Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for July, 2019


Latest version of Little Women opens with  a deeply intimate-feeling scene of adolescent girls in their bedroom privacy trimming and curling the long hair of one of them (2017 BBC, scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswell)


A version of this iconic scene, the four girls circled around the mother reading aloud the letter from the father away in the army Christmas time, is what usually opens the movie (this from the first 1931 George Cukor film)

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men) by mature women too …

Friends and readers,

It’s no wonder I feel as if I’ve been reading a good deal of Anne Boyd Rioux lately: I have! I did not mean to read her study of four 19th century American women novelists together with her study of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (by which throughout this blog I also mean Good Wives), but I ended doing so when TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io decided to read this book. I didn’t mind; Meg Jo Beth Amy seemed an extension, a particular case in point of the lines of thought of Writing for Immortality.


This is the outside of the edition of the book with just these illustrations that I read and gazed upon for hours at age 10-11

While the book is presented as another of a recent favored genre, the biography-of-a-book as autobiography of this author (remember Michael Gorra’s masterpiece study of James and The Portrait of a Lady; think Rebecca Mead on Eliot and Middlemarch), it is more a defense of the book, something neither Gorra or Mead could possibly find necessary. Rioux argues for the depth, maturity of understanding conveyed, and original creativity in Alcott’s Little Women, and for including it in the curriculum of junior high school good books for both boys and girls, and in women’s studies in college. Beyond telling how the book emerged from Louisa May Alcott as an individual and in the context of her life and era, of its extensive and profound influence on countless people, about the stage, film and post-text legacy, and offering an array of interconnected readings, and of course retelling her own and her daughter’s experiences with this book, Rioux goes about to seek and finds very rare even today another or other books dramatizing and exploring problems experienced by adolescent girls and young women. If it were that a woman’s powerful book of genius could receive the kind of serious on-going attention and respect that such books by men regularly do, it would be recognized that Little Women changed the expectations we come to great children and young adult literature with.

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men). One of her chapters (longish, the fifth) is simply a recounting of many famous people’s (mostly women’s) praise and precious memories of reading (and nowadays), seeing, acting it out. I admit that by the time I got half-way through that I was relieved to be told Hilary Mantel “hated” it, Camilla Paglia saw it as “poison,” and Edith Wharton “avoided” it. I began to wonder how many people were just repeating cant. Surely there must be something wrong when there is such a uniform chorus of praise. But no she persuaded me her witnesses meant it.

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

The “prologue” where Rioux claims this is a book women share with their daughters just invites an autobiographical response so I’ll oblige again: yes Little Women is a book I shared with my daughters, and both read it. Laura went on to further Alcott and it turned out preferred Little Men mightily, identified with Dan (ever getting into trouble), but it was not given me by my mother as a book she cherished. She never read it, but gave it to me as an appropriate gift-looking book for an 11 year old girl; I went on to read Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, but began to balk at Rose in Bloom. Laura (at age 15) and I also shared Gone with the Wind, while Izzy took up Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion (before she was 13-14). I might as well get Rioux’s other assertion that comes up so quickly about Little Women (and she never quite leaves) over with: I never wanted to be tomboy or a boy; I was a reading girl. I also loved the romance of Prof Bhaer in New York City and when he comes to the March home to become Jo’s beloved partner, a tenderly loving older man seemed so perfect for her maturity. I did not want her to marry Laurie who seemed a boy in comparison, nor did I demand she remain unmarried since she did not seem happy up in her attic writing on alone.

The first part of the book (Chapter 1) offers a biography of Alcott in the context of portraits of her complex family members, their transcendental “high literary” milieu, and because of her father’s inability or refusal to conform to mainstream US norms to be able to make a living, hard poverty, strained physical existences, continuous work outside the home for all the daughters, but Lizzie (=Beth) who withdrew psychologically from what must have been an often silently traumatized scene and died young. As a group of readers, we hauled Bronson Alcott over the coals. Then Rioux recounts the extraordinary early and continual success (the “phenomenon”) of the book, the early editions, the re-printings, the way contemporaries talked of it, the two direct sequels (Little Men, Jo’s Boys), and the illustration history. This prompted several of us to describe the books we had read Little Women in and retell our favorite memories. Also what other children’s books we read: Elsie Dinsmore, What Katy Did. I talked of The Secret Garden and Nancy Drew.


