Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for June, 2016

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

JosephWright
Joseph Wright of Derby: Moonlight with a Lighthouse

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

First_Marshalsea_prison,_London,_18th_century
First Marshalsea prison: an 18th century print

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TurnerScottNovel
A scene from Scott drawn by Turner

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

Ensemble1798DressOverDressFischuEuropeanCottonSilk
In life Austen paid attention to what was worn (a 1798 ensemble overdress, fischu of European Cotton Silk) — something Lady Susan would certainly sell herself for

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

joannamaryboyceHeathgatherer
Joanna Boyce, Heathgatherer (1859)

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Holmbury Hill

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

georgepriceboyceblackpoplarspangbourne
George Boyce, Black Poplars at Pangbourne (1868)

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

MBWellsASibyl1860

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

EleanorFortescueBrickdale
1901

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

mariespartallistillman_loves_messenger1885
Love’s Messenger (1885).

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

***************************

Joanna-Mary-Boyce-7-December-1831-–-15-July-1861
Joanna Mary Boyce (possibly made from a death mask)

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

georgepriceboycetomb
George Boyce, Tomb of Mastino della Scala (1854)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joaanaboyceveneziana

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

****************************

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

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

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

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

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

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

joannamaryboyceelgivra

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

HelenAllinghamCowParsleyandBluebells
Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Cow Parsley and Bluebells

AH, hills beloved!—where once, a happy child,
Your beechen shades, “your turf, your flowers, among,”
I wove your bluebells into garlands wild,
And woke your echoes with my artless song.
Ah! hills beloved!—your turf, your flowers, remain;
But can they peace to this sad breast restore,
For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,
And teach a broken heart to throb no more?
And you, Aruna! in the vale below,
As to the sea your limpid waves you bear,
Can you one kind Lethean cup bestow,
To drink a long oblivion to my care?
Ah no!—when all, e’en hope’s last ray is gone,
There ’s no oblivion but in death alone!
— Smith, Sonnet to the South Downs

The galley slave may sing when he is unchained, but it would be uncommon equanimity which could induce him to do so when he is actually bound to his oar — Walter Scott on Charlotte Smith

Dear friends and readers,

Considering the condition of women in the 18th century, the way law rendered wives powerless, it is remarkable how few depictions of wife abuse survive; even fewer stress the consequences for children. When not blaming the wife, they are stilted, observe decorum, refuse to convey the distress of the woman:

wifeabuse

When I reviewed Mary Trouille’s remarkably thorough (and therefore important) Wife Abuse in Mid-Eighteenth-Century France for the Intelligencer, I discovered how few texts apart from court cases written up, give any idea of the nature and prevalence of wife abuse (which is emotional, mental and social as well as physical) literally over the centuries. This relatively graphic (yet caricatured) illustration to a text by Retif de la Bretonne may be accounted for because probably he or his daughter, Agnes wrote a rare candid account of the degrading treatment, including the sexual experience, in Ingenue Saxancour, ou La Femme Separee.

UnworthyHusband

Ingenue Saxancour is a painful book to read today because Agnes’s husband forced her to do disgusting things. I find it literally terrifying because the people around her seeing her having been beaten, hysterical, nonetheless insisted she return to this man, even tried to trick her into returning to him — as I discovered was Smith’s case many years after she has left her husband, Benjamin, when she was already crippled; it was insisted she come to Egremont’s house and there she found Smith with others where the aim was as to pressure her to accede to his wishes (or live with him again?). I had not realized the importance of Retif’s subtitle until I read Smith’s letters: The Separated Wife. In fact, Retif’s text is told from the wife’s point of view after Agnes separated herself from her husband, not just to justify herself, but to point out how her lack of access to any money controlled her behavior, kept her with him; the book is powerful argument on behalf of divorce and secure settlement (we’d call it alimony).

HeEvenSoldTheirBed
French caption underneath: He even sold their bed!

