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Archive for July, 2021


Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013) when young

One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own, the spirit that is one’s own, one has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in another language — Raja Rao

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been on an on-and-off long bout of reading Jhabvala, short stories (especially East into Upper East), novels (The Householder, A Backward Glance and Heat and Dust) and screenplays (Shakespeare Wallah and Howards End), as well as about her (older books by Laurie Sucher and Jasmine Gooneratne, and recent by Rekha Jha, Rishi Pal Singh, Ramal Agarwal), not to omit the great pleasure of watching Merchant-Ivory films, most of whose screenplays are by Jhabvala. I would very much like to read and see more of these. Her oeuvre is enormous, and her latest critics generalize about phases, from the early books where it’s a question of “western” or English eyes and characters trying to assimilate into Indian culture, and basically being destroyed; to the middle books and stories where there is a romantic entry into Indian life from a spiritual or imaginative, a quiescent passive point of view, to the latest stories, where we see cross-cultural clashes and exploitation between western values and behaviors and traditional Indian. Older writers compared her to Jane Austen (and point to Jane Austen in Manhattan, a Merchant-Ivory film), Chekov, Thackeray, newer ones to other Indian and Anglo-Indian writers: Kamala Markandaya, Naipaul, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao — and E. M. Forster.

Her writings belong firmly in the colonialist and post-colonialist genres. She herself shows this migrancy – born of Jewish Polish parents who lived in Germany, numerous members of her family were killed in concentration camps, they moved to England where she got a degree in British literature, but then she married an Indian man and spent 25 years in India, last quarter of her life in America. I found myself very drawn to her autobiographical essay, “Myself in India,” where she tells the truth about the isolated existence she endured in India, the impoverishment of the people. It can be found in this collection:

For myself until two days ago when I led a class at OLLI at Mason in discussing her stories the best I could do was come up with generalizations. Jhabvala’s stories, novels, screenplays (original, not adaptations) are mostly set after 1947/48, Indian independence after the dissolution of the Raj. These are about Indian people trying to make it in a modern contemporary world – ambitious cool – whose roots though are in the traditional Indian culture. That’s the key – minds and bodies in two worlds. Jhabvala’s stories are also strongly feminist at times. Traditional cultures are very hard on women. Subtitle to some of them: Women amid snares and delusions. You might expect the women who emerge from these imprisonments (my view) to thrive far more, do better, and here in the US I’ve see it in students (but they are already living here with parents who brought them here), but in Jhabvala’s stories while many of her women thrive at first, are social successes, succeed at high management and political positions (often unofficial) eventually they self-destruct as the two did early in her famous Heat and Dust. The enemy of these women is internal (as Woolf said was the enemy of westernized women too – the angel in the house) – but it’s not angel that bothers these women. They find themselves in an exploitative, cynical and amoral world and retreat from it — to stasis, boredom, and illusion.


I think this is now the best book on Jhabvala — the older Sucher and Gooneratne are too western-oriented

Jhabvala is fascinated by the fake Guru, this manipulation on the part of supposed holy or tranquil or utterly unmaterialistic and spiritual people (I don’t have a better word) to draw to them the belief and trust of Indian people brought up in traditions seeking to experience some transcendent divine place, eternal, complete with notions of reincarnation, to release the soul into this divine (supernatural is my word) realm by various practices and rituals. Many of the Indian characters who don’t do well in Jhabvala and other Anglo-Indian writers (especially women also deprived of agency by law and custom) look for this non-individualistic realm and will pay money and support holy people they think put them in touch with these realms. Or they become a seer themselves. She also shows that westerners with a rational, pragmatic, scientific and materialistic set of assumptions can be equally taken in. It’s not such a funny comedy of delusions, because these patterns of behavior in her fictions are linked to what I’ll call masochistic patterns of behavior where people become dependent on one another (again especially women with a man in charge), some of these dependencies might seem bizarre, unmotivated, unexplained, gaining very little and giving up all. One explanation is Jhabvala is characterizing the social milieus of her stories, not probing individual psychologies – but some of this comes from this attempt to cross over – to get into this other culture while remaining in the modern one.