Although of the elegant lady variety, Jessie Wilcox Smith’s pictures are felicitious


Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) and Jo (here Winona Ryder) have the iconic umbrella moment but I prefer this of them going over her story in the lodging house (1995 Miramax Little Women, directed by Gilliam Armstrong, scripted by Robin Swicord)

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


June Allyson as Jo has some very real moments (1949 Mervyn LeRoy, directs — this one includes the girls putting on a play)

The second part of the book, “The Life of a Classic” offers a long chapter (4) on the stage plays and films made from the book from the very first up to the most recent, as well as an opera and Broadway musicals. As someone who has seen many of the films I found her analyses (the text is not soppy memories but genuine film study) enjoyable and accurate. It moved me to know the first stage production began with the words “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” and the performance had to stop to allow the “fervent applause” to finish itself out. She rightly goes on at length about the 1931 film, since it has been so influential and is still watchable; at the same time she’s right to say Katherine Hepburn (who is so paid attention to by critics) postures too much, jars as exaggerated, and we never forget the actress in the role. It was spoofed by Jack Benney as “Miniature Women” or “Small Dames.” The 1949 MGM film (June Allyson as Jo) and the 1995 again rightly take up much space (both genuinely thoughtful productions making of the characters evolving role models for adolescent and young women). I want to put in a good word for the old 1970 many episode BBC serial drama: for all its embarrassment at itself, it is the only film to give time to the later part of the story, Jo’s (Angela Downs) hard experience as the daughter left caring for two parents


Meg (JO Rowbottom) and John Brooke (Marvin Jarvis) were credible as young lovers in the 1970 BBC serial

The filmic artistry of all the films could have been paid more attention to; Rioux is rather interested to discuss whether the films convey the living power and emotions of the book, and both films are problematic: the MGM film is so lavish, the images highly magazine-commercialized, and women’s ambitions given short shrift; Armstrong and Co were so afraid to be seen as feminist, that the film is oddly bookish and stilted, too idealizing, no struggle, no anger, no gender ambiguities, to me recently it felt like a pretty Christmas card.

Of all I’ve seen (and not because it is the most contemporary) I find the BBC 2017 the closest to the spirit and themes of the book, and admire specifically how the women director and writer put Marmee on the scene re-experiencing her daughters raw emotions (as a kind of reflexive framing), and I’ve never seen Beth so empathized with as she tries repeatedly to get herself to come into the Laurence’s house and play on the piano as invited to.. Maya Hawke is not a celebrity so she has not been made a fetish of in the ads but she is pitch perfect as a sort of tomboy, as a girl who wishes she had been born a boy, as someone ambitious for a life outside being sexually a woman. At the movie’s end, we fast forward to see her running her school with Prof Bhaer (Mark Stanley) the one playing with their children.


She is Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter — why and how she got the role — as well as good acting, here her face has a convincing hard edge of understanding as she grows older

But the meat or core of Meg Jo Beth Amy — why we should read this one by Rioux and Little Women by Alcott — is in the sixth chapter of this part and the seventh and eighth of the third. Most of the films end in a romantic arch that makes marriage the center of all three living daughters’ lives; when we look at the debates over its meaning and how it has functioned in American and English-speaking and European cultures, we find a very different story. Rioux covers in details how different critics across the 20th century and intelligent readers have discussed the book. It emerges as a deeply feminist (l’ecriture-femme) book which explains and defends young women’s natures, and goals in taking on those of life’s burdens suitable to them. One of the people in our group, Nancy Gluck, directed us to a blog she had written when reading Little Women with others as a feminist classic: A Feminist Book. There are conformist and feminist strands in the text, and Nancy distinguishes her terms carefully to emphasize what is liberating and valuable about this book:

“These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

To me the absolute hallmark of masculinist and (one step further) misogynistic literature is this presentation of women as “noble and good” or “entirely” (or almost entirely) “evil and dangerous.” It so bothers me when I have to listen to exegeses (or just do read) of Poldark where the women lambast Elizabeth as almost entirely malign, ill-meaning, awful, with Demelza as an ideal close to that of Meg, Jo and Amy wrapped into one.

Another member of our group, Judith Cheney, wrote: “I am convinced that the Alcott’s aspirations for her Little Women are ones that young women today might still find helpful guideposts in their growing up out of girlhood years.” This is the chapter where Rioux goes over modern post-texts for Little Women.

Rioux looks at how far feminist and in what ways. She wants to defend the boo from the same modern thoughtful feminist point view that she uses in her Writing for Immortality and against the same wall of indifference by respected critics: a book can be sold widely, paid attention to by enormous numbers of people, made money off of and still not achieve the kind of recognition of (however temporary the earth) immortality (to use her words in the other book). By end she is discussing recent scholarly editions by Elaine Showalter the Library of America which printed the “Jo” trilogy (so to speak) and arguing for regarding all three together, even if the other two are not as central, as Alcott’s masterpieces. I found myself drawn to the sharper criticism: by Patricia Meyer Spaces: it’s a “glorification of altruism” – this would hit at the above as too soft, not telling the hardness of life and the people we must deal with and the money we must have to live. See Jill May’s “Feminism and Children’s Literature: Fitting Little Women into the American Canon,” CEA, 56 (1994):19-27.


This one has her novel, Work, about a young woman who during the civil war works as nurse, seamstress, governess, actress and companion
Alas it lacks Hospital Sketches and perhaps her short masterpiece, “The Brothers,” sometimes titled “Contraband,” which appears to be no longer available for free as a pdf on-line (it was for years, but greed never ceases).