Smith’s case is precisely parallel; instead of framing her as an anticipation of the characters in Dickens’ Bleak House, we should frame her as a wife who separated herself from her husband, and who had no right or access to money (even money she earned) unless he would allow her to be given any or give money himself to her or their children (when they pleased him). That these two women separated themselves from abusive men is central to their later abjection. The society punished women hard who dared to do that.

**********************************

Smith
Charlotte Smith in the early 1990s

The story of Charlotte Smith’s immiseration, her writing to live (literally from hand to mouth in later years), and her abusive husband has been told by numerous Smith scholars and biographers. Having just read all 800+ pages of Judith Stanton’s heroic achievement, The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith (the letters were scattered in all sorts of places), I’ve realized that with a few honorable exceptions (e.g., Susan Wolfson, “Charlotte Smith: ‘To Live Only to Write & Write Only to Live,’ HUntington Library Quarterly, 70:4 [2007]:633-59; Antje Blank’s biography in the on-line Literary Encyclopedia, 23 June 2003), the emphasis on the source of her misery is mistakenly put on the 4 decade-long court case. It’s put that because her father-in-law drew up his will without legal advice, and attempted to bypass Benjamin, who was his oldest son, and leave the property to her children. Charlotte Smith, it’s implied was therefore unable to obtain enough money to live with minimal gentility and comfort, without constantly literally running out of money. She was subject to dunning and harassment, could not for lack of money educate her sons and place them in appropriate gentlemanly occupations or provide dowries for her daughters. The (understandable) literary focus of most essays is on what Smith’s ambivalent attitudes towards her desperate writing for monthly sums to live on (and especially the publication of novels and prose works) her circumstances does to the quality and content of her work.

When the biography is paid adequate attention to (and it’s central as she kept saying, much to the disapproval of her contemporaries), biographers and scholarly critics focus on rounds of cross-suing and new litigants, generational law, properties coming in the market, to be sold, and (Smith was right here) corrupt lawyers and officials withholding documents needed to secure and receive actual money. Or they tell the crux in terms that do not convey what is meant (Stuart Curran, Introduction, The Poems, xxi: “the principal function of women within [a male preserve] can only be to suffer the consequences over which they have no control”). The story is skewed to the point that at least two critics argue that Smith herself is blamed for persistently trying to get money due her French son-in-law after the death of her daughter: we are told this exacerbated the aristocratic lord, Egremont and those “on her side,” because the marriage was not approved of in the first place by anyone.

This is to highlight a twig in the presence of a towering tree.

The tree is Benjamin Smith. He could not have operated the way he did without supporting ground all around him: these are the laws and customs that made Smith utterly subject to his will. The law and custom (which accepted his behavior towards her) allowed him to refuse to sign to allow her to collect her jointure or the interest that accumulated, decreeing himself (in the first years) she could have 70£ a year and in the later years nothing regularly at all or at all. She had failed to obtain a legal separation from him when she left him in 1787 because she knew he would never sign a document to that effect. Like Agnes, and many other women in the 18th through 19th centuries, if she wanted to leave him, she had to do it without money. Over the years various interim settlements are proposed, where he is to get (a relatively large) sum and she much less, and sums allotted to the children, and he always refuses because it’s not large enough. He wants more. When Egremont and others at first acting on her behalf seem to be about to act despite his refusal to sign, he threatens to sue, and he has the law on his side and would probably win. Everyone seems to fear him and they all respect his right to sue, uphold it.

It is important to note that he continues to be welcome at Lord Egremont’s table as a congenial enough companion. Unfortunately only some of his letters are included in Stanton’s edition; the reader sees how he knew how to make himself plausible, and crucially all how those with power to help Smith are men (some agents distrustful of Smith as an underling, a subject person who they assume is extravagant), and they naturally uphold the laws and customs and gradually grow irritated at her pro-active ceaseless attempts to (as she saw this) obtain justice, equity, and respect as well as money she could count on regularly. They refuse to justify themselves when they concede large sums to him, and won’t even let her access the interest on her children’s legacies for her or them. They think they don’t need to. The patron who she was so grateful to during the time of her writing The Old Manor House, William Hayley, wrote a treatise called “the old maid” which sufficiently delineates misogynistic attitudes that make his later rejection in character.

