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Archive for June, 2020


A page from the Folger Manuscript book of Finch’s poems (written up or in 1704-1709)

On my selfe

Good Heav’en I thank thee, Since it was design’d
I shou’d be fram’d but of the weaker kind,
That yet my Soul, is rescu’d from the Love
Of all those trifles, which their passions move
Pleasures, and Praises, and Company with me
Have their Just Vallue, if allow’d they be;
Freely, and thankfully, as much I taste
As will not reason, nor Religion waste,
If they’re deny’d, I on my Selfe can live
Without the aids a cheating World can give
When in the Sun, my wings can be display’d
And in retirement I can have the shade.
— Finch-Hatton 283, pp 34-35 (printed first in 1903 Reynolds, pp 14-15), but taken from MS Portland, Vol 19, p 212 (located in Longleate)

Dear friends and readers,

Though now and again I’ve posted a poem by Anne Finch, or included her in a discussion here of women’s poetry, especially in the long 18th century, I’ve never attempted a foremother poet blog. I feel I know too much, and cannot see how I can contain what I know into a small enough compass that a blog-essay demands. I understand this suggests I am too much involved even now, some nearly 30 years after I first started to read and seek out and study her oeuvre seriously. See my website region for her. I am nonetheless going to write about her here because I’ve been asked to review the new standard edition of her poetry for Cambridge University Press by Jennifer Keith with the help of Claudia Thomas Kairoff and several other women scholars for an eighteeth-century newsletter.

On my desk is Volume I of II (the second volume to come out this coming January), hereinafter called Keith. I’ve found over the last month (I am going slowly partly because I am doing other things) that to do this in a genuinely evaluative critical manner I must go back to all my work and re-familiarize myself: this includes returning to all the manuscripts and early printed books her poetry appears in, and at least going over the history of the criticism and anthology tradition. And I’ve discovered that in this returning to the whole of this material for the first time in 16 years, I have reached a new phase in my responsiveness to this woman, her life, her work; if not detached, I am looking at it afresh.


A photograph of the ancient battered copy of Myra Reynolds’s 1903 edition of Finch’s poems, which I have worked with since I first bought it in the 1980s

Alas, I am become so alive to Finch’s many faults: among them, the unfinished crude nature of work she was not sure would ever reach public eyes, the unevenness of this material and other work she did prepare for publication. The reality that her lack of any confidence in her ability not to write good poems but to be judged fairly, to be read in an unbiased manner, without hostility to her as a woman, her fear of any exposure of her private life (which included bad depressions, anxiety-attacks, her husband and her Jacobitism, her uncertain status as unexpectedly she became a titled aristocrat) made her revise her work in ways that made it worse. She broke apart beautifully personal poems, rewrote some of her best strong lines (as possibly transgressive). I was long aware that in writing she obeyed the way poetry was written at the time: she may have feminized but she held to popular social verse genres. I think these stifled her poetic gifts. Finch needed not only to feminize them (which like other women in this era, she did), but to more daringly than she did, make them autobiographical and develop the simpler lyric forms. She could be effective in pindaric odes, but often she is not: she is not self-critical enough.  Some of the devotional work (especially paraphrases and some narratives) are dreadful.

Far from concentrating on her masks, we must go beneath and against the grain of these to drive down to where her soul is at. I agree with Keith she is a separate presence not equivalent to her “muse” and all the allegorical apparatus of psychology and landscape she divided her mind into, but find it is that presence insofar as it emerges and sometimes dominates that makes for her living poetry today.

I know this is not a popular or even accepted attitude among the women and the few men (mostly seeing themselves as feminists) studying Finch and her contemporaries today. They go at the poetry to prove Finch was admired then, built up an authority for herself (so wrote strategically) by the use of tropes and genres of the era — this fame or authority is what they value too.  They want to show how ambitious she was, how influential.  Obeying conventions made her poetry socially acceptable but not necessarily read or in reality understood or sincerely valued. Who can today respond to the delusions of cautious 1790s Jacobitism? or a mausoleum of Beaumont and Fletcher techniques combined with naive ideas about monarchs and some memories of  a Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night transvestite heroine to make a play? As with so many women of this and other eras, there is  so much religious poetry.