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

The first two chapters of Part 3 are rousing — one can get excited and even angry reading them. “A Private Book for Girls: Can Boys read Little Women?” is about the truth that Little Women will not be assigned in junior high to high schools, it is about how endlessly the books chosen in high school for all sexes is either by a man or focused on a boy, or, in the rare cases by a woman, she has a pseudonym, and they are mostly about boys — rare, Hunger Games, it’s about violent aggressive girl. Rioux mounts a convincing demonstration of at the core of this is an insistence on instilling macho male values (one parent catching a boy reading Little Women screamed, someone is making a “faggot” of his son), and refusing to acknowledge the interior life of women counts — and yes this all leads directly to rape culture. There is an attempt to keep LW private again, hidden — women belong in the home where nothing matters. She makes an attempt to show if permitted (not shamed or bullied of this) many boys will like and appreciate Little Women she describes individuals. They have to cope with seeing boys put in the marginal position in the book. A reasonable list of well known men loving Little Women follows — it includes Orwell, who I would not have expected to like LW. The opera composer, Adamo feels that LW is about “balancing our fear of vulnerability with our need for love.” That’s one theme but I doubt the central one.

“Being Someone (Chapter 8) treats Little Women as this educational “courtesy”‘ book (what they used to call these kind of book in the Renaissance). The situation and character types are made to do the work of situations and people analogous to girls’ situations as they are becoming mature. Not little girls, not fully grown (already married) women, but in-between, that time that books apparently still mostly avoid.


There’s been a TV movie and there is even a 25th anniversary Audio reading — on CDS, MP3s, downloads and you can find the audiocassettes too

But there is a problem with using Little Women this way — and it comes down to sex. None of the March girls is attacked sexually, harassed, none of them sexually shamed — I would maintain these are central experiences for all girls — probably then once they were allowed away from chaperons. Fanny Burney and various French women writers of the 18th century show incidents of harassment, mortification and rape.. Madame Roland shows how the aftermath can be as bad as the experience: her mother harrowed her with guilt and put her in a convent for a while and her sex life with a man never recovered: it took her years to marry.  Jenny Diski was raped at 14 and the way she describes this is just so usual. That does not mean she got over it or forgot. The experience shaped the way she behaved thereafter. I was raped at age 12-13 and can vouch for the experience shaping the rest of my life.

Rioux admits that sex is left out and “For girls, maturation has … always been closely tied to sexuality or the loss of purity or innocence.” Girls were preyed upon by masters, bosses, and yes (she omits this) family members. So how can Little Women be a central text? it can’t as despite dealing with other issues admirably (if too upbeat I’d say) it omits sex.

Rioux then deals with a second text whose popularity in the 1990s and continued sales power surprises her: Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. I read it for the first time in the 1990s and I cried. Had this book been written in the 1960s, given me to read, what a difference in my life it might have made. It is the first book I ever read which tells the truth about girls’ sexual experience in their teens. Rioux dislikes it because it shows girls to be victims. I’ve got news for her: they are. Rioux admits that ours is rape, misogynistic, stereotyping culture but not that Pipher does all she can — by telling the truth so we shall not be alone — about what happens to girls who complain and how they cope. Has Rioux never had such an experience? how about her daughters? her students, have they never written of this? Jo’s time in NYC cannot be a version of college or modern girl working because there is no sexual threat anytime anywhere in any way.

A side issue: I object to the idea in Beth we have an anorexic, or party an anorexic. First off, anorexia is not just a response to sex, to sexual maturation, it’s not just an avoidance though it is that. It is a response to a high pressure culture and family life. Why shouldn’t girls “want out,” as Hilary Mantel has written. Rioux does not know anything for real or fully about anorexia and she treats it and Beth as fundamentally very strange. Well in the book she is – because she is presented as super-religious and since Alcott dare not question that, she can’t make sense of Beth Apparently Louisa did not understand what was going on with Lizzie – it was more than a wasting disease like TB.

I suggest it might have been a hysterical response to living with a man (Bronson Alcott) who insists you drink water and eat bread, wear inadequate clothes, worship God all the time, and a mother who obeyed this nonsense. She was punishing herself because she was taught punishing was good – she needs to read books about the centrality of the family and what goes on in schools to the development of anorexia. I recommend to her and anyone coming to this blog Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Self-Starvation: from Individual to Family Therapy in the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa.  Very bad are the way sports are conducted: coaches humiliate, girls are mocked who are the least bit chubby and not competitive. To ask that this be forbidden is like asking a group American cultural norms to reverse themselves right now. And perhaps Lizzie was autistic – I’ve a hunch Bronson Alcott was – and suffered badly from misunderstanding.


Marmee (Emily Watson) watching over the daughter Beth (Annes Elwy) who cannot bear to go to school

I’d say if you gave a girl Little Women as an adequate educational treatise, you had better back it up by Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and tell for real what girls experience in adolescence. Rioux is not willing to do this. Is the fundamental conflict of a girls life “how to love and be loved without losing oneself? What ideal world did Rioux grow up in? Girls are pressured into making money, having a career and this presented as easy – Jo has no problem getting a flat, writing away – this is unreal. Add some Naomi Wolf on beauty and Promiscuities and don’t omit Anne Oakley on Subject Women (in colleges, offices). Rioux appears sheltered, an emotional conservative, and disingenuous: only once does she remark that Jo is a comfort to lesbian girls. And then she leaves the remark there. She’s not telling a crucial destructive truth that matters about adolescence and young womanhood for women today.

