography of him — she was his daughter — he appears to have been a (I’m just going to be plain and use plain words) a nice man, sweet, decent, literary, sensitive (he loved Scott and would have to leave the room in upset if anyone made fun of Scott), and sheltered — for in the end they did get the money from the aunt and she did, however grudgingly, help them all along until she died.  I think he took after his father.  You can get through interlibrary loan (if you have access to one) Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh’s biography; it was published in 1911 and while the copy I have (a xerox I made of the book) has no ISBN (naturally, how could it?) it does have a library of congress number:  PS1049/A58Z6.

My first view now (but it’s only one and there are many ways to take this book) is that we need not be Edward Austen-Leigh’s adversary. While his book has been used to create a falsely banal and conventionalized view of Austen, he also wrote it. But for him, we might not have Lady Susan; he printed The Watsons and the cancelled chapters of Persuasion too; he tells a lot we would not know otherwise.  In some of what I’ve read (I forget where) it’s obvious he and Caroline (whose project this was equally) had to fight relatives to get them to agree to this publication, and had to struggle to get their hands on documents.  Anna cooperated too. We are in other words strongly in his debt.  This is opposed to the granddaughter who destroyed 3 packets of letters by Austen to Francis, Cassanda who Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh tells us destroyed the majority of Jane Austen’s letters. It is Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh who is the source we are indebted to for knowing that we have a remnant of the letters Jane Austen left.

We also have to be grateful to Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh and Catherine Anne Austen who married John Hubback — she’s another one who wanted posterity to know about Jane Austen and her brothers. Now I’m not sure so could be corrected (I’m not checking) it was Catherine Anne who wrote a book based on The Watsons — trying to finish the story of the younger sister (who would be by indirection Jane — fictionalized, a fictionalized story). Now it was John Hubback and his daughter, Edith, who wrote the basis of Southam’s book, JA’s Sailor Brothers – the careers of Frank and Charles. As far as I can tell while Southam gives a lot more detail, the portrait of the two stays the same; not much more has been found out in the sense of changing our portrait of them as people.

There were many members of the family who were against all this. And the continual assertion "there’s so little to tell" is to erase anything untoward:  families always have plenty to tell and much of the time, especially when ti comes to money, rank, marriages, it’s not pretty — these are people who were pseudo-gentry at the beginning of the 19th century and rose by marriage and business contacts.
Anyway I’m suggesting a defense of James-Edward Austen Leigh —  though I agree with Margaret Oliphant he’s a "dim" one when it comes to real insight into people. He turns away and doesn’t want to look.

Looking just at Chapter1 and 2 in the Oxford edition by Sutherland you can see how much it’s a prettied up picture. Sutherland reprints all the original picturesque illustrations which are supposed to make us sigh in part.  I find that Sutherland’s long notes in the back are very helpful – if a bit distracting since they are often longish.  Here is the picture of Steventon Manor as presented in picturesque mode by JEAL and it’s typical:

Finally a few comments on the text. It seems to me a way of writing that underestimates ordinary crises in life that allows JEAL (an abbreviation for his name) to say things like "few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth tenor of its course [of her life]. We could say that of many people; it depends what you mean by crisis.  From this first page there is a continual drive to smooth over by JEAL. He leaves out the mentally retarded (or whatever was wrong) brother. He uses allusions to her books to fill out the portrait of the house (like the opening of NA)   It reminds me of how Henry says that JAne Austen never had a cruel thought or said or did a cruel thing (words to this effect in his hagiographical note, so insistent and irritated in tone, as if she had been accused of being very different and probably "satirical" — the way Jane Austen describes Lady Middleton and Mrs Fanny Dashwood’s dislike and distrust of satirical people makes me think that she was so described by such dullards as she delineates satirically ).

The 1870s and 1880s were a time of much change, distress, industrialization and this book is a reaction against that too. Ah, a handy book for looking things up as we go is Maggie Lane’s JA’s Family through Five Generations. I’ve had it on my lap as I wrote. I recommend it as a read and source too.

From our third week on Chapter 3:

Looking back now from the perspective of Chapter 1, we can see a plan or shaping idea formed the memoir.  The first chapter situates Jane Austen in her family. Stepping back a bit, I find in all the portraits a determination to make them socially exemplary in the most conventional ways Worldly success, promotion, good nature, occasional bad luck.  James (JEAL’s father) directed Austen’s reading (so Edmund Bertram may be a reflection of this), their father (George Austen) learned, the mother had "the germ of much of the ability which was concentrated in Jane (which seems to defined here as "common with a lively imagination", she could write with "epigrammatic force and point"); she and Cassandra were just one person altogether (and we get an Elizabethan kind of sentence about them).  And of course she was not like Marianne. She was content to stay in her family.  Again and again we get phrases like "It cannot be doubted …"  Now and again a sentence which is not simply a fact that can be checked rings true:  "she went very little into society during the last ten years."  That was when she was producing the novels.  But generally from this chapter you would not imagine why JEAL thinks she is so important as to rate a biography when he has so few materials.

In way it’s (unconsciously) funny in its contradictions. When read from this angle I admit it doesn’t emerge as literature in its own right but primary materials for beginning to understand Austen.

The second chapter gives us a portrait of this "earlier age," so we would say the circumstances in which she grew up.  Now the narrow outlook is from that of the upper class gentry of his own time. This is really a narrow family memoir.  When he says "we looking back" he means comfortable we in our gentry houses of today. Habits of ladies then and now can epitomize here. He does not at all think to identify Austen as unusual or original and there is this continual mild defense going on, with an implication how much better it is today (women in his time really read in big numbers?  perhaps more than then but how much of this is vacuous talk). "Some ladies liked to wash with their own hands their choice china …"  JEAL has heard nothing of the issues of this caught up in the phrase "woman question:"  about property, work, marital rights, custody, and so on.  This is the time of Trollope’s Way We Live Now, of Barbara Bodichon and others’ parliamentary campaigns, of Stuart Mill, not to omit the extraordinary changes in British life from industrializatio, emigration.  (See below Oliphant’s words about "dim little lantern"0.

There is a portrait of Eliza Austen as the daughter of Mrs Hancock, and we are told she was "highly accomplished, after the French rather than English mode."  Again this tiny perspective.

Here and there as in the first chapter there is a connection made between the family or events and the novels. Such as the playacting in MP was something Ausetn as "an early observer" saw: "some of the incidents and feelings which are so vividly painted in the Mansfield Park theatrical are due to her recollections of these entertainments."  He then shies away from this apparently dangerous material. What are these incidents and feelings?" we are not told.  Jumping ahead here to the play he reprints, I think it’s a satire on just such silences as he practices. To me its bite is as a satire on family life and the practice of manipulating one another by "not telling" this or that as well as the way families present themselves in public.

The third chapter is disjointed in the sense that his materials are disparate but I grant a genuine attempt to present Austen to us. Consider how few letters to anyone but Cassandra have survived and of the there one is to Martha Sharpe.  And it shows Austen sincerely desiring companionship from this woman, hungry for it ("you distress me cruelly" — lightly said, but meant). He’s also showing Jane Austen’s more unusual reading. He also here chooses materials which show a variety of feelings in Austen. To print the letter grieving over the death of Mrs Lefroy is wonderful of him — remember now little is known or in print so this is a real opening to Austen’s experience, what counted.  The longer letter to Cassandra shows us the gossip of the town. I too like the long description of the tree which meant a lot to Austen. Again her romantic or landscape feelingful side (we might say) is stressed here.

Yes Eliza Chandos, the aristocratic relative,  is put here to show off. Curious this, as it’s also a woman’s letter, showing teh world from a woman’s point of view. The last two include content connected to the brothers — again a showing off on JEAL’s part. It’s hard to know how much he sees with insight since he is so guarded (or dim) and here he may want to show us Austen going out and wanting to dress up or where Fanny Price’s topaz cross from William Price came from.

A few of Oliphant’s words from her review of this memoir (found in Southam, Critical Heritage, Vol 1:  "Mr Austen Leigh, without meaning it, throws out of his dim little lantern a passing gleam of light upon the fine vein of feminine cynicism which pervades his aunt’s mind."  What she does is quote swatches from JEAL’s memoir re-contextualized with an understanding of the content and satire going on. But she too does not see any larger view in Austen. Those who did so attributed an ethical view to her (G. H. Lewes). Julia Kavanagh (of whose Southam prints the whole chapter) may also be contrasted. Kavanagh compares Austen to other 18th century women, French and English and brings out the analogies in the novels  (bewteen characters, situations). Here are two snatched:  after describing a dialogue of Elinor Dashwood with her brother (about money), Kavanagh writes "she is too calm, to dispassionate, too self-possessed to be bitter or eloquent." She finds "silliness" sent up in P&P, and "keen and subtle grace. softened by much quiet tenderness" in MP.


Perhaps a poem by James Austen would be appropriate here.  It’s really at its best in the long Cowperesque reflective-meditative poems.  Here is the first half of one where he talks more frankly about what Austen family life felt like.  It’s part of a poem where he’s justifying himself for not taking another perhaps lucrative appointment.  Some of us may be able to identify with this man apparently under considerable pressure to move to where perhaps more money and prestige might be eventually gained.

He justifies himself by his local attachment, his bonds to his imagined life, and says that despite his ability to gain comfort from his family life once they move in compensation for what he’d have lost, it’s not enough, indeed far from ideal, and then he turns to what are his real resources his inner life, art, reading, and then says even with all this (as if answering someone) he would have to depend on the inner family circle and after a while it would turn to poison (making me think of Edith Wharton novels).

