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Archive for November, 2019


John Everett Millias, from Irish Melodies: “An Excluded Woman” — the illustration was not for Agnes, but it fits central aspects of her existence, an outlier, outsider, excluded by belonging nowhere

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished reading another of Margaret Oliphant’s neglected masterpieces exploring aspects of women’s lives; I’ve written about these as a group (Novels of Women’s Lives: Marriage and Career) and individually (The Marriage of Elinor: scroll down); tonight I want to bring into play one aspect important to many of them, the widowed heroine. One reason Agnes has been neglected is that its emotional power, psychological brilliance, and just startling accuracy about the way a grieving widow might feel only begins after the first quarter of the second of two volumes. That is, Oliphant does not reach her electrifying content until she’s somewhat more than half-way through. And it does not come to the abyss of despair until her oldest child, an 8 year old boy, is kidnapped by her powerful aristocrat relatives in its concluding chapters.

Why does she take all this time? because the extremis anguish Agnes Trevelyan (nee Stanfield) knows occurs as a cumulative effect of years of life. First her suitor, Roger Trevelyan, after meeting her must contend with his family’s angry objections and threats to disinherit him insofar as they can, and William Stanfield, her blacksmith (as he’s endlessly described) father’s worry that the marriage is not a good idea for Agnes. Only William Stanfield, her noble-hearted kind insightful father (whom most of the genteel characters look down on because he is a blacksmith) finally consents generously to this marriage.

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John Everett Millais — Frontispiece for Trollope’s Rachel Ray (it seems to me appropriate for Oliphant’s first conception of Agnes when we first meet her)

Upon marriage (we are past half the first volume) Agnes begins to grow up: she finds Roger may be above her in rank but he is inadequate as man and a spouse. In Italy at first Roger wants to keep her ostracized, wrongly fearing others will look down on her; she had been framed as a vulgar, low-coarse ambitious woman, stigmatized by the envious of her own class. The couple go to Italy, seemingly for a honeymoon, but eventually (it emerges) as part of Roger’s plan to avoid the consequences of his decision: work for a living, make an genuine effort to integrate his wife into his society, something she is capable of because she in nature, fine, intelligent, and has been educated by her father (mostly through reading).

The result is 7 to 8 years of isolation, with a few true friends for her and him (better types here and there) until illness, which turns out to be fatal drives Roger back to England and his and Agnes’s family, their community, Windholm.

We must also experience more fully what a disillusionment Agnes goes through with his young man; she learns his is a petty, selfish, snobbish, idle nature; one of his few admirable traits is that gradually he learns to appreciate her through their years of “living on nothing at all:” borrowing, cadging, his father-in-law sending lump sums (whom Roger verbally abuses anyway), some gambling.  Oliphant shows us what it is like to live on nothing a year, abysmal, humiliating. Roger sees Agnes’s fine nature but also experiences her as a boring burden (his is a corrosive wittiness), who has also laden him with three children. She contributes nothing to the household as he sees this. When they return to England, they find that her father had built a beautiful house for them when he still expected his son-in-law to make a good living; they move in, and somehow William Stanfield keeps them afloat.

Agnes has known much emotional pain from time, circumstance, her situation and chance: she once had a close loving relationship with her father, and these years have estranged them not because they are angry at one another, but because they are unwilling to be disloyal to her husband, to face up to the realities of their lives. These include her father having remarried a deeply amoral stupid woman, jealous and envious, resentful of anyone who seems to have more than she, someone (we gradually learn) who has lived by semi-prostitution and had two sons born illegitimately from Roger’s own contemptible baronet of a father, Sir Roger Trevelyan.

This is yet another book by Oliphant which has the obsessively recurring male worthless in terms of any work he does, often drunk, often lying, irresponsible; not only does he waste money but he is sexually promiscuous and he lives in a predatory manner — off others. Give him any power and he inflicts himself and misery on others. I suspect this composite figure is her younger brother who she eventually paid in effect to stay away, with aspects of her husband, older brother and specific other men she’s seen or known thrown in.