Among the first pages of the Northamptonshire book (renamed by Keith) and what I called MS Finch-Hatton 283 (it was so called & numbered by the Northampton office) or sometimes on my website Godmersham-Wye (because that’s where it was probably written out) you see the lovely scribal hand and somewhat older fashioned lettering of the first group of poems in this first ms. The earliest poem is from 1682, the latest 1704.

I also disagree with some things done by these new editors.   They are apparently attempting to give the scholarly reader a close an experience of the four primary sources as is humanly possible in a book format.

I chose the texts individually on my website, either the first or the text I believe (and I maintain there are no protocols that enable the editor to escape subjectivity) is the best. They prefer the Folger for their copy text to the 1713 edition of a poem because they want to show the ms and they don’t want to reprint a poem twice. I prefer texts in the Finch-Hatten manuscript (from the family names) or Godmersham-Wye (again from where Anne and Heneage were living during the time it was written) to the Folger because I believe many are better in the earlier form.  They have named Finch-Hatton 283 the Northamptonshire manuscript because the copy resides in the Northamptonshire documentary records office (I bought it as a microfilm, turned that into xeroxes). They refuse to rearrange the poems in any order other than the one found in the sources, though these orders are often happenstance, poems put in not chronologically (when they were written) but as they came to hand or by genre (if one could be found).

The result, let me say here, is a standard edition that makes Finch into a writer of poetry no ordinary reader will easily make sense of, or read for enjoyment or historically (unless strong attention is paid to transcribed alternative lines). Finch comes across as disordered, repetitious, in fragments. They have not quite overcome the problem of chronology — it is truly impossible objectively to date most of the poems — since they have to choose a single copy text.  So maybe one of the F-H 283 poems is written later than the Folger corpus, or some in the MS Wellesley written quite early.

It is true that the four major sources are put into chronological order as books, which ms or book came first is first and so on. I would call these two volumes an edition of the manuscripts except that each poem is printed only once, with preference given to the Folger Ms. It is not so much a book to read as a scholarly tool to consult. Now if this is what is wanted in a standard edition, this is a good standard edition — except they have omitted poems that are by Anne Finch, even if not to a religious certainty.  Ironically, this means my website still has a purpose.  You can find poems by her certainly (the imitative translation of Bion), poems probably by her (column kind of verses, often autobiographical), and poems that are possibly or probably not by her but are worth considering.

But I can’t make any start in thinking about this edition and how to represent it in an academic review until I put together and write out what I had in my mind when I made that website but never wrote up individually in one place: I never in one place described the sources of these poems –I admit I had real trouble with the unattributed ones put in miscellanies. And not just descriptions of these sources, but how many poems in them, which are authorized, or clearly hers, or probably hers, or worth perusing for possible (though not probable) attribution.

Why I did not write it out in one place at the time I put up the website (2002-4) I know not.  Maybe because it seemed so basic and fundamental in my mind.  Now I have had to rebuild a document from different places on the website because I forgot a good deal.  It will be a comparative document to work with or from. But I cannot put such a document onto the website since Jim died as I cannot cope with the technology without him. It is no longer publishable, if it ever were — by me, at any rate.  For several years now I no longer correct  or add to that website.  I know I should make a separate blog about errors I made that having read this Cambridge book I am aware of (like in dating and some recondite editions and manuscripts I was not able to see), but I doubt anyone will come to my site for such information any more; but I will write in general of whatever I have learned better about once I finish reading the two new volumes.

Whence this is first of probably more than two working blogs,  which are linked into re-considered poems put into newly ordered lists.

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Wye College Kent (today), where Anne wrote some of her earliest and most beautiful (and melancholy) poems

In this blog I describe the four major authorized books: 3 manuscripts and 1 printed book.

