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Archive for December, 2019


Jo (Maya Hawke) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) dressing in opening scene in the 2017 Little Women (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswill)

Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day … In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light, which was obscured in one direction by a hump of earth, in all other directions the land lying flat to the very verge of the sky. One of the swift and noiseless birds of the winter’s night seemed to follow them across the field, circling a few feet in front of them, disappearing and returning again and again — Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, Chapter 15)

Friends and readers a Winter Solstice/Christmas blog:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly, from her corner …. (Chapter 1)

Of course everyone remembers the opening line of Little Women, and (I hope) the opening sequence, where though the March girls are feeling they are among the deprived, are led by their ever vigilantly alert to the worst-misfortunes-of-others mother to go to a downright starving freezing family, sitting in rags in a hovel in the pitch dark, the mother having recently given birth to baby and give them their Christmas dinner (Chapter 2).

But did you know that Christmas is a recurring incident in Alcott’s famous book, like winter, brought back repeatedly, most of the time (as in Austen) as a way of creating realistic time, so fleetingly, and but crucially too (this very unlike Austen), dwelt on at length so as to provide vivid vignettes of camaraderie and carefully mitigated disaster, and sweet human togetherness.


Little Women — iconic scene of girls gathering round mother to be read too — here though it is a telegram (1970 BBC LW, Angela Downe as Jo, scripted Denis Constanduros)

When Mrs March receives a telegram from the civil war front urging her to come to her husband who is very ill, it is mid-November, and much of ensuing desperate, generous, and comic action occurs in the cold, dark and snowy winter, including Jo selling her long hair to get up money for the mother’s train fare. The father comes home as a “Christmas present,” and the first order of business is to sit down to “such a Christmas dinner” as anyone would revel in (“the fat turkey was a sight to behold … so was the plum pudding …”, and all sit down round the fire, drinking healths, telling stories, singing, “reminiscing,” foregoing the planned “sleigh ride” until another day (Chapters 15 on and off through 22)

I had remembered from more than one Little Women movie (I’ve seen at least 7) the putting on of a play around Christmas, as a separate time, but looking at my old book for adolescent girls (Grosset and Dunlap, illustrated by Louis Jambor) I find Jo’s writing of plays, acting and directing in an amateur theater are all part of the opening sequence. The play, as we all recall, is an “Operatic Tragedy,” the story of a stalking villain, Hugh, who hated Roderigo, loves Zara, with cabalistic outfits, comic gothicism in five fun acts (Chapter 2)


Laurie (Peter Lawford) gives Jo (Katharine Hepburn) some kittens for Christmas (1931, LW, George Cukor)

When Jo goes to New York to become a professional writer, the season is again November, and her first meeting with Mr Bhaer (she learns to call him Professor only much later) is during the Christmas week when she is feeling especially lonely, and so is he, and they agree for her to read to him “these pleasant little Marchen together,” while he teaches her German. They read Hans Christian Anderson together too, and unexpectedly to Jo (but not to us) her “big, muddy, battered-looking” “Christmas bundle” arrives, “so homey and refreshing” that “I sat down on the floor and read and looked and ate and laughed, and cried, in my usual way.” “The things” are “just what I wanted,” and “all the better for being made instead of bought,” which must exclude “the books father had marked.” Mr Bhaer gives her “a fine Shakespeare … one that he values much.” “Poor as he is,” he has made a present for every person in the house, servants and children too. Downstairs “they got up a masquerade;” Jo is at first not going to go, “having no dress … ” but “some old brocades” are remembered, a loan of “lace and feathers” takes place, and Jo goes as Mrs Malaprop in her mask.” This is all in a letter which ends very happily with Jo’s vow to “take more interest in other people than I used to” as Marmee has advised (Chapter 33).


Jo (Winona Ryder) and Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Bryne) pouring over manuscripts and drawings in their New York lodgings (1994 LW, scripted Robin Swicord, directed Gillian Armstrong)

I have here emphasized how the earlier part of the book are more didactic and more obviously aimed at adolescent girls. The later part (once called Good Wives) shows a change of focus to include young women, especially when the book turns to Jo’s career as a writer in her parents’ attic and life as a single unmarried daughter in the house. And in the text, Christmas drops out of sight, and Jo meets her beloved teacher once again not in winter, but years later in the mud and rain of spring.

