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Archive for July, 2020


Knole, Kent, the house, begun in 1456, greatly extended c.1603, on a frosty December day

Winter. Blackout.

Quiet. The tick of clock
Shall bring you peace,
To your uncertain soul
Give slow increase.

The blackened windows shut
This inward room
Where you may be alone
As in the tomb.

A tomb of life not death,
Life inward, true,
Where the world vanishes
And you are you.

War brings this seal of peace,
This queer exclusion,
This novel solitude,
This rare illusion

As to the private heart
All separate pain
Brings loss of friendly light
But deeper, darker gain ….
— from The Land

Friends and readers,

It is truly hard to know by what image to represent Vita Sackville-West. If popular culture is our lens, she’s the wealthy gardener of Sissinghurst,


Sissinghurst Gardens

thrown out of Knole (above), after a long bitter fight to hold onto it; a lesbian about whom bad movies are made (Vita & Virginia, and The Portrait of a Marriage, not much better — except, and it’s an important except Janet McTeer intuitively and with probably study does manage to capture the inner better qualities of Sackville-West).  Despite the best efforts of lesbian and feminist scholars to help us appreciate the lesbian motifs of her art (see Lisa Moore’s Lesbian Arts, the Erotics of Landscape), and lip-service paid to acceptance of LGBTQ people, in fact lesbians in the public mind (if movies be any criteria) are seen as ludicrous somehow.  She loved Nicholson, her children, wrote poetry, explored earlier women, aspired to be trusted and respected by Woolf, but was an outsider:


Janet McTeer (Portrait of a Marriage)

The woman-in-the world, promiscuous self-indulgent aristocrat with the scandalous grandparents, parents, vehement liaisons, glamorous enough at age 26:

is at the center of Victoria Glendinning’s biography, which, in my view because she omits the literary part of Vita’s life (!), on the grounds the book would get too long, produces a thoroughly unlikable, not to say obnoxious, deeply reactionary woman.

But if the lens be what she wrote seriously, what she built (renovated) and gardened away on, her identity emerges quite differently; at a minimum caring for others she imaginatively identified with.  She is not primarily or just a novelist.  As with Woolf, there are big diaries, much travel writing, the book about Knole and the Sackvilles (before abridgement), and a book about country house, another on her garden and the land (in verse this time). She goes over the courtyard of Knole, showing how each element was functional at the time it was built, how beautifully appropriate the shapes, angles, and how they fit into another, into the earth’s landscape around them, and then carried on functioning across time. There are the remarkable non-fiction biographies, from Joan of Arc (long with a firmly built up world of 15th century France),

I was startled to realize what the point was. I tried to read it years ago in a mind-blind (?) heteronormative way. Sackville-West is drawn to this girl as a transvestite, as a lesbian, probably somewhat butch. Having watched the film Carrington (see my blog on the artist) the other night I am persuaded the way Emma Thompson looks early in the film – chunky, boyish, dense, determined — would be perfect for Sackville-West conception of Joan of Arc too. It is as a absolute underminer of female sexual conventions that Sackville-West is writing with sympathy and admiration. Similarly her portrait of Anne Clifford, the superpower Duchess in the 17th century. Maybe S-W would have loved Thatcher — for she is also politically profoundly reactionary.

to Aphra Behn, and Lady Anne Clifford (here I’m thinking of her edition of the diary and her unearthing of this woman who controlled and renovated castles in Northern England), Pepita (a biography, half fantasy, half hard headed of her grandmother). Among the best of this non-fiction work, her books on houses, and her literary criticism (particularly her defense of rhyme and formality in poetry, of the use of deeply personal felt material in a poem — contemporary poetry is too afraid of ridicule –, and the odd unusual angle or focus).

I particularly admired her analysis of what’s wrong with contemporary poetry: it was a Bloomsbury perspective: modern poetry (1928, a lecture she delivered) is inhibiting people from from producing the raw inward feelings that drive them — by its demand for balance, its strong embarrassment, so critics ridicule what distresses them about humanity. I know one complaint about the Bloomsbury people at the time is who wants to read about cripples, people mentally distressed &c. Beyond the fear of ridicule, the focus of contemporary read poetry and critics is too central, mainstream. What is wanted is a new angle, something oblique and truer to the inward material itself. Last there is too much worship of free verse; free verse itself uses rhythm, word assonance, all sorts of subdued patterns. She is justifying her own poetry but this manifesto reminds me of others by other Bloomsbury people. Last I love her call for “the dignity of pessimism.”

Then there are her literary biographies (shorter, one on Andrew Marvel), and fiction, and Georgic poetry of the seasons (her Virgilian book-length Land and Garden, once a best seller) .  She is a compelling, deeply appealing, strong artist, a major woman writer of the first into the second half of the 20th century. Worthy to study alongside her lover-friend, and sometime admirer, Virginia Woolf, and definitely belonging in the circles of Bloomsbury people.


Virginia as photographed by Ottoline Morrell, 1926 — caught as glamorously as Morrell could manage

To suggest how to get to know about the Sackville-West who matters in a blog, I’ll put the matter this way: first read Suzanne Raitt’s Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship, then Louise DeSalvo’s study of their writing in terms of one another’s aims, outlook, style, then the literal books by Woolf (Vita gave Virginia the dog, Flush, about whom Virginia wrote her marvelous biography; and Virginia wrote her fantastical biography Orlando, an experimental novel, as a way of expressing the complex realities of Vita’s life and art (“Lighting the Cave”). Then read all of Mary Ann Caws’s Selected Writings of Vita Sackville-West: she has picked out the highest moments of genius in the best works and beautifully described many others.