Her last chapter “Little Women and Girls’ Stories Today” (9) is weak again. We are in the area of popular wide readership and popular literature, and to me it’s no surprise (if a matter of regret) that the genre of serious domestic tale investigating real lives of girls has been replaced for most or many girls by fantasy tales, action adventure dystopias. Genre analysis of fantasy and science fiction as such shows that this is an optimistic genre where good people win out (however good is defined).  Hunger Games is so different from LW I cannot take seriously her allegoresis. Girls are also offered easy reading chick lit and mean girl books.

She then (in effect) forgets she has male readers (or has already forgotten) and moves to TV shows where she finds comparisons: I never saw The Gilmore Girls; after the second episode of Girls I tired of it– it was too much about how dismaying real sex is, and the startle and energy gotten by the expedient of suggesting fellatio and other practices dims quickly (for me at any rate). The girls needle each other towards the end of the series (HBO), and we see how (in Rioux’s own words at the opening of this last chapter) how maturation is seen as “walking the line between being sexy and being taken for a whore.” Until near the end the situations depend on ideas about how privileged girls are sheltered by parents.

Rioux seems to want books for girls growing up which teach companionate marriage and sisterhood as an ideal and “how to connect selflessly with another human being.” She wasn’t so keen on companionate marriage in Writing for Immortality. Maybe she is assuming most girls readers will not go on to be writers, but does that mean the self-sacrificing social life ideal that under-girds modern norms of motherhood are primary makers of a good life? Tertium non est?

Rioux also needs to read Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.. Traister argues mature women have always had long periods alone, not with a man, they just had no way to support themselves, no validation from the culture whatsoever (“redundant”! was the outcry when they came out of their closet in the mid-19th century) and thus live a life an individual person who happens to be a woman might want.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Friends,

This eloquent and persuasive study of four women writers’ work: — Elizabeth Stoddard, Louisa May Alcott, Constance Fennimore Woolson, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — is the fifth of several general books on women who spent long periods of time unmarried that I have been reading towards my project for a collection of essays in a book with the working title: Not an Anomaly. I recently produced an outline for myself, singling out the specific women I’d focus on over three chapters (widow, pariah, spinster). See At the Crossroads of this life (scroll down). One of my choices will be Constance Fennimore Woolson, (lesbian?) spinster about whom I’ve written here before: Hours of Good Reading: a 19th century woman of letters.


A drawing by Constance Fennimore Woolson

The unusual argument in the introduction (and throughout) is this: Just about all women who wrote about artists or women making money until the 20th century do not themselves say they are ambitious for power or fame (Stael is an exception), or they take their art seriously and want to be respected as artists: no, they are writing for money, they are writing because they have to, they have a family they must help support. Rioux argues that these four women by telling stories of women who aspired to make permanent remarkable works of art, genius, are breaking an important taboo and behaving in a radical way: affirming the value of a woman’s life for what she as an individual can create, for what she can experience as an individual and convey, for having gifts equal to or superior to men.

Rioux insists that it is important to understand this presentation of one’s book as primarily there as a great art, great vision and the real goal of the woman as creating great art (not for supporting herself) as radical and important in building esteem and validation for women as a group. We are so used to valuing things for the money, book history as turned into a branch of let’s study how capitalism, fame, and industry worked and the idea of writing as a vocation becomes something we scorn people for: what? they must be hypocrites and just say that because their books don’t sell. We are so corrupted to the folds of our minds — today unless a book wins a prize, becomes social capital for the writer, we doubt it can be any good. We see up a relationship between a book and money as the first and foremost measurement of value. So this is quite a radical book. Vocational behavior is what we find at the core of great writers and Rioux finds it among her subjects.

The book then divides into four long chapters: first, we learn how the four women when young discovered themselves to be artists, to have singular talents and conceived a desire to fulfill them in family contexts where it seemed this desire could be realized; we read how they expressed this. Aspiration towards high ideals and values is found in the works of these four women and those who encouraged them — Margaret Fuller comes in here. In the second chapter we see them experience adult and later mature life as what thwarts them, and presents obstacles they sometimes overcome but usually not wholly and sometimes not at all, and we read the stories of women artists they tell which narrate such experiences in particular ways. They are all to some extent crippled in their ambition or fame or even what they were able to achieve or write because of the demand they be conventional heterosexual and marry. One of them did: Stoddard and that stopped her producing any more than two good novels.