Her stories are epitomies or microcosms of the clashes between these world views. She looks around detachedly. Hers is an attempt at objectivity, yet so many of the stories are so sad. People are so betrayed, so hurt. Ironically several of the stories in East to Upper East present us with women as powerful people. Where they are held back it’s from marital customs found also in the patriarchal arrangements of the western world. The women who are most fulfilled are those who never marry, or if they do, end up (in effect) leading individualist lives based on their own agency.

I’m writing this brief survey blog posting tonight because of the class that went so well. I had dreaded it — three people who usually talk were not there (I knew they would not be), and I was not sure what to say about the particulars of the stories. I found their commentary and responses intelligent, sharp, with much understanding of the motives of Jhabvala’s driven ambitious characters. I’ll tell in brief concise form a little about the best stories we discussed from East into Upper East, “Independence,” “Progress and Development,” “A New Delhi Romance,” “Husband and Son,” and “Two Muses.” Sumitra, the heroine of the first, rose to heights of power, influence, and did some good in her time, but ends in angry despair. Her granddaughter wants to do a documentary about her life in order to record what was the truth of gov’t in India, but we see what kept the woman and the man she sustained afloat would never be acceptable in published forms. The four heroines and hero of “Progress and Development” begin life with high idealism; they will marry for love, have careers where they do good; they all end embittered and disillusioned, the male finding meaning in his family and children, only one of the women, Pushpa, a Mary Wollstonecraft kind of character sustaining the necessary illusions to keep going. The one who makes the best marriage as to status and the the apparent nature of her husband ends a suicide.

The last three are more domestic stories. “A New Delhi Romance” could be a story about two teenagers in the US, only it ends in an arranged marriage for the girl, selling herself to shore up her father’s scandalous fall from power and wealth. “Husband and Son” is about a woman whose society allows her no agency at all; she tries to find an outlook by becoming socially involved with a scoundrel dance teacher who when he seduces a young girl in the school is exposed for the fake he is; she ends caring for her profoundly depressed and ill husband who himself retreated from corrupt power. Last “The Two Muses,” the most autobiographical of the lot. The theme is here the distance between an artist’s life and his work, and how much an artist who is said to be creating masterpieces should be allowed to shirk his responsibility to others in real life; we watch a probably useless man being catered to by his wife, Lilo, who never reads a word he writes, and his mistress, Netta, who is responsible for his continued solvency and reputation.


I would like to read more of her autobiography and these stories are autobiographical

I feel I learned about the author in ways I just could not without live talk and give-and-take. At first Jhabvala is like this wall of guarded matter, but after a while if you persist and especially today I saw that they are in effect a real accurate commentary on the failure of Indian society to reform itself and provide meaningful modern and comfortable lives for most of its people. The politicians inhabit all the right roles, make liberal, well meaning comments, have wonderful luxurious times with one another on the tax money they get for salaries, but do nothing for infrastructure, land reform, re-distribution of income, general education. I found myself imagining Arundati Roy who won the Booker for her The God of Small Things written an invented language, half-way between a native idiolect and English –- as a candid and excellent journalist she writes for The Nation about India – very bitter at this recent turn of events with a religious bigoted dictator in charge. She would have no trouble recognizing what Jhabvala is realizing in words and exposing. As to moods, the stories can be felt as neutral or disillusioned ironic satires or melancholy bleak romances.

Next week we’ll spend a half hour on Mira Nair’s 2006 Namesake and Jumpha Lahiri’s 2003 novel of the same name.

I have put in a proposal to teach the following course in the spring at OLLI at Mason; I will do it at OLLI at AU too

Anglo-Indian Novels: the Raj, its Aftermath & diaspora

In this class we will read E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (Raj Quartet 1), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat & Dust, & a couple of short stories &/or essays by Jumpha Lahiri (from Interpreters of Maladies) & V.S Naipaul. We’ll explore a tradition of literature, colonialist and native cultural interactions; migrancy itself, gender faultlines, what we mean by our identity, belonging, castes. We’ll include in our discussions Anglo-Indian movies as a genre (e.g., Mira Nair movies, to wit, her Namesake out of Lahiri’s masterpiece), & specifically David Lean’s Passage to India, the BBC Jewel in the Crown (by Ken Taylor and Christopher Morahan), Merchant-Ivory’s Heat & Dust. We’ll take historical and contemporary perspectives on this rich material.