MS Finch-Hatton 283 (so titled by the Northamptonshire office), now N. Although earliest poem in N is 1682 (the nearly obliterated The Grove), I dated this elegant octavo book as copied out as of 1694, and no longer in use by 1704 (copied out much later than the previous and in a hasty hand, the poem upon the hurricane). The first poem copied out is “The Introduction.”. N has an index, is 143 pages and is described in Keith, pp cxxvii-cxxxii (who had the advantage of people in the office sending her descriptions). I counted 59 items, 2 obliterated, so 57 items, minus 1 for which I preferred MS Portland 19 (“On my selfe”) so 56 items for an edition. I salvaged what I could of 2 of the 4 almost destroyed copies, producing pieces for two more texts, so from MS F-H 283 I had 58 poems. All but 7 re-appear in some version in MS Folger; so 52 items shared by both MS Finch-Hatton (N) and MS Folger (F).  To sum up, Keith in new edition says 1690-96; I conjecture 1694 to 1704.

MS Folger now F (so titled as owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library). Now in sum, Keith in new edition limits this one to 1701-2 (as a single, one time compilation). I conjecture 1704-1709 as copied out over a number of years the way the  N (F-H 283) poems were. By no means were all of them written during that time. Anne and Heneage come to live at Eastwell & settle in permanently by 1704. I suggest  the second manuscript book (MS Folger) was begun then, and then it was Anne wrote the preface. F begins with dedicatory poems, and then a prose “The Preface” (a footnote at the bottom of the preface points to the later insertion of Anne’s three pieces from the Italian of the Aminta, which had been decided on since she wrote the preface) and then we again have “The Introduction”. It consists of a series of poems, then two plays and then another series of poems. The handwriting differs in the different sections. No index. It’s not as elegant a book. This one has 68 new items because a 69th is always misprinted as three separated poems (“The Bird and the Arras”), beginning with the 1713 Miscellany where two parts appear, followed by Reynolds in 1903 where all three appear (as separate poems). There are 121 individual works (not counting the introductory poems by other people to her and not counting the two pieces of poems never copied out), 52 of which appear in MS F-H 283; 69 only in MS Folger. Of the 69 one is pasted over and not recoverable. There is also a 12 page break in the numbers (p 261, then p 273); one could conjecture there was a poem here which was pulled out. I have not counted these in the items as there is nothing to indicate that there was a poem there for certain. F is described in Keith, pp cxxxii-cxl. 1706 could be a terminus ad quem for the time of the writing of these poems because the book does not include two Tunbridge satires (found elsewhere); the reference to Mons in “An Invitation to Dafnis is dated 1706.

Anne was slowly moving from the personally referential religious and analytical pastoral meditations (long and short) of her court years, and the striking songs (some so knowing and bitter about what it was like to be a woman in this misogynistic aggressive court) from the 1690s through early 1700s, the MS F-H 283 and the early MS Folger — to a much more apparently impersonal and ironic poetry. So she is moving from a later 17th century woman poet to hudibrastic fables (out of translation work), impersonal Pope-like pastorals, and anacreontics in Prior’s gay amoral vein. She had written within the genres of later 17th century poets; now she is working within the newer sub-genres of the early Augustan era. Why 1709? it is in 1709 we find Tonson publishing some of the later MS Folger poems, and 1709 is the last date in the MS Folger: “A Tale of the Miser and the Poet,” written in a kind of naturalistic doggerel which dominates some of her fables in the 1713 Miscellany and many of the comic poems in MS Wellesley.

Volume I of Keith’s edition is based on only the above two major source texts. And it seems they are determined to eliminate as many texts outside the major four sources as possible (as safest).