As a pair in life, they met in the early 1920s, became lovers for a while, 1925-28, traveled together. Vita made money for Hogarth Press, wrote best-sellers in not only fiction but life-writing – about herself, the famous ancient house she lived in (thought she should have inherited but excluded as a girl, quite like Austen’s Bennett sisters) and her grandmother. As of 1970, The Land and the Garden sold 100,000 copies (alas not printed by Hogarth Press as too big & complicated a book). In both their books we see their love of animals, and immersion in the natural world, deep respect for the past, deep past, architectural, geologic (Virginia), geographic (Vita)

Vita’s books are as central to the diptych. Sackvlle-West’s biographies and scholarly editions of the work of earlier women, beyond those I’ve mentioned, a life of the first successful female playwright, Aphra Behn, two of whose plays are still done — The Rover and The Widow Ranter (about a woman who lived in the colonies) – with the first truly readable novel about an enslaved man, Oroonoko. What Virginia called for in her Room of One’s Own, what her Memoirs of a Novelist asked for (what Virginia’s Miss Rosamond Merridew wanted to do for her brilliant memoirist, Mistress Joan Martyn), Sackville-West did for several early modern women. She brought them back from oblivion.  On her Anne Clifford and Woolf, see Nicky Hallett’s Ann Clifford as Orlando: Virginia Woolf’s historiology and women’s biography,” Women’s History Review, 4:4 (1995):505-23/

The subjective style, tri-partite structure, themes of Sackville-West’s gem novella, All Passion Spent are pure Woolfian, especially the central section, part two where we get these anguished memories of Lady Slane of how she came to marry Henry, what her life was like, that she loved him, but was defrauded of the life she wanted to lead. She was one who lived her life as a category: great man’s wife, she came with the luggage, was there to manage house, have children, and look good at dinners. Could not escape. So let me concentrate however briefly on this novel, offer another poem and then have done.


Wendy Hiller as Lady Slane, on her own at last – she plays the part of the gradually frailer woman impeccably

The novel is about someone who is suddenly (as it were unexpectedly, almost with surprise) feeling emancipated at age 88. As with Maurice, there is this gap between the outward life imposed on Lady Shane (that she lived) and the one we find ourselves in in her mind. How was it that she led the life she did? How as she led into it? Why did she stay? he was coerced, made to feel that her deepest desires were absurd, utterly unsuitable for a life’s quest; by her husband, not even given a studio to work at painting as an art (perhaps watercolors, he says, thinking perhaps of a kit on a table?). Funny how Henry never had to give up any of his hobbies – any of the things he enjoyed most. All Passion Spent is a strongly feminist book. In the case of Forster’s Maurice, the deeply troubled childhood and early manhood dramatized before us is something that could happen to a heterosexual male; it can be felt by any girl or women growing up who cannot conform, cannot understand she is (to paraphrase Alec Scudder) being “taught what is not the case” in order to get her to behave certain ways — performatively I’d call it. In the case of All Passion Spent, what happened to Lady Slane and also Genoux is particular to women. Men are coerced into doing things but often they lead to power, and positions in public life. Deborah, Lady Slane was made into a man’s instrument – she was lucky he was rich and powerful but everything was owned by him. Her body was his, where she lived, how she spent her time. No one ever gave a thought of any kind to Genoux; she was to be a servant of her siblings, and live a life of hard work, filled with trauma. She escapes to Lady Slane. Genoux loves her lady because we are shown Lady Slane was all kindness. It has flaws. It’s pastoral, an idyll, a kind of courtly entertainment in which there is no threat but the ultimate death. (Et in Arcadia Ego.) All the people Lady Slane meets are all courtesy and truth. There is a kind of dripping condescension towards Genoux. The attitude towards money is improbable (a function of S-W having been so rich).

From Winter once again

What have they,
The bookish townsmen in their dry retreats,
Known to December dawns, before the sun
Reddened the earth, and fields were wet and grey?
When have they gone, another day begun,
By tracks into quagmire trodden,
With sacks about their shoulders and the damp
Soaking until their very souls were sodden,
To help a sick beast, by a flickering lamp,
With rough words and kind hands?
Or felt their boots so heavy and so swere
With trudging over cledgy lands,
Held fast by earth, being to earth so near?

Book-learning they have known.
They meet together, talk and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something — an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a task with quietude,
Aware at once of earth’s surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone …

Nocturne:

Now die the sounds. No whisper stirs the trees.
Her patten merged into the general web
The shriven day accepts her obsequies
With humble ebb.

Now are the noiseless stars made visible
That hidden by the day pursued the track,
And this one planet that we know too well
Mantles in black.

Then, from the thicket, sang the nightingale,
So wildly sweet, so sudden, and so true,
It seemed a herald from beyond the veil
Had broken through.

The common earth’s confusion all unseen,
But worlds revealed in broad magnificence, —
That unembodied music third between
Sprang hence, or thence?

Nothing remained of the familiar round,
Only the soul ecstatic and released
Founted towards the spheres in jets of sound,
And died, and ceased.

But plangent from the thickets of the thorn
Broke other voices, taking up the choir,
While Cancer interlaced with Capricorn
In silent fire,

And all the harmonies were joined and whole,
Silence was music, music silence made,
Till each was both or either, and the soul
Was not afraid.

It was produced as a beautiful book with illustrations redolent of medieval woodcuts (subtly modernized).

                               Duncan Grant — Parrot Tulips (this image fits Lisa Moore’s ideas on erotic lesbian art ….