Izzy and I intend to go to Greta Gerwig’s new Little Women, which begins with Jo in New York, trying to sell a manuscript. Laura, my other daughter, has already seen it and will be publishing her review for Elite Daily on Christmas Day. Despite a probably valiant attempt to update the book, and turn Little Women into wholly adolescent girl/adult book (see interview of Gerwig by Gabrielle Donnelly), Gertwig will not be able to lift the material too far from the original to stay true to its ethics. For her too (LW is my sixth of ten most influential books) this is a seminal book, one she can hardly remember not knowing, so often and so far back has she been reading it.


Meg (Emma Watson) Jo (Saoirse Ronan) Beth (Eliza Scanlan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) (2019, LW, Greta Gerwig et aliae)

I signed up for a course in Louisa May Alcott’s books, where we will read all Little Women (using the Norton Critical edition), her Hospital Sketches (Applewood) and a Long Fatal Love Chase (Dell). I’ve blogged on Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg Jo Beth Amy: why Little Women still matters and on Louisa separately in Writing for Immortality.

So this is a looking forward to next year meditation too: I’m torn whether to buy the Norton (with its young girl picture) or the two Library of America volumes, edited by Elaine Showalter in paperback.

To conclude in the spirit of Alcott:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Mary Oliver

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From Previous Years:

For Christmas in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, her 18th century perspective


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

For Christmas at Trenwith and Nampara: two occasions at length in the Poldark novels


Christmas at Trenwith, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, frightened, first visit, questioned by Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha (Poldark, 2014, Season 1, Episode 4 — corresponding to the last quarter of Ross Poldark

Ellen

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This is my favorite of all the fictionalized iconic images of Austen — it’s found in the gardens of Chawton House I’m told, 20th century, the sculpture Adam Roud who says it “represents” Austen as “daughter and sister as she walked through town” (see commentary and video)

A windy wet day? her head held high

Jane Austen was very much aware of her birthday, probably each year it came round. On at least two of such days, she wrote a poem upon the occasion, remembering. The finest is the one remembering the death of Anne Lefroy, a nearby companion-friend (however older and however this friend was instrumental in preventing her developing a true love relationship with Tom Lefroy, causing Austen at the time and for several years after much grief). At the age of 55 Anne Lefroy died from a fall from a horse on December 16th, in 1804. Four years later, in the fiction of the poem, to the day, Jane Austen wrote this elegy:

To the Memory of Mrs. Lefroy who died Dec:r 16 — my Birthday

The day returns again, my natal day;
What mix’d emotions with the Thought arise!
Beloved friend, four years have pass’d away
Since thou wert snatch’d forever from our eyes.–
The day, commemorative of my birth
Bestowing Life and Light and Hope on me,
Brings back the hour which was thy last on Earth.
Oh! bitter pang of torturing Memory!–

Angelic Woman! past my power to praise
In Language meet, thy Talents, Temper, mind.
Thy solid Worth, thy captivating Grace!–
Thou friend and ornament of Humankind!–

At Johnson’s death by Hamilton t’was said,
‘Seek we a substitute–Ah! vain the plan,
No second best remains to Johnson dead–
None can remind us even of the Man.’

So we of thee–unequall’d in thy race
Unequall’d thou, as he the first of Men.
Vainly we search around the vacant place,
We ne’er may look upon thy like again.

Come then fond Fancy, thou indulgent Power,–
–Hope is desponding, chill, severe to thee!–
Bless thou, this little portion of an hour,
Let me behold her as she used to be.

I see her here, with all her smiles benign,
Her looks of eager Love, her accents sweet.
That voice and Countenance almost divine!–
Expression, Harmony, alike complete.–

I listen–’tis not sound alone–’tis sense,
‘Tis Genius, Taste and Tenderness of Soul.
‘Tis genuine warmth of heart without pretence
And purity of Mind that crowns the whole.

She speaks; ’tis Eloquence–that grace of Tongue
So rare, so lovely!–Never misapplied
By her to palliate Vice, or deck a Wrong,
She speaks and reasons but on Virtue’s side.

Her’s is the Energy of Soul sincere.
Her Christian Spirit ignorant to feign,
Seeks but to comfort, heal, enlighten, chear,
Confer a pleasure, or prevent a pain.–

Can ought enhance such Goodness?–Yes, to me,
Her partial favour from my earliest years
Consummates all.–Ah! Give me yet to see
Her smile of Love.–the Vision disappears.

‘Tis past and gone–We meet no more below.
Short is the Cheat of Fancy o’er the Tomb.
Oh! might I hope to equal Bliss to go!
To meet thee Angel! in thy future home!–

Fain would I feel an union in thy fate,
Fain would I seek to draw an Omen fair
From this connection in our Earthly date.
Indulge the harmless weakness–Reason, spare.