1713 Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions, Written by a Lady (in 1714, her name and title appear). Written and or copied out and prepared for publication 1710-1713. Anne plans a book which she goes through with: it is basically comprised of translations and imitations, impersonal poetry and a very few personal poems whose real meaning or full or autobiographical significance has been obscured or cut away. It contains many poems from “the French” (La Fontaine, Madame Deshouliers, Racine, La Calprenede, Regnier), from Tasso’s Aminta, from Milton in the manner of Philips’ The Splendid Shilling), from the Bible. Out of 83 poems, 39 of which are new and not to be found in any manuscript form, 35 are fables and another 9 either imitations, translations, or paraphrases of other works; her earlier songs, pastorals, and meditations are censured and/or otherwise presented impersonally, the epistles mostly attached to occasions. Now the first poem is “MERCURY and the ELEPHANT. A Prefatory FABLE,” first line: “As Merc’ry travell’d thro’ a Wood … “ (see my commentary in the form of a posting to C18-l: “An elephant fretting to no purpose“). Anne used the concept of genre and the technique of translation and imitation as a mask under or through which she attempts to express herself.   The impersonality of the poetry and Heneage’s elevation to the peerage gave her the courage to go through with it. This is a book which obscures her finest gifts and their source. It was the favored copy text of Reynolds; so many of the texts in Reynold’s well-meant, earnest, fine scholarly edition (for her era) represent the form a poem took in this 1713-14 volume.

MS Wellesley. 1714-1720. It was during this period that Anne and Heneage decided to gather together those poems by Anne which she did not wish to publish but which he and she wished to save. I think these were copied out mostly before Anne’s death as many of them may be dated before her very last illness (1718-19). This manuscript has been published and fully described as a manuscript annotated now twice: by Jean Ellis-d’Alessandro (introd., ed), The Wellesley Manuscript Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea. Florence, 1988 (Ellis-d’Alessandro Poems); and by Barbara McGovern and Charles H. Hinnant (as editors), The Anne Finch Wellesley Manuscript Poems: A Critical Edition. Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1998 (McGovern/Hinnant). I was able to buy the MS from Wellesley as a paper xerox. There are 54 texts (counting the one which exists in two distinct versions as two). There is a significant return to religious poetry precisely of the type that she wrote in MS F-H and printed in 1696 Tate, with the addition of a new “kind,” the impersonal dramatic narrative, altogether 16 (or if you do not count her epistle to Catherine Fleming which prefaces her paraphrase of Eccles) or 15 out of 53, only they are superior because chastened polished lyrics instead of cumbersome paraphrases of psalms. She also returns to ideas in MS Finch-Hatton and Tate and 1701 Gilden (“The Retirement”), to autobiographical poems, where she utters ideas like it was strange and wholly unexpected that she should end up living a life of solitude, cut off from society. Her childhood in Northampton with her maternal Haslewood relatives,  also the Kingsmill grandmother is presumably referred to here.

In the Wellesley MS Jacobitism, is not censured — though it no longer comes across as strongly as it did in Anne Finch’s earlier post-Stuart court years. Numbers of the poems are private, familial and enigmatic. Others are uncorrected or performed in the plain doggerel careless way. These plain unadorned poems may please the modern reader (some of them are very good), but the decorum and practice of the time show that they were (like the poetry of Lady Hertford and other educated women) intended for ephemeral consumption by friends. There is no introduction or preface; there is no attempt to group kinds of poetry. Indeed, the manuscript begins with page 49 (thus ruling out as a certainty that Anne and Heneage began in 1716 with “On Lady Cartret”). What were supposed to be copied onto pp 1-49 is anyone’s guess (perhaps more of Anne’s poetry but I doubt this). There is finally a wholesale variety of types (by no means is this an overwhelming devotional volume) — all of which, I think, argues that Anne and Heneage were treating this last book as a private depository for Anne’s poetry, not intended to be or coming too late to be published by her (not ill), not as a working source for a book to be published.

Anne and Heneage also put in (perhaps as they got hold of them) earlier poems which had been left out of the MS F-H 283 (N) and Folger (F) or 1713 Miscellany: two from Wye College between 1702 and 1703, two written at Lewston to Long-leat, 1704, one from Tunbridge Wells, 1706, another to Ann Tufton, 1707-9, perhaps at Hothfield or Thanet House, four from 1712, two sent to the Hatton family, one to Pope, one on the death of Heneage’s old friend and companion at the court of James II. These appear interwoven with Anne’s latest poems which all appear to have written after the 1713 Miscellany and its 1714 reprint and up to the time of Anne’s death; they can be variously dated from 1714, 1715 (five poems are so dated), 1716, 1718, 1719, and 1720.

