Archive for January 9th, 2016

HoratioMcCullough (Large)
Horatio McCullough, Glencoe (mid-19th century)

– “as woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” – Woolf, Three Guineas

Dear friends and readers,

For the past two weeks I’ve been re-reading Charlotte Smith’s poetry, her novel powerful poetic Marchmont (still no modern separate edition), skimming and rereading parts of her other books, and much criticism and scholarship on her. I finally started Stanton’s edition of her letters (a monument). I had seen on the Romantic listserv (NASSR-L) a Call for Papers for “Charlotte Smith and Place,” for a coming conference at Chawton House Library next Fall 2016. This is to be the year of the Charlottes as a second conference on Charlotte Bronte is to be held in May 2016. I duly wrote the editor and publisher of Valancourt Press and was told that my edition of Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake will be published during the coming year, it was hoped in later spring into summer 2016! He suggested it might be a good idea for me to go to said conference. I have longed to visit Chawton House Library for years.

So I set about finding a topic that fit the conference trajectory – and Ethelinde. I soon found myself returning to the perspective I found to be true this past fall: because of her life experiences as a woman, coming out of that experience like Anne Grant and Anne Home Hunter and a number of women writers, especially Scots, Smith anticipates the post-colonial perspective of our era. At first because I misremembered Ethelinde‘s most famous rural places as in Scotland — they are in Cumbria (Grasmere in the Lake District) — I turned to Scottish literature (especially of the 18th century and Buchan’s book on Edniburgh), and of course remembered the same (minus Cumbria) holds true for her The Young Philosopher. Later I discovered a remarkable sequence in the Hebrides in Celestina. I then read a stimulating book by Carla Sassi, Why Scottish Literature Matters. I remembered Mary Brunton, Susan Ferrier, Margaret Oliphant, and fast forwarded to Alice Munro and Carol Ann Duffy. As I started to accumulate ideas and read Smith and writing on Smith, I began to see Smith as another woman who through writing about herself found analogies with other marginalized, displaced, subaltern people: only Smith goes global. Her novels have settings all over Great Britain, Western Europe, Italy and the British empire (East and West Indies, Jamaica, India, oceans border places around Africa).

I reread Stuart Curran’s essay, “The Altered I of Romanticism” where he goes into Smith’s theme of “rootless exile.” He suggests that whatever permanence she can feel is situated in external phenomena of nature, especially Sussex, but then we find her despairing, longing to be washed away, to dissolved as she feels a disembodied sensibility at mercy of alien society and universe, with no way out. In The Emigrants she is creating an identity for herself by absorbing the loss of the exiles; she gives figures like herself in Beachy Head mythic status. Women have alienated sensibility and quotidian details, says Curran and reprinted Jane Taylor’s remarkable poem about a poor working man keeping his soul with a book (reminding me of Dickens’s “The Signalman” who also studies mathematics in his solitary station house, and is half-mad)

Down a close street, whose darksome shops display
Old clothes and iron on both sides the way;
Loathsome and wretched, whence the eye in pain,
Averted turns, nor seeks to view again;
Where lowest dregs of human nature dwell,
More loathsome than the rags and rust they sell; —
A pale mechanic rents an attic floor,
By many a shatter’d stair you gain the door:
‘Tis one poor room, whose blacken’d walls are hung
With dust that settled there when he was young.
The rusty grate two massy bricks displays
To fill the sides and make a frugal blaze.
The door unhing’d, the window patch’d and broke,
The panes obscur’d by half a century’s smoke:
There stands the bench at which his life is spent,
Worn, groov’d, and bor’d, and worm-devour’d, and bent,
Where daily, undisturb’d by foes or friends,
In one unvaried attitude he bends.
His tools, long practis’d, seem to understand
Scarce less their functions, than his own right hand.
With these he drives his craft with patient skill;
Year after year would find him at it still:
The noisy world around is changing all,
War follows peace, and kingdoms rise and fall;
France rages now, and Spain, and now the Turk;
Now victory sounds; — but there he sits at work!
A man might see him so, then bid adieu, —
Make a long voyage to China or Peru;
There traffic, settle, build; at length might come,
Alter’d, and old, and weather-beaten home,
And find him on the same square foot of floor
On which he left him twenty years before.
— The self same bench, and attitude, and stool,
The same quick movement of his cunning tool;
The very distance ‘twixt his knees and chin,
As though he had but stepp’d just out and in.