Elizabeth Stoddard — The Morgesons

Stoddard’s work combines the narrative style of the popular nineteenth-century male-centered bildungsroman with the conventions of women’s romantic fiction in this revolutionary exploration of the conflict between a woman’s instinct, passion, and will, and the social taboos, family allegiances, and traditional New England restraint that inhibit her. Her most studied work, The Morgesons is set in a small seaport town, and is the dramatic story of Cassandra Morgeson’s fight against social and religious norms in a quest for sexual, spiritual, and economic autonomy. An indomitable heroine, Cassandra not only achieves an equal and complete love with her husband and ownership of her family’s property, but also masters the skills and accomplishments expected of women. Counterpointed with the stultified lives of her aunt, mother, and sister, Cassandra’s success is a striking and radical affirmation of women’s power to shape their own destinies. Embodying the convergence of the melodrama and sexual undercurrents of gothic romance and Victorian social realism. But to read Rioux’s very inward account of Stoddard her writing shows intense doubts about herself and the value of what she wrote; Rioux says she stopped writing well before she had to, defeated as it were by her household duties -1866 when she died in 1902; a story she tells after she stopped writing, “Collected by a Valetudinarian” is about Alicia Raymond who keeps a diary, she is a woman of genius and finds herself isolated, lonely, finding no understanding; she refuses a suitor whom she says had the best of her, and slowly dies as her brother marries; her works are forgotten.

The others fought and produced and led a life they found satisfactory but to do so took tremendous energies which weakened them in other ways. I’d say this is even true of Alcott — fine as her achievement in children’s books is and here and there in adult fiction, it’s not what she could have done.

The second woman, Elizabeth Phelps (Ward) spent a good deal of her life unmarried but she finally did marry (a man 17 years younger than herself) and was prolific; in the wikipedia article we are told of 57 volumes, that she depicted women suceeding in non-traditional careers (physician, minister, artist) and like Frances Power Cobbe, wrote polemics against vivisection and on behalf of animal rights. But her novel, The Story of Avis (is about a woman whose talent is extinguished because she finds that supporting herself and her child and writing are by no means satisfying; she is said to have two inward natures, she feels it goes against women’s nature to become a great artist and her life leaves no room for it; she does have a daughter and the daughter it seems will have a career. In life Phelps had a mother Elizabeth Wooster Phelps, who wrote about the repressive lives of women; her career as a writer was cut short when she became a prominent minister’s wife; apparently the mother became ill, mentally and physically with this attempt to break out. The mother’s one short story, “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder”, illustrates the repressive burdens frustrating a wife’s creative ambitions and need to “cultivate her own mind and heart”. The story is notable as “one of the rare woman’s fictions of this time to recognize the phenomenon of domestic schizophrenia”, says literary critic Nina Baym. What her mothr is famous for is a book that sold widely, The Sunny Side; or, The Country Minister’s Wife. The novel sold 100,000 copies in its first year, eventually more than 500,000, and garnered international recognition. She died the next year and the daughter Phelps Ward said her mother died of this struggle.

The central enemies of promise are what allured women and did give them happiness: to marry and have children. So these are hard complex conflicts we read about.

In a third chapter Rioux goes over carefully stories they told as they imagined women artists creating art and their lives. In these stories we find women who do not married (and have children) are regarded as unfulfilled failures no matter what books they write. Her book is dismissed as irrelevant and besides the point of her existence – while it’s what the heroine wants to pour all her existence into. So the question becomes how can one combine the two sets of activities, two different roles. I thought of how Gaskell’s Life of Bronte is really an apology for the woman artist and that while Gaskell was determined to normalize Bronte and her family, and show Charlotte involving herself in what was considered suitable for women, she still presented Bronte’s father (and I think rightly) as domineering, her marriage as simply getting in the way, isolating her, and destroying Bronte in childbirth. Phelps by the way allowed herself “aspiration” but not ambition, saw deeper satisfaction in love relationships for women than writing. I also omitted how another escape route from the conflict of career and personal artistic fulfillment and what their life circumstances demanded and what everyone around them probably said was to choose a male narrator at the center. Emma Lazarus had male artist figures at the center of her fictions. Another ploy was to have a maternal narrator – a mother figure. I don’t mind the mother figure or stance but know I prefer the daughter one. I know I often find very frustrating (even angering) the choice of a male in the center. That’s why I’ve not read DuMaurier’s later novels. To me it seems a betrayal. Somehow using the disguise of a male in Wolf Hall made me accept Mantel’s use of the ploy — this earlier era (unless you have a time-traveling heroine, pro-active from the 20th century) precludes active heroines.


Louisa May Alcott

Alcott as we all know strove to be a “dutiful daughter” and that is the phrase used here — it’s echoed in Beauvoir. Alcott wrote a novel she never finished Diana and Persis, which mirrors what happened to her and her sister May. May went to live in Europe, helped to get there by Louisa, and then lived a satisfying life (like Amy, except as an artist) but Louisa had to return home. In the novel Persis (May) at first has this satisfying life as both mother and artist, but soon she stops painting because she has had a child, and in an outburst (like Romney) it emerges despite her husband’s encouragement of her and saying if a woman will have courage and strength she can both, he berates her over her choice of her child when the child almost dies. It is a wish fulfillment book in that Diana (Louisa) becomes a sculptor, falls in love sort of with another (male) sculptor, Stafford, finds how wonderful it is to have this support, and then the novel breaks off. Rioux discusses her Hospital Sketches and Moods too. Rioux’s own Meg Jo Beth Amy, a kind of biography of a book is the one to read here.