In their introduction to their edition of the Wellesley McGovern and Hinnant candidly state that there was no substantial edition of Finch’s poems between 1713 and 1903 and ask why?  They say the poems in this ms volume are Jacobite, even if mutedly so, that the Finches were seen as compromised Tories. I think it was also to hide Anne’s depression and anxiety syndrome, which might have been seen had more of her poems been printed. The family kept them hidden.

I assume the above two volumes:  1713 book and Wellesley ms, will be the basis for Volume II.

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Amazon has reprinted one of the more interesting volumes in which we find both attributed and unattributed poems by Finch: the 1701 volume put together by Charles Gilden or Nicholas Rowe

I shall stop here and (I hope) inside several days produce a second blog for the poems scattered in printed and manuscript miscellanies, where some texts are attributed to Anne Finch and are clearly by her, others not as clearly attributed (“by the same hand”) but which the circumstances of the text itself, its content, and other contexts indicate to me they are clearly by Finch. I am going to include poems where the attribution is probable but not beyond doubt, and where the attribution is perhaps unlikely but still not to be altogether dismissed.

In the case of my review, I have the disadvantage that I do not have Volume II of Keith’s standard edition, but since she and her co-editors have made clear what are their attitudes I will by contrast include all the ms’s & printed books, for before and after those texts that seem to come from the second part of her career (as defined by Keith, beginning just around the time of the 1713 Miscellany).  Later addition: I now have both volumes.

More generally, since I often choose a different copy text, and reprint many of these (when they differ from Myra Reynolds, whose copy text was the 1713 while Keith’s is first the Folger), I hope my work will still be useful to anyone who wants to know what there is extant to know about Anne Finch. Their site is also surprisingly small; they are not generous in what they share. I have included all I could arguably say added to Reynolds.

For a glimpse at this material see Finch’s unpublished (I should have said mostly unattributed) poetry, taken from manuscripts and printed books of her era, and just beyond, e.g., the 1724 Hive Collection of Songs, an astonishingly good volume: its quality reminds me of the sixteenth-century collection England’s Helicon; it represents the best and most beautiful songs of the preceding generation. It includes no less than 16 poems which are clearly by Finch.

I end one of Finch’s unknown, and until now unprinted poem, presumably a fragment towards one more, from MS F-H 282, Heneage’s diary written into the page of an almanac for 1723, an unpaginated sheet which is the 122nd in the book.

A Fragment of a dessign’d Poem upon Pitty, found in a little paper written with in her own hand:

Pitty, the softest Attribute Above,
The tend’rest Ofspring of endearing Love,
Blest emanation from the’Eternal Seat
The Sinners claim, the Wretches safe retreat,
The Worlds inliv’ning, beneficial Ray,
The Providential Cure, the sweet allay
To all the weaknesse, to the Wants that wear
The human Frame, and urge it to Dispair,
The Tears that dew the penetential Cheek
Kind Pitty in their silent Courses seek

Ellen

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Anna Bouverie (Lindsay Duncan) waiting for Flora, her daughter’s school bus to arrive


Rev Peter Bouverie (Jonathan Coy) waiting to be called in to be told whether he’s to be promoted or not

“the suffering spirit cannot descend from its dignity of reticence. It has a nobility of its own, made sacred by many tears, by the flowing of streams of blood from unseen wounds, which cannot descend from its dais to receive pity and kindness” (Trollope of Mrs Crawley, in Last Chronicle of Barset, “Lady Lufton’s Proposition,” Ch 50)