From Gilpin’s Observations … [in] Sussex, Hampshire and Kent

Lines written at Steventon in the Autumn of1814, after refusing to exchange that Living for Marsh Gibbon in the borders of Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire –

Ye fields & trees, amongst whose flowers & shade
Quick passed my careless childhood; scenes endeared
By many a fond remembrance; I rejoice
That duty calls me not, (as once I feared)
To bid a long adieu to all your charms;
And, like the Patriarch, to that voice divine,
Which to th’ enlightened conscience clearly speaks,
Obedient, quit, not knowing where I go,
Or what may there befall of good or ill,

    My home, my kindred, & my native soil.   
For, though I doubt not, that had duty’s call
Imperious, bid me for their sakes whom most
On earth I value, leave this dear abode,
And pitch my tent mids’t strangers, I had found
The sacrifice less painful than I deemed;
Though an approving conscience, & the sense
Of having acted with no selfish views
Had lessened much my sorrow; & that time
Had reconciled my feelings to the change;
Yet much should I have suffered, when the morn
Arrived, on which a last & sad farewell
I must have taken to this long loved spot.
To see for the last time the morning light,
(For little sleep had visited my eyes,)
Dawn on the well known uplands, & the sun
With his pale rays obliquely slanted, tint
The tufted elm, & the low mansion’s roof,
My own no longer; to have strolled once more,
(For how could I have helped it?) through the walk
Which winds, elm shaded, midst the stems antique
Of twisted thorn & maple; to have marked,
As through the village with unfeeling haste
The rapid carriage rattled, tree & mead
Receding from my sight, & to have lost,
As the lane’s turning hid it from my view,
The last white cottage standing on the green,
A pang of sorrow to my sinking heart
Had given, felt deeply, & remembered long.
And little truly had I hoped to find
Ought in that country, where my future days
Seemed destined to be spent, which large amends
Might make, for what I quitted with regret.
An ampler income, & th’ attendant means
Of self indulgence (to a moderate mind
And rational, at least a doubtful good,)
Were on an invalid in vain bestowed.
They cannot brace the nerve relaxed, nor give
To minds by sickness or by age unstrung,
The buoyant & elastic tone of youth.
  And such, (t’were vain to hide it) such is mine,
 By the long habits of retired life
Unfitted to give pleasure, or be pleased
In large & noisy parties; and at times
But scarcely able to maintain my share
Of conversation, in the circle small
Of long known neighbours, & long valued friends;
How lost were I midst strangers! what were life
To me, if daily forced to mix with those
Who having never known me in those days,
(If ever such there were) when I had powers
Of pleasing, know me only now, as one
 Who occupies a seat much better filled
 By others. "What a pity this poor man
Stirs from his own fireside". – Thus sure would say
My future neighbours, and I say so too.
   Yet such society, or solitude
And sad seclusion, must have been my lot.
Alternative was none; & harder still
The lot of those, whose fate is linked to mine;
That little circle, whose delight or pain
I look on as my own; anq dull indeed
It were for them, to spend day after day
Monotonous, unvaried by the call
Of friendly neighbours; never asked to mix
In sprightly dance, or dinner party gay.
Here they are known, & loved & valued much,
And I am known, & borne with; but who there
Would care for me or them? or what beyond
A formal morning visit once a year,
Done as a duty, and, as duties are,
Done most unwillingly, could we expect?
    And whatsoever fancy may suggest
Or theory may teach, there never yet
Was family so happy in itself
So centred in each other, and complete
In it’s own circle, no resource to need
From social intercourse, & friendly chat
Of neighbour; & whoe’ er have tried to live
Quite to themselves, & shut out all the world,
As troublesome intruders on their joys,
Have found at last that they presumed too much
On their own powers of pleasing, & had tasked
Their tempers & their manners, somewhat more
Than man’s frail nature warrants; I have known
Those who have loved each other well, & yet
Have lived so much together, that they found
The only sure relief from sad ennui
Was mutual discord, & incessant strife.
    We are not of that number (Heaven be praised)
Who find domestic life a dull affair,
Unless each morning it’s engagement bring:
Haply some round of visits, whose best charm
Is to find none at home; or better still,
A numerous party variously conveyed
Through dusty roads; upon barouche box high
Some mounted, & some sunk on ponies small,
 To see a house, where nothing’s to be seen
Except the owner’s miserable taste.
We find a pencil has a powerful charm,
Or quiet morning’s walk, to cheat the day;
We do not count the evening very dull
Unless the card table its nightly stand
Take regular, and every mental power
And faculty be quite absorbed in whist.
We love, & much enjoy with ivory knife
To sever the yet damp & clinging leaves
Of some new volume; & can pleased discuss
 With critical acumen. & due skill,
An Author’s merit: Authors too ourselves
Not seldom, & recite without much fear
To hearers kindly partial, verse or prose,
Song, parody, or tale, whose themes of high
But local import, well record the fate
Of cat or pony: or, from satire free
Raise against other’s follies or our own
Perchance, the fair & inoffensive laugh.

Yet with all these resources in our power,
Free am I to confess, the time might come
When we too should grow weary of ourselves;
Tire e’en of those delights we most affect,
And gladly, to diversify the scene,
Exchange our quiet for the noisy mirth
Of larger circles – find the merest chat
And gossip of the country, often deem’d
Irrational and mean, a kind relief
And needful to beguile the tedious hours
 Of many a slow and lagging winter’s eve.
I would not answer for myself, or those
With whom I live, that we should always keep
 Our tempers in due order, and escape
That foe to mutual love, a habit vile
Of petty contradiction, & dissent
In trifles, did we live so much alone …

From The Complete Poems of James Austen, Jane Austen’s Eldest brother, ed, intro, notes David Selwyn.

This Gilpin watercolor of Lake Ilwara in South Wales is a visual equivalent of James Austen’s poetry — and it was Gilpin Jane loved too.


The fifth week and Chapter 5:  the description of Austen’s person and character.

Here is Cassandra’s portriat of Jane as redone by JEAL for the book. The most striking thing is how the "improvement" uncrosses Jane’s arms and made them far too big. It removed the strain from Austen’s eyes too. The new portrait is an unreal doll; Cassandra’s is a real person who looks frazzled, and unhappy.

One of my first responses when I finished was to remember that Jane Austen did write that "pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked" (or words to this effect in one of her letters).  Apparently JEAL never read that line. "Benevolent fairy" grates. I believe the description of her is somewhat validated by other relatives but there are others I’ve read that make her hair darker. All agree on the round cheeks — and that and the straight sharp nose is a family trait (you can see it in the miniature of Frank Austen).  In a chapter purported to give us insight into the character of the woman who wrote the novels he offers almost no depths of the woman at all. He says in his closing lines: "some little insights into the deeper recesses of the heart must be given."  This suggests to me he does know how superficial and conventional he has been but cannot get himself to tell more — lest perhaps the family attack him.  Not an iota of anger in this woman or spite or revenge; no disappointments, no disillusion, have a look at Cassandra’s picture of her face once again; it tells far more than this chapters. 

Jane’s joke about feeling she was a wife to Crabbe, means she has a deep affinity with his poems. I’ve read a number of them over this and last year and her liking for his candour, strong irony, egalitarianism make Austen go up in my estimation and remind me of how the movie makes glamorous and far far richer the circumstances Austen means to portray in her books.

Her music books: she got up early to practice so as not to bother the others. This means someone hurt her feelings and pressured her not to play

Chapter 6: the publications of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice:

This old photo (1920s) will give a truer idea of Chawton cottage; whatever its lacks, it gave Austen space, time, peace, stability enough to rewrite and begin full versions of her novels and publish them (with Henry’s help)

In a way we ought to see this chapter as thrilling. It was certainly a thrilling moment for Austen — at long last in print, and success:  one of sucess d’estime for S&S and genuine popularity and real respect greeting P&P. And so she moves in rapidly to work MP up (I believe this is one that was pre-written in different drafts and bits) to a coherent magnificent whole, this time with a sense of confidence and belief that others who count will read it. That made a big difference for her. Alas, the public is fickle and she could not command high fees (like Radcliffe did for example) nor knew enough people to make money through subscriptions (like Burney)

I think JEAL hedges on what happened during the Bath.  He says "certainly nothing whch the publc have seen, was completed in either of those places …"  This is a different statement from saying she wrote nothing. He did not like The Watsons (as about people on the edge of the gentry which is what his family was until they got the aunt’s legacy, and also probably as depressed). I remember reading other relatives’ memories of Austen in these wandering years with a desk filled with manuscripts which she carried round with her (and almost lost at one point).  She didn’t have the time and space to finish a text and carry through to publication after her second attempt at NA got nowhere.

Cassandra’s few notes are priceless for understanding stages of composition.

He pictures the life at Chawton as a writing life very well, and then we get three more letters. Again they are bright and cheerful ones with her joking about P&P too (or half-joking "too light bright and sparkling"). She is so cheered to be in print and see her books reaching people at last.  I liked the second half of the second letter: her resume of her reading, and joking "the first soldier that ever I sighed for." I’ve read Anne Grant’s poetry and written foremother poet postings on her for Wompo and will send along one here shortly. Her liking for Grant’s letter fits my sense of her love of women’s memoirs.

I have a copy of Easton Stannard Barret’s The Heroine (introduction by Michael Sadleir) and suggest (though this may not be a popular view) her connection of it to Radcliffe goes along with her usual urge to denigrate her rivals/predecessors.  It’s a crude book the second half of which is incoherent. It mocks Pamela which it takes to be gothic — it shows the writer did not read novels very much and he dislikes them.  This is Sadleir’s view too: crude parody of Pamela.  I’ll add it’s very much by a man and he is attacking silly women’s books as he sees them.  An intelligent critique is found in Lennox’s Female Quixote, not this. I don’t wonder James Austen didn’t like it.  But then he had no rivals to fleer at.

I found this line deeply felt in the third letter:  "The quietness of it does me good." Also the picture of herself snug in her study writing with the snow outside: " … and am now writing by myself at the new table in the front room. It is snowing. We had some snowstorms  yeserday, and a smart frost at ngiht, whcih gave us a hard road from cobham to Kingston ..  And then the depiction of them riding along and her looking out for veils. Using but a few words she is effecively suggestive and rich with details.

We do see family gossip and individuals brought up here and there but I’ve not got time to comment on them. I also find Austen’s criticism of her books not that useful — she didn’t get to read enough of this kind of thing, didn’t have the language or people to talk to; this was the beginning of literary criticism for the novel and the only person doing it splendidly at this point was Anna Barbauld.

An 1870 illustration for Emma;  it reveals an attitude of mind towards the books the year JEAL publishes his memoir

The Memoir, Chapter 7:  Emma

This is an interesting chapter and rich if you think about its various angles.  First it’s a clear mirror of the later Victorian period where Austen is no longer being categorized as one of three leading 18th century writers, but rather placed alongside the major women of her era:  why else quote Charlotte Bronte? JEAL also does not know about how Bronte is so hostile to Austen for he quotes two paragraphs that are rarely quoted and even less when it’s time to describe Bronte’s attitude towards Austen. While he paraphrases Bronte’s discomfort with the genteel world of Austen’s novels (JEAL is not uncomfortable), instead of the endlessly reprinted complaint about Austen’s lack of passsion, we have Bronte offering Austen as an example of how to interest without being melodramatic.

JEAL is thinking in terms of contexts in a rather modern way.  He feels — and he is right insofar as the milieu he is talking about — Austen never intermingled with and lost the profit of such intermingling with geniuses of her own calibre.  She didn’t write in isolation (like Dickinson) and we can see she has her eye on what she thinks the public wants or likes, but she was not in the literary world nor even its attached varying cliques, salons, interior knowing buzz and hum.