In the poem Jane says she has “mix’d emotions” on her “natal day” in 1808. On that day 4 years ago she knew she would never lay her eyes on Anne Lefroy again; her friend had been “snatch’d away.” An unexpected accident is a great blow. So now a day which gave her “Life & Light & Hope” is an occasion for feeling penetratingly a “bitter pang of torturing Memory.”

She then remembers her friend’s powers, what she valued her friend for: “Talents, Temper, mind . . . solid Worth . . . captivating Grace.” A friend to all, an ornament to the human race. This is going very high, but Austen likens Anne Lefroy to Samuel Johnson, and says that like him, when Anne Lefroy died, there was no substitute, “No second best . . . “None can remind us even of the Man.” (I read this phrase in Boswell’s Life of Johnson and that may be where Jane read it too.)

Vainly she searches. Not there, nowhere around her, only a “vacant space.” And so she says, she will conjure up a vision of her. “Fancy” is much kinder to us, an “indulgent power” — Austen’s idea of hope here is unlike Pope’s ironic witty utterance: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast/Man never is, but always to be blest.” Cool distance has become melancholy shivering: “Hope is desponding, chill, severe to thee!” Thee here can be Austen herself, probably is. So she turns to Fancy.

What does she remember. Not literal looks. Rather the woman’s psychological nature, their friendship, an asserted love for Jane herself, a voice harmonious I’m tempted to remember Emma Woodhouse who valued modulated voices unlike Mr Martin’s, but Austen knows better than to stay here: it’s what Anne would say, “sense . . . Genius, Taste & Tenderness of Soul . . . genuine warmth of heart without pretence,” and we cannot ignore the turn away from sensuality, sexuality, in that “purity of Mind.”

We are given a panegyric like Austen’s brother gave her: neither of them ever “misapplied” their Tongues, spoke and reasoned “on Virtue’s Side. In spoken words, Anne Lefroy sought “to comfort, heal, enlighten, chear,/Confer a pleasure, or prevent a pain — ” This is Popian poetic art: antitheses used for emotional instead of ironic reinforcement.

Can anything go beyond this? Yes. That she liked Jane, was “partial to her” from her “earliest years.” No small thing. Jane asks Fancy to allow her to see Anne Lefroy smiling with love at her. But no, “the Vision disappears:” “Tis past & gone — We meet no more more.” This “Cheat of Fancy” over a Tomb is short.

The poem ends with Austen hoping to be united to her friend once more after death, the dream many have had of death. There is a medieval picture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in a glass case) where we see pairs of friends clutching each other against a flowery flat green background; rows of these from top to bottom. Perhaps she says this terrible pain of having had her friend die, which creates a union of memory in her mind augurs a “connection” to be. She asks Fancy to “indulge this harmless weakness,” for that’s how she regards this idea.

“Reason, spare.” Reason, a deeply felt of reality from knowledge of experience tells her otherwise. Jane was not a religious woman.

This is almost a repeat of what I wrote on December 16th, 2011, when I was as yet unwidowed, and had not felt the true bereftness of grief. At the time I had not as yet visited Chawton House Library (as it used to be called), and only seen Chawton cottage once. Now I’ve been to Chawton cottage twice (once very thoroughly) and particated in a four day conference on Charlotte Smith at Chawton House Library.

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Romola Garai as Emma playing the piano after returning from a very ambiguous experience in an assembly ball (2009 BBC Emma, scripted by Sandy Welch), the most recent of the heritage-faithful type of adaptation (see list)

I have not yet found a way to blog regularly on Austen; my scheme to blog once a week on a book like Paula Byrne’s in the event turns out to be unworkable; I feel as if I’m using the book too invasively; one or two blog reviews a book is for most of them the ethical way to go about it. I had thought of collecting news items and did so this week:

1) the latest Emma movie, as written about most intelligently by Caroline Hallemann in a Town and Country article (followed by the latest Royal Scandal);

2) the latest “Jane Austen find” by Devoney Looser, as in fan fiction, really a letter possibly by Mary Russell Mitford. It’s behind a paywall at the newly semi-pop (trying for this) dumbing down TLS as “fan fiction or fan fact”, followed by some secrets hitherto unknown about Oliver Sacks. Mary Russell Mitford was a writer and neighbor, & is discussed perceptively in the most recent issue of Persuasion, ‘Jane Austen and Mary Mitford: A New Appraisal” by Azar Hussain (the essay not one of those online, alas). See also Oliphant on Mitford, Austen and their first biographers.