Dear friends and readers,

I was first riveted by this tale, Joanna Trollope’s first strong success (in every way) when, as I read, I realized she was re-creating two of her renowned ancestor’s most powerful characters, the Rev Josiah Crawley and his wife, Mrs Mary Crawley.  Joanna recreates a closely analogous pair of troubled lives in the story of the highly intelligent and well-meaning but underpaid, mildly disrespected, and therefore deeply humiliated, proud, inwardly raging the Rev Peter Bouverie, and his (up to this point) selfless, compliant, overworked and not paid at all wife, an equally intelligent talented and loving wife, Anna Bouverie.  Change the vowel sounds and you have Emma Bovary.  The allusions underline the idea this kind of story — the wife seeking independence is bored and what she needs is titillating erotic romance and seduction is misogynistic.  What Anna craves is liberty, time and energy to be and find herself. My latest re-reading of The Last Chronicle of Barset left me with a newly aroused-to-anger and hurt-for Mrs Crawley. To me she was the disregarded tragic figure (all the worse since she bought into her obedient enslavement to a will and decisions against her own) and I thought to myself, this is how Joanna Trollope saw Anthony Trollope’s frequently silenced, half-starved wife.

Joanna Trollope has given some very disingenuous interviews where she says when she began to write, Anthony Trollope (she found) meant nothing to her (Trollope, Joanna, and David Finkle. “Joanna Trollope: Family Plots with Untidy Endings.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 186, Gale, 2004. Gale Literature Resource Center).  The plot of her first novel, published with a pseudonym, Caroline Harvey, Parson’s Harding’s Daughter, and other of her early historical romance pastiche novels (using the same pseudonym), the literal happenings are very different from anything her ancestor wrote (Joanna’s colonialist, taking place in India); but names, character situations, motifs are taken from Anthony Trollope’s Barcestershire. In this one of her break-away from Harvey books we meet a Miss Dunstable, are in the familiar clerical world with caste and money problems.  I have to wonder what is gained by such denials.

To me much is lost. By reading the book as a re-write ( or post-text or sequel), Anna’s quest not just to be independent, but to stop being defined and controlled in her behavior by a category (the rector’s wife), or (generalizing out) one of many women supporting a male institution with work & a life no male would do or live — makes more sense. Joanna is objecting to the patriarchy. In the most searing and startling moments in the emotionally effective TV series (written by Hugh Whitemore, directed by Giles Forster), Anna is told she is not seeking individual liberty, to find herself, to carve out space for her to achieve some time for an identity apart from Rector’s wife & a mother). If she wanted that she would take a job more commensurate with her abilities  — as she does at the end of the book & TV series when she becomes a German & French teacher in the private Catholic school that has taken her daughter in.

No, she chooses to be a clerk in a supermarket to reveal to the world that the church establishment is refusing to pay her husband adequately, exploiting and preying on his silenced loyal family. Her closest friendship is with a woman deacon, Isobel Thomson (Gabrielle Lloyd) who confronts her with disloyalty to the church and God. Joanna’s book is a commentary on Anthony’s books & characters as her Sense and Sensibility is a commentary on Austen’s novel. It is a seriously intended depiction of people who take religious faith and their church seriously — if talking to God, discussing and acting for the church’s interests, trying to identify these are not just filler – and they are not.


Anna pushes back hard against the Deacon Isobel Thomson

It is also until near the end a defense of Trollope’s much distressed and half-maddened Josiah. We study or follow Peter becoming more and more rigid, more destructive of his own marriage, as he demands his own way and obedience to his will. He requires that Anna quit the job, refuses to because there is nothing to discuss.  He enlists sycophantic women to show Anna up. Finally he takes the extraordinary step of quitting for her.  He offends the people who work in the supermarket by implying the work his wife does is demeaning,somehow disgraceful distasteful work. Still as acted by Jonathan Coy he is suffering so strongly, aching with hurt and disappointment.  (A major theme for Joanna Trollope.)  We feel for him when he realizes he need not write a sermon this week for this is now the new Archdeacon’s job.