I am glad to see that Diane agrees with me: while there is mockery of the Regent’s librarian, Clarke, there is sympathy even if he can’t see it (about how a life in court is a death-in-life, preventing what makes it worth living to a thinking genuinely feeling person), and she does confide in him as she does not elsewhere about her worries over her art.  I think obtuse as he could be, he took her seriously as an author, did not write the kind of trivial gossip about the characters she records of those around her.

Diane asks me, Do I think Austen was right to worry about Emma?  In a word, yes.  She sent Maria Edgeworth a copy and to a friend Edgeworth pronounced it boring, nothing is happening she said.  You could say Austen was up against the same sort of problem women writers before they began to be "in" in the world professionally and could display sexual and other tabooed knowledge had: they have limited materials.  Q.D. Leavis was right when she says the same paradigms, character types, and storylines repeat. Her solution was to go deeper, to make her art virtuouso by point of view, irony, subtle realities (which only the astute reader of the time, Scott, picked up on) so it is endlessly rich. But what were the popular books for the next century and one half? P&P and S&S.  The first read as archetypal popular romance, and the second her most overtly melodramatic work.  An elite read her and loved the others, and critical discussion has favored Emma over MP, and we can see in the film adaptations that Persuasion (the first mini-series) has been a favorite; but not until this last quarter century of strong cult cultivation by heritage, society, academic, publishing groups has Emma really come into its own as a liked Austen book.

If Aneilka has real proof the Prince Regent read Austen’s novels, I’d be willing to believe he went through four of them once; if not, I don’t believe it because of the generality of the cliched praise, carefully couched so the Prince will not be able to be asked anything (to see if he remembers the book). That he keeps them in his homes is a way of showing off he belongs to the literary elite of his time; they are (as Scott’s books became) marks of social cachey.  Austen didn’t like the Prince let us recall; he was not known for his intellectual appreciations.  We are led to believe by later critics she was strongly reluctant to dedicate Emma to the regent, and one letter can be read that way.

JEAL’s urge to disseminate more of Austen’s fictions is here too in his reprinting of "Plan of a Novel" which is also a close parody of Sophie Cottin’s popular romance Elizabeth, or the Exiles of Siberia. This interests me for I believe Austen was influenced by the French as well as English women novelists. The one to read here is Julia Kavanagh’s two books on French and English women novelists of the era (one book on each set).

Yes again JEAL wants to show us the aristocracy paid attention to Austen.

This is chapter filled with things to think about: Austen’s reaction to Scott’s review shows how strong was her self-esteem and sense of herself: she does not feel ga-ga this big man understood her books but asks why he ignored MP?  The answer is he probably didn’t read it. Nowadays reviewers sometimes don’t even read the works under consideration and Scott felt he had done his homework by reading the success d’estime (S&S) and d’argent (P&P). He may not have heard of MP; it’s possible, though he is aware of the underlying moral feel of all three works and (interestingly) objects to the prudential strain of her books as complicit in some of the individual life-destroying norms of their society. Surely people don’t really need encouragement to be selfish he says; this is to look at how conventional moralizing is used or functions in real social circles.

An 1892 illustration for an edition of MP: Mr Yates rehearsing his bombastic part

Chapters 8, 9 and 10:  her reputation and early critics, her comments on her novels and characters

I agree that Austen cared about money far more than JEAL is willing to confess. One of the passages in the memoir I underlined as "not so" was JEAL’s sentence: "I do not think she was herself much mortified by the want of early success."  She did not think S&S cost her nothing and neither did Henry who tells us of the sacrifices she made out of her small allowance (saving for a while) to publish her book.  It took blood from her heart — her suckling child she called the manuscript.

He’s right on the slow growth of her reputation; by mid-century an elite group of readers valued her. Partly this was because she adhered to a more 18th century view of character development too.  Scott had intervened decisively, followed by Hugo and then a large number of Victorian novelist who showed human nature is not universal, but individual and the product of a specific milieu and historical circumstance.  So beyond her narrow range, she also did not present the kind of social developments that Victorians prized as knowledge.  MP comes closest to this.  But it too adheres to "la belle nature" in its divvying up for poetic justice. Again the mid-19th century novel began to abjure this kind of thing.  

I did like how JEAL defended his aunt against the older reviewers. He did feel that her comic characters were underrated – and again this is not something that could be appreciated as much in the era he was writing for again it’s a universal caricature she gives us.  He’s pleased to compare her to Shakespeare …

JEAL has a sense of these novels as important and he’s trying to indicate what is good about them.  He uses the phrase "true to nature" (from Brydges) — he does like to have authorities. He’s not sure of himself.  But like you I’m not all that impressed by the idea that these novels are more "realistic" than those which came before — whatever that means and I don’t think they are realistic except within a limited set of conventions of what can be shown, decorum, what a lady (unmarried) can write, what readers want to read (love stories and adventures).

I can see he’s trying for some definition, and it seems to me not so much realism as connected to what his aunt is doing that’s not "bow-wow," and as I see it from the quotations, he means a woman’s novel. Look at the language and who he quotes (Guizot), and the books Austen’s are set among: women’s, and the language used is French "c’est toute une ecole de morale."  It’s the theory of the book as done on tiny ivory pieces and being exquisite portraits of inner life that are womanly. This is not wrong; indeed there is a school of thought which agrees.  Do you know the essay in Janeites, ed. Deirdre Lycnh called "Virago Jane" by Katie Trumpeter?  excellent, it shows the early 20th century women’s novels so favored in this series are heavily indebted to Austen’s books (we’ve talked here about how E. H. Young’s Jenny Wren is a rewrite of S&S).

But are we here looking hard to find this?. I’m not sure as the language remains vague, and if he thought it why not bring up the women’s novels of his period. He has brought up Charlotte Bronte but not really to set Austen’s novels alongside hers tightly.  How much of women’s novesl did he read? Eliot? Gaskell?  Why is there no mention of Gaskell. If he thought these are subtle pictures of life woman’centered she should be there, no?

He seems himself to be feeling his way towards something, but not quite beyond beyond setting down these opinions to make us respect his aunt. He is sure she is doing something quite different from Scott but how to put it in words he doesn’t know and where to situate her either, he doesn’t. That’s why I instance the Victorian reviewers like Lewes — I must assume JEAL didn’t get Blackwood’s (not really a superintellectual periodical of the day) or any of the others.  Keepsake (I have to say) shows he is in a backwater and himself doesn’t make up for it.  In a way this is true of Austen herself: she too never developed a vocabulary to describe what she was doing — she needed to have conversations with people like herself, and (I do think this) had she done this and lived her art could have deepened and gone further.  why make her different from other people. It’s what happens to writers today: not only did she die too soon, as she felt, had limited experience (and was censored as a spinster who was beholden to other to support her and she had to live where this was provided), but she could have profited from rich talk on her art …

The tenth chapter is a valuable one: it is the one people often quote from. It’s here JEAL gives us a few precious comments by Austen on her characters in the last paragraph, but they are enigmatic in part or have been so differently read.  Often he seems to see-saw between two points of view (which is typical of his gentle defensiveness throughout this book): "She was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon on her being a general favourite, for, when commencing that work, she said, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’" Does this mean JEAL thought that among the people he knew the character Emma had become a general favorite? What does that mean?  does it mean she was a character people liked (sympathized with) or just a favorite character who amused and entertained them. It’s not clear.

A poem by Charlotte Smith whose imagery and mood are consonant with Cowper’s and whose stance helps explain Austen’s own like Crabbe’s does:

Ode to the Missed Thrush

Charlotte Smith

The Winter Soistice scarce is past,
Loud is the wind, and hoarsely sound
The mill-streams in the swelling blast,
And cold and humid is the ground[;]
When, to the ivy, that embowers
Some pollard tree, or sheltering rock,
The troop of timid warblers flock,
And shuddering wait for milder hours.

While thou! the leader of their band,
Fearless salut’st the opening year;
Nor stay’st, till blow the breeze bland
That bid the tender leaves appear:
But, on some towering elm or pine,
Waving elate thy dauntless wing,
Thou joy’st thy love notes wild to sing,
Impatient of St. Valentine!

Oh, herald of the Spring! while yet
No harebell scents the woodland lane,
Nor starwort fair, nor violet,
Braves the bleak gust and driving rain,
‘Tis thine, as thro’ the copses rude
Some pensive wanderer sighs along,
To soothe him with thy cheerful song,
And tell of Hope and Fortitude!

For thee then, may the hawthorn bush,
The elder, and the spindle tree,
With all their various berries blush,
And the blue sloe abound for thee!
For thee, the coral holly glow
Its arm’d and glossy leaves among,
And many a branched oak be hung
With thy pellucid missletoe.
Still may thy nest, with lichen lin’d,
Be hidden from the invading jay,
Nor truant boy its covert find,
To bear thy callow young away;
So thou, precursor still of good,
0, herald of approaching Spring,
Shalt to the pensive wanderer sing
Thy song of Hope and Fortitude.


Said to be a Pre-1946 photo of College Street front room where Jane Austen died (from British Jane Austen society publications)
Chapter 11, the last and last week:

I found this chapter the most moving one of the memoir.  If only in the other chapters, he had had equivalent letters. Letters are the lifeblood of biography and autobiography. Even doctored and abbreviated on top of Austen’s own collusion with her family in putting on a bright face when she wrote, a deep sense of plangent loss pervades these texts.  There’s a deeply felt heart beat in these sentence: "Oh it rains again.  It beats against the window."  Just as she like a bird beats against the windows and doors: she has had to leave London, leave where her career was just getting started, desert her apothecary (whom she had been flirting about and spending enough time with) — all subject to her brother’s finances, no independence of her own.   She is kicking against her destiny here.

Austen’s letters as presented in this chapter are filled with a depth of feeling from her knowledge she was dying.  This last chapter is valuable for displaying what are the riches of the letters and thus perhaps alerting people like Chapman

Yes her illness influenced Persuasion’s tone and themes and Sanditon‘s too strongly, the one more for a dream fullfillment and poignant, the other as she got closer to death, more half-hysterical as she jokes and jokes to calm or reason herself into acceptance.