From David Lean’s 1984 A Passage to India

Ellen

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An eighteenth century trunk — probably more elegant than a woman’s typical “box” where she carried her things with her


Virginia Woolf’s writing desk

Dear friends and readers,

I have been wanting to report two more virtual conferences I’ve attended online, both stimulating and about two women writers who are strongly connected to Austen’s work, and who, coming from the same milieu and similar large families, evidence real parallels in how they lived their daily lives, both writers of genius too: the annual International Virginia Woolf Society’s conference was held in mid-June (2021), originally intended to be at Vermillion, South Dakota, it was instead transmitted online through the University of South Dakota’s software and auspices; and the Frances Burney Society’s AGM, early June (it just ended today, and I am not sure where it was launched from). Both were for me extremely enjoyable — and instructive.  I’ve written many blog-essays on Woolf and Burney, and published professionally on Burney.

It was the first Virginia Woolf conference I have ever attended (though many years I did go to their sessions at MLA and attended a party one evening where there were many Woolf scholars), and it was of great interest to me to see the people who are today in the forefront of Woolf scholarship, to participate in the atmosphere and listen to the kinds of papers/talks they gave. Here is the Society website. I was very touched by the openness with which they discussed the difficulties facing anyone who wants to have a well-paid career and do serious writing and editions and a myriad of kinds of work promoting the work of Virginia Woolf.

Two papers stuck out for me, one by Catherine Hollis, on the relationship of Woolf’s forms of life-writing and her attitude towards privacy.  Hollis argued that Woolf tended to favor impersonal writing, not telling intimacies, partly because she saw that as more respected, partly her own unwillingness to reveal aspects of her experience she didn’t want to or couldn’t deal with directly. The other paper, by Diane Reynolds, was on allusions to Austen in Between the Acts, one skein connecting the pageant to Austen’s poem upon St Swithin’s day, and the other connected Miss LaTrobe, the spinster who writes the pageant to Miss Bates. It is, then, yet another novel where major components connect back to Jane Austen. One I cannot find the attribution for (perhaps by Shelby Dowdle) was on To the Lighthouse, and how its melancholy poetry is deeply expressive and an underlying series of events make a parallel with Jane Eyre (as when the women are drained by the egoism of others).

There were a number of personal ones, where the speaker connected something in Woolf or her work back to the speaker’s life, especially during the pandemic: one woman who was nurse talked of how she now reads Woolf’s accounts of mental illness (in Mrs Dalloway for example) and death, and her own scary ordeal where so many were gravely ill or died in front of her. I began to contribute to the talk then: I told of a number of books I’d assigned to students in my “Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Tech” over the years about doctor training, about the realities of illness and medicine put into human language rather than obscuring abstractions; how necessary to get emotionally involved to understand a patient and help.


Fanny Burney, an engraving by John Bogle (1786)

I have been to Burney conferences before: once in NYC, a stand alone like this one, and a few times as coupled with the JASNA, the EC/ASECS, and ASECS; but I know they have smaller conferences across the year, and this one was like those, more intimate, with long-standing friends and fellow editors attending. I know the kind of work they tend to do (coming out of the kind of writing Burney and her family and associates left, heavily life-writing), but this these three days were a kind of retrospective, with papers on the history of the creation of the society (Paula Stepankowsky), carrying on expanding the purview to other Burneys so papers on Frances’s brother, Charles, in Scotland (by Sophie Coulomumbeau); on her brother James, as a midshipman (Geoffrey Sills), on her father, Charles’s use of his antiquarian tours for his history of music (Devon Nelson); much this time on the Court journals and journals themselves in lieu of focusing on the novels (a more common approach). Of papers on Burney’s novels, Alex Pitofsky argued the raw violence in Evelina is meant to criticize the characters who inflict this on others (all women).

By the third day everyone had begun to relax – the group was small (say 25 at most), and we descended to gossiping about Stephen Digby, one of the courtiers, hurt Fanny by his wavering non-courtship of her, and then one of the males defended him — he was driven away from Fanny by his family who wanted him to marry money and high rank.


The house in London where Frances Burney was born, 35 St Martin’s Street

Here, though, one interesting paper has at last made me think of a paper I can give at the coming (virtual again) EC/ASECS this October: using Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Francesca Saggini took us on a tour of the houses (and larger buildings) Fanny lived in across her life, showed how details from these figure in her imagination and writing, how much each