Anna with Jonathan (Stephan Dillane) on a bench near the Archdeacon’s home

I say until near the end, for in the close both book & movie go off the rails of a proto-feminist Trollopian fable: after all Anna falls into an adulterous love affair with the new archdeacon’s younger brother, a sexy idle university student (or lecturer), Jonathan (Stephan Dillane looking like a rock star from the 1970s), grief over which drives Peter to a half-suicide. Anna goes along with the church ceremonies but these over, professes herself so quickly (& to the archdeacon too) much relieved; it’s easier to be fonder of Peter now! She now assume her attitude, the choice of boyfriend will have little effect on her relationship with her children or their memories of their father. The last scene but one of book and movie has her sitting on her husband’s grave telling him it has all been for the best, and if he doesn’t think so he needs to be in paradise longer. The last phrase precludes the idea she is getting back at him for taking it upon himself to hand in her resignation. But there is a disconcerting lack of remorse.


Eleanor confiding in Anna during a visit, after a dinner party


Later that morning, Anne back home, waiting (again) for the bus, thinking

She now becomes a kind of guru or model to emulate for her friend, Eleanor Ramsey (Pam Ferris), a successful but bitter novelist who leaves her much berated despised husband. Brutish insensitivity characterizes other characters early on (her female rivals, her friend’s bullying ways); a kind of hard shell forms around the by this time over-serene Anna. As with her novel on adoption, Next of Kin, I felt embarrassed by the seeming unself-conciousness lack of shame with which her characters talk so explicitly and casually about their hitherto unthinkable hurtful behavior. People may think these things, but don’t often say them. I felt a oblivious selfishness and complacency in Anna’s behavior. How else escape? I don’t know.  I agree that Peter would not talk to her or respond to her overtures. I liked Anna thrusting a glass of water over Peter’s head when he continues to refuse to talk, to compromise, but can feel why so many critics and thinking readers are made uneasy by events in her novels.

Joanna Trollope has a Don Juan character, Patrick O’Sullivan (Miles Anderson) who mistakes her for an Emma Bovary and Anna lashes out more than once at him (as he does not give up easily) as arrogant and indifferently playing with her and other women. Trollope’s is a apt concise analysis of the cold egoism of the traditional rake. But her Anna is disconcerting too as she slipped very quickly into finding a lover in Jonathan. Peter is now dismissed facilely by all as having been sick — the community is let off the hook. Trollope registers her awareness that she has undermined her own book by having a comically cheerful singing rector and inflexibly bounce-y new Rector’s Wife take over after the funeral.

All this said, there is another aspect to this novel and the film adaptation that makes me want to read and see more of Joanna Trollope. The woman at the center of this novel and the film, as so beautifully enacted by Lindsay Duncan, embodied a reality and feel for a woman’s life with an unconscious self-enriched on-goingness I loved entering into. She is essentially good-natured, loving (which is why she has become the go-to person for everything in the parish and her home). The character does not look down on, is amused by what is different from her even when she sees it is someone living from a limited point of view or absurd behaviors (like the way she must stack cans on a shelf). In the film Duncan adds a sense of comfortableness in nature, with the things of society. She is so beautiful too.  I wanted to re-watch her the way I do Caitronia Balfe (in Outlander) and re-read scenes.

Joanna Trollope’s aim to give her female reader a character and experience to revel in vicariously is expressed reflexively in the character of Marjorie Richardson (played pitch perfectly by Prunella Scales), wife of a Major who has spent with him much time “in the colonies.”  Marjorie is seen by Anna as a snob, as critical of Anna, and superficially condescending from what Marjorie says and does — taken aback by finding Anna working as a clerk in a supermarket (!), saying aloud how glad she is that Peter doesn’t mind not being promoted (of course he will say that). But I noticed how the camera continually captures her standing behind Anna in church, near her here and there. After Peter’s death, she has her husband offer Anna a cottage to live in for free — a puzzling offer since it’s deep in the country, away from the town where the children go to school and lively social life goes on. Anna does not have a car after Peter totals his. This is never satisfactorily explained since when Anna comes to say no, Marjorie only says she wouldn’t want it either.