For my part, there is nothing I love more than to read for hours books by and on early modern to later 18th century women.  So I here support all Woolf’s efforts in the area of retrieving women’s lives and texts and Vita’s successes.

Ellen

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The cover of one of the many renditions of the Inkle and Yarico stories

Friends,

As a brief follow-up to my blog about the poetry, letters and life of Frances Thynne Seymour, Countess of Hertford, I have placed on academia.edu, my review of a book published in ECCB: An Eighteenth-Century Current Bibliography (Bucknell Press imprint), and link it in here:  Dominique Lyndon’s Imoinda’s Shade:  Marriage and the African Woman in Eighteenth-Century British Literature, 1759-1808.

The book (I admit here) seriously angered me, and if I hadn’t promised a friend I would do this, I’d probably never have finished the book. I did a lot of reading around the book too. Then I patiently summarized the contexts of a history of very compromising supposedly abolitionist (the nice word is ameliorist) texts).

If anyone is interested, mine is a very readable review about a book justifying or explaining favorably a history of texts that are dismaying — but teach a lesson about white supremacy, a white outlook — very like Lady Hertford’s Ovidian Heriode in the person of Yarico to Inkle — Inkle has sold Yarico and his unborn child into enslavement and she writes of her continuing love for him. The irony is the man writing this book is African-American, and teaches at Princeton: the charitable interpretation, and partly probable reason for his having written this book is he’s trying his best to find something redemptive or inspiring (!) for modern day African-American scholars.  I don’t see how it seriously could be.

https://www.academia.edu/43655684/Dominique_Lyndon_Imoindas_Shade_A_Review

You have to think about what you are reading, but the analogies with many 20th and 21st century popular texts about African-America and European conflicts are there, including I now realize the very popular Broadway musical Hamilton (about which a blog will be forthcoming).

On Frank Felsenstein’s English Trader, Indian Maid: Representing Gender, Race and Slavery in the New World, see the comments to the previous blog.


This discreet drawing accompanied the first publication of the Yarico and Inkle story in middle class literature: there are far more salacious ones I don’t care to reprint

Ellen

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Frances Thynne Seymour, Countess of Hertford by Allan Ramsay

Come calm Retirement! Sylvan Power!
That on St Leonard’s lov’st to Walk,
To lend along the thoughtful Hour
And with the gentle Hertford talk …
— James Thomson

Gentle readers,

I don’t know how many years ago it was, probably nearly forty when, having fallen (so I thought) in love with the poetry of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, and come across a poem by her, to her niece, Lady Hertford (shorthand for the above longer form), so grateful for encouragement, companionship, and Lady Hertford’s love of poetry and poets, that I bought from a catalogue an old-fashioned biography by Helen Sard Hughes, The Gentle Hertford: Her Life and Letters. When the old then sturdy blue book with its yellowing pages, and (to me then) delightful content arrived, I couldn’t put it down. It is made up of hundreds of documents, mostly letters and journals written by, shall we call her Frances or Seymour (that would be the modern style) to her mother, sister, friends, poets she supported, and many of theirs to her, which altogether transmit to the reader one of the kindest of women, gentle Hertford indeed, beloved (it seemed) by mother, husband, Algernon Seymour, Earl of Hertford, beloved son, George (who alas, died at age 19), and her long-lived daughter, Elizabeth (who eventually became a Duchess of Northumberland).


An early 19th century print, picturesque framing of St Leonard’s Hill, Windsor

Although a more moral set of people (as presented in these letters) you would have a hard time finding, the letters are not sentimental, foolish, or ignorant, but filled with wit, and the lively activities of an intelligent group of people living out the privileged lives of aristocrats in early to mid-18th century England. What I especially enjoyed were Lady Hertford’s letters to and from her friends, Henrietta St John Knight, Lady Luxborough (a quietly sceptical, proto-feminist picturesque poetry writing amusing women (who dared to leave her husband (who accused her of having an affair) and live for a while in a house without glass windows or closed doors, a poet in her own right, sister to Bolingbroke, and member of the Shenstone circle; and Henrietta Louisa Fermor, Countess of Pomfret, much duller, a seemingly boring woman, but for reasons I didn’t quite understand (I wasn’t there when they were face-to-face) very well liked by Frances and eliciting from her all sorts of trusted confidences. These women also exchanged verse epistles.

I did promise myself one day I would write about Lady Luxborough, and if I never wrote the essay she deserves (she has to her credit five sparkling poems, & one longish accomplished Georgic), I wrote a foremother poet blog where I reprinted of her three poems (she was called Asteria) you won’t find in print elsewhere, two of which are beautiful and filled with a rare depth of emotional intelligence. And I wrote about Lady Hertford and Lady Pomfret’s creation of a counter-universe, places for them to resist gender and other pressures, not an alternative life but a life inside a shared community of private identities.

Tonight I want to re-create the foremother poet blog for Frances (or Seymour, or Lady Hertford) I can no longer reach (until such time as I remove my ad-blocker). I began with her two best poems, first her rightly best known and savagely (or tragically ironic) story of startlingly cruel betrayal. It is even relevant for it is based on primal racial injustice: Inkle is European, rescued by Yarico, who is African as the tale begins:

Story of Inkle and Yarico: A Most Moving Tale from the Spectator (No 11).