She also has a cold spiteful sister-in-law, Beatrice, who is presented as also envious, and resentful because she is unmarried, has to live with Sir Roger, somehow (like Lily in Wharton’s House of Mirth) cannot get herself to marry a rich young man simply for his money. Agnes is innocent of malign feelings and has no idea how dangerous Beatrice could be to her or her children. After Agnes’s husband dies, and this sister-in-law and the father-in-law attempt to wrest custody of her beloved boy, Walter, from her, she does know. The court case goes nowhere because Roger did not leave a will specifying his son should be returned to his family for schooling, and because the judge interviews and discovers Agnes to be a valuable mother. Sometime after this Beatrice concocts a plan to kidnap Walter through Stanfield’s wife’s illegitimate children (her nephews though the book never uses this term of them).

Oliphant is not wholly unsympathetic to Beatrice Trevelyan: in her the condition of a spinster dependent on a cold indifferent father who will not give her much money is explored. It is only when Beatrice is discovered to have worked to kidnap Agnes’s son, that the book sees her narrowly as simply poisonous. In fact the portrait of Beatrice at different points of her life across the book is complex.

In this later part of the novel, the kindly noble male, brotherly, who loves the heroine selflessly for years, and turns up in other novels is her as Roger’s old friend: Jack Charleton understands how to navigate the court system, and custody of her child is not taken from her. As with the other male figures of this type in other novels (The Marriage of Elinor has such a male), our heroine does not appreciate Jack. She does yearn for affection from him, and is gradually turning to him, capable given time of becoming his wife, but not once she loses her boy. Agnes blames herself for the kidnapping of the boy because she was writing to a (in effect) love letter from Jack so did not miss her son at first.

There are a few women Agnes meets her or knows who are decent people — serious, truthful, capable of love and concern for others, but the novel’s third central worthy character whose presence is part of the core value to Agnes of her life is her son, Walter. His abduction leads to the tragic final chapters of the book. Her beloved son dies trying to escape from his captors – he jumps out a window and crushes his body.

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John Everett Millais, said to be a print for Trollope’s “A Widow’s Mite” (where however there is not literal widow; the short story is an exploration of this parable)

So to the hidden life in this book as in others (Hester comes to mind) by Oliphant disclosed to us: long passages about widowhood as experienced by Agnes once Roger dies, shorter but heart-breakingly intense once her son dies. On widowhood Oliphant produces the most accurate truthful kinds of utterances, more central than those I’ve ever read — the closest about widowhood is Julian Barnes in the last third of his Levels of Life; the closest about how a mother can die before her body physically dies, just be there breathing on, doing what you are expected for others is in the last pages of Elsa Morant’s Storia, where after her 7 year old son dies of an epileptic fit, brought on by the school authorites, and the murder of his dog (the police) Iduzza is said to live on for 9 years, but only in her body. So too Agnes.

It’s hard to find a single passage (Matthew Arnold-like) as revealing touchstone, for like many fine novels, the language’s force also depends on cumulative effect. Agnes is not in fact literally alone: she has an 8 year old boy, two babies, one an neonate, the other not yet toddling, her father lives in a house within walking distance, and yet she has this experience of “utter loneliness which the most solitary of human beings could not have surpassed … ” Yet her desolation is unbroken, and among the phrases saying why I pick this:

there was nobody to share the burden that was heaviest. Henceforward that closest bond was rent for ever and ever. Nobody in the world could say ‘It is my sorrow as well as yours.’ She had to take it all upon her, by herself and cover it up and keep it from injuring or wearying the others, who had so little to do with it. This was also a thing quite natural, and of which no one had any right to complain.

Oliphant has just before built up to “the only real hardships in existence are those that come by nature — the only ones that are inevitable an incurable, and form which there are no means of escape.” Of course this was Oliphant’s case, surrounded by people — dependent on her once her artist-husband died, leaving her nothing but large debts and three children.

We move through the burial, the funeral and just after and with Agnes discover that she cannot go back and pick up with others what was before her marriage. Like her father, her marriage has altered her and him: Changed circumstances, long absence, and “what was still more important, the character of wife, had made between Agnes and her father a separation which had nothing to do with external obstacles.” She cannot confide in him any longer nor he her.