Charlotte Smith’s life was continually a ruin or near ruin because she had married an abusive man and left him and with the consent of the society around them he maintained full power over her and her money.

It’s true the bulk or early part of her letters manifests this emphasis on legal minutiae (especially to Egremont’s agents) because not until much later when she grows ill, more impoverished, desperate, does she begin to talk openly to these men (seemingly to the reader uselessly and obsessively but understandably) of how her husband hates her, wishes her dead, and is trying to drive her to death. Only in the later letters to a woman friend, does this emphasis on the legalities fall away. After all she is not trying to persuade her friend to act legally on her behalf. To Sarah Rose, she describes (only briefly) scenes of violence when he came to her house and terrified her and made her fear for her life and those of her younger children. Even then she is embarrassed, only alluding to how one day she was breast-feeding one of the children with the others around her, and he was able to terrify them all because of what she was in the act of doing. She just suggests how he would and could break in, violently take her money away and destroy what he pleased. We don’t begin to know what she had experienced except through the poetry. Curran presents her poetry as starting the romantic movement and as strongly feminist; through the letters we see how autobiographical many are as well:

The Female Exile. Written at Brighthemlstone in November 1792.

November’S chill blast on the rough beach is howling,
The surge breaks afar, and then foams to the shore,
Dark clouds o’er the sea gather heavy and scowling,
And the white cliffs re-echo the wild wintry roar.

Beneath that chalk rock, a fair stranger reclining,
Has found on damp sea-weed a cold lonely seat;
Her eyes fill’d with tears, and her heart with repining,
She starts at the billows that burst at her feet.

There, day after day, with an anxious heart heaving,
She watches the waves where they mingle with air;
For the sail which, alas! all her fond hopes deceiving,
May bring only tidings to add to her care.

Loose stream to wild winds those fair flowing tresses,
Once woven with garlands of gay summer flowers;
Her dress unregarded, bespeaks her distresses,
And beauty is blighted by grief’s heavy hours.

Her innocent children, unconscious of sorrow,
To seek the gloss’d shell, or the crimson weed stray;
Amused with the present, they heed not to-morrow,
Nor think of the storm that is gathering to-day.

The gilt, fairy ship, with its ribbon sail spreading,
They launch on the salt pool the tide left behind;
Ah! victims–for whom their sad mother is dreading
The multiplied miseries that wait on mankind!

To fair fortune born, she beholds them with anguish,
Now wanderers with her on a once hostile soil,
Perhaps doom’d for life in chill penury to languish,
Or abject dependence, or soul-crushing toil.

But the sea-boat, her hopes and her terrors renewing,
O’er the dim grey horizon now faintly appears;
She flies to the quay, dreading tidings of ruin,
All breathless with haste, half expiring with fears.

Poor mourner!–I would that my fortune had left me
The means to alleviate the woes I deplore;
But like thine my hard fate has of affluence bereft me,
I can warm the cold heart of the wretched no more!

She is hindered from stating her own case by the same deep custom and shame that prevents women today from telling. Unhappily that shame is not yet gone from our society and is part of the reason scholars are reluctant to pinpoint and discuss how the realities of male abuse were responsible for what happened to Smith and her children. Nonetheless, she offers enough to persuade that he behaves the way he does (refuses to sign, refuses to let her have any money but the most minimal) because he wants to punish her hard and see her die. She attributes his reasoning to his preference for his second common-law wife, menage a trois with the wife’s daughter, and that daughter’s (?) baby. She says he tells her she is in the way.