A YOUTH there was possessed of every charm,
Which might the coldest heart with passion warm;
His blooming cheeks with ruddy beauty glowed,
His hair in waving ringlets graceful flowed;
Through all his person an attractive mien,
Just symmetry, and elegance were seen:
But niggard Fortune had her aid withheld,
And poverty th’ unhappy boy compelled
To distant climes to sail in search of gain,
Which might in ease his latter days maintain.
By chance, or rather the decree of Heaven,
The vessel on a barbarous coast was driven;
He, with a few unhappy striplings more,
Ventured too far upon the fatal shore:
The cruel natives thirsted for their blood,
And issued furious from a neighbouring wood.
His friends all fell by brutal rage o’erpowered,
Their flesh the horrid cannibals devoured;
Whilst he alone escaped by speedy flight,
And in a thicket lay concealed from sight!

Now he reflects on his companions’ fate,
His threatening danger, and abandoned state.
Whilst thus in fruitless grief he spent the day,
A negro virgin chanced to pass that way;
He viewed her naked beauties with surprise,
Her well-proportioned limbs and sprightly eyes!
With his complexion and gay dress amazed,
The artless nymph upon the stranger gazed;
Charmed with his features and alluring grace,
His flowing locks and his enlivened face.
His safety now became her tend’rest care,
A vaulted rock she knew and hid him there;
The choicest fruits the isle produced she sought,
And kindly to allay his hunger brought;
And when his thirst required, in search of drink,
She led him to a chrystal fountain’s brink.

Mutually charmed, by various arts they strove
To inform each other of their mutual love;
A language soon they formed, which might express
Their pleasing care and growing tenderness.
With tigers’ speckled skins she decked his bed,
O’er which the gayest plumes of birds were spread;
And every morning, with the nicest care,
Adorned her well-turned neck and shining hair,
With all the glittering shells and painted flowers
That serve to deck the Indian virgins’ bowers.
And when the sun descended in the sky,
And lengthening shades foretold the evening nigh,
Beneath some spreading palm’s delightful shade,
Together sat the youth and lovely maid;
Or where some bubbling river gently crept,
She in her arms secured him while he slept.
When the bright moon in midnight pomp was seen,
And starlight glittered o’er the dewy green,
In some close arbour, or some fragrant grove,
He whispered vows of everlasting love.
Then, as upon the verdant turf he lay,
He oft would to th’ attentive virgin say:
‘Oh, could I but, my Yarico, with thee
Once more my dear, my native country see!
In softest silks thy limbs should be arrayed,
Like that of which the clothes I wear are made;
What different ways my grateful soul would find
To indulge thy person and divert thy mind!’;
While she on the enticing accents hung
That smoothly fell from his persuasive tongue.

One evening, from a rock’s impending side,
An European vessel she descried,
And made them signs to touch upon the shore,
Then to her lover the glad tidings bore;
Who with his mistress to the ship descends,
And found the crew were countrymen and friends.
Reflecting now upon the time he passed,
Deep melancholy all his thoughts o’ercast:
‘Was it for this,’ said he, ‘I crossed the main,
Only a doting virgin’s heart to gain?
I needed not for such a prize to roam,
There are a thousand doting maids at home.’
While thus his disappointed mind was tossed,
The ship arrived on the Barbadian coast;
Immediately the planters from the town,
Who trade for goods and negro slaves, came down;
And now his mind, by sordid interest swayed,
Resolved to sell his faithful Indian maid.
Soon at his feet for mercy she implored,
And thus in moving strains her fate deplored:

‘0 whither can I turn to seek redress,
When thou’rt the cruel cause of my distress?
If the remembrance of our former love,
And all thy plighted vows, want force to move;
Yet, for the helpless infant’s sake I bear,
Listen with pity to my just despair.
Oh let me not in slavery remain,
Doomed all my life to drag a servile chain!
It cannot surely be! thy generous breast
An act so vile, so sordid must detest:
But, if thou hate me, rather let me meet
A gentler fate, and stab me at thy feet;
Then will I bless thee with my dying breath,
And sink contented in the shades of death.’

Not all she said could his compassion move,
Forgetful of his vows and promised love;
The weeping damsel from his knees he spurned,
And with her price pleased to the ship returned.
(1726)

The second I take from another perhaps too long (to modern tastes) epistle, this to the Countess of Pomfret, describing Frances’s life with her husband at their country estate called Richkings, in Colnbrook, Buckinghamshire (acquired 1739)

We sometimes ride, and sometimes walk,
We play at chess, or laugh, or talk;
Sometimes besides the crystal stream,
We meditate some serious theme;
Or in the grot, beside the spring,
We hear the feathered warblers sing.
Shakespeare perhaps an hour diverts,
Or Scott directs to mend our hearts.
With Clarke’s God’s attributes we explore;
And, taught by him, admire them more.
Gay’s Pastorals sometimes delight us,
Or Tasso’s grisly spectres fright us:
Sometimes we trace Armida’s bowers,
And view Rinaldo chained with flowers.
Often from thoughts sublime as these,
I sink at once and make a cheese;
Or see my various poultry fed,
And treat my swans with scraps of bread.
Sometimes upon the smooth canal
We row the boat or spread the sail;
Till the bright evening-star is seen,
And dewy spangles deck the green.
Then tolls the bell, and all unite
In prayer that God would bless the night.
From this (though I confess the change
From prayer to cards is somewhat strange)
To cards we go, till ten has struck:
And then, however bad our luck,
Our stomachs ne’er refuse to eat
Eggs, cream, fresh butter, or calves’-feet;
And cooling fruits, or savoury greens
‘Sparagus, peas, or kidney-beans.
Our supper past, an hour we sit,
And tlk of history, Spain or wit.
But Scandal far is banished hence,
Nor dares intrude with false pretence
Of pitying looks, or holy rage
Against the vices of the age:
We know we were all born to sin,
And find enough to blame within.
(written 1740)


From an old print of a Canaletto like painting (18th century) — called Green Park — as an example of the kind of picturesque painting Lady Hertford’s circle would enjoy

This is probably as much of her longer verse epistles as anyone today cares to read in one sitting. You see how she writes in the 18th century idiom for social verse and grave narrative. She imitates Pope, the popular verse styles of her time, at the edges belongs to the age of sensibility.  She was well-read in the poetry of her period; she will quote popular poems in her circle, refer to known characters in plays (Ariosto, Otway). Also the Bible. Further below, there are some examples of her “nature poetry.”