Oliphant describes the difference of a child’s grief for the loss of the father and hers, the child’s quickly exhausts itself, nothing left after a bit and Agnes “had already gone beyond his reach without knowing it …” — that’s also true if you turn to an animal for companionship beyond a certain point.

Then when Walter is kidnapped, she shows the helplessness of the child against adults determined to bully that child into doing what the adult wants. It is frightening and should be read by all people who vote for leaders who separate families and put children in prison.

From the final two pages of Agnes:

The vicarious life in which most women spend the latter part of their day might still remain for her; but her own life was over and done and she was not one of those who live till they die. So that I have told you all her story, as well as if I had put a gravestone over her and written the last date on it, which may not be ascertained for many years … grant to [women who have no other heritage] at the end of their many days a sweet life by proxy to heal their bitter wounds.

Agnes does have her two daughters, and her father.

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A 19th century engraving, Sorrento

Oliphant knew she was describing complex feelings and realities most novelists of her time eschewed. So she provides a preface in the Tauchnitz editin (Leipzig, 1865) where she warns the reader her book will cover material most novels never get to. She says “the great value of fiction lies in its power of delineating life” and to do this she must depict what happens in the later chapters of our existences. Novels teach us by revealing “sentiments which may be in many minds, but which none would care in their own person to give expression to.”

At any earlier point, before the boy dies, Oliphant felt Agnes needed work; she is at a disadvantage because her father support her — not having to work for a living in effect. Oliphant knows that her writing was what her life became – and had been before too, but differently. The same person living a different life.

I should remark on the beautiful evocative descriptions of Italy, Sorrento, Naples, Florence — it’s clear that Oliphant herself responded on a deep level to the landscape, cultural life, and art of Italy. It’s clear from her life that Oliphant herself loved to travel: she enjoyed research books on Italy and France because she could go there.

Oliphant declares firmly that Agnes’s experience was “no tragic exceptional case … she had only the common lot, darkened by great sorrows, but not without consolation.”  This is one of many places in her writing where Oliphant questions God, and puts before us the difficulty of believing there is a good God, for who, she asks, could “be cruel enough to deprive a mother of her child,” and here “God, who was supposed to be love, had done it.” (Only the more recent scholarly literary criticism of Oliphant broaches this topic with candor).

Ellen

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Mary Wollstonecraft (1758-97)

“I don’t believe you realise how much the war has stung our generation. We have had the bottom of things knocked out completely, we have been sent reeling into the chaos and it seems to us that none of your standards are either fixed or necessarily good because in the end they resulted in the smash-up. We have to try to make a world for ourselves, based it as far as possible on love and awareness, mentally and bodily, because it seems to us that all the repressions and formulae, all the cutting off of part of our experience, which perhaps looked sensible and even right, in those calm years have not worked. Much has been taken from us,and we will stick like fury to what is left, and lay hold on life as it comes to us” — Naomi Mitchison’s War Diaries (1940-45, quoted in Elaine Showalter’s Inventing Herself, but I am reading this book late at night)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been blogging under this sign for nearly 20 years now, and have completed (or broken off from) several series of blogs, viz., most strikingly actresses, foremother poets, women artists. Not all of these series were about women in the imaginative arts, though; I’ve done several serial dramas from over a single season (Wolf Hall) (however defined) to several, some based on series of books (Poldark, Outlander), original dramas. I’ve shared papers and sessions from academic conferences I’ve been to. I’ve look at types of genres (historical fiction, biography). Individual authors and individual books. Individual movies. All Austen’s letters as organized and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, biographies of her close relatives, The Austen papers, and French contexts for reading Austen. One problem is I do forget to tag, and I do these on my other blog too (Ellen and Jim have a blog, two) so the sets are scattered. My longest ones (except for Austen’s letters) are over there, viz., The Pallisers. Tom Jones.


Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (Joshua Reynolds)

Some of these were given up because I’d finished the thing I set out to do (all Austen’s letters), I was beyond my area of expertise (recent poetry) Some what with teaching, serious projects I’ve not been able to or make time to write a three part blog-essay more than once every two weeks, if that. I keep inventing things that take me into social groups, out of the house. I proposed to teach a two-part course at the Politics and Prose bookstore: 4 French women writers & eras, beginning with the poetic masterpiece by Stael, Corinne, ou l’Italie, for 3 sessions, then a break and consecutively 1 session each of George Sand’s Indiana, Marguerite Duras’s war memoir, La Guerre (occupied France from her vantage point), and then recent lesbian feeling novel about Marie Antoinette and her ladies, Farewell, My Queen by Chantal Thomas (exquisitely sensitive beautifully meditative book). I’d love to add Winter in Majorca (time spent by Sand with Chopin), but there was no go (no offer of position or classes to teach) for this non-famous person with no connections that counted. But I will still attend a few sessions on specific fine books (like Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy the first novel, Sarah Water’s Night Watch) there scattered across the spring.


Joanna Mary Boyce (died so young), The Heath Gatherer

That I’ve no idea how to sell myself or anything else much to the general public may be seen in my not having more than 176 subscribers and about half the number of followers. For individual blogs that land in some moment of popular notice, the numbers will go way up, but not from anything I’ve done. I trust, gentle reader, you and I and the other 175 enjoy or find some kind of profit from what I put here.

I’m contemplative and surveying this evening to push myself on to return to these series, especially the poets, actresses (I’ve written about singer-actresses, including Judy Garland), and painters (one scientific farmer, Beatrice Potter too).


Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds


Beatrice Potter squirrel from her children’s books

I felt some stirrings recently, today over a blog on an exhibition going on right now of women Pre-Raphaelite painters, Nick Holland’s blog on an unfinished deeply imaginatively, fantastical fragment by Charlotte Bronte (how could such a spirit be localized into the demands of the realistic novel?). This week I read (for the first time) Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, watched the poignant movie, and returned to these working class English women’s writing of the 1950s (Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, A Story of Two lives anyone?)


Vera Brittain (1893-1970)

As evidence of good continuing interest in women and the arts (of all kinds) I finally finished reading Elaine Showalter’s Inventing Herself: it’s a book made up of a series of portraits (some long and some sort in a group style) women who achieved as feminists in their writing and active lives. Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft, taking us through Margaret Fuller, Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx, Charlotte Gilmore Perkins (daughter hated her), Elsie Clews Parsons (?! — yes an important later 19th century writer), early 20th century Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Nora Zeale Thurston, Rebecca West and Vera Brittain, moving into the middle years, Mary MacCarthy and Hannah Arendt (more alike than you think), Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag (ditto), and then very recent, names I read as contemporaries, Nancy Miller, Adrienne Rich, Ann Douglas, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, taking us to Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton (a rousing defense) and Diana Spencer (died young spectacularly, Showalter unexpectedly sympathized). All of them had to live unconventional highly self-centered lives in order to be the writer or woman she became; demoralizing to see that before the early 20th century a woman had to be chaste to have any social capital; from the mid-20th a woman had to make herself sexually available, or seeming so to radical men to get anywhere. I was surprised at how many had become enthralled by or to a man, and this become a crucial determinant in the existence they led. There is no false idealization: Sontag was able to travel and write the books she did because she perpetually partnered with very rich people. Beauvoir’s claim she did not become a feminist until after 1947 (her trip to the US) disingenuous.

73 years old the end of this week, tiring, failing better than I used to, I shall go down with all flags flying.   I do everything together with others, except meet …

I cheer myself up by keeping watching the recent Durrells of Corfu, the dose, an episode every three nights (I love the music, scripts, cartoons, actors), backed up by midnight dream reading of Laurence Durrell’s island books. Perhaps my first new actress will be Barbara Flynn, aka Aunt Hermione — pitch perfect in this series. How I find her characteristic characters so appealing. To my eyes she is beautiful still.


From the Durrells of Corfu, you see Keeley Hawes as Louisa from the back

Ellen

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Jean-Honore Fragonard (1732-1806), The Stolen Kiss (1788)

Dear friends and readers,

A second blog on a few of the papers or talks I heard at the recent EC/ASECS conference at Gettysburg. These summaries represent the papers I was especially interested in, and was able to take down in shorthand; I also did the best I could to present the two addresses (keynote, presidential) to the society.