Marjorie (Prunella Scales) opening up to tell of her life


Again, after now renting her own flat — for herself and children

It functions as an excuse to provide Marjorie with an opportunity to open up to Anna for the first time. Anna learns that Marjorie gets through the day by drinking the occasional gin, and has led a frustrated non-life of the type Anne was trapped in as the novel opened. Marjorie was a category, a follower of male institutions, and now it’s too late for her to build her own life. Marjorie tells of her daughter, Julia, who, after giving her all for years during the war while her husband was away, found herself deserted and with no money when he came back and went off with another woman – and his salary. Marjorie wants Anna to meet Julia (or the other way round) and tells Anna she will be watching her in her new job and new flat enjoying from afar what she didn’t dare.

There is also some personal self-reflexivity in the film in the way Eleanor Ramsay’s books are marketed. Her name across the top, a cartoon figure of an over-feminized woman at the center, her picture at the back. In the book Anna has two girlfriends who became successful professionals, and details there suggest Joanna Trollope.

Yes it is a fantasy, wish-fulfillment, comfort novel. At the same time it is accurate to see the book and its heroine as in the tradition of 19th century domestic realism novels. Sarah Rigby writes of Anna Bouverie that she

takes a supermarket job because she needs money for her children. She could, more respectably, have chosen to teach, but the shop job seems less burdensome. The entire village (including her husband, the vicar) sees this as an act of betrayal and defiance; she neglects the church flower rota and her parish duties, and is no longer considered capable of ministering to her family’s needs. Alienated, she succumbs to one of many fascinated men, and by doing so precipitates a chain of events which leads to the death of her husband. She makes some money, moves to a smaller house, refuses all offers of help, and reconstructs her identity, to the frustration of her lover, who wants to rescue her himself, and who, ‘when he looked back … saw … her standing in a cage surrounded by people who were either longing to rescue her or determined that she should not escape’. Literature has many such heroines, trapped in stasis and admired as symbols all the subjects of male rescue attempts. Isabel Archer is one, with her sense of marriage as a safety net which would nevertheless trap her as ‘some wild, caught creature in a vast cage’.

It goes without saying that Trollope’s view of the world is not nearly as complicated as James’s, but the attraction to that security and the simultaneous reaction against it is one of her main preoccupations. As her own use of the cage image is developed, it is also subverted: ‘And then suddenly … the cage was empty and Anna had eluded all those people and had run ahead of them. … It was almost, now, as if she were in hiding, and they were all looking for her, guided only by bursts of slightly mocking laughter from her hiding place’ (Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 186, Gale, 2004)

Trollope does break taboos, while keeping her heroines safe by placing them in anachronistic environments. I don’t know if the religious belief in this one is common; there is another good mother superior nun to provide a place for her daughter, a job for her (reminding me of Mother Hildegarde in Outlander). Her heroine’s struggle is that of other heroines of women’s novels, of her readership, and dramatizes their compromised solutions too. In The Rector’s Wife, Trollope is at her best in wry undramatic dramatized moments, as we feel for her characters and ourselves getting through the anxious hard moments of our lives. In this TV series the material is the strongest in the confrontational scenes, and evocative in including shots of landscapes of southeastern England. We are meant also to revel in the loveliness of rural suburban worlds, small towns, with a sense of embedded histories of which this story is just one.


Concluding stills — Anna leaning down in the grass over her husband’s grave, and then walking back to her flat in town

I had wanted to read a book by Joanna Trollope for ever so long; her talk for the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival got me to do it. I have her Other People’s Children, Next of Kin, and Sense and Sensibility (which I tried and now want to try gain), all picked up at used book library sales, and have now put Other People’s Children on my nightstand – next to Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard, another novelist who I may now be able to find time and room for as I have stopped spending hours driving places in my car. Middle of the night reading when I need easy company. Have I mentioned what an deft writer Joanna is, concise effective, putting us into the situations she imagines before we are at the bottom of the first page.

Ellen

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