As to her life,

She was born and brought up at Longleat, child of the children of Thomas Thynne, first Viscount Weymouth (1640-1714), very close friends to (and sometimes monetary support of) Heneage Finch, later 4th Earl of Winchilsea, and husband to Anne Finch. Their son, Henry Thynne married Grace Strode, and Frances was one of their two daughters (the other was named Mary). Henry Thynne died young (1708), and his wife, Grace, went to live near Leweston, where among others, she was friendly with Elizabeth Singer Rowe (another poet of the era). All I have read about Algernon Seymour leads me to see him as a gentle sensitive man (he was later friends with Anne Finch’s husband, very patiently enduring Druidical names as he followed Heneage about in archeaological digs with William Stukeley, a respected 18th century “natural philosopher” also interested in depressive and hysterical states of mind) and I can quite see Algernon falling in love with Frances. While the high rank and political connections of the family in general would attract, their was not much money, and Hughes and others agree that Algernon’s parents loathed their daughter-in-law. They were probably intensely into ambition, prestige, and wanted much more money that she brought. They also resented very much that she would not send her son to a public school, brought him up tenderly lovingly at home – she refused to make a macho male of him.


Algernon Seymour, Earl of Hertford, later 7th Duke of Somerset by John Vanderbank

She was only 16 when she married him, but proved to be up to the demands of saloniere (a political as well as poetical one). Her husband had served in Flanders in the army, become the a Lord of the Bedchamber for the Prince of Wales, and she was an apparent success (well-liked as usual) as Lady of the Bedchamber to the princess, late Queen Caroline. Although she could manage life in London, she preferred what was called “rural retirement.” The poets she was patron to included James Thomson (The Seasons), and Richard Savage: she intervened to help save his life when he was (rightly) charged with murder. Isaac Watts dedicated one of his pious volumes to her. There exists a playful poem by Anne Finch protesting against Lady Hertford’s orders to the minor poet Laurence Eusden (“Hartford, ’tis wrong … “) commanding him to write a poem about a wood which includes only Aspin trees and King-cup flowers. After Caroline died, Lady Hertford spent more time in the Seymour’s country residences (they had it seems three), and she became more religious after her son died (I mentioned this above), from small pox in during his Grand Tour in Bologna. Her letters to her son are all a woman could be to a son, and knowing he died, they read to me so poignantly. She appears to have disliked violence, and war. There are several extensive correspondences: she loved imaginary friendship through letters. She was loyal to her friends and great-aunt.


“Italian light on English walls” (a line by Wm Cowper): this is a Canaletto reprint of the type this milieu of people might not have chosen — there are no upper class well-dressed groups of people socializing — I reprint it for the light

Are there any shorter poems? Here are some of her verses on the natural world. She uses the artificial poetic diction of her time but I think real feeling and seasonal change, the passage of diurnal time, comes through.  One Hughes quotes written in tetrameter for autumn contains these stanzas:

The changing leaves fall fast away
And all its pride is in decay.
Where blossoms deckt the point thorn
Now hangs the wintry drop forlorn …

Along the last enamel’d mead
No golden cowslip lifts its head;
Scarce can the grass its spires sustain,
Chill’d by the frost, or drench’s with rain.

She wrote Lady Pomfret during a period of illness (1741), some verses entitled To the East Wind, which include the lambs

But shiv’ring now and dull are seen
Bleating beside the racks for hay:
The blossoms from my pear-trees fall,
And naked leave the western wall.

That wall, which us’d to charm my sight
With varied blossoms adorn’d and gay
Can now afford me no delight,
Whilst you its glories sweep away:
If in my borders v’lets blow,
You bury them in flakes of snow

And as a last pair of couplets: Verses Occasion’d by Seeing the River Kennet Frozen Over:

Poor stream! held captive by the Frost
They current numb’d, thy Brightness lost;
Compell’d thy journey to delay,
And on these desart shores to stay …

Gentle reader, you owe this foremother poet blog-essay to a maddening incident that happened to me the other day. Studying Anne Finch’s poetry as I now am, and coming across her poems to Lady Hertford, I tried to reach the foremother poet column (I’ll call it) about her that I had put on a festival of poets sponsored long ago by a listserv called Wom-po, and found that I am cut off from my own work. Yes, the site these postings now appear on goes dark, puts a rectangle in front of me, which demands I remove my ad-blocker before I go any further.

I know that Frances Seymour, Lady Hertford is not a remarkable or wonderful poet — she was a warm, eloquent and supportive letter writer and friend. She was very much a woman of her era, from the Whig liberal super-rich circles. Hughes’s book about her is a labor of love as is this blog — for who she was, and for the values she lived by as seen in her letters and journals. I wish I had a friend such as she was to hers.

Letter to the Honorable Mrs Knight,
September 7th, 1731

Say, can you seriously intend
To deal unkindly by your friend,
And hasting from the peaceful Down
Return to sea-coal and the town
Without a transient visit paid,
To Marlborough’s neglected shade?
You know how welcome you would be
To all the house, but most of all to me.