From the All Things French panel (Friday morning, Oct 25th), Faith Barringer’s “The Coquette, the Libertine, and Fragonard: An Intertextual Look at The Stolen Kiss connected to my own readings in 18th century French and English novels. Faith said there has been a tradition of denying that Fragonard’s painting was influenced by such novels, a preference for seeing the painting as relying on archetypes rather than specific previous paintings and texts. There is little information about this picture, and many of Fragonard’s pictures do not have specific sources, but you can (and she did) demonstrate that this particular was heavily influenced by contemporary literature; what’s more if you look at these sources, you can notice at the same time departures showing that Fragonard made made the images of coquettry and libertinism his own, and in the process made a more life-like scene, which shows affection beyond sheer erotic attraction in the couple. The novels gone over included La Vie de Marianne, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise, La Religieuse, and the pictures included depictions of aristocratic games. She went over details in the scene showing that sentimentality and gaiety qualify what could have been a stereotypical cliched seduction scene.

The second Gettysburg faculty talk in the later afternoon was by Timothy Shannon was first in general on Pennsylvania Captivity Narratives from the Seven Years War. I’ve been interested in early modern American captivity narratives since I read Mary Rowlandson’s last winter. Prof Shannon divided these up into three eras, said there was a difference between female and male narratives, between spiritual and secularized, and briefly told of two teenagers taken captive who lived for the rest of their lives with the Seneca Indians, of a woodcutter who lived for five years with his captors, of Elizabeth Fleming. He then elaborated (from his book) on a remarkable narrative written by Peter Williamson in the context of what we know about his life. Peter Williamson was a Scotsman who claimed he was kidnapped from Aberdeen at 13 years old, sold into servitude in Pennsylvania, gained his freedom, and (among other things in a picaresque tale) lived with a planter’s daughter, was enslaved by Indians (where he was tortured), became a soldier, put in prison in Canada, and returned to Aberdeen. There seems to be an almost complete lack of documentary evidence for any of this American story; but he did marry three times in Scotland, his second wife divorced him, and he published about the divorce trial. His captivity narrative includes ersatz ethnography, and was anthologized, became part of abolitionist literature. Today in Scotland Williamson’s story is part of folklore but only turns up in more respectable enlightenment texts because Boswell was drawn to listen to “Indian Peter” one day in a coffee house.

On Saturday morning (the first session at 9 am), standing in for Anthony Lee, I chaired an excellent panel of papers on Samuel Johnson. Lance Wilcox’s on Johnson’s poem in imitation of Juvenal, London, was on how scholars and readers have read biography into Johnson’s poem, specifically since in the following year Savage left London for Wales they have aligned Thales departing London for Cambria (Wales) with Savage. It used to be that people read Johnson’s biography of Savage to learn about Savage, the then famous figure; now we read the biography because it’s by Johnson, yet this poem is still examined in terms of Savage’s life: did he fantasize in front of Johnson (or to others thus creating a rumor) at least a year before about how he was determined to leave; was Johnson prophetic, or (most likely) is the identification baseless. Still respectable people who knew or studied Johnson thoroughly have taken the hypothesis seriously: Arthur Murphy and James Clifford among them. Perhaps after the poem was written Savage consciously modeled himself on Johnson’s Thales. The point of Lance Wilcox’s witty examination of what is precisely in the poem, and how it’s been used shows the problematical nature of biographical insights. In this case where do we ascribe agency, to whom? Johnson who wrote the poem, Savage who read it? Lance suggested we need to focus on all the agents here: and ask, what did Savage get out of his friendship with this obscure young hack (Johnson), and of course what did Johnson in his biography get out of writing the life of this young man with whom Johnson had bonded so intensely.

The best modern biography of Savage is still Clarence Tracy’s The Artifical Bastard: A biography of Richard Savage. I talked with Lance afterwards and we discussed the probability that Savage’s assertion that he was the illegitimate son of Lady Macclesfield and Earl Rivers was a lie; Savage (in other words) was a complete fraud. The question is if by the end of his life he had lost all perspective and believed his own concoction. Also that Richard Holmes’s analysis and conclusion about the murder trial where Savage was declared guilty is the best most thorough one available (Richard Holmes, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage).