Such is his fate — and yet you might descry
A latent spark of meaning in his eye.
-That crowded shelf, beside his bench, contains
One old, worn, volume that employs his brains:
With algebraic lore its page is spread,
Where a and b contend with x and z:
Sold by some student from an Oxford hall,
— Bought by the pound upon a broker’s stall.
On this it is his sole delight to pore,
Early and late, when working time is o’er:
But oft he stops, bewilder’d and perplex’d,
At some hard problem in the learned text;
Pressing his hand upon his puzzled brain,
At what the dullest school-boy could explain.

From needful sleep the precious hour he saves,
To give his thirsty mind the stream it craves:
There, with his slender rush beside him plac’d,
He drinks the knowledge in with greedy haste.
At early morning, when the frosty air
Brightens Orion and the northern Bear,
His distant window mid the dusky row,
Holds a dim light to passenger below.
– -A light more dim is flashing on his mind,
That shows its darkness, and its views confin’d.

Had science shone around his early days,
How had his soul expanded in the blaze!
But penury bound him, and his mind in vain
Struggles and writhes beneath her iron chain.

— At length the taper fades, and distant cry
Of early sweep bespeaks the morning nigh;
Slowly it breaks,-and that rejoicing ray
That wakes the healthful country into day,
Tips the green hills, slants o’er the level plain,
Reddens the pool, and stream, and cottage pane,
And field, and garden, park, and stately hall,-
Now darts obliquely on his wretched wall.
He knows the wonted signal; shuts his book,
Slowly consigns it to its dusty nook;
Looks out awhile, with fixt and absent stare,
On crowded roofs, seen through the foggy air;
Stirs up the embers, takes his sickly draught,
Sighs at his fortunes, and resumes his craft.

— Jane Taylor (the only poem by her and her sister generally known is Twinkle, Twinkle …”; for her life, another poem and a source, click comments)

I read Adrian Craciun, “Empire without end, Charlotte Smith at the limits of cosmopolitanism,” where she makes much of, but does not quite over-read the Southern Italian setting of Montalbert and the Jamaican of Henrietta. The material is sexually transgressive material, e.g., Henrietta’s three half-sisters who are slaves have had incest inflicted on them. This intersects with its transnational context, itself what allows and encourages some of the action. We are in a hostile world openly opposed to biological ties, indifferent to them as biological-loving. Smith seeks out Calabria, as an unfamiliar borderland for an exploration of the limits of understanding. Smith had read a book on Vesuvius eruptions (2:171).

sunset_on_the_coast_near_naples-JWrightofDerby (Large)
Joseph Wright of Derby, Sunset on the Coast Near Naples (later 18th century)

I had read MacGavran on the real life poaching, smuggling, and pressed men everywhere in Sussex during Smith’s life time and found in The Old Manor House (where we find ourselves in the 7 years war as played out in North America).

But my topic was now getting out of hand; I returned to Cumbria and northern Scotland as places which offers the experience of periphery and center (Edinburgh) in Britain, which after all Smith only left briefly for northern France.

John Quinton Pringle, Muslin Street, Bridgeton, Glasgow (at the turn of the 19th into 20th century)

Carla Sassi sees Macpherson’s Ossian poems as “heterogeneity restructured according to hegemonic norms, with a text that resists belonging; Smith too appropriates and re-makes sympathetically or “reciprocally” (Sassi’s word). As with Australia where from later 19th century on most colonialists lived cities even though the mythic people were in the “bush,” so most Scots people lived in towns, many sophisticated lives, with lowland ties to England, and strong internal conflicts though the myths take us to the Highlands and Gaelic poetry and deep unity.