Without you come you can’t conceive
How solitary here we live;
Yet cheerfulness we still maintain
Nor of the tedious hours complain.
When breakfast’s over out we rove
Around the terraces and grove,
Where flaunting woodbines spread around;
We lift their branches from the ground,
And tie them to some neighboring lime
Round which they may securely climb;
Or end the rose-trees, and divide
The suckers from their parent side.
Sometimes, where slow the river creeps,
And Babylon’s sad willow weeps,
To see if the new turf will grow
With anxious eyes along we go;
But when we find a sod is dead
Against the bank, or where we tread,
We grieve as much to see it fade
As toasts who find their charms decayed.
Thus we divide our morning cares
Till nine; then come in to Prayers.

Next to my closest we retreat
Where, after each has chose a seat,
I’m busies at my tent, the rest
Still sit or work, as the like best,
While Clavering reads the Gardener’s Toil;
When he should plant, when mix the soil;
The various kinds of flowers and fruits,
Which rise from seeds, and which from shoots,
Sometimes an author more sublime
Amuses and improves our time …

When Clavering till he’s tired has read,
We part, and next I comb my head
Then Beachy comes with careful look
To sing a Psalm and learn his book.

Again at two to dine we meet,
Our fare is plain, our dinner neat;
No seasoned dish allures our taste
To surfeit on the rich repast.
When we have dined we sit and talk,
Our walk concluded in we come
And each go to our sep’rate room.
We seldom work by candlelight,
But read, perhaps, and sometimes write;
Till called again to join in prayer
That God would make our souls his care,
Keep us from sin and all distress,
And our approaching slumbers bless.

Then sup, and with a cheerful heart
Converse an hour and so we part.

Now if our pleasures are not great,
You’ll own at least our life sweet ….
— Frances Seymour, Lady Hertford (1740)


Paul Sandby, Englefield Green, near Egham — this is typical picturesque plus shows us how this group of people liked to see themselves …

Ellen

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Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan) in the circulating library at Bath (2008 NA, scripted Andrew Davies


Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) arriving near the sunny beach in Sanditon (2019 Sanditon, scripted by Andrew Davies, among others)

I would bring together Janet Todd’s talk and Georgina Newton’s to suggest that it is a sort of betrayal on Austen’s part to erase all details of books she read, and plays she went to, and not make any of her heroines serious readers or writers. I wish there were a heroine somewhere in her oeuvre who ends up happily without marriage. We will not have such heroines until the mid-20th century.

Friends and readers.

There is a sliver of a silver lining to this frightening pandemic and its necessary quarantining, many lectures and talks many could never reach, virtual conferences, plays operas concerts are turning up on-line. I’ve told how enjoyable I found the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival (Part One, Part Two). Chawton House has gone on to set up further talks over the summer, and this past week Jane Todd gave a quietly suggestive talk on Sanditon and Northanger Abbey: A Shared Pen, aka “On her first and last novel.” I spent a wonderful week in Bath in 2002, but never had time or occasion to go to one of the regular talks on Austen that occur there; this weekend the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute sponsored a second talk (I missed the first) on Jane Austen’s feminism and how it relates to girls today on-line. As the presenter said, hitherto they would get a small number of people who lived in and around Bath or made it their business to come from not too far off UK; now they had people a zoom session from literally around the world.

I took notes on both and am glad to record what was said for my memory’s sake and share what I remember for others who are interested. Remember my hands can no longer taken down stenography in the precise way and with the quickness I once did, so these summaries and comments are meant to be only suggestive, the gist of what was said. Both were thoughtful, stimulating talks

Janet Todd: Her first and her last, Northanger Abbey and Sanditon.

Prof Todd began by saying it’s not clear that NA is finished (see my calendar) and Sanditon is an unfinished fragment (no precise calendar is possible).

Austen, she felt, puts all her novels into dialogues with one another: S&S with P&P, the title shows a clear pair; MP with Emma), and the sister-Bath books, NA and Persuasion. Then we have heroines teasing each other across the volumes, themes and types contrasting and paralleling, with heroines within the novels further patterned. Northanger Abbey is far fuller than Sanditon, but Austen was not satisfied with it in 1816 when she put Miss Catherine “on the shelf” and felt she might not take it off again. I add Austen in her letters has a way of identifying a novel with its chief heroine as she sometimes refers to the novel by the heroine’s name.

First of NA draft began in 1794; she returned to it and wrote full length book after or during her second Bath visit of 1797-98. Coming to live in Bath, she starts writing in 1802, and sends it to Crosby to publish as Susan in 1803. It may have taken her a while to realize the book was not coming out from this man’s press. So in 1809 they are moving to Chawton, and she wants to procure ms of Susan to work on it; sneered at by his son, she does not pay the £10 asked back. In a preface written in 1813 she worried parts of this book had become obsolete. She had much admired Burney’s Camilla, mentioned in extant NA, and the heroine finds a copy in a bookshop lending books in ,Sanditon 1817.

Todd also felt Austen revised her manuscripts continually (I agree), and that they all had far more literary allusion and specifics than they had when published. These were pruned away in all but NA and Sanditon. They all also seemed to have had names which connected them to her family, to Austen’s life: The Watsons was The Younger. Well Sanditon was The Brothers. We may imagine (from the dates on the calenders and extant manuscripts) that Sanditon was written not long after Emma, which had been followed by a revision of NA as a similarly satiric text (heroine a romancer). I suspect (Todd did not say this) that Persuasion existed in some draft form earlier on, as that would be the only way to account for its extraordinary depth and suggestive detail (squeezed in between NA and Sanditon). Henry Austen said all her novels were gradual performances.