Of the four Rioux concentrates on Woolson is the woman most pessimistic about this combination: Woolson’s register intense grief — as in “Miss Grief.” Woolson derided woman’s books which were “pretty and pleasant’ (idealized) romances, and writes about writing a story about a woman artist, Mrs B, that she never wrote out but the idea is she seeks to compete with men; Woolson has a male writer who realizes he cannot compete with the “power of a woman’s gifts of the heart” and a woman artist who feels she lacks the culture, learning, intellect of a man — this seems to mirror her idea of herself and Henry James. Alas she is best know for her relationship with James; late in life she went to live in Europe and didn’t return to the US, and apparently (I do think this is the truth) killed herself. Did she jump out a window or fall? Rioux stays on the fence but I feel thought she did kill herself. Woolson appears to have been bisexual.


Constance Fennimore Woolston

Grief is also central to these women artists; they grieve that they cannot come up to what men are granted as having achieved; they feel only unhappy women take to writing, they cannot sustain the achievement and eventually they die, killed by neglect, by exhaustion, live lives of quiet desperation. A less common theme (in both Woolson and Stoddard) is the need for women to have a belief in their own powers. She feels that their poses (however grating) could and maybe should be see as them finding authorial identities with which they are comfortable. Many of their heroines (or enough) really do aspire to be great artists, and they manage in different ways to circumvent the impasse they are confronted with by their culture, and how pessimistic they are, we see that in fact they had much success and real careers

Alcott seems single minded in her avoidance of courtship for herself, and intense grief in her novels. She was not unwilling to write uplifting girls’ stories. Phelps and Alcott openly advocate the single life — George Eliot could get away with the best of all worlds (she avoided time-wasting visitors is how I’d see it) because she had Lewes as her businessman. (Not mentioned by Rioux but Margaret Oliphant was envious and found that having to cope with the business end of her profession and support herself and family decreased her time and ability to produce the masterpieces she actually yearned to create. In Rioux’s re-telling, Stoddard emerges as the most poignant figure, for after her serious masterpiece, The Morgesons, still in print, the pressure of marriage and childre made her give up writing.


Mary Cassatt — Lydia at the Tapestry Loom (1881)

It’s not a story of what was not achieved though but of eloquent poems and life-writing, of great books, fascinating heroines and their stories, moving life achievements which at first gain an audience and respect or now and again gain these as if for the first time, but finally are placed in unknown and isolated limbos of neglect and disparagement, or just not valued for real. It’s a story of heroic struggle, of almost making it or making it for a while and then being stifled. I enjoyed reading the summaries and analyses of their books; Rioux makes these come alive with issues that women today who aspired to writing as a career (or any career) will face. I found myself indignant at the way particular editors and male writers and critics put these women down, refused to acknowledge their value, made fun of them, heaped withering scorn and resentment on them, would never give them equal respect — from Howells, Hawthorne and James to lesser known men (but powerful at the time) and the treatment the men and family members the women lived with did not sympathize, understand, and corroded their abilities. What differentiates American from English women was when in Europe they had the sense of being perpetually watched — paradoxically, the idea found in Henry James’s Daisy Miller, led to journalists and ordinary people in letters trying to watch and write about American women writers to see if they led moral as well as successful lives

Along the way Rioux brings in other women writers, especially those whose works did achieve longer lasting fame and recognition at least as first, as influential on our four. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a narrative poem about a woman trying to live the life of a woman writer. Phelps is quoted saying of Aurora Leigh: “I owe to her, distinctly, the first visible aspiration (ambition is too low a word) to do some honest, hard work of my own in the world beautiful, and for it.” Germane de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy, a tragic novel of a woman whose muse creates this beautiful poetic book, at the end of which she is rejected as a woman and artist. She also treats of Eliot’s Armgart, a poem about a singer I have read, a narrative novel where by the end the heroine loses her voice. This is so common in 19th century novels for women artists — it’s a punishment (like the scenes of confession and humiliation for heroines in many American movies still today). There is a typology of writing or artist heroines in the novels of this era: in the US a sentimental artist heroine who can and does marry and we see her troubles; in the UK and Europe, the woman of Romantic poetic genius, who most of the time comes to a tragic end. They also turned to real women they knew or knew of: Charlotte Bronte as presented in Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of her; George Eliot as the model they all yearned to be as novelists. There are explicit intersections Phelps’s novel, The Story of Avis by Phelps and both Corinne and Aurora Leigh – Avis, who becomes an artist is engulfed by her husband and her gifts lost. Phelps does not think that the conflict is a society-imposed one but inherent in women’s nature — she also refuses to give her heroine genuine ambition.