As to what she had:  Hodgson’s disease combined with the shock of not getting the legacy when they needed it after all and the shock of the bankruptcy.  Enough to lay anyone low. Even today Hodgson’s disease is very serious and its treatments not much fun.  On the way he presents the legacy going ot the family harridan (who made JEAL’s life as a young man miserable and tyrannized over until she finally died), and the disappointment at the uncle’s uxoriousness (he probably hid from the others how much he did like this controlling wife of his), the banktrupcy and how much this contributed to Austen’s illness, it’s understandable. It reminds me of obituary writing. I don’t envy anyone who has to write one of these. The relatives scour it with a fine tooth comb of their own egos and pride.  The early Austens were fringe gentry and even in this later period they are ever closing ranks.  His values seem to me better than those who would have destroyed all and published nothing —  and his branch of the family won. HIs daughter, Mary Augusta, it is who told us the majority of Austen’s letters were destroyed by Cassandra.

I suggest that from the second postscript where JEAL is suddenly unusually acrimonious and overtly defensive, we see peeping out one of the motivations for this book. It is similar to Henry Austen’s hagiographical account of his sister.  Jane Austen was unconventional: never married, never had children, kept herself apart (as both say and defend); she was therefore attacked, and some of her behavior was probably un or anti-social, and this was blown up out of proportion by envy. It’s interesting to me that Caroline (the third biographer of the first generation) is not that defensive but at the same time insists on this life of solitude quietly. This is vastly preferable to Fanny Knight who bad-mouthed her aunt — joining in mindlessly I think to the average scuttlebutt which tried to cut Austen down.

I think JEAL also he meant very well by his publication; that he, Caroline and Anna, were bucking the other relatives a lot — as well as in rivalry with Brabourne a little later who when he saw the positive results of the memoir (fame, respect, sentiment) brought out the letters he had control of.  JEAL’s values are not ours, but note how he published Lady Susan, The Watsons and the cancelled chapters of Persuasion— which are interesting.  We had to wait until the 20th century to get Sanditon because (as Chapter 11 shows) it is basically a first rough draft — a revealing document in itself but to the family too unfinished to show.

A 20th century (Joan Hassall) illustration of the Price family enjoying the fresh air of spring on Portsmouth harbour — a release and interlude from a hard life


Read Full Post »

Dear Friend and readers,

About a week ago, Izzy and I saw a powerful coming-of-age film, An Education.  The auditorium we sat in had just us and one elderly couple, but since it was a Tuesday afternoon, I put it down to the time and day. However, since then I’ve read two snarky, sarky reviews by British journalists basically sneering at the memoir the film adapts, Lynn Barber’s story of the maturation of a teenage girl in London in the 1960s, as itself snarky and sarky and just about every bad thing you could think of (snobbish, they called it, adulating Oxford — a no no nowadays, at least in print). Further, the blogs I’ve seen dis it as "disappointing," just about the cleverist put-down around. So I realize that despite the brilliant acting and fine script (with many nominations of prestige awards), from the lack of advertisementsiin the press and online  that like Ang Lee’s Ride to the Devil, this film is being dumped.

Why this is I cannot say except that like Peter Bogdanovich, Barber has apparently made enemies and her films will henceforth be targets for malice sans prizes. Also much of the cast and the crew too is made up of professionals who often make the BBC or ITV mini-series of older high status books; perhaps this lark of trying to apply their superior talents to a contemporary relevant girls’ book won’t do and is resented. Here’s a chance for the enemies of those who make it in "quality" films on TV to get back.  As Izzy says, at moments it felt like members from the casts and crews of film adaptations of 19th century classics and Austen said, hey, why not do something different today and see if the cinemas will distribute it.  When I finally get to transcribing my MLA notes, I will tell of one session where it was shown that girlhood is still erased, beneath contempt, thought not productive of power by establishment and feminist groups alike.

Izzy and I so enjoyed it, that I want at least somewhere to contradict this scuttlebut of stupidity and recommend the film to everyone, but (admittedly) especially women as to the point and riveting today.

Carey Mulligan, as Jenny, the A-level student at the opening of the film

Olivia Williams, as her much put-upon and put-down Latin teacher, coping with a class of girls not exactly engaged by their Latin texts; nonetheless, she saves her star pupil’s Jenny’s future

IN a nutshell, based on a memoir from the 1960s by Lynn Barber, also titled An Education (I link in a typical resentful review),  a film directed by Lone Sherfig, screenplay by Nick Hornby and produced by Amanda Posey and Finola Dwyer, we see Jenny (Carey Mulligan) learning a hard lesson in life.  Jenny is a very smart schoolgirl in a grammar school who is studying hard to get superior A levels in order to go to Oxford.  Her parents are in two minds about this, especially her working class father, Jack (Alfred Molina), and when they see her attracted to and apparently taken up for marraige by a a seemingly powerful , gentle, and well-meaning if  older man, David (Peter Sarsgard), they do nothing to stop the romance from blooming.  

The scene after Jenny loses her virginity; the film focuses on this after moment rather than the sex scene itself.  She feels grown-up is the idea — symbols include the cigarette, lovely slip.

Alas, this Jane Eyre (alluded to a couple of times by the dialogue has caught  a much inferior Mr Rochester — he turns out not only to be married, but an unscrupulous child-like childish man adding to his income by bullying elderly people and alluring young girls to become his mistress (until they get pregnant)  by seeming effortlessly to be able to offer them an eternally splendid life of high excitement, culture, beauty with no effort on their part but going along,  One need only be silent about his lies and ignore the shady dealing behavior she glimpses he practices with his louche partner, Danny (Dominic Cooper). 

Flat faced intense dancer is Danny

Danny’s girlfriend, Helen (Rosamond Pike) is there to re-dress Jenny and teach her to be silent, compliant, sexy, and conventionally attractive, and of course go along and make herself scarce when necessary.

Jenny begins to think her studies in an allgirls school of Latin and English hard, boring, irrelevant.   She falls in with her father’s dismissal of Oxford and her mother Marjorie’s (Cara Seymour’s) complicity>  Marjorie’s remark when Jenny says she is engaged to David: do you have to marry him. This shows she has surmized the affair has become fully physical; she stays up late waiting for her daughter as a way of vicariously joining in:

Her father and mother admire this superficial or appearance of power and glamor:

Jenny dismisses and insults her apparently pathetic spinster teachers, including Miss Stubbs (Olivia Williams is superb as someone who privately lives the plain worthwhile life and in school endures scenes of excessive stupidity) and a narrow hard headmistress.  Emma Thompson so perfect in the part I began to laugh and cry all at once and bang my hand on the seat next to me at her, so real was she and so mean when Jenny came for a second chance — none of that here, my dear:

Jenny learns the hard lesson of not so.  It’s following David about that leads nowhere, that is hollow and after a while exposed as dependent on tissues of lies. An important part of his charm (and a feature of women’s films) is how willing he is to wait until she’s ready to have sex. She doesn’t want to go "all the way" until she’s 17. He wants to use baby talk with her too; it is she who says, let us call each other by our real names when they finally do have intercourse.  So she feels in control.

Then Jenny makes the mistake of showing her affair off. She has already flouted it, her work is suffering, the headmistress has warned here.  Well, she is expelled, and does not take her exams, and then on the evening of their engagement party (a dinner with her parents), she discovers David has a wife by some envelopes in his car.

In the above still, now dressed in a faux adult way, Jenny is in the position of Jane Eyre after she comes back from church; Jenny and her parents have come back from David’s fancy car and restaurant treat

Sally Hawkins is stunning in her role as Sarah, the long-suffering wife and brief dialogue (with a son in tow), asking Jenny condescendingly if "she’s in the family way" and becoming relieved for Jenny’s sake that Jenny is not "For some of the others have been."

What leads to fulfillment is independence – and that is to be gotten only by a fulfilling self-respecting profession. After Jenny attempts to persuade the headmistress to take her back and fails, she goes to Miss Stubb’s apartment. Small, plain, but with things (copies of great paintings Jenny watched David and Danny scoop up dishonestly in an auction) Miss Stubbs values, the teacher’s rich resource is the dignity of her own mind.  She is generous enough to forget and to forgive, to tutor Jenny so that when she comes to take her exams at the end of the year on her own, she does so well, she is accepted to Oxford, and gets her life back.  Here is Miss Stubbs looking wistfully after Jenny in the school after Jenny has treated Miss Stubbs’s way of life as valueless; she is sorry for the girl:

What we see in this moment and film as a whole, is the limited choices life has to offer girl, and what these really are or mean. Your dreams can mislead you.  Here is Jenny listening to a French chanteuse on her record-player and dreaming of Paris:

To which David will take her one romantic weekend: where they fall into imitating French looks and what they feel tourists do (Eiffel  Tower, sit along embankment and snark), lay out on esplanade:

Our dreams lead us astray.  Virtue not cigarettes,

reading and hard study are the way for one can rely for fulfillment only on the stability of truth. It is a moral tale for young women.  Jenny faces up to the reality she lied too: she cannot accuse others of accepting lies when she did — a beautiful scene occurs when her father outside her door with a cup of tea and two biscuits tells of how he discovered she had lied when she said when she and David went to Oxford C.W. Lewis had signed her Narnia book.  We are to learn to ignore the sneers of the Helens when we see how obedient Helen is to Danny in one scene and how helpless if he should try to dump her.  Would there were more of these kinds of film showing women’s limited choices, the consequences of taking this or that option, the continuum of roles on offer for women.

My quarrels with the film and these are not nothing is 1) all the actresses but Thompson and Seymour are anorexic, and that includes Mulligan. Their upper arms are like sticks; their shoulders so angular it’s painful to look at. 2)  We  end on Oxford where suddenly all is green, pastoral, easy; Jenny apparently herself now lies to her younger suitors; the closing still of Jenny riding on a bike next to a young man riding too reminded me of Brideshead Revisited.  This closing sop to nostalgia belies Jenny’s goal, which leads to my last assertion that 3) we should have ended on Miss Stubbs at home, but I could find nary a still


Read Full Post »

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been wanting to write a blog on Mary (Mrs Humphry) Ward for quite some time now. My interest in her dates back to 2002/3 when on WWTTA a group of us read Ward’s Marcella and at the time I wandered off (so to speak) to try memoirs, life-writing. books on her art.  I was aware she wrote as Mary A Ward in her scholarly articles for her husband, Humphry’s edition of poetry at the end of the century (with introductory essays), The English Poets. As he was a reactionary critic on art for the London Times at the turn of the century, so she famously was against women getting the vote, vociferously "for" WW1, and (less well known) painted and drew:

Mary Ward, Borough Farm (a real place she visited)

Still what made great oodles of money and kept her and her family afloat as well as providing an outlet for her passions and high intelligence were her novels. I’ve now read another of these, Helbeck of Bannisdale. as well as John Sutherland’s excellent biography, Mrs Humphry Ward, Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian and would like to call attention to these two solid books and name books by and on Ward as well as on her character and art.  When young, Mary Ward was beautiful stately. Here is a photo of her. emphasizing the sternness of her role as worker for social charities, schools, young women’s colleges, political causes (mostly reactionary)

She was born in Australia. 