Sir Robert Chambers (1737-1803) by Joshua Reynolds

Thomas Curley’s paper wowed the session. In 1988 Prof Curley published two-volume edition from Clarendon Press in 1986, entitled, A Course of Lectures on the English Law Delivered at the University of Oxford, 1767-1773, by Sir Robert Chambers, Second Vinerian Professor of English Law, and Composed in Association with Samuel Johnson, and then years later Sir Robert Chambers: Law, Literature, and Empire in the Age of Johnson. What he did was (in effect) to add to Johnson’s considerable oeuvre a considerable part of the writing of Chambers’s lectures; he demonstrated that Johnson gave the young man courage and direction to write, inspired him, debated and helped him to clarify his ideas, and wrote some of the work with him, revising it too. Chambers was a 17 year old who met Johnson in 1754; they were congenial; Johnson recognized a gentle well-meaning nature. Chambers had succeeded Blackstone at Oxford and was expected to prepare lectures, and felt intense indecision, hesitation, was a self-deprecating man. So Johnson rescued him by helping him to compose, research, and providing companionship. One letter shows Johnson saying “I will try to help you.”

The collaboration was kept secret for the sake of Chambers’ career, but has alas since then been hidden from view, at least rarely paid attention to. Chambers (and Johnson’s) book is an encyclopedic survey of English law. Half the work is on the historical origins of the English gov’t. Prof Curley felt the writing on criminal and property law is mostly Chambers. One can see in the writings as they proceed a development of more opposition to Parliament, more anti-Wilkes ideas, much attention to the necessity of having order, a strong centralized power worth defending against dissident causes. These volumes are a major intellectual crossroads for studying the trajectory of Johnson’s thought; in these books (Prof Curley showed by extracts) we find parallel passages of strongly conservative thinking to some of Johnson’s polemics (The False Alarm, Taxation No Tyranny, on Ireland and America) on colonialism and taxation: the colonializing power has the right to tax the people of the colony for it provides protection; this is not tyranny. Prof Curley felt Johnson’s Thoughts on the Falkland Islands has no echoes of the early collaboration. He ended by telling us something of Chambers’ long life in India, and his young wife who outlived him by 30 years.

I have separately described & linked in my paper on “Culloden and its aftermath in Scotland (and Scottish literature) in the panel on crossroads in Jacobitism, and I will also be brief on Tita Chico’s keynote address, “Microscopes and Couplets: Scrutiny in the Long Eighteenth Century,” and Sylvia Marks’s presidential (of and for the society) “A Gettysburg Address” upon the 50th anniversary of Eastern Region — this group had been meeting for 50 years.

False Eloquence, like the Prismatic Glass,
Its gawdy Colours spreads on ev’ry place;
The Face of Nature was no more Survey,
All glares alike, without Distinction gay:
But true Expression, like th’ unchanging Sun,
Clears, and improves whate’er it shines upon,
It gilds all Objects, but it alters none.”
— Pope, quoted & analysed by Prof Chico

Professor Chico linked the inventions (Hooke’s microscope) and literature of scientific scrutiny in the era with the use of the heroic couplet, as two linked ways of analyzing the natural and human worlds; methodologically linked as a way of delving what we see, giving observation a framework by which we can bring together disparate experience. Newton’s prism enables us to see what we would not otherwise, and 18th century modes of poetry are constructs that bring together what is central and marginal, strong and vulnerable in our societies. We must dis-identify, unsettle ourselves to recognize full truths about ourselves.

Sylvia’s talk was a pleasure to listen to: she used Lincoln’s address, its occasion and what Lincoln was reading as well as the hard history to come after the killing in Gettysburg (and elsewhere) was over to move to American history during the 50 years of the existence of ASECS and this regional group. She then retold briefly the history of our group, how it was founded, where it first met, the development of the Leland and Molin awards, and then the cultural upheavals that have been going on in our profession as reflected in some bleak pictures described in previous addresses. She then turned for a parallel trajectory to the long friendship of Francis Burney and Samuel Johnson as recorded in Burney’s journals, what Johnson said to Burney on the day they first met, how she described him, what their relationship was like over the years, his troubles and hers, taking us to their last meeting when he was very ill, what she said and how he looked.

(Austen would have enjoyed hearing the 50th anniversary address as much of it was on Johnson and Burney, using her diary and journals, which, because published only after Burney’s death, Austen would never have gotten to read.)