3) Janine Barchas at the Blarb for a Los Angeles publication, where she presents as a new find an essay on Arthur’s Miller’s (dreadful) radio adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. It is not quite a new find; several years now I heard a full paper by Sylvia Marks on this adaptation; here’s a summary from an earlier blog here:

Sylvia Kasey Marks’s paper was on the 20th century great playwright, Arthur Miller and the 18th century forger, Henry Ireland. She discussed them as both appropriating the work or understood persona and style of someone else. In the early phase of his career Miller wrote radio plays, and some of these are dramatizations of someone else’s novel. She demonstrated that in Miller’s case we see him consistently change his original to fit his own vision. Unlike Ireland, Miller was not trying to find a new space in which he could create something unlike what others were writing at the time. He was building his career and operating within a considerable group of constraints (which include pleasing the audience). Sylvia told the whole sad story of Ireland, including a conflict with his father, and how we may see popular attitudes towards Shakespeare in some of Ireland’s writing.

It seems to me there’s nothing for it but to take the time out periodically and read a good book on Austen or by one of her near contemporaries (or on such a contemporary) and write a good review. It comes down to picking a book.  I will be returning to view and write about Jane Austen’s Sanditon, Anna Lefroy’s continuation, once again Chris Brindle’s filmed play and at length,

4) soon to air on PBS, Andrew Davies’ interesting (if finally a failure) attempt at modernizing extending and yet keeping within the Austen canon, Sanditon

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Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s portrait of Marie-Gabrille Capet (1798) — L-G specialized in portraits, at which she was very good, and which paid — early on she married unhappily and quickly left her husband so had to support herself

Last I have been developing blogs on actresses once again and first up will be Susannah Maria Arne Cibber (1714-66) and then fast forward to Barbara Flynn. I’m reading an excellent concise artistic biographical study of Adelaide Labille-Guiard (1749-1803) for my first woman painter. Foremother poets are a intimidating cornucopia, but if I include prose-poets, maybe Virginia Woolf as seen in Night and Day (a very enjoyable insightful and underrated novel) will be my first — not that Woolf needs me to blog about her.

Ellen

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A photograph of the wall at Lyme from the water side (contemporary) — see my review of Lucy Worseley’s JA at Home, book & film

Dear friends and readers,

I finally unsubscribed from Janeites on this past Sunday night, and will no longer be putting any postings on Austen-l — after being on the first list for more than 20 years and the second some quarter of a century. A sad evening. I asked myself if I learn anything about Austen on Janeites, now at groups.io (after considerable trouble and work) and previously at yahoo; do I experience any pleasure in ideas about her, gain any perspective on her era, contemporaries, the books or authors or people or places she was influenced, and the sad answer was no. Often just the opposite. I faced up to the reality that the listserv space is one Arnie Perlstein’s playground for preposterous sexed-up and male-centered (he is ever finding famous white males like Milton or more modern males in Austen) theories and from others who support him semi fan-fiction postings (such as the idea that Mr Knightley wrote or dictated Mr Martin’s letter to Harriet). The latest very long thread was once again about how Jane Fairfax is pregnant in Emma (I’m not sure if Frank Churchill or John Knightley was the candidate this time) and the idea the full fantasia of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is central to Austen’s Emma.

I felt bad about deserting the list-moderator but it seemed to me the latest series went beyond previous in a tone of triumph and enjoyment which suggested one motive was to show contempt for the purpose of the listserv (and mockery of the helpless membership), which disdain and exultation the moderator (in effect) replied to by writing (as she has so many times before) with the purpose of the list:  its terrain was to read Jane Austen’s actual texts, discuss them, her era, and her real life. She has said also repeatedly how she dislikes these sexed-up “shadow texts” and how what is said about Austen, their content ruins her enjoyment of the books. A couple of people then told me (through the message mechanism on face-book) how they laugh at such threads — that reminded me of the way people enjoyed Scottie Bowman on Austen-l years ago (he had a gift for needling malice). One person had the courage to onlist explain she stayed only for sentimental reasons — remembering what was. Maybe it was the latter sentiment that determined me to face up to the demoralization and aggravation this particular kind of debasement of Austen the money- and career-making cult leads to.

Lest my last phrase be misunderstood what I am referring to is that part of the reason Jane Austen (as a name, a picture, a set of titles) has spread so widely is the pair of words makes money for many people and has been used by many to further their careers — from getting tenure, to heritage businesses, to touring oneself, to selling objects, to setting up tours for others (at a price), from business as far apart as the hotel industry (JASNA is kept expensive in order to keep the meetings smaller), to toy and knick-knack manufacturers and (at one time) séance mediums, to running sites de memoire.