Emma Lazarus

Rioux also (or along the way) discusses Rebecca Harding Davies, Helen Hunt Jackson, Emma Lazarus, one black woman who was never enslaved and lived a middle class life, Charlotte Forten Grimke, as women who either wrote less, or what they wrote did not achieve the same level, or who did not deal openly with the issues of their own lives and those of women from a woman’s point of view, but whose work placed in the same context emerges as similarly unfairly marginalized. She excludes Sarah Orne Jewett and Emily Dickinson because they did not seek careers and in a sense validated the idea that women should stay in some private retreat.

The last chapter is a convincing demonstration that the male white academy of the 20th century excluded all but white males like themselves in a canon they invented and taught; that the four were similarly dissed in the marketplace, pushed into writing less aspirant books (children’s books for example) and how they never were able to reach the status and receive the recognition their work deserved. One must admit an oddity here: these four women did write prolifically, all were in print and had careers, one now still famous, Alcott, and one now still respected for her artistry, if not well known (Woolson) and one respected as achieving something beyond a historically important still readable book (Phelps). Still, this is the saddest chapter of the book. I found myself embarrassed as I read: Rioux is showing that these women chased after males; they wanted recognition so badly, that they kowtowed before them, behaved in deferrent and self-humiliating ways. I know I have done this and wish I could altogether stop. What really hurts is the situation described in the early and mid-20th century history of the Atlantic Monthly obtains today. Yes the women’s page and their normative heroines are different from mid-century but underlying it all is the same non-valuing of literature by and for women. Maybe it’s that I’ve experienced editors “losing” the attachment, never writing back. The part of the chapter about how critics treat women’s books rings loud still. It’s a masculinization of taste.

Rioux’s last topic is the canon. Brigid Brophy was a breath of fresh air, among the first of the 1970s feminist books on women writers. Brophy’s contribution was to agree these are “dreadful” books and because they are dreadful they are masterpieces. She turns the charge of sentimentalism on its head — the sentimentalism is what makes them great – they are morbid, complaining, sad, emotional, say things matter that in life “adults”‘ learn (so it’s implied) to get past, slide over, ignore. In short, they are powerful great grapplings with life in art. Rioux returns to her four women in the end and tells of their later years — betrayed by “new” women replacing them, so Edith Wharton never acknowledged their real influence on her work. Then a marvelous bibliographical essay, which takes the reader through the important cited books a history of feminist scholarship in the last quarter century.


An early important book, which meant a lot to me when I was young

Rioux’s book is so rich in details, in retellings of stories by so many American women writers, of the circumstances of their lives, in quotation (how shocked women were when they sought the vote and discovered males were violently hostile … ), I can’t begin to do justice to it. Read it yourself, and then do like me, turn to read at least some of the literature Rioux has digested for us. I’ve also got myself a good biography of Alcott as a reformist, written in an intriguing way: Kit Bakke, Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for reforms of all Kinds.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Those who come to this blog regularly know I’ve written about Chris Brindle’s musical play of Jane Austen’s Sanditon completed by way of Anna Lefroy’s extension before, and of an available DVD. Well here is a reminder that the performance is now 11 days away (!) in London, at the “other place,” Victoria, in London, Friday, July 26th, 8 pm.

Once again the poster:

Just below (as prelude) the song “Dishonoured’ in rehearsal. In this version of events Mr Tracy manages to bring down the Bank of Eastbourne, from which Tom Parker is borrowing money to pay for the land he is buying from Lady Denham, and where Lady Denham has all her money on deposit. Because of this Lady Denham is outraged that she cannot afford to buy a new coach. Thus

A narrated concert version of a proposed full stage production. They are using a small stage in a cabaret like environment. Lovely and rousing songs, a remarkable contemporary story, intriguing colorful characters, some originally invented by Austen. See also for more information, pictures, music https://twitter.com/brindle_chris

I wish I could go …

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, 1995)


Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson (Hampstead, 2017)

“I have nothing of value to offer anyone,” she said to her faintly condescending adult son who seems to imply she should get a paying job … “I have no [sellable] skills”

He: “You think my mother birthed a complete half-wit?”
She: “Is there such a thing as a COMPLETE half-wit?”

Gentle reader,

If, like me, you retain fond memories of Delpy and Hawk endlessly talking during a long day in Paris after they have mutually agreed to get off a train together, you will like this romantic comedy, done in something of the same vein, the walking and talking,

the sitting about

the doing things, like putting back together a shack which has been assaulted, reading, going to bed together,

eating, drinking, fishing for their food …

you will find this movie wonderfully enjoyable.

If, like me, you loathe super-rich phony people who pretend to be your friend, pressure you, undermine you, especially when they are making oodles of money more from connections to corporations, in this case, one that is pulling down a hospital, evicting a squatter (there for 17 years), and when he is gone wrecking his place

and want to feel for all endangered species (even salmon) — the young actor on the right spends his existence handing out petitions and helping other people


you will find this movie wonderfully enjoyable.