I never did mention how on our first night, our oral/aural experience — an hour’s worth of poetry reading and sometimes putting on 18th century plays or parts of play, we acted out (as best we could, with no practice and just scripts before us) the famous China scene from Wycherley’s Country Wife. I read Lady Fidget’s part.

Ellen

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Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

Dear readers and friends,

Back from this year’s EC/ASECS (its 50th anniversary) at Gettysburg, I’m re-filled with enthusiasm for all things long 18th century, and return with new topics to think about, new perspectives, and old interests made new. Among the highlights for me of the evening and two days, was a guided visit during the long lunch on the first day through a Maria Sibylla Merian exhibit at the Schmucker Art Gallery on the Gettysburg campus, made richer by a lecture given later that afternoon by its professorial curator, Kay Etheridge. I heard that first morning intriguing papers on theater which attempted to get beyond the relics, remnants, remains in the form of verbal texts, costumes and setting to convey to us today what the experience of the theatrical representation might have been like in concrete breathing, noisy, living details. What are our aids today and were used in the 18th century to capture the fleeting presence performing in our memories.

Of course I was deeply engaged by the panel I chaired where we were once again immersed in Samuel Johnson (with a little bit of help from Boswell), and in the panel dedicated to Jacobitism where I gave my paper where themes of colonialism, migrancy, and religious-political conflicts emerged. But in this first of two blogs on this conference I will just write about the conference’s first panel on theater, the group trip to the Art Gallery and talks on Maria Sibylla Merian. As with last and a couple of years previous the views I offer and accounts of papers are necessarily partial since I could attend but one panel at a time, and my summary reports are imprecise, and omit much because my stenography is not what it once was.

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A frontispiece from Bell’s British Theater

I was fascinated by the first panel on theatrical history (Friday morning, session 1, 9-10:15), chaired by Matthew Kinservik. One of the central questions coming out of Jane Wessel’s “Samuel Foote’s Strategic Ephemerality” was the problem that the theatrical experience disappears as it is acted. How do you know, study, understand performances before there were moving pictures (photography, movies, films, DVDs, video, digital YouTubes). Jane said professional enacted mimicry; that they looked in the scripts to enable imitation. Diaries, journals, and news descriptions constitute snapshots; you puzzle over what is meant by the familiar “character performed with additions.” Her paper attempted to get beyond the notion that ephemerality means loss: performances can escape censorship, others could not control what was immediately represented; you were as much going to see the performer as the work; the performed was the work. She showed evidence of Foote attempting to lure people using print. She read a footnote telling the reader which actors or actresses were imitating which.

Aparna Gollapudi’s “Theater in the Reading Closet: Bell’s Frontispieces” attempted to uncover what literally happened, live performances and audience response similarly. She discussed the texts, pictures, paratexts (like frontispieces) that circulated after a performance. The pictures do what they can to bring into people’s “closets” (rooms, homes) actual experiences of the stage. But they also are fanciful and illustrate what the audience might like to dream could epitomize the action or character but is in reality not possible for stage action. She showed a favorite print of a scene from Cibber’s Careless Husband which in the script occurred before the play began (two principals having sex); a moral play like Steele’s Conscious Lovers is accompanied by a picture which is not moral, but comic, leering, hinting at sexual availability. The frames outside the print have playful vignettes. Sometimes an actor is pictured in roles never played; substitutions like this abound as celebrity culture does its work. Illustrators were a kind of play critic, a reader of inner dreams of what did not happen.

Matthew’s “Charles Macklin’s Career as Theatre Manager” was about how the written records do not begin to record Macklin’s varied remarkable work for decades on the stage.


John Conde’s 1792 engraving of a painting of Macklin (from John Opie’s painting)

Macklin was not just an actor and playwright; if you pay attention to who is on the stage, who is involved in the acting, staging, presentation, you discover that for 30 years (1740-72) he acted, taught (he had in effect an acting school at a coffee house), deputy managed the most popular famous plays and actors (Garrick, Foote) too. He was one of those who could make up for the incompetence and parsimony of Fleetwood. He lectured on acting. As the novelty of some of what he did wore off, he behaved in less dignified ways, he found himself ridiculed. It seems one problem Macklin had was he angered people, another he had no money of his own to invest.He was a bankrupt in the 1750s, but went to Dublin and became a partner in the Crowe St Theater competing against Smock Alley. He got into disputes with Barry. In London his expertise in great acting roles (Shylock, Macbeth) was recognized by Colman. But his paper trail is through the courts: his Love a la Mode was so popular he declined to print it and would sue people for performing it.