And I remembered Regulas Allen’s paper (“‘Rightly to spell of every herb hat sips the dew: Chaos and classification in the poetry of Charlotte Smith”) where she found the pervasive theme in Smith’s poetry is displacement, exile, a failure of boundaries, mourning over disorder, nothing can be securely in a place (ASECS Cleveland April 24, 2013). Hether Kerr on “Melancholy Botany: where she brings together literary subjectivity, and investments in local natural history; why some areas offer more possibilities than others, why some places invite someone to write as an Outsider looking at precarious conditions of living in non-proprietorial space which is itself connected to systematic injustice. On the edge of the river, the downs, on the cliffs, looking down, but also a border place, seen at night, subject to storms all around it is thievery and desperate behaviors. Here I thought of Smith’s life — systematic injustice doesn’t begin to be adequate.

I wrote a proposal for a talk to be centered on Ethelinde and The Young Philosopher. I’m going to analyse Ethelinde and The Young Philosopher as showing a post-colonial outlook and vision that emerges from Smith’s gendered experience of life. (You can trace the process most explicitly in her Romance of Real Life — I did not mention this in the proposal.) I will placed Smith’s novels among women’s texts (whose trajectory from personal into post-colonial is analogous), for now I have Anne Grant,  Adhaf Soueif. They mostly recur in the later 18th and then again the later 19th into 20th and 21st century. They differ from men’s post-colonial novels because the accent is so often on the personal and the heroine or protagonists so often end up in retreat. These are evasive texts and include the enigmatic Mansfield Park.

It was a satisfying happy two weeks because now I can look forward to returning to Oliphant’s The Ladies Lindores, a little known and strong three volume Scottish tragic novel (a coerced marriage, an abused heroine), which I never finished, and which I will look to see if it fits (8/4/2016: it didn’t) and see more post-colonial essays on books and texts. And maybe I’ll get to Chawton after all.

The Opening of Book II, The Emigrants

SCENE, on an Eminence on one of those Downs, which afford to the South a View of the Sea; to the North of the Weald of Sussex.

TIME, an Afternoon in April, 1793.
LONG wintry months are past; the Moon that now
Lights her pale crescent even at noon, has made
Four times her revolution; since with step,
Mournful and slow, along the wave-worn cliff,
Pensive I took my solitary way,
Lost in despondence, while contemplating
Not my own wayward destiny alone,
(Hard as it is, and difficult to bear!)
But in beholding the unhappy lot

Of the lorn Exiles; who, amid the storms
Of wild disastrous Anarchy, are thrown,
Like shipwreck’d sufferers, on England’s coast,
To see, perhaps, no more their native land,
Where Desolation riots: They, like me,
From fairer hopes and happier prospects driven,
Shrink from the future, and regret the past.
But on this Upland scene, while April comes,
With fragrant airs, to fan my throbbing breast,
Fain would I snatch an interval from Care,
That weighs my wearied spirit down to earth;
Courting, once more, the influence of Hope
(For “Hope” still waits upon the flowery prime)
As here I mark Spring’s humid hand unfold
The early leaves that fear capricious winds,
While, even on shelter’d banks, the timid flowers
Give, half reluctantly, their warmer hues
To mingle with the primroses’ pale stars.
No shade the leafless copses yet afford,
Nor hide the mossy labours of the Thrush,
That, startled, darts across the narrow path;
But quickly re-assur’d, resumes his task,
Or adds his louder notes to those that rise
From yonder tufted brake; where the white buds
Of the first thorn are mingled with the leaves
Of that which blossoms on the brow of May.

Helen Allingham: Near Beachy Head, women, children, Indian nurse at the turn of the 19th into 20th century — she painted worlds of women.


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