Our hero wins out against a dastardly priggish barrister seeking to humiliate and to remove him by having a decent judge (Simon Callow), wise lawyer (Adeel Akhtar), and supportive petitioning demonstrating friends (Hugh Skinner). Unexpectedly he can be allowed to stay in the park and even given the property under a medieval ordinance, as long as he can produce documentary proof he’s been there more than 12 years. He does — with a little help from Emily (and Phil Davis — see below). It is just wonderfully enjoyable to triumph once in a while.

The movie opens up with a cheerful scene in one of the meadows of Hampstead: we see a kite, children playing, adult joining in, lovers kissing. Emily (Diane Keaton) is meeting in her building with her women friends, and being told she has an enormous upkeep bill. We watch her go off to her volunteer work at a charity shop, upstairs to her attic to rummage, find a binoculars and glimpse and keeping watching “a tramp” (Brendan Gleeson) whose lifestyle is improbably picturesque, cunningly achieved, and comfortable. At moments of high and low comedy, poignancy (she and her son, played so warmly by James Norton), the score inspirits us — light, easy, life as dance. Lots of photography of Hampstead, a pretty place where elite activities go on all the time

People fly kites; they spoil their children. Emily and Donald even take time out visit a museum (as did Harvey and Kate — see below)

Towards the end of the movie, we worry our new found couple have broken up: when he gains ownership of the property, and she has to leave her flat, she wants him to sell the his house and property, and when she sells her condom, they can start “a new life” comfortably together. He says, they have a life already; a big explosion and protesting quarrel ensues. Switch to another shot and she is, with the help of her son, selling all her stuff in an auction, paying her last bills, and settling into a another picturesque place. Time passes and she has acquired a new companion, a hen (Claude). But lo and behold Donald is passing by in a houseboat, his house moved onto a moving barge and before you know it they are drifting down the stream together

The director, Joel Hopkins, has made only four films in the relatively longer time (for making more films than that) he has been working. They are original and quirky, draw on depth of feeling and thought and improvisation. This one is actually some two years old, and has only come over to the US recently, and while it may have a movie run, like other recent films, the place to find it is Amazon Prime. The one by by Hopkins closest in outline is the movie about a day-long exquisitely moving walk of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson: Last Chance Harvey.


Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (Last Chance Harvey, 2000)

Like Harvey Shine and Kate Walker, Emily and Donald have had long lives and real troubles; all three sets of couples (I include Delpy and Hawke) are meditations on the troubled private lives of people, intelligently put before us. What’s different here is the troubles are more probable — money. Emily’s husband has left her badly in debt; and she is at risk of being thrown out of her apartment unless she kowtows to her great friend (played by Lesley Manville) who gets through life by obeying her stealthy real estate developer husband; and unless Emily goes to bed with a creepy predatory lawyer (Jason Watkins) obtained for her by said friend. Donald’s life seems to have been rocky in different phases and he first achieved some stability when he built his shack and determined to live as modest a life as possible (grows some of his own food). The movie does not convey how Harry Hallowes supported himself sufficiently nor tell us the true ending of the saga.

The film does mean to have a serious political topic: homelessness, paradoxical because of the perpetual photography of this elite looking area. In fact in our society elite areas contain many desperate people. Emily prompts Donald to find the man (Phil Davis) who produced built his fireplace.  And Davis has saved (!) the miraculous 17 year old document to prove that Donald has been on that property all those years; he says he helped install a fireplace and has come to court because he was once homeless and knows what this condition is like to live out. Now he keeps body and soul together as a handyman.

Our central characters are a couple coming round to be more honest with themselves and one another, more tolerant and forgiving he, more assertive she. So it’s Last Chance Harvey all over again. They have witty conversations, explore how each reacts to society at large, and to one another. So it’s Before Sunrise all over again. But I think another different note is struck, one consonant the theme of homelessness and the power of a hegemonic real estate order. We find it in how they both meet with enough kind people along the way to keep them going — James Norton conveys the warmest affection as her son: it’s he who helps her sell her stuff at an auction, helps her find another apartment and is generally there around the edges of existence, on call.

As for Diane Keaton, she is channeling as they say Annie Hall in costume especially.


Brendan Gleeson is our aging Irish man who has hard some hard knocks but holds out for his dignity. The actor has a way of standing or sitting there so stalwartly you know he will not be abused beyond a certain point. As a man, you may lean on him.

I admit this movie is flawed; it is far more than treacly;there are not enough good individual lines and too much cliche; t is a long way shy from the art film that Before Sunrise is. I would say another summer movie, one from a couple of years ago, Mr Holmes was better because its underlying melancholy and bizarre wild underlife was more genuine.

Still, we have a couple coming round to be more honest with themselves and one another, more tolerant and forgiving he, more assertive she.  What distinguishes this film is its fundamental tone of kindliness. Even toward a hen. And that’s why it is appropriate for this year. I suggest we all be kind to ourselves this hot July 4th and to one another and revel in this gently humane part fantasy story, a summer movie. Let us not ask too much of one another for just now.

Ellen

Read Full Post »