Archive for February 11th, 2013

Lichfield Cathedral: Honora Sneyd lived here for a time with Anna Seward

Dear readers and friends,

This blog has two subjects: lesbian arts and spinsters. About a year ago I was so enthused by a review of Lisa Moore’s Sister Arts, and now I’ve been sent it to review and have skimmed the book as a preliminary move. First it’s a beautiful book, an art book, about 18th century landscape and gardening and the popular images conferred and imposed.

If one wanted seriously and earnestly to persuade readers that Jane Austen had some lesbian tendencies (as when she and Martha spent the night on the floor together one fall evening at Steventon), to substantiate Emma Donoghue’s thesis about a type of individual recognizable in the 18th century (thought not openly admitted), the lesbian spinster, one could not do better than advise the person to read this book and Moore’s previous, Dangerous Liaisons, together of course with reading selections of letters and diaries from literary women of the later 18th and early 19th century. Dangerous Liaisons close reads the overt lesbian patterns in Edgeworth’s Belinda, Austen’s Emma and Sister Arts takes us from a group of 18th century artists (including Mary Delany and Anna Seward whom Moore claims had a sexual love relationship with Honora Sneyd) to 20th century lesbian poetry and art through nineteenth century poets (Emily Dickinson one) and into contemporary aligned art, Mickalene Thomas. The purpose: to demonstrate a lesbian aesthetic.

I am also reviewing for a Burney newsletter Volume 5 of Burney’s Early Journals and Letters and there I’ve come across long pieces on Mary Delany and have been reading about her. She’s a woman who may be said to have begun life all over again several times, from devastating falls/disappointments (except maybe the second husband). As a biography about her says (Mary Peacock’s The Paper Garden), Delany’s best time began at 72!

As background one has to read books like Ann B. Shteir’s Flora’s Daughters: Cultivating Women, cultivating science. I cannot say this is an entertaining read; Shteir’s style is dull, but she does convey important information about women in science in the earliest days they entered consciously. She tells of how plants were organized by different taxonomies and the superiority of Linnaeus’s precisely because he used sexuality as a marker; the arguments to keep even this knowledge from women as too sexualized. How that was successfully fought off. Latin could be used to exclude women, but Lineaus’s terms had just two words. Then a chapter on the popularizers, who women read and where they got these texts. I’ve been aware of how much information women in the 17th through later 18th century had of what was useful in medical science as well as plants and vegetables. They were responsible for putting food on the table. (Shteir does not make that kind of point).

Letitia Bushe, Mary Delany’s first Irish love, a drawing (1731) in the et Arcadia Ego situation: I too (Death) am here in this idyllic place.

Moore opens by going through lesbian genres, lesbian type arts hitherto not recognized as lesbian specifically. Sister Arts is filled with color plates and drawings — all by women, often flowers and still lifes. Moore wants to show us a kind of taste or aesthetic crossing across countries and time too, and claims should be part of the lesbian matter we will attached to Virginia Woolf. I’m not sure Moore is not simply identifying l’ecriture-femme (the best book is still Beatrice Didier’s) . One source of botanical knowledge was a book by Rousseau: Lettres elementaires sur la botanique (1771-73). The readers and comments in letters on botanical knowledge include the French Swiss (the Constants) and English so-called bluestockings whose lifestyle again exemplifies Emma Donoghue’s findings.

But I wonder.  Charlotte Smith who lived an anguished life of much hardship turned to botany for solace. Her Rural Walks were not meant just for children, but contained available sound scientific women’s delights.  As “To the Goddess of Botany,” tells you, she was also escaping a hard life and resulting depression (she had a violent abusive husband, many children to bring up and place and was cheated out of a legacy for them).

To the Goddess of Botany

Of Folly weary, shrinking from the view
of Violence and Fraud, allow’d to take
All peace from humble life; I would forsake
Their haunts forever, and, sweet Nymph! with you
Find shelter; where my tired, and tear-swoln eyes
Among your silent shades of soothing hue,
Your “bells and florets of unnumber’d dyes”
Might rest — And learn the bright varieties
That from your lovely hands are fed with dew;
And every veined leaf, that trembling sighs
In mead or woodland; or in wilds remote,
&;Or lurk with mosses in the humid caves,
Mantle the cliffs, on dimpling rivers float,
Or stream from coral rocks beneath the Ocean’s

Charlotte Smith, Elegiac Sonnets, 1797

In an exhibit of the art of Mickalene Thomas I saw recently at the Brooklyn Museum of life the accent was on how she also turned a life of hardship and abuse into beautiful art:

Mickalene Thomas

It may be because the general culture at large either ignores women-centered writing and its characteristics or downright despises it. Or is there some other motive here? some other tabooed type of woman?


Now three days ago I queried Austen-l on the uses of the term spinster:

In a hispanic film adaptation of S&S, From Prada to Nada, Mary (Marianne) arrives home the morning after the central party of the film. Mary has gone to bed with Roderigo-Willoughby; she says she wants to marry Roderigo for his money, class, all he can give her of freedom from having to work for a livingt. Nora (Elinor) says “that makes you a whore.” To which Mary replies, “that’s better than being a spinster.”