Underneath a scarcely controlled patina of politeness he manifests a continual seething tone towards her. What he hates is how she has exposed him in public, or, as he puts it, humiliates him. He hates her for telling what he does and what he is. He wouldn’t mind in the least doing what he has, but he loathes anyone knowing. He refers to how she portrays him in her profligate money-squandering violent and arrogant heroes. He was not alone in deeply resenting this exposure: beyond those lawyers she was alluding to, fellow writers castigated (Anna Steward) or distanced themselves. Mary Hays was a rare open supporter. It brings to mind this later 17th century painful picture:

17thcenturybatteredwoman
I found it linked to an on-line site about battered women

It was and is so much more convenient for everyone if the hurting person will stay silent. He also detests her for her high intelligence, reading of books (he sneers at her poetry and at her teaching her children to value poetry) and above all her assuming her rank is higher than his. He loves to sneer at her brother and all her childhood memories of a gentry upbringing (Stanton, pp 325-326n2).

In general his character as it emerges from this book fits that of other abusers. She sometimes looks at him as deranged and so describes him. That causes people to doubt her because when they read his letters we meet a normal man. The experience of abuse from the woman’s point of view is to be yoked to an egoistic, ruthless sociopath. But it is a mistake to take such man as crazy.  Such people are not. They are rational people, knowing what power they are given and what they are allowed to do and take advantage, most of the time hiding what they know others will fear and or abhor them for.

Part of why Benjamin specifically hated Charlotte may make some sympathize with him — her snobbery and unbreakable (in the end she is not broken) self-esteem from her rank, her intelligence and her understanding she has achieved literary greatness in her poetry. She is as proud as the often maligned Clarissa Harlowe (a fictional character but a good example of what can be resented in women). She roused in him all his latent injuries of class — as Richardson’s Clarissa rouses in Lovelace his latent insecurities. In a society where status and gentry manners and education mattered he was left out, nouveau, relatively uncouth. By the time we meet her she does despise his whole idle self-indulgent way of life. (I would too.) She cares for her novels and their reputation. He knows this. She is concerned to make sure there are no errors, and they are packaged highly respectably. He suffers too, he is in debt and desperate for money himself, a much more primal affair and he died ill in a debtor’s prison. she lives in fear of bailiff’s and before, during and after the time she is literally homeless, she fears she will be arrested.

When I think of what her life could have been, much that is marvelous in the novels, eloquent passages of enlightened thought, e.g, real description of what prison was like (in Marchmont, where she also quotes Madame Roland’s Memoir), of what he caused her life to be like, the disproportion of punishment is stunning. She made a mistake when she was too young to realize she should have refused a marriage to a young man she didn’t know at all. At first she was extravagant with him. She says it did not take long for her to wake up to her desolation and frustration — and fate of submission and endless pregnancy living in a tradesman’s milieu. She had done nothing wrong. She followed her society’s demands when she allowed him continual access to her body as long as she lived with him. The money she made on her great poetry was used by him after she negotiated to free him from prison (thus incurring more debts). She obeyed him by following him to France where he took a mistress, and where she almost died giving birth because (as we’d put it) the medical services in rural France were bad. The only way she could free her mind, and herself from physical abuse and emotional exploitation, was to get out. He let her out but not with any means to live, indeed with a determination to get back at her for leaving him publicly.

His male pride before his society is central. Had he let her out, and allowed her her jointure, and left her alone, she would have walked away. But she might not have written the offending novels and many prefaces.

**********************************

halehall18thcenturyOldManorHouse
18th century print illustration: an old manor house

We are overlooking an important book that belongs to the history of wife abuse and how laws and customs were set up to deprive women of any independence, any control over or real means to protect their body. Wolfson remarks that Stanton’s edition, especially with its subtitled chapter headings,

1765-83: The Horrors of the Abyss
1784-90: To Live Only to Write & Write only to Live
1791-92: Hope Long Delay’d
1793: A New Course of Suffering
1794: A State of Anxiety
1795: Overwhelmed With Sorrow
1796: A Wanderer Upon Earth
1797: A Necessitous Author
1798-1800: Lord Egremonts Extraordinary Kindness [ironic]
1801: Domestic Miseries
1802: Perry Duns & Continual Want
1803: An Houseless Beggar
1804: The Best of the Bunch [ironic]
1805-1806: A Prison & A Grave
Epilogue: Nothing But the Wind

constitutes a fifteenth volume, another central story in the complete edition of Smith’s works published by Pickering and Chatto. But it is not fiction. Not even gothic — for there is nothing supernatural here. Nothing unexpected if you know anything about life. What is unusual is the candour with which she details what happens to her. As a biographer in principle Samuel Johnson should have approved.