Henry Tilney (J.J. Feilds) dancing with Catherine at their first ball together


Sidney Parker (Theo James) meeting Charlotte at their first ball together

Some strong over-lappings: Both NA and Sanditon are rich in material items. We have a common sense heroine with parents who say put and are sensible prudent people (contrast the Bennets who are not). The Haywoods and Morlands economize; they have dowries for their daughters, the Morlands a sizable sum to set James up with. They are both off places associated with holiday and fanciful time: an Abbey, a spa town. If it was Henry who gave NA its name; it is a tale of a place, and ditto for James Edward Austen-Leigh’s naming of Sanditon (if he did name it) There is in both a comical sense of adventure; there is no abduction in Austen (though there is one in Marie Dobbs, and also now in Andrew Davies’s TV series, of Miss Georgina Lambe). Davies makes Sidney into useless guardian for Miss Lamb, but from what we are told of Sidney in Austen, it seems that he may have the same kind of slightly jaundiced witty, a teacher. Inadequate chaperons for both heroines in both books.

Some differences, with other novels brought in: Charlotte & Catherine have good hearts and thinking minds, but after that they differ. Catherine is the butt of the NA narrator, at times the naif and does not satirize others; by contrast, Charlotte is capable of he ironic put down, but gives people want they want, supports nutty people with a quietly thinking satiric voice. Austen wants us to take Charlotte’s presence seriously throughout; for Catherine, she is mocked in the first chapter of NA, a heroine device and we are back to that in the penultimate chapter. In Sanditon it’s Charlotte who keeps seeing Clara Brereton as a sentimental victim-heroine type, while Catherine has to be prodded by Isabella into seeing Isabella or the Tilneys into romance figures. Emma, on the other hand, has dangerous ideas about Jane Fairfax (dangerous for Jane) Todd felt that Emma protested too much how comfortable she was seeing so little from her window, while Charlotte is a realist. She does not need to read books to calm her mind the way (say) Anne Elliot does

In all Austen’s novels she works up anxiety for heroine; nasty domineering older woman throughout the fiction is still seen in Sanditon. (I suggest that Mrs Elton is an upstart younger version of this kind of bully.)

I felt that Prof Todd was most interested in showing that Austen is aware that fiction is an interpretive tool; the misreadings of reality by many of her characters bring out a core of rottenness at the heart of this society. I thought she was interested in the alienated eye in the books (sometimes the heroine’s, sometimes from other characters, e.g., Mr Bennet, sometimes Mr Knightley, Mr Darcy, more ironically Henry Tilney (who allows his sister to be left lonely and bullied). There is no one to over-ride the heroines in some of the books; Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Jane Fairfax (however weak her position), Anne Eliot. The narrative voice is important here. Intrusive in NA. She pointed out how at the end of NA, Mrs Tilney is a felt ghost (I feel that is true of Lady Eliot). So there some things do turn into the tragic.

Todd saw hardly any darkness in Austen’s vision in these books (or across the whole of Austen’s vision). I cannot agree and think there are enough intelligent characters dissatisfied with their lot, and these reflect Austen herself. Remember the Juvenilia. Remember the anguish several of her heroines experience, how much chance is made to be on their side.  I am of the D.W. Harding school, and he has had many critics and readers like myself. Austen had limited material to work with, the conventions of the realistic novel. Only by these could she justify what she was doing to her family. Remember how worried she was about their approval, and how dependent she was on that for publication and the family for an allowance.  Lady Susan remained unpublished; The Watsons was left in a strangely high polished state for the 1st volume; how two of the published novels are not truly finished (NA and Persuasion). That Austen lost her fight with time and illness.

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Darcy (Colin Firth) meeting Elizabeth Jennifer Ehle) and Mr and Mrs Gardner at Pemberley, he greets them as equals (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)


Edmund Bertam (Nicholas Farrell) consulting Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel), an equal relationship from the beginning (1983 MP, scripted Ken Taylor)

While Janet Todd is a well-established scholar and professor, with many books and articles, an editor of important volumes, retired head of Cavendish College, Cambridge; Georgina Newton is a younger scholar, finished her Ph.D not long ago, with her specialty more sociological, and works as a university lecturer and primary school teacher. She is interested in the education of girls from poorer backgrounds. What she has seen in life makes her passionate to help them. Her Ph.D. consisted of studying working class girls and girlhood, looking at how they imagine their future. She discovered they have a feminist tone and attitudes but don’t know how to articulate their desire, how to vocalize their criticism of their place and given futures in society. What she did was divide Austen’s novels as a group into broad themes and look to see how these girls related to what is found in Austen.

First Ms Newton discussed Austen’s novels seen as a comment on society. Austen was once seen as wholly conservative; since the 1970s some see that she challenges partriarchal structures. Some of her heroines attempt to take charge of their own world. That is seen as feminist by girls today. Life today for girls is a battle with obstacles including class, rank, money, their roles as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. What choices are they given. In books there was a limitation on what a woman could write. Ms Newton did her research from a socialist feminist perspective, and sees Austen as having a limited subject matter and personal experience. She shows us the restrictions of women’s lives; we see how confined they are, hemmed in, put into the interior of a home. The male goes out far more freely into the world of public work. The girls she studied (asked questions of) fully expected to make sacrifices to be able to do work commensurate with their education. They do not like that they cannot or it is hard to fulfill their personal goals; they don’t like the situation and yet accept it.


Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) (1996, scripted Andrew Davies) — Emma a book susceptible of lesbian reading, is relentlessly made heteronormative

Then heteronormative marriage is a key theme for Austen’s books, knitting everything together. Marriage gave the man almost total power over his wife, he could abuse her, take away her children, isolate, imprison her. The choice a woman was given was who to marry, the pressure hidden but ever there. In P&P it’s not that the man needs a wife, but a woman needs a husband. MP Lady Bertram got a far better prize than her dowry merited (ironic openings). Girls 12-13 will deny they are interested in boys; they say they want an education, to get a job before marriage. Marriage has still the fantasy element Beauvoir discussed; the man will take care of you. They could be scathing towards individual boys, bu they assume he will support them when they have children. Yet they seek independence.

The seeking of equal relationships in Austen and her heroines. Elizabeth is looking for a equal partner. This idea is found in Wollstonecraft. Not just equal in their relationship as people, but commanding respect, responsibility. Girls did not want to be “stay-at-home” “mums,” but do something for and by themselves. The girls she was with often talked about their parents’ relationship. Some girls said the father and mother juggled care for the children together; others became cross about how a father or brother left the women in the family to do the work needed at home.

The virgin/whore dichotomy still operative in Austen’s world.  This binary still forms typology; the girls were quite critical of one another or themselves for behaving in an open sexually inviting manner; they dress to escape blame. Ms. Newton did not say this but look at how Lydia Bennet, the two Eliza Williamses, when Jane Fairfax is clandestinely engaged, when Maria Bertram runs away, at the scorn for Isabella Thorpe when betrayed by Captain Tilney — how these characters are treated.


Where Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) tells Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) that men can work for a living, women are not allowed (1995 S&S, scripted Emma Thompson)

Economic Power in Austen. Men can get jobs, rise in the world through their work; women are impotent. Emma Thompson’s script for S&S brings this out. Only by marrying can a woman move up in the world. Women today make 24% less at similar jobs (she said). The girls were very aware of this economic inequality, and saw the lower salary and positions as defining the limits of what they can do – on top of the sacrifice for those at home.


Colonel Brandon (here David Morrisey) given much authority, respect in S&S (2008, scripted by Andrew Davies)


Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) talking to his sister, Sophia Crofts (Fiona Shaw) who challenged on his authority (1995 Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear)

Figures of authority in Austen. Very few authority figures given real respect are women. Women left out of history (NA), literally confined, small spaces and given no or miseducation. Anne Eliot talked of how at home they are preyed upon by their inward selves. Space is provided by a man, and women must accommodate themselves to what he can make or decides. Here they talked of how femininity is a public performance, to be “lady-like” or respectably feminine is the default setting. The girls said it mattered how society saw them; they were angry at the injustice of having to play these roles. Patriarchal structure continues in Austen and men as figures of authority. The girls had felt the experience of being subject to men or seeing women subject to men. Catherine de Bourgh is powerful but within the domestic home and over what patronage she inherited from her husband.

In general, the teenage girls she studied spent a lot of time talking about what makes a strong woman and the finale in books & movies where she is nonetheless married off to a man at the end. They saw that women with the least rank and money had the least economic power unless they marry a powerful man then and now. Marriage nonetheless assumed, heterosexuality assumed in Austen and their spoken lives. Newton suggested that in the 1970s an important theme, an attempt was made to enable women to support other women. Austen offers us a shrewd take on women’s worlds, a world not that far from ours in some essentials. Sisterhood a powerful theme through Austen – what women owe other women. She ended on the thought she had never expected the girls she studied to be as feminist as they were, and to read Austen with them in these ways brings out wonderful insights.

Some thoughts: I did feel there was condescension in some of what Ms Newton said, that she was too aware the girls were “working class” and she “upper middle” as constituting this big difference between her and them. “Their” statements/attitudes show how they are under terrific pressure to marry and to have children. Perhaps Ms Newton is too. We know what huge obstacles these acts will make if they want to have a thorough education and succeed in a job outside their homes. She might have emphasized that more. That Austen does not see marriage and family in that light because Austen sees no opportunity to “get out there” in the first place. That there are other ways of gaining fulfillment — individual self-cultivation (as we see glimpsingly in Lady Russell).

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I would bring together Janet Todd’s talk and Georgina Newton’s to suggest that it is a sort of betrayal on Austen’s part to erase all details of books she read, and plays she went to, and not make any of her heroines serious readers or writers. It is painful how she makes her one reading girl, Mary Bennet, a fool and plain to boot (as if that were why a girl might read a good deal of the time).  I wish there were a heroine somewhere in Austen’s oeuvre who ends up happily without marriage. We will not have such heroines until the mid-20th century.


A rare sympathetic portrayal of Mary Bennet (Tessa Peake Jones) is found in Fay Weldon’s 1979 BBC P&P

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Both sessions had a question and answer period. In the case of Janet Todd, it was a zoom meeting and there was real conversation. People knew or recognized one another. Alas, I had to leave early. I had so appreciated the quiet tone, the measured delivery of the talk but there is no way to convey that so I say it here. At the Bath Institute, the mode was to read aloud the Q&A in chat, with occasionally people voicing their comments or questions. Everyone seemed lively and interested; they were many more observations than there was time for. I can’t remember any to be as feminist as the working class girls Georgina Newton interviewed.

But there will be other sessions this summer from both institutions. I’ll add to that if you donated to Chawton House during the Lockdown festival, you were given a chance to re-see and re-listen to Todd as often as you like until it’s pulled down.  The Bath Institute had trouble with its zoom and everyone who paid for a ticket can now re-see it on the site for a while.

Ellen

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