John Sutherland’s Mrs Humphry Ward.  At the opening of the book, Mary Augusta Arnold is is likened to Trollope in her turning to dreams and endless writing as an escape from a harsh environment, to Dickens and the Brontes in awful schools, and he’s very good in analysing her earliest fiction. It’s almost as good as a memoir in itself to me. I can’t figure out why since usually I don’t like this kind of tone. I think he does capture her inward life sharply and I found myself drawn to her despite her moralisms and the turn she took to upholding the very establishment and norms which tormented her.  Despite his somewhat deprecating semi-ironical tone, Sutherlland’s book is a compelling read and sympathetic portrait.  I am fascinated by the parallels with Woolf’s family, and convinced Mary Ward’s novels were what Woolf read when she was a girl — though Woolf’s Common Reader basically gives us essays on reading only the "big" women writers and 17th & 18th century memoirists, and presents Greek, Latin, and other classical texts as Woolf’s interests.

I was startled to see myself so enjoying Sutherland’s book: not just the slightly ironic deprecating tone now and agani, but because there’s a level where I find Ward appalling: the overt piety, the strong socializing, the determined domineering in the "right" ways to get ahead.  She had a weak person for a husband (when it comes to the world’s struggles and getting promoted and doing well as that’s understood) and she becamse the leader of the household.  Made huge sums eventually.  Feminist by temperament but not in beliefs nor actions, well at any rate these actions are not dishonorable. 

Yet I feel for her too.  Mary Augusta Arnold, sent from home at an early age and only allowed to live there in her young teenagehood,  was a bluestocking type intensely and overcame it sufficiently.  I think to myself Sutherland is seeing her as an early version of himself, her world an earlier version of one he grew up in; in every good biography there’s a hidden autobiography.

What we learn of the protagonists’ inner life telling me of an inward life vividly and is accurate enough — from a sceptical disillusioned hard worldly way. He points out where she was lying (misrepresenting realities) in the parts of her AWR_ I had read already in ways that made sense of why she was misrepresenting her past and memories. He made me feel for her: sent away from her home as she was growing up, put in one of these goddawful schools, utterly selfish egoistic father, maudlin alienated mother. Remember Larkin on "they fuck you up" your parents, only it seemed she turned around and kissed these whips when she got home; better yet, I now see over the years she became the person they all leaned on, needed, and the center of the big family, Herself.  An appropriately morally- and socially-acceptable form of revenge.

Sutherland exposes her sympathetically: he does not come down heavy-handedly to show you how she was driven to commercialize, downgrade and out of her own spirit wrote increasingly reactionary books, to the point where she produced three horrific classics on behalf of WW1 (important and effective propaganda at the time); she was so driven because she reveled in luxury and power both in the world and inside her family. It seems to me he wants us to understand her relentless anti-suffragette position (which cost not only her many friends, but her son a career in parliament) came out of her desire to control her family:  her younger daughter, like one of her sisters (to her mother) became a sort of abject adoring servant to her.

As the book goes on, you learn of her hard life and how she struggled to keep all her relatives afloat and did — while like Helbeck controlling all.  She suffering psychosomatically:  many wretched sicknesses, bad teeth, trouble with lack of exercise, illnesses, debts, and vexations from much less well-off effective relatives, and also her accomplishments in the political arena beyond Somerville:  settlement houses and complexes for schooling is one.

On the other hand, he has no sympathy for what was Ward’s (as he insinuates from his worldly standpoint) morbid inner world, heavy on depression, repression, coercion of other people, and anxiety over money.  That’s how he puts it.  His retellings of her novels are not really satisfactory: he finally stays with the surface meanings. It does make me want to read another novel so I can see what’s there as he’s not telling me.

At the same time he manages to discuss fairly those novels and her autobiography which are worth reading and suggest why, and also justify her as a woman who was supporting a phalanx of family hangers-on. She did much good for children:  opened vacation and vocation schools which she ran on her own money for years; started Somerville, and actually meant well, was not a malacious or bad woman, was good-natured in her own terms and friends with a lot of people we might respect and like. They saw something we can see in her better books and aspects of her life.

She did make many enemies and this is probably the reason for her sudden drop from public radar once she died. Her later years were also rought monetarily and socially. t’s a book one can learn a lot from about upper class life in England then and now. I was most startled to see how hard it was after all to place her mostly no-good son (gambler, womanizer, partly because she wouldn’t let him be, and partly because she supported him) despite all her connections and how often she struggled to get her influence felt.  This showed me how hard it is to make these much-vaunted connections and socializing work for making money or getting niches, and it might be someone with nearly none and one bit of luck would do better than she and hers after years of effort. I found this salutary, cheering and also ironic.


Hellbeck of Bannisdale.  The cover illustration for the Penguin is a John Atkinson Grimshaw. mood painter of Leeds and Yorkshire.  Wonderfully a propos of her book:

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893), Waterloo Lake, Roundhay, Leeds.

As I began Helbeck,  I felt the Catholicism of the novel somehow aligns it with formal structures and types of characters I’ve come across elsewhere, to wit, there is an older man, strongly Catholic Helbeck, who could become a putative guardian or even husband to his sister’s stepdaugher, Laura, a strong agnostic.  The sister, Augustina had married Laura’s father when the father was also much older than she, and he was the agnostic, she the lapsed Catholic.

The same situation is repeated twice in another novel by a woman brought up Catholic, Elizabeth Inchbald’s A Simple Story: an older priest, Dorriforth, a sort of Mr Darcy characters as we first meet him in bearing and severity falls in love with  secular enlightened modern woman type, later 18th century version, Miss Milner. We never learn Miss Milner’s last name.  They marry, a daughter is born, Matilda; Miss Milner commits adultery and vanishes (or dies) and Volume 2 rehearses the older man young woman again.  I heard a paper at the recent 18th century conference where it was argued we should take Inchbald’s Catholicism seriously to explain her works.  I was sceptical.  Maybe I should not have been.

The other novel is Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Yes. The Helbeck house is in decay and only the chapel is kept up. Just the situation when Waugh’s novel opens and at the close.  The attitudes towards the house.  There is throughout a  mild gothicism which is like the Bronte’s only sobered up — rather like Anne Bronte’s kind.

Grimshaw, An October Afterglow

The action takes place in Cumberlandm, and Ward provides wonderful descriptions of the landscape: they are not quite gothic and remind me of Trollope’s descriptions (and love of walking in) Cumberland in _Can You Forgive Her?

I know I should treat the novel sui generis but it’s faster to suggest what it is by comparison and it does remind me of other books again. The way the heroine, Laura Fountain, is stuck where she is, between a rock and a hard place, on the one hand, dense, religiously rigid, marginalized poor lower class people (rather like the heroine of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm), relations of her now dead (agnostic) father; and on the other, her stepmother’s upper class but impoverished Catholic group, the Brideshead Revisited set, with Helbeck, her step-mother’s brother, an apparently inflexible and dominating male at the center.  Helbeck has (we learn) been responsible for an architect he hired turning into a Catholic and losing his chance at a decent place.

A character who is deprived of a place because he became a Catholic is mirroring Ward’s father; Laura’s personality is probably a reflection of Ward’s. I have to admit I don’t like her very much — she behaves strategically and thinks this way too; she is determined to have some kind of power but can’t see her way to it — to do what I can’t think as she shows no interest in anything but music and there it’s not linked to activity on her part but as an index of her upper class education and ways. She determines to break into her father’s family and when she is made unhappy by the encounter but gradually worms her way in, I am to applaud her. I’m supposed to feel sympathy for her automatically; so too sympathy for Helbeck so there are some assumptions going on here I don’t share, all of which makes me conclude that Sand was right when she said politics is a function of one’s character.  All I read of Ward’s politics put me off 🙂

Subbronte is a good word for the genre feel. I do love the landscape and the way Ward invites us to revel, but more than that in the landscape: in the stories Helbeck tells of the apparently conventional existences of his female relatives, I discern another theme:  a justification of living in solitude, in relative isolation, to yourself and on yourself.  Each woman gradually becomes reclusive — now that’s not conventional — and finds peace and fulfillment idiosyncratically. It is curious for what I’ve read of Ward’s life shows me she was anything but this :). Her novels become a way for this other side of herself to find a place to recuperate itself.   Laura resists domination by Helbeck and to allow herself to be sexually involved with him offers no other basis for a relationship. The use of landscape is expressionistic and affective.  Really this would make a good film adaptation — not a mini-series but a powerful single episode.

I am gradually liking the hero, Helbeck and see that we are moving towards a love romance between them, where the problem is his intransigent stance as a Catholic male and her fear of this. She has now been proved wrong: she went to a dance where her Protestant relatives were in their element and found herself surrounded by people beneath her, vulgar, coarse, uninteresting, and on the way home her cousin, Humbert (any relation to Nabokov’s hero I wondered — Nabokov’d never admit reading Mrs Humphry Ward, would he? but maybe he did), harasses her sexually, distressing and frightening her with his drunkeness

This is terrible snobbery, and the anecdote to it is her near contemporary H. E. Bates’s Love for Lydia (a subLarwrencian novelists — very good, Judy, if you don’t know his stories especially) but it is in human nature and we can see how this girl would feel exiled, estranged. She is indeed between a rock and a hard place. H.E. Bates makes me think about how Argyle shows she is read in the famous canon. Another much read writer of the era who dwelt in this isolated places is A. E. Coppard and we must not forget Arnold Bennet (Anna of the Five Towns, etc) and Galsworthy (I mean to read The man of property for the rape of the wife story).

It’s made realistic she could get out: she apparently has some kind of income, small, but enough and a friend at Cambridge to join, but will she? Self-evidently she doesn’t want to end up like her quavering sister-in-law following supersititions, but there are other ways of being in Cumberland

By Volume 3, the heroine and our hero now engaged to be married: when they are apart from others, alone without their social nexus, they are happy. Their problem is in their lifestyle at the time they cannot create a personal space of their own apart as is actually more possible today if you have an adequate income which doesn’t demand this. Then you can know liberty (in its fuller extents too).

I cannot get why Ward spends such time in delineating from the outside the Catholic practices of Helbeck and shows Laura deploring them unless she means seriously to criticize these practices as ludicrous, inhumane, absurd.   Laura, I remind everyone, was brought up by a kind atheist father who basically had nothing to do with his family.

