Archive for March 31st, 2020

Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) curled up with Pride and Prejudice (2008 Dan Zeff, Guy Andrews, Lost in Austen)

It is a truth generally acknowledged that we are all longing to escape. I escape always to my favorite book Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it [turning of pages heard] so many times now, the words just say themselves in my head, and it is like a window opening. It’s like I’m actually there … It’s become a place I know so intimately I can see that world I can … I see Mr Darcy …. [vanishes, back to present time] … Now where was I? …. (2008 Lost in Austen)

Friends and readers of Jane Austen,

I’ve not written anything on the present COVID-19 pandemic because I was trying to counter the topic; everywhere else just now we are just all COVID-19 all the time; I had in mind one of the marvelous utterances of Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, when asked by a joining member if they ever read anything other than Austen, Bernadette (Kathy Baker) replies, “oh no, we are just all Jane Austen all the time!” What I wanted to do was dramatically read aloud, the first chapter and the 34th (where Darcy proposes, and Elizabeth refuses him) of Pride and Prejudice, to make a speaking video of myself. I thought of it as a playful, fun things to do & for me a new experience to hear my voice aloud on the Net.

But alas, I am so old & ugly (all wrinkled skin) but when I tried to reverse the camera, & hold a copy of the book behind the screen at the same time as reading in front of it, I found I had not enough hands. No place in the house, including a piano where I could prop up what I needed to. And then, though I’ve been much praised when I’ve done reading from Austen (recently in a dramatic reading class), the thought occurred that in all cases there were real people in the room, who were themselves reading, who knew me, and might be inclined to be kinder. I might be taken as wanting more praise than I do — I know I’m no professional. My idea was to amuse in a new more distinctly felt human way — what more appealing than human voices (as Penelope Fitzgerald ironically says in her book of that title). And then I felt the question (the prejudice against as not sufficiently middle class) of my ineradicable New York City accent …

March — Prudie (Emily Blunt) wisely reading silently to herself Mansfield Park (2007 Robin Swicord, The Jane Austen Book Club)

So what to do? I turned to see what Austen had to say about illness. Worse yet. Not much solace here. It’s not just that in Persuasion we learn sickrooms are not places for heroism, places where people are seen far from their best, and in Sanditon, the way to cope with illness and death (as in a number of Austen’s letters) is to be wildly antipathetic, as in Jane to Cassandra: “I believe I never told you that Mrs Coulthard and Ann, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary [James’s wife, nine months pregnant] with the news” (Letter 11). This is a mild joke. She most often refuses to believe people are ill; confronted with mental suffering, she spits out caustic or wry references. Mockery of hypocrisy (as with Mrs Norris) or forgiving people is her stance. Mrs Smith, near destitute, utterly crippled, is so egregious an example of unwellness, she cannot dismiss her — and what seems to make Austen tolerant is Mrs Smith (most unusually implies Austen) has a buoyant spirit, much fortitude and patience. (See my “Depiction of Widows and Widowers.”)

Perhaps as this is supposed a blog about women in art, followers in some sense of Austen perhaps, if I turned to other writers. Susan Sontag’s Illness as a Metaphor sprung to mind. Won’t do, because quite rightly much of the energy of the piece is devoted to ripping the metaphors away and making us recognize the real miseries of sickness and death, and shearing away hypocrisies to lay bare before us how people withdraw from the ill person, stigmatize the condition, give it a moral meaning (including fantasies about who gets sick and who doesn’t as if your attitude of mind makes you blameable). Sound, I admit, and with its rock bottom disillusion, reminiscent of Austen.

On a listserv I’m on for Virginia Woolf, someone suggested her “One Being Ill” is peculiarly a propos. I can link the text in, and agree with her that illness can alter consciousness, give us new insights into ourselves and other people, enable us to read texts in new ways. Here I felt her moving onto these insights was taking us dangerously into the territory of turning illness into a metaphor. When you are truly sick, it is hard to read, but again I found myself back with Austen from a different direction. Woolf finds the idea that people are linked together from illness an illusion; each person she suggests is in a “virgin forest” of isolation (perhaps she is thinking of a first severe illness). And Nature indifferent.