I grant that if one wanted to make a popular book out of her letters, it would be a hard sell. Smith’s continual need of money and her fight to obtain it is repetitive (as eating and paying the rent and laundry, and getting coals in for heat, and keeping your furniture in good condition and from creditors is repetitive). During the early part of the book when she is still writing novels, she is endlessly using her booksellers as a kind of bank, drawing money from them before she is due the sums. Her tones are most often weary, indignant, exasperated, half-controlled as she endlessly re-reasons her case, attempts to negotiate with booksellers she knows are making a good profit on her books and sometimes pretending not to. She becomes bitter, she recriminates, she repeats Benjamin Smith’s and Egremont’s insults (“a diabolical liar,” Smith said); she is tenacious over the same details; and finally she turns vehement. She and her husband fight over their children: he spitefully seems to favor the youngest daughter and it grates on her when they resemble him or when they seem to side with him (especially after he has refused to help them or her with access to money). There is tedium, but on the whole this book is letters is the most devastating, fascinating and at moments deeply compelling book I’ve read in a long time.

Charlotte Smith’s is a tragic story of an admirable woman who achieved much against all odds, but at the price of comfort and joys she yearns for: the story of a woman whose heart was broken but instead of going to pieces, she holds on to try for what life she can for herself and her children. If not urbanely gallant, she is eager to reach people. Perhaps most poignant is that she never meets face-to-face the few people who befriend her in her later years. The death of Henrietta O’Neill, deeply compatible, whom she did see in physical space, was a great loss to her.

From the elegy Smith wrote:

Like the poor ghost the night I seek;
Its hollow winds repeat my sighs;
The cold dews mingle on my cheek
With tears that wander from mine eyes …

While each sad month, as slow it past,
Brought some new sorrow to deplore;
Some grief more poignant than the last,
But thou canst calm those griefs no more ….

Wit, that no sufferigns could impair,
Was thine, and thine those mental powers
Of force to chase the fiends that tear
From Fancy’s hands her budding flowers.

O’er what, my angel friend, thou wert,
Dejected Memory loves to mourn;
Regretting still that tender heart,
Now withering in a distant urn ….
— written September 1794, about a year after her friend’s death

Sarah Rose’s reluctance to visit is attributed to how Smith’s having left her husband is regarded as scandalous. Some live far away: the Rev Joseph Cooper Walker, an Irish antiquarian. Others have busy lives and not much money or time to travel to her: she writes Mary Hays when Hays writes for permission to tell Smith’s biography and uses the opportunity to ask Hays to tell Eliza Fenwick (author of Secresy) she admires her books.

It’s hard to say what is the most affecting incident. There are so many in life. Smith saw as her greatest loss the death of her beloved deeply congenial daughter, Anna Augusta (from a combination of consumption, pregnancy, and hardship), but she is as distressed over the death of her son, Charles, basically from the bad state of health he was in after he had to have a leg amputated from battle. Charles’s death was astonishingly (to us) compounded because creditors seemed to have succeed in preventing his body from being buried for a time. She writes of the military profession open to her sons: “I have had enough & too much of the trade of blood” (Stanton 649); looks at war as a series of irrational horrors, and is aware that her sons are making money when they go out to the empire by preying on other people more helpless than they. Thus she found herself in conflict with her oldest son, William, who was willing to compromise much more and insisted on taking Harriet, her youngest daughter back to India with him to the marriage market there. In the event, she became very ill, and was sent back to cost Smith much agony and money keeping her alive. William had been sending £100 at regular intervals. He stopped all payments and left her destitute. She had wanted to send her sons to university. It kills her to see her daughter Lucy, repeating aspects of her own experience in an ill-advised marriage, three children and poverty, violence from her husband before she is widowed, and then dependency. It is probable (and fortunate) that the death of George, her youngest son occurred so close to her own, that she died not knowing he had predeceased her.