Now this criticism may be there as there are a couple of secondary characters whose lives are almost ruined by their sudden conversions to a severe austere Catholicism.  The novel also dramatizes narrow bigotry in the protestant part of the heroine’s family.  Her stepmother leaves a weak feeble guilty life because of her Catholicism.

But if so, this is not backed by the narrator’s discourse which leaves us suspended and gives us no clue where Ward stands.  And as I wrote the general shape and architecture is that of Brideshead which validates Catholicism.

She also doesn’t come out on the side of Laura looking to be independent from Helbeck. This does seem to be backed by the narrator but only implicitly.  I found myself wondering why Ward doesn’t call the novel A woman of slender means for it’s Laura’s lack of certain means and her ties to these relatives she keeps honoring but has nothing in common with that brings her back.

My real understanding of the book comes only from knowing Ward’s autobiography.  Her father again and again gave up good positions and plunged his family in misery by his conversions to Catholicism.  She was part of a milieu where atheism (or at least agnosticism) was commonplace.  She can also be showing her own incestuous drives (people have these) by showing this romance between her heroine and a father-figure.

The book reminds me of other novels of this era, particuarly the more minor ones like H.E. Bates, a subLawrentian one and A. O. E. Coppard which delineates the imprisonment and isolation of gifted people.  I’ve gone on with Helbeck and have the heroine and our hero now engaged to be married: when they are apart from others, alone without their social nexus, they are happy. Their problem is in their lifestyle at the time they cannot create a personal space of their own apart as is actually more possible today if you have an adequate income which doesn’t demand this. Then you can know liberty (in its fuller extents too).

John Atkinson Grimshaw,  A Moonlit Road

The peace in the book only arises when the heroine is alone in these remarkably beautiful landscapes. It has a Rousseau thrust!  If so, this is an aspect of Ward’s character not only Sutherland but everyone else including Ward when explicit leaves out or hides or neglects. And it is strong and continuous — these landscapes and long sequences of peace alone. I’m reading the book for them. They comfort me.

I would like to understand the book better.  I’m beginning to wonder if one characteristic of 1890s new women’s novels is precisely this fear of speaking out directly and muddle and was understood by women at the time.

When I finished the book, I was as puzzled or unsatisfied as ever:  Laura commits suicide unexpectededly, suddenly and leaves a a letter to her friends  (not relatives, her friends from Cambridge who she never seems to settle down with) asking them to lie about her death, to pretend that it was not a suicide. There is a second surprize here: not only does Laura commit suicide, she writes a letter which enables her closest friends to lie to Helbeck about it.

What trust can she have in this man?  To say she’s protecting him is nonsense for she’s dead and he suspects it.  All this does is cut him off from her, and it’s a lie, a barrier the way lies often work. He has nothing to console himself with.  The final lie is appalling. It shows life as utter performance.  Perhaps this is how Ward lived it.

A serious psychoanalytical study or archetypal one needs to be done to make sense of this book for Ward wrote it more than half-unconsciously.  She never questions why Laura keeps coming back to these relatives: she has money to live with her friends and an independent life among people like herself. Suddenly at the end we ar told she really loved the stepmother. If so, she never says why and endlessly shows the stepmother to be silly and weak.  According to Sutherland, Ward’s later life erupts in psychosomatic and sociological symptoms.  

A final book its reminded me of Victoria Cross’s Anna Lombard (from this era) also leaves the reader high and dry for any sense of the author being appalled by the abhorrent things the heroine is driven to do, and even seems to condon them (like killing a new born baby because it’s another man’s child from the one who has just married her and refused to have sex with her until she was no longer polluted by this pregnancy). Also of E. M. Forster’s Room with a View, which explores female sexuality in its WW1 imprisoned phase.


Albert Sterner, "What does Lady Kitty do with herself here?", illustration for Chapter 13 of Mary Ward’s The Marriage of William Ashe (Dec 1904).

An illustration from late in the Victorian period (Edwardian really as it’s 1904), in the popular "idyllic" style familiar to me from John Everett Millais’s illustrations for Trollope (and many others of the era). It’s an acute question, bypassing the luxury of the surroundings to an important question: how does this heroine spend her life here?  how does she manage it?   Sterner’s choice points us to a quiet level of alienation, and deleterious psychological consequences or the cost of the consequence of striving for social success.  I do like the picturesque melancholy, the quiet use of brush strokes and lines, and most unusually, that the engraver manages to keep a real (here desperate) facial expression (often in the transfer of the drawing, this is lost).

Some critics:

I reread what Sutherland wrote about it, and he is autobiographical: this is Ward as a girl (Laura), Helbeck’s obsession with Catholicism her father’s conversions, Laura’s father’s agnosticism or atheism, the world around the Wards (say the Stephens for one). As a girl Ward was continually sent away from home and hated it.  Was not therefore herself much mothered.  The only "mother" in the book is the obtuse rigid evangelical aunt with her punitive talk. But why the suicides, the deaths (by drowning in two cases). Judith Wilt’s Behind Her Times: Transition England in the Novels of Mary Arnold Ward seems to have long chapters delving the inner life of the novels, with the last two on Ward’s anti-suffragette stance in the context of the suffragette movement.

Fran (on WWTTA) found a reference to an article Woolf wrote for  The New Republic, 37 (9 January 1924) called ‘The Compromise’ concerning Ward and the biography her daughter Janet Trevelyan wrote of her in particular. It’s collected in Woolf’s collection, Women and Writing., which is where I probably came across it in the first place. Here’s a short look:


My introduction by Brian Worthington (which I now read) sees the book as essentially anti-Catholic, rather like Villette, torn because the heroine loves the Catholic hero. Mr. Paul Emanuel is also a domineering man and we are left to wonder if he drowned. Worthington does bring up Simple Story where Dorriforth, the hero is a much older ex-priest, and Miss Milner, the heroine (as I’ve said) a secular free woman for her time; what happens is the heroine does marry him, but there is a break and when Volume 2 begins, it is years later and we learn the heroine took a lover, he impregnated and abandoned her, a child was born, probably our hero’s, Dorriforth’s (but it’s not clear for sure after all), and Miss Milner dies in childbirth. One might call this long-round-about suicide.

Beth Sutton-Rampspeck’s article on Mary Ward is a not an altogether persuasive argument for seeing Ward as not conservative and feminist, for to be labelled feminist and progressive requires more an examination of one’s literary allegiances.  Nonetheless, in the area of literature, and particularly how and why men treat novels the way they do, and how to counter this, it’s superb, not least because it’s so lucidly written.

It falls into three sections: the first is about the canon and she begins with how James looked about him to surround himself in print with other male authors — and either never mention or denigrate in all kinds of ways his many female rivals. This is important for it is a chief motive of many male novelists and common behavior among male reviewers and editors today.  Men are embarrassed by a connection with women. I’ll jumpshot into the third section, where Sutton-Ramspeck explains Ward’s defense of the personal and subjective approach to reading books:  partly or even largely due to the conventions of masculinity men are not supposed to reveal their personal life and it’s been shown that when they do talk of what they read there is a strong tendency to speak of what can be called objective (partly never to admit vulnerability).  Ward was clear and strong in valuing precisely the personal in the books and how they fit into the real and subjective of her authors’ lives. That’s what was important to her and them. In this section Sutton-Ramspeck uses the criticism of Dickinson today which enables us to value her — one of which we discussed here, "Vesuvius at home."

The second section is about how Ward shows the Brontes affecting her as a reader and writer who is a woman.  (There is no neutered person, no universal being; I’d say the presentation of that can be and is often the presentation of the male view unacknowledged.) I loved how she showed Ward felt appalled at the final choice of life Charlotte Bronte was led to. Here I feel Ward probably did not sufficiently take into account how no matter how great a poetic genius one is, when it comes to the average person’s views of you, your class and money trumps all, not to omit social presence. In the marriage market, Charlotte Bronte’s choices were limited.  But I’ve felt the waste here too — and the death from pregnancy, oh so common. The novel where Ward goes over this choice is David Grieve.


Read Full Post »

Dear readers and friends,

I saw this memorable movie, Morvern Callar about 4 nights ago now, and thought that as a movie written (Liana Dognini), directed (Lynn Ramsay), produced by (Robyn Slovo) and even filmed, edited by , and starring unusually talented unconventional women, I could find no better place to describe, praise and recommend others to watch it than my Reveries under the Sign of Austen. I first became aware of Samantha Morton as a remarkable actress in the film adaptations of Austen’s Emma (1996, by Andrew Davies, starring Kate Beckinsale — Morton remains the best Harriet thus far), Jane Eyre (1997, by Robert Young, with Ciarhan Hinds it is the most anguished and meditatively thoughtful film version I’ve seen, and The Libertine (2002, a Johnny Depp movie, she was Elizabeth Barry). I then read my friend Nick’s blog about her directing a film, The Unloved and learned of her background as an abandoned child who grew up in institutions, and has spent much of her adult career genuinely combining a need to make money and do good fine art work with products intended to teach and increase social justice.

I had never heard of Lynn Ramsay before, but on Women Writers through the Ages we spent a full three months and more sharing and watching and discussing movies made by women, starring them, about and for them (so that some of the movies I watched were by men) and I had learned these movies as a group had specific salient characteristics. This one was somewhat different from most (no group of women, the heroine not seek a man as her primary goal in life, no lesbianism), but it does have some of their central characteristics: about a woman or women centrally from their own point of view, the stress on subjectivity, immanence, private life as experienced from below.

Last I had read an article on female sexuality in modern movies by Liz Johnson  Perverse Angle, Feminist, Film , Queer Film, Shame, Signs 30:1 ;(2004):1361-84, and it centered on Morvern Callar as depicting a young woman’s sexual and psychological perception of life unusually candidly and truthfully.. This one had won all sorts of prizes and so I asked Jim if he could find it in Bit and Torrents and download it for me.  He did.  I found it a very anxiety or worry-inducing experience.  It reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion: both are about a young girl who has experienced an intensely traumatic experience, which is sexually or socially outside what is thought to be the norm; the difference is Ramsay is kinder to the central heroine, empathetic with her; Polanski enters the mood of trauma fully and projects it strongly at the viewer at the same time as presenting it coldly, clincally. He is put off.  Ramsay identifies and leads the actress to play the part with great self-control as a girl might who didn’t want to be put away.

Here’s the story in a nutshell, a working class girl, Morvern (Scots, played by Samantha Morton) wakes up one morning to find her boyfriend has killed himself. Here is an early still of her.  It takes a few minutes before we realize the body lying next to hers is dead, and bleeding.