There is a good reading aloud of a translation of an unabridged text (and used Audio CDS may be found)

Eighteenth century texts will neither counter illness or offer much cheer — it was an age of satire. Of course the one everyone thinks of is Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (1666 is the year imagined), and it is just such a calamitous situation that our present social distancing is desperately trying to avoid. This is a not atypical moment:

“He was going along the Street, raving mad to be sure, and singing, the People only said, he was drunk; but he himself said, he had the Plague upon him, which, it seems, was true; and meeting this Gentlewoman, he would kiss her; she was terribly frighted as he was only a rude Fellow, and she run from him, but the Street being very thin of People, there was no body near enough to help her: When she see he would overtake her, she turn’d, and gave him a Thrust so forcibly, he being but weak, and push’d him down backward: But very unhappily, she being so near, he caught hold of her, and pull’d her down also; and getting up first, master’d her, and kiss’d her; and which was worst of all, when he had done, told her he had the Plague, and why should not she have it as well as he. She was frighted enough before, being also young with Child; but when she heard him say, he had the Plague, she scream’d out and fell down in a Swoon, or in a Fit, which tho’ she recover’d a little, yet kill’d her in a very few Days, and I never heard whether she had the Plague or no.” Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year (1722), p. 184.

I came across a qualification from a member of another listserv: “Defoe does all he can to “challenge … the inhuman behavior in all the sources. Scandals told of the buriers, doctors, watchmen, nurses, he is unable to accept.The refusal to condemn, the tempering of any adverse judgment of the population and the authorities, is the most characteristic quality of the “Journal.” In almost every case the participants are exonerated from any charge of cruel behavior or offensive conduct. Reminding us of the charity and benevolence of London’s citizenry in the past, and given our moment in time, Defoe’s Plague Year might be a saner and more supportive and even reassuring read than Camus” (whose La Peste likens those rats to fascists, a worrying topic for us today)

I thought of Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, written in the 19th century, imitative in some ways of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, is a novel set in the 17th, in Milan (Lombardy is today not a lucky place), plague appeared in 1630 and (it’s said) half the population died, and a crazy paranoia arose whereby it was thought evil people were spreading the Black Plague by smearing oily substances about; suspects were hanged. I recommend this book, but for the purposes of this blog I was just not getting anywhere.

And then I thought of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1660-1720), whose work I spent so many years on: she had probably more than one nervous breakdown, suffered badly from depression, and none of this helped her physical well-being. Like Woolf I suppose, but Finch wrote much more about distressed and distraught states of mind, analyzing depression itself (the first attempt to do so without blaming anyone, without attributing the state to God’s intervention). Her verses which have been seen as proto-romantic, where she immerses herself in the natural world, are deeply-felt moments of healing in retirement, and then of taking back control and finding comfort and fortitude.

And so now I do have something, not too heavy, lovely  to share, offering good humor, beauty and strength out of disaster, Finch’s poem to a “Fair Tree,” in an early form not in print (so it’s a text you will not read in the new standard edition), from a manuscript:

Fair Tree! for thy delightfull shade
‘Tis just that some return be made;
Sure some return, is due from me
To thy cool shadows, and to thee.
When thou to birds doest shelter give,
Thou musick doest from them receive;
If Travellers beneath thee stay
‘Till storms have worn themselves away,
That time in praising thee, they spend
And thy protecting pow’r, commend.
The Shepheard here, from scorching freed,
Tunes to thy daancing leaves, his reed;
Whilst his lov’d nymph, in thanks bestows
Here flow’ry Chaplets on thy boughs.
Shall I then, only silent be,
And no return be made by me?
No, lett this wish upon thee waite,
And still to florish, be thy fate.
To future ages may’st thou stand
Untoutch’d by the rash workmans hand,
Till that large stock of sap is spent,
Which gives thy somers ornament;
Till the feirce winds, that vainly strive
To shock thy greatnesse, whilst alive,
Shall on thy lifelesse hour attend,
Prevent the axe, and grace thy end,
Their scatter’d strength together call,
And to the clouds proclaim thy fall,
Who then their evening dews, may spare
When thou no longer art their care,
But shalt, like Ancient Hero’s, burn,
And some bright hearth be made thy Urn.

Here it is, read aloud accompanied by “Epping Forest” from John Playford’s “The English Dancing Master 1670, 11th Edition,” the painting which emerges, “The Oak Tree”, isby Joseph Farrington, 1747-1821.


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