It also killed her to have to sell her library. Letter after letter has her considering to sell her cherished 1000 volumes of French and English books; when after long holding out, she does, she gets very little. She says her one resource that makes her life individually worth living is gone since she lives where she can meet no people like herself (thinking literary people). She misses conversation. She has no money for coals, little for food (she mentions her loyal servants’ suffering), and writes on against the pain of rheumatism in her hands and because (as she says in the character of Marchmont in one of her books), when one writes “out of duty” on serious matters, it elevates the spirits, takes one out of oneself to another realm. She did not write just for money, or even recognition.

Elegiac-Sonnets-and-Other-Poems
Her poems are available read aloud by ordinary people (Librivox) for free

Her achievements, pleasures, what she took pride in. To return to her children. More than a few times, she admits they are a burden to her, one she longs to divest herself of. She could live much more cheaply, spend her time as she might wish (reading, writing). She dreams of a cottage in Switzerland on her own (if she could get her hands on her jointure). But they are also everything to her, her life’s blood goes into them. She would have and does in her letters regard her sons Nicholas Hankey and Lionel (her second and third son to have survived childhood) with strong pride in their successes and attitudes towards their function in dire post-colonial environments. In her last years they sends her regular remittances as William once did. Lionel rose to high office in the West Indies but continued to find tyranny abhorrent, executed an emancipation of slaves against great opposition. He had a long useful career and died at age 65. Nicholaa’s career in India ended in 1813 when he was dismissed for using armed forces against native Indians; he achieved high excellence in Persian, participated in treaty arrangements and was known for his “hospitality and humanity.” The reader watches the few social and real life pleasures of Charlotte’s last years come out of Nicholas’s relationship with a native woman: she took care of three of his children, and took especial delight in a grand-daughter, Lucenza, for whose education (it’s no exaggeration to say) she wrote her Conversations, Introducing Poetry … for the use of children and young persons (1804).

Although not emphasized in the letters, she had a close good relationship with her oldest daughter, Charlotte Mary, who was her amanuensis, remained single and wanted to write her mother’s life; Charlotte lived apart on the interest she received; she was probably saving her mother money and protecting her private space. She never married. Smith writes of Charlotte’s interests, Charlotte’s life, how she is being cheated of opportunities and daily comforts because money rightfully hers (as Smith sees this) is withheld. Her relationship with her sister, Catherine Dorset is problematic: Catherine was conventional; there was tough litigation between Catherine’s husband and Smith over the legacy; only towards the end of the letters when Smith is mortally ill (she cannot walk for the pain of her uterine cancer) does the love and faithful support of the one sister for the other become somewhat apparent. Early on Smith has the friendship of Georgiana Spenser, Duchess of Devonshire to count on; the Duchess acts practically on her behalf, but the duchess has her own problems and her health gave out before Smith’s did.

Smith should not be taken at her literal word when it comes to her novels. She cares intensely about her novels as a group and mentions them individually now and again. At least twice years after its publication, she asks if a second edition of Ethelinde is called for. She puts some heart’s blood into its story of a deeply unhappy marriage, sympathy with a husband who longs to commit adultery. She needs her library or access to someone else’s to write them. She speaks in Marchmont of the repressive measures instituted by Pitt’s reign of “alarmists” against “seditious novels” and is aware of how phrases in such are closely monitored to see (as one might today say) de-stabilize the people in an area. In 1802 she can still say she is “never so well pleased as when I have a good deal of [literary] work to do” and her “greatest vexation” is her family affairs draw off her attention. She laughs at herself for thinking her library might be valued because it was hers, but she does not give up the thought.