You might call it a very ironic Christmas story for it opens in Christmas and the earliest part of the movie occurs during this "holday" season. Much is made of the Christmas tree in the apartment which Morvern doesn’t take down.  She reaches over to him. She feels his hands, his skin, his back, his body. Blood is all over his arms.  She notices the computer and a words on it so she goes over to read his last note.

The only sound we can hear is of the computer hard drive engine.

The boyfriends has left her a manuscript of his book. She tells no one he killed himself but after a few weeks of living with his corpse (bleeding everywhere, stinking) in her apartment, she buries him herself. She types her name over his manuscript and sends it to London to a publisher.

She goes about her life as if nothing had happened insofar as she can: with her best friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) to clubs.  Both have thick working class accents, with Lanna much more Scots in accents. Both work in menial jobs in supermarkets — the jobs are seen as menial. She spends her time in a big fridge with lots of meat (the allusion to the corpse is there). 

Morvern’s outward behavior seems "normal" or usual, but the viewer knowing what she has in her apartment recognizes she is going through trauma. Her friend knows something is wrong and is told her boyfriend left her. 

After she finally buries the corpse, she travels to Spain with Lanna. Throughout she is trying to have a good time. 

Looking out the window at the sand, the bathing suit just bought for this occasion.  She does get irritated with Lann who is rather dull and silly and she bosses Lanna around and pressures Lanna into leaving a nice hotel in Spain where they have taken up with two young men and are having sex with them. 

They travel to a remote village in Spain (not hard to find, as they are not all that remote).

They quarrel and she moves on alone (sharing the money with the friend):

She gets a call from a London publisher and (most improbably), the publishers come to Spain, offer her a spectacular 100,000 pounds after a long conversation in which they see how strange she can be (like taking them to look at tombstones). I think they suspect she didn’t write the novel but don’t care.  With this money she quits her job; this time Lanne won’t come; she has a boyfriend and is content with the job she has.

It ends very abruptly with her leaving her local area. We last see her on a train station and we hear birds and the sun glints in the sky.  There is much pop music in the film, and at this point as the movie turns into flashing snaps of Morvern as she was at the clubs, we hear "While I’m far away from you my baby … the darkest moment is always just before dawn."

I guess she got away with not telling anyone :). 

I don’t know that it is all that improbable no one would come looking for this young man.  People do live anonymous lives and a lot of myths are promulgated about families caring or acting.  He was depressed for a long time apparently. The real problem for the movie for me is Morvern is inarticulate and its fairy tale ending. She is a "woman of the people" and we are to pick up a lot from very little talk.  At the same time, it is wholly improbable that she’d collect 100,000 pounds so easily and be able to get out of her village with no problem. Is it likely that she would travel so alone and never get raped or hurt?  What would she know of the further away world?  And we do agree with Lanna, what is she to do now?  In a way the film just stops. It doesn’t know what to do next. I rather like that instead of the film tacking on some uplifting ending (as so many films do).

But Morton is up to the acting and what kept me watching was that she didn’t go over the top with her trauma. 

I think the movie is only partly about shame — this is Liz Johnson’s central idea that the movie is a candid depiction of a young girl’s sexual life and what is controlling the girl is shame controls this girl — as it does the girl in Catherien Breillat’s art film, A Real Young Girl (in Breillat’s film the heronie masturbates apparently).  Johnson talks a lot about the marvelous camera work of the film. This use of a corridor is however typical of woman’s films: the woman caught in the hall:

Often the camera keep us so up close to this girl’s skin. We feel as if we are so close to her physically and really there, looking along the ground involved within the experiences.

It does seem to me true that Morvern is ashamed of what happened, ashamed to tell anyone, and much of her behavior is controlled by the need to guard herself. She does not seem ashamed to work where she does, but she knows it shocks the publishers who come to visit her; they say how amusing that this is your job, and then ask what else is she writing. They hope to make oodles of money from her book. We are never told the book’s title nor its content nor why it should make money.  

But it”s Morvern’s abilty to stand or sit there with a guarded apathetic face as she’s laughed at or talked to by various character which makes watching possible:  the heroine in Repulsion doesn’t or can’t and it’s excrucriatingly mortifying.  We respect Morvern because her ability not to lose it, to keep her trauma in enables her to survive.  This turns the movie into a kind of slice of life that does persuade us (me anyway) that I’m watching a really felt experience: the small things that are happening all the time which the camera focuses on — eating, listening to music, walking, how it feels to be inside one’s body. The sexual scenes are not prominent but just part of life, to be taken in, dealt with, enjoyed or (often) nor, and most of the time endured, and then you move on.

I suggest the meaning of the film is: how to cope with life which for many girls, especially those not in the upper class and privileged brings deep inner distress. The film did hold me though at a couple of points I was tempted to stop the software program because I worried about what was going to happen to this girl.  We’ve been talking about Polanski on WWTTA and Wompo and I had written a blog about the rape case; that might be why I was reminded of Repulsion. It was when I was that I thought of turning off the software.  But Morton and Ramsey are far more controlled; in fact it’s not embarrassing to watch Morvern; she controls the distraughtness and remains on the edge. It’s a fine calibrated performance. So I could manage — for there is a strong element of identification for me in watching such a film.

Why was I anxious? I kept waiting for her to get caught and be blamed for murdering the young man. I thought she was endangering herself by sending that Ms, but apparently not. No one cares enough. Now this might ironically be part of the fairy tale element I felt was so strong towards the end.

So my take is the movie is also about isolation, how we live our lives in isolation and have to have courage just to go on everyday.  Here she is driving with a family who pick her up in Spain:

The note of the boyfriend to her is important. It’s on her computer screen and she keeps it there and returns to the luminous box several times during the film.  He says "I love you."  He says he couldn’t take "it" anymore.  He apologizes. And he says "Be brave."  We never do see his face clearly. She has his photo on her wall and we glance at it with her from time to time. He gives her strength as did his email, and his book gave her money.


Read Full Post »

Christmas, 2009 into 2010

Dear Sylwia and all,

This is my way of thanking Sylwia for her informative history of Christmas customs in Poland as a reply to my blog on Austen’s uses of Christmas in her books.  The history of Christmas in the US is so varied from every point of view, from region, to era, to religion, to individual ways of getting through, that the best way I can express one understanding of this group-identity holiday is to tell a little of how we spent ours this year.

From The Maze, a redemptive Christmas tale

It was the best we’ve had in 5 years. Rewind to the year 2000:  we had had 3 Xmases so bad I told Jim, I really thought I’d come near suicidal if I had to endure another such experience.  For 3 years running, not just corrosive comments, jeering, overt jealous resentment and wrenches thrown in to ruin all pleasant plans, but Jim’s own bad memories of Christmas which used to make him overtly irritated by any attempt at gaiety (such as Izzy and I enjoying ourselves on a boardwalk one Christmas Eve twilight, laughing and throwing snowballs which he insisted on bringing to an abrupt end).  When he was a boy there was no money whatsoever for presents, they lived in condemned housing and his memories of Xmas are of embittering exclusion.

So he decided we needed to scotch this bad past and start afresh. We went to Paris and had one of these magically happy times (the three of us also did this in Bath and Devonshire the spring of the same year).  We went to museums, saw many plays, a remarkable Offenbach musical, and just enjoyed Paris. Christmas day Paris is not closed and we went to a play and for that day Jim cooked a French style meal, and we had cake afterwards and wine. New Year’s Eve we went to the part of Paris where the Eiffel Tower is and got rained on very hard. I don’t remember if the fireworks worked, only that we were in a cab for a long time getting back to our lovely flat and saw the "banlieu:" – suburbs of tall personality-less buildings, no decent public arenas, dull cheap shopping of the Wal-Mart type, where so many non-European people who work long hours keeping France going live.

When we got home for 2 years after that we had good Xmases. I remember the first especially. As a joke we said we’d do a traditional Jewish Christmas.  This means going out to a movie and eating Chinese food. That year we discovered it was no longer a traditional Jewish Christmas since so many people did it. I forget what movie we saw, but remember that we went to a Chinese restaurant to hae Peking Duck and the Duck was brought out in front of us in flames before it was cooled and cut up.  The next day we went to the National Gallery and saw a vast Victorian exhibit. The next year we repeated this set of customs, with the difference the exhibit was a vast French 18th century rococo genre one (Chardin, Watteau, Fragonard).  We did keep up our walk and the museum for the years following, but Christmas day no longer was the time of kindness and loving good will to be at peace together it had been.

This year we didn’t manage to get back to 2002, but we began a journey towards it. Alas, we no longer have the money to go to Paris or some other totally different city in order to make a new threshold.  But we could work out of our own hearts and minds.  About a week before Xmas Izzy and I went to a JASNA dinner where we ate, and talked and had a good time in a splendid restaurant in a place hard to get, Tysons Corner. The practice trip there and back was a nightmare.  But it was fun and other women had the same sticker on their cars, sat in the car not to go in too early.  There was champagne and an excellent talk on the uses and distrust of laughter in Pride and Prejudice.  

So Christmas eve we took our walk in Old Town in the twilight. Old Towne is such a pretty place and it was prettier with the snow. No neon. Strong zoning regulations (and a belief money comes in from tourism) has kept it decent looking and we have a museum where contemporary artists show their work near the Potomac.  There’s a long boardwalk by the Potomac at the end of the town and a long narrow park too. We saw other small family groups and friends and individuals walking.

On Xmas day around 2 we put away what we were doing separately.  I am working on my paper "Rape in Clarissa" by rereading Richardson’s Clarissa once again; Izzy listens to Christmas music Christmas morning (she watched a Yuletide log on TV) and was watching ice-skating and worked on her novel; Jim read a book and browsed the net and the cats plays.  At 2 we gathered round our long wooden coffee table in the front room and exchanged presents. We told one another why we liked what we had gotten. Half an hour of suddenly spontaneous talk to one another:  I have the Forsythe Saga (24 episodes on DVDs), Brooklyn by Toibin; Izzy got an ice-skating romance, and Jim a learned tome on medieval history (that’s what he likes).  I then drove to the movie as Jim has a Jaguar which is terrible in snow.

Our movie house, the art cinema Izzy and I go to regularly during the year was supercrowded. The only theater not full the one we were in for Pedro Almodovar’s Broken Embraces (with Penelope Cruz, his favorite actress). It was a over-lauded art film: Jim said it had implausible characters doing improbable things and alas not a witty statement for the whole film. They were all so "dull." Izzy there were worse ways to spend a couple of hours.

Then I drove us to the Asian (Hong Kong food) restaurant, Mark’s Duck House, which was also crowded with family groups and friends, mostly white. Some years it has been less crowded and with more Asian people.  It was okay since we had reservations, the food good. It’s a nice place, not too fancy but still cheering, with lovely framed pictures on the walls.  We had good talk, and when we came home we listened to some Xmas music, Izzy in her room in front of her TV , and Jim and I in front of the TV.