Hot quarrelling

Now I know the word “whore” is nowadays a slang word for slut, promiscuous. It’s not used in its more accurate sense of prostitute receiving money for sex. But I find the use of “spinster” as an opposite fate to selling oneself to a man odd. I asked on Austen-l, Janeites and Women writers through the ages whether spinster was still in common use and if this use struck them as unexpected.

After 3 days & nights one person had responded by referring to an essay on spinsters as represented in films and dictionary definitions of the term: the term is not just to refer to a woman who “spins” – it was until the turn of the century [1900] a legal term meaning an unmarried or single woman – it is used in legal proceedings as a title, or addition to the surname; as it was / is? in the Book of Common Prayer.

Well I knew that. So I asked her: “Do you use the word spinster?” No reply.

I had thought the term “spinster” had gone out and was to be found only in older texts or historical fiction or history. “Jane Austen would have been called a spinster.”  In Ross Poldark we are told that “Verity Poldark was on her way to be a spinster.” When I was young I did want to grow up, get married, have children; around age 9 I dreamt of a wedding, and husband (never very distinct image) and 3 children. But the state to be dreaded was “old maid,” the word in use was “old maid.” I used the term “old maid.” I used to show in my undergraduate classes a powerfully great movie, Wit, about a woman who is a professor in her later 40s diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. It was a shock to me the first time the students wrote about it, how many of them held against her that she had never been married. I cannot remember if they used the word spinster but a whole host of negative terms for her as cold, dried up, isolated (that’s a negative one) were trotted forth.

It seems that people think with the word “spinster,” but do not voice it aloud. Is it such a horrifyingly unacceptable state for a woman. The implication is not bachelor girl but someone who remains a virgin. I think an ambivalent attitude towards the real Jane Austen as we find her in her letters and fiction derives from having been a virgin, especially the refusal among other things to see that she’s basically asocial outside her family — much of the false way of presenting her comes from hiding from, compensating for her spinsterhood.

Cassandra (Gretta Scacchi) discouraging Jane (Olivia Williams) from going through with her promise to marry Bigg-Wither (MAR)

In both Becoming Jane and Miss Austen Regrets Jane Austen is presented as depressed for much of her life because 1) she never married, and/or 2) everyone is nagging her to marry. Miss Austen Regrets has her trying to tell people she didn’t want to marry but they refuse to believe her, and the final scene implicitly suggested she and Cassandra had an inactive lesbian relationship. In the film’s opening scene we saw that Cassandra convinced her not to marry Bigg-Wither and now in the closing one Cassandra is drenched in remorse and asks for forgiveness.

Women alone in modern movies are often semi-promiscuous (aggressive detective type)s. When Helen Mirren is Jane Tennison, her state of mind remains opaque. Such programs are said to be transgressive. A few hours did do much to convey what’s it’s like to live as a single woman having a career, and much of the time we were to see that Helen was not personally happy though she was professionally fulfilled. She was useful to other women and the vulnerable and powerless.

Season 3, Part 4, morning: Edith (Laura Carmichael) getting up early for breakfast (nothing to keep her in bed) now wants a profession

To invoke Downton Abbey the coarse (insensitive, unsubtle, prejudiced) way of understanding the humiliation of Edith for trying to marry Sir Anthony Strallon was she was so despicable as openly to chase him rather than be a “spinster”. I believe one of the characters throws the word of her. She’ll be a spinster. So Lady Edith (Downton Abbey) brings us back to Nora’s insult of Mary (From Prada to Nada), both women’s films. The African Queen with Katherine Hepburn is the only movie I can think of that tries to defy the stereotype – there the heroine was framed as eccentric.

On commercial popular TV, the program “Girls” seems to me not to have made much progress. (See Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker article, Barbaric Hannah.) Why? well for a start all these girls are into sex, and supposedly realistic sex at that. Like many a women’s film the sex in Girls is not idealized. I did watch 3 episodes of the first season myself and went from feeling liberated by what I was seeing to feeling it was a one joke or one paradigm scenario. Girl rises above humiliation, puts her clothes on, and walks away, only to return the next day. Does this show really put an end to the demand that women marry, have sex with men and babies? No. it does show an alternative lifestyle going on for a small group of upper class white women living in Manhattan for the time of their later 20s. These are precisely the terms of Sex and the City. And fashion, however differently presented, is central to both, the women costuming themselves.

Lena Dunham and her “girls:” Illustration by Michael Carson. Do not they look like they are waiting to be taken by a man?


My two topics come together in the strong prejudice against, refusal to recognize lesbians and continued hostility to unmarried women and women who haven’t had any children. The sources of the stigmatizing, ostracizing are the same. Women’s central function is to provide sex and children for men. ? Paradoxically if you try to write a book on women living independently and with other women and show their power relationships from the aspect of power but not sex you are misunderstood: that’s what happened to Betty Rizzo’s Companions without Vows — many of whose subjects were women who were unmarried at the time of their jobs as companions.


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