Her letters in her very last year or so, especially the few months left her of life after Benjamin Smith’s death, become more relaxed. There is also a sense of relief around the time he was put in prison for the second and last time. This suggests to me she continued to live in fear of him (that’s why she didn’t want to meet him and it was cruel to make her) as well as in effect subject to his will. She indulges in literary gossip and begins to send commentary on the latest work of the Lees to Sarah. She feels better because her circumstances are becoming easier because of her own efforts too. After she finally accepts that Cadell and Davies do not want her work, and Low has died, she takes up with John Johnson. Johnson emerges as that blessing, a generous and respectful publisher. She begins to be embarrassed about his advances. Her dismay when she discovers he is not a letter-writer is comical; why is he delaying a publication? He sends money, but why oh why doesn’t he write back? He is stingy with words. Not that she’s not still at it with Egremont: from her bed-couch and in pain her last letter is to him in the third person formal demanding this and that (lots of underlining) to secure for her most vulnerable children what is left. She is still trying to help Harriet to marry a man Harriet is attached to and whom Smith thinks will make her a good husband. She was working on a volume of poetry (left in Johnson’s hands) that included Beachy Head when her letters cease.

An early worshipper at Nature’s shrine,
I loved her rudest scenes-warrens, and heaths,
And yellow commons, and birch-shaded hollows,
And hedge rows, bordering unfrequented lanes
Bowered with wild roses, and the clasping woodbine,
Where purple tassels of the tangling vetch
With bittersweet, and bryony inweave,
And the dew fills the silver bindweed’s cups-
I loved to trace the brooks whose humid banks
Nourish the harebell, and the freckled pagil;
And stroll among o’ershadowing woods of beech,
Lending in Summer from the heats of noon
A whispering shade; while haply there reclines
Some pensive lover of uncultured flowers,
Who, from the tumps with bright green mosses clad,
Plucks the wood sorrel with its light thin leaves,
Heart-shaped, and triply-folded, and its root
Creeping like beaded coral; or who there
Gathers, the copse’s pride, anemones,
With rays like golden studs on ivory laid
Most delicate: but touched with purple clouds,
Fit crown for April’s fair but changeful brow.
— Smith, from Beachy Head

She was more than remarkable.

Smith left an important and extensive oeuvre. It’s hard to say which is her finest novel. The one most in print has been The Old Manor House.

manor_house_illustration
A modern illustration

The opening of Old Manor House comes closest in tone to Austen — more opening sardonic. Its third book contains an long section dramatizing the 1750s colonialist war between France and England as fought in the America – she has a number of such sequences presenting the horrors and irrationalities of war.

Perhaps The Old Manor House is favored because it’s more shapely, feels more planned than the others; I feel Desmond is favored for the same reason. Smith’s novels more often meander and her emotions and thoughts pour out more and more frankly as the novels proceed. The reader has to let go with her, and I find I like them best when I don’t apply novelistic conventional criteria to them, but look at them as compendiums of life-writing, poetry, and political radicalism. Her letters give the reader insight into the background of these texts: literary, legal, social, economic and colonialist society, local town and rural culture from Smith’s woman-centered vantage point. Her family members seem to have tried to thrive by litigating with one another. In her frank presentation of family relationships her letters explain why her second fiction is a translation and abridgement of a set of law cases (The Romance of Real Life) where vulnerable individuals, and especially women, becomes victim of norms which develop everyone’s most hostile impulses. Candour and tenacity, truth-telling is their hall mark and strength, and the core truth is that the physical aspects of wife abuse, or, as the modern phrase is, domestic violence, horrible as that can be, is but one part of a pervasive harm acceptance and indifference allows. This blog can be regarded as an argument for an affordable publication of a selection of Smith’s letters.

beachy-head
A photograph of Beachy Head taken by a friend this summer

Ellen.

Read Full Post »