Upon getting home, Jim and Izzy went to sleep much earlier than me. I read Mary Ward’s Helbeck of Bannisdale, began my present, Toibin’s Brooklyn (superb) and then watched the first hour-long part of Andrew Davies’s 8 hour Little Dorrit.  I wrote friends on the Net and read their letters and cards to me.  On my mantelpiece were 20 more. These missives help enormously in getting through. I used the term "black crazies" for those who were experiencing the horrors of family life such occasions can make intensely visible. I heard on one of my lists a woman poet, Rachel Wetzsteon, had committed suicide.  Here is one of her moving melancholy elegant pieces.  You need to know that Sakura Park is a small park known for its cherry trees; it’s near Riverside Church in an area of NYC called Morningside Heights (the area Columbia University is in and mostly owns):.

                  Sakura Park

The park admits the wind,
the petals lift and scatter
like versions of myself I was on the verge
of becoming; and ten years on
and ten blocks down I still can’t tell
whether this dispersal resembles
a fist unclenching or waving goodbye.
But the petals scatter faster,
seeking the rose, the cigarette vendor,
and at least I’ve got by pumping heart
some rules of conduct: refuse to choose
between turning pages and turning heads
though the stubborn dine alone. Get over
“getting over”: dark clouds don’t fade
but drift with ever deeper colors.
Give up on rooted happiness
(the stolid trees on fire!) and sweet reprieve
(a poor park but my own) will follow.
There is still a chance the empty gazebo
will draw crowds from the greater world.
And meanwhile, meanwhile’s far from nothing:
the humming moment, the rustle of cherry trees.

We had gone to no places with crowds (beyond the crazed roads where it would take hours to crawl along roads), no malls; all shopping (5 small presents) was done on the Net.

A mall in England, circa 2004

We had said we’d go to a museum the next day and perhaps we should have, but there really was no show that we wanted to see (not even in the Phillips), and it was so cold and rainy that instead we stayed in. I finished the first volume of Clarissa (780 pages of the 1470). Izzy and Jim decided to buy a new large windows computer for her — her old large one is dying and the small laptop they bought for her is not up to 24 hour a day use. Then she and I returned to the art flm theater (again supercrowded), this time for Emily Blunt in Young Victoria (Paul Bettany was Lord Melbourne, Jim Broadbent the king, Harriet Walters the di rigueur court lady with a funny European accent dispensing essential advice — Barbara Murray plays the type as Madame Max in the 1974 Pallisers). Talk about Revential. It was ludicrous at times.  I did enjoy the romance and the costumes were accurate and the literal events true to history — even if the inner life of these was unreal. I wish I had seen Marie Antoinette by Coppola’s daughter to compare. Isabel liked the type Emily Blunt stood for and we had an easy outing and good talk and music (Nanci Griffith) in the car coming and going).  Poor Mark Strong though — the bad guy everywhere (he’s the bully Conroy and Moriarity in the silly stunt-man, action adventure Sherlock Holmes making the rounds of moviehouses just now).

I will write separate blogs on our time at the MLA in Philadelphia. We left on Sunday morning and we back on Wednesday evening. Suffice to say we had a rejuvenating time despite the brutal cold: met some old friends, made new acquaintances, went to a number of interesting sessions which included: one on the very 17th and 18th century women writers of memoirs and histories; two on movies [women’s, French]; one on a Global Defore; one included Scott and Oliphant; one on George Eliot; astonishingly one on Thomas Holcroft and Caroline de Lichfield; one on just the 20th century women novelists we’ve read over the years on WWTTA [e.g., Rosamund Lehman, the writer of Our Spoons were Bought at Woolworth’s; one on girlhood which is basically invisible in a sense I tried to explain when I describe Guppy’s memoir, girlhood has not been picked up by feminist groups, though FGM one thing done to a huge number of girls in traditional cultures is at least acknowledged as horrifying.  We visited the city and ate out in two good restaurants and one wonderful Irish pub.  Alas, the streets of Philly are filled with homeless people still. . One session at the MLA was directly about the possible disaster nearing us, for it was about Margaret Atwood’s recent fiction (the most recent, The Year of the Flood).

I did treat myself to watching the rest of of Davies’s Little Dorrit late at night (and it’s very long, 2 one hour parts, 12 half-hour ones each with a different set of differently mixed trailers reminding us of threads and looking forward to others).  Claire Foy managed to make me like Amy Dorrit almost as much as I do Esther Summerson; I loved Matthew MacFayden as Arthur Clenham, and Tim Courtney was brilliant as Mr Dorrit, to say no more of the other great performances and the greatness of this mini-series here.

Amy coming up to Clenham house

Arthur visiting the Meagles

In the Marshalsea

Watching this movie solaced my heart, absorbed me, I just loved the themes, inferences — Davies seemed to me to make good sense and brilliant theater of Dickens.  i was not nervous while I had this going.

Philadelphia was also good because Jim and I do need time alone, to go out to bars and dance a little (we did), not worrying, no cats continually there, just be plucked away. In the session on Margaret Atwood where two papers talked of her resolutions not necessarily to forgive, but "let go" (how the phrase repeats) and carry no burden of resentment/hurt/poison resolidified my vow to dismiss our own family "black crazies" from my mind.

Isabel did take herself ice-skating one night. She had one bad day where the computers didn’t work but she fixed them. The third morning Ian (Little Snuffy) made all over her bed, and the girl cat was a bundle of neuroses — apparently they need the company of three not one person  — but they soon reverted to his more usual calmness interspersed with wariness and anxiety (Ian, aka Little Snuffy) and alert play, tenacious affection, boldness and determination (Clarissa-Marianne).

We had a quiet New Year’s Eve.  We watched a rousing New York Philharmonic concert and I loved it: Aaron Copeland Apalachian springs, Cole Porter, George Gershin and Thomas Hansom singing rousing songs and talking about them, but then there was nothing else.  We had thought to walk to a high hill in Alexandria about 10 minutes from us to see the fireworks but Jim felt exhausted around 11 and it had been raining earlier and was damp and chill. Isabel went to bed earlier — she often does — after watching programs on TV, interacting on webrings and reading.  She carries on writing her second novel (vampire)

We have a screened porch from which I can just glimpse this hill where the fireworks go off so after reading for a while and listening to Music, I got onto my porch and watched and  heard fireworks and went to bed.  I read Hugo’s Les Miserables translated by Norman Danny. It is so big but in Norman Denny’s translation it’s very readable, and more of Eilis Lacey in Toibin’s strengthening comfort novel, Brooklyn.  The next evening we again watched TV, this time the Vienna Philharmonic playing Strauss.

For several years before and after Paris we went to Kennedy Center for New Year’s Eve:  dinner at the lovely cafeteria on the high terrace, a good play, and then afterwards a ball.  I love to dance and the ball was "for free":  you had to pay to go to the play.  On one side Strauss waltzed and the other old-fashioned rock-n-roll. I loved yearly seeing a man in his 50s in tux and white gloves dancing elegantly with a woman who I at first thought hismother but was probably his wife.  Such grace and elegance. And they survived year after year. Alas, Woolly Mammoth the play company we’d go to see has built their own theatre, and while one year Kennedy Center itself had a moving play musical, The Light in the Piazza from Elizabeth Spencer’s short story (about a mildly disabled daughter and her mother who travel to Italy together), most years the Center has drek on its own.  And then the price went up: $450!  So then we have to sit through 2 hours of drek (last year we went to an Andrew Lloyd Weber — awful, the worst kind of neon and noise except for the famous "Memory" song).  We are surrounded by people like ourselves, looking for a pleasant civilized time, but showing how money matters, it’s just not worth it.  (When young I went to Times Square but nowadays its equivalent in DC would be an endurance trial.)  So we have to give this custom up unless there is a play we can enjoy.  Instead stay home, listen to music, go to fireworks ten minutes away will be our solution.

To conclude, more on what we didn’t have or do.  We didn’t have a tree this year because the cats cannot resist attacking the balls, so no fiber optic penguin was taken out (called Colin, he wears a scarf, carries a sled, has boots and mittens and a sweet smile).  No wrapping presents because of the same said cats.

What we didn’t have. You can see Colin guarding our tree.  I meant to hire an electrician to put lights on the bushes, but it snowed so strongly and the snow never melted. I’ll have him come in February and put in electricity not only outside the house, but in our fixed porch and have a ceiling fan-and-light put up in my room.  Our sole decoration was the cards across the mantelpiece. And I kept up my friendships, contacts, reading with and discussions of books and movies and politics on the Net with friends and listserv members.

It’s a time to be weathered.  There is an intense pressure to pretend to come group-identity of happy families, blessed fellowship with all sorts of friends and connections.  The reality is far from that (a good story to read here is Bobbie Ann Mason’s "Drawing Names").  It’s not as bad as vacations can be because shorter and at home, but having the same troubles of high expectation, fraughtness from past histories of interconnected needs and abuses among closely knit (or not) people.   Our very worst moment occured at a neighborhood party where the poison injected into our family was suddenly exposed by tactless questions by someone not meaning harm but assuming a picture book reality; a shame because the get-together was pleasant: I met neighbors I’ve lived near for ten years for the first time, and the woman across the street who gave the party is a kind intelligent woman, no phony, tactful herself. Arlette Farge shows that in the ancien Regime such days of group-identity were also pushed by the established ruling groups in France, swirled around religious holidays too. People acquiesced to get a day or days "off." 

Me, probably 2002, trying to relax after having spent to much money (another thing we did not do this year).

I’m trying hard to look forward with cheer to the coming year and to remain hopeful for Izzy, and my many friendships on the Net are central to my life’s joy.  The Admiral (as I used to call him), has been planning trips again since we did have a good time — not this summer as we have enough to try to go (Albuquerque in March, Portland next October, California MLA in 2011), for but planning after that. He dreams — we shall go to Venice it seems, and Austria (Vienna) and to England again. Each one next to a year :).  Where he’s getting the money for all this he doesn’t say.  (Meanwhile the rocking chair he sits in is so broken only he can sit in it.  Like Samuel Johnson on his three-legged chair, the admiral has learnt how to sit there so the chair holds up.  Probably the final blows were given by one male cat named Ian who takes rocking chairs to be trees and he Lewis Carroll’s Chesire Cat.)  He needs things to look forward to too. All of us do

Sylwia, my guess is this seasonal account I’ve given is not atypical for a middle class American secular family like that of Jim, me, Izzy and two cats. 


Read Full Post »