In the general discussion afterwards people talked of those who could do shorthand and would take down quaker speeches and found that publishers and other people went after them to stop. As a stenographer who could once upon a time take down every word people said at a meeting, this interested me. I have experienced many different reactions to and uses of my ability to do this: early on, a lawyer I worked for used my work to his advantage in negotiations; later on as a graduate student in committee meetings I curbed myself rather than become too involved. They also talked of the terms of legal suits.

A second topic I started was about (I suppose) celebrity. I said that on face-book I noticed YouTubes put on of incidents in serial dramas that never occurred. I eventually learned these sorts of re-doings of bits of videos in order to change the scene (usually to make it more sentimental, more erotic, sometimes to make fun of something) are common. Many focus on a famous or admired star. No one but me appeared bothered about this. I suggested this sort of falsifying (as I see it) is the modern version of fanciful illustrations of theatrical scenes and actors in the 18th century.

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Pear Blossom?

I wish I could do justice to the talk by the graduate student-curator who took a group of us through the exhibition — together with an art history professor. I came away with a slender catalogue paperback, Artful Nature and the Legacy of Maria Sibylla Merian, where the major pictures in the gallery are reproduced together with essays by the students on Merian’s life, science, the social norms of her class as well as the work of three other naturalists of Merian’s era.


From Merian’s Metamorphosis Insectorum Surianemensium (she went to Surinam)

I was able to take down some of what Prof. Kay Etheridge (biologist) told the whole conference in her talk in the afternoon. Merian was the daughter of an middle class artist, Matthäus Merian the Elder, and was highly educated. Her father died in 1650, and in 1651 her mother remarried Jacob Marrel, the flower and still life painter. Marrel encouraged Merian to draw and paint. While he lived mostly in Holland, his pupil Abraham Mignon trained her. She married Marrel’s apprentice, and had two daughters, but eventually separated from him. She gave drawing lessons to the daughters of the wealthy and this gave her access to their gardens; she collected specimens, insects, studied botany, and devoting herself to her art and studies, she produced pattern books, and became a much respected scientific illustrator and then naturalist; she was among the first to study insects directly. Prof Etheridge went over (as far as she could) the steps Merian might have taken as she gained expertise. What was remarkable was she put the life cycles of insects together with plants. She wrote, engraved, published remarkable books, financing herself to go to Dutch Surinam. She talked to the indigenous people and to enslaved people and wrote about their desperation (how the women cared deeply for their children and would even kill them rather than see them grow up into an enslaved person); an indigenous woman accompanied her home. Her images tell ecological stories and Prof Fletcher showed how. We can see great cruelty in nature in some of what is observed in many of these illustrations.

Among the famous and wealthy who wrote or commemorated her: Alexander Humboldt named a flower after her; Hans Sloane collected her work; Tsar Peter; she was imitated by many major and minor scientific illustrators. Popularizers spread her work, e.g., Friedrich J. Bertuch in his picture books for children, attempting to teach a scientific way of seeing the world (published between 1780 and 1839); in English she cited Oliver Goldsmith. She talked about the 18th century naturalist, horticulturist, and illustrator Mark Catesby (1683-1749) best known for witty books based on his observations in the Carolinas, Florida and Bahama Islands. Catesby’s work is included in the exhibit.

The Gettysburg art gallery had another exhibit, the work of Andrew Ellis Johnson and Susanne Slavick dwelling on the present humanitarian crisis around the world; it consists of images, chosen poetry (a psalm by Wislawa Szymborska), essays (one by Suketu Mehta), commentaries on politics. historical incidents. I took home the catalogue for this too. It includes Warsan Shire’s

Home

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten …

For the rest and about Shire, click here.


New butterfly named after Merian (Smithsonian Museum page)

Ellen

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