It matters that while the secondary literature on Austen has grown exponentially, her oeuvre remains tiny and easy to read through in say less than two weeks. Yet I’ve met people at these JASNAs who at best have read 2 of the novels. And yes many of these participants will say they “hate” Mansfield Park; lately participants I’ve met suggest Mr Knightley is “really” in love with Jane Fairfax; they get this from some of the Emma movies. JASNA having finally “allowed” in panels on sequels is now not just flooded with them — you see it in the shop — one of the years the very topic was in effect these sequels and movies. JASNA grew to its present size after the first of the contemporary Jane Austen movies in 1995/96.

Maybe now with so many vying to publish about her, it’s not so easy to be published in journals, and fan fiction is no longer a publisher dream of an easy sell, but an essay on her, an umpteenth film adaptation of Emma will get further than than any essay on a “minor” (obscure) woman writer? Who has heard of Margaret Oliphant? Charlotte Smith? The situation may be similar for Sherlock Holmes as a name and set of titles — as well as a literal place Holmes lived in — as if the character actually existed. Readers can invest whatever they want into these post-texts (or sequels).

I find very troubling how reputable scholars have argued in print that it’s okay to tell lies, it’s okay if the printed material or what is taught is all wrong, is the product of political censorship, or if what is on display is salacious, misogynistic, just plain stupid. I objected to this supposed neutrality in Devoney Looser’s latest book. She implied it’s elitist to insist on accuracy and truth and explicitly undervalued the difference between knowledge and illusion, credible evidence and lies.

Group and social dynamics in cyberspace work differently than in real space, so one or two people can take over and ruin a listserv, silence everyone else; scapegoating is easy. So one of the things some site-owners (face-book moderators, listserve owners and moderators) whose platforms survive do is early on or soon enough establish parameters on what is somehow pernicious nonsense — Hardy Cook had a hard time at first with his Shaksper-l and now just forbids all stupidity over the idea that Wm Shakespeare did not write his books; these kinds of ideas circulate among lots of (foolish snobbish) people; or (as I have seen many times now), you say this face-book page is for this author and no other authors; discussions about contemporary politics are out; this is not the space to talk of movies or your favorite star-actor. Today Shaksper-l is a sober discussion of Shakespeare’s plays, the productions, real cruxes in the scholarship &c Athurnet years ago is another place where setting boundaries on theories of where the Arthur matter came from finally worked. I’ve seen this on face-book fan pages — more than one determined moderator is sometimes needed. Most of these kinds of posters fall silent without an audience to triumph over.

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On the Janeites list I had been trying with the list moderator to agree on a book of literary criticism or history about Jane Austen where each chapter would bring us to the text or her life again. We would try to post weekly on Austen through such a text. I had tried posting on the essays in the most recent Persuasions (as a text many members might own) starting in summer but few people were interested in serious analysis or any discussion at all, in reading such writing.

I have been having a difficult time keeping this blog going — with all the literary and film and other study (for teaching and classes I go to) I do in the other parts of my life, and had proposed to go back to series: of actresses, fore-mother poets, women artists, serial dramas based on the 18th century or film adaptations of historical fiction based on the early modern to early 19th century European cultures. But I know this excludes Austen. So now I’ll have an alternative thread if I can manage this: once a week or so, blog on a chapter on a book genuinely engaged with Austen’s texts, life, era. I’ll begin with Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things. Long range I’d like also to try for one of the books on the relationship of Jane Austen’s texts to the plays or theater of her time.

Accordingly, I have changed my header picture to a picturesque illustration found in one of the older handbooks for Austen, F. B. Pinion’s A Jane Austen Companion. Pinion’s is a beautifully made book (sewn, heavy paper, a lot of rag content in the boards). It’s filled with various kind of pictures (plates, photos, vignettes) where the material is written as clear essays critically surveying Austen’s life, the early phases of her writing, a chapter each for the major novels, topics like influence, her reputation. Places, character studies. Dulce and utile is a phrase that is rightly applied to this book. Manydown house is now gone: it was the Bigg-Wither home where Austen bravely went back on a weak moment where she said yes to an unsuitable man for her as an individual; and it was the place where assembly-type balls were held in her time. Thus it seems to me appropriate.


Susan Herbert’s parody of Adelaide Labille-Guiard’s Self-portrait with Two Pupils (1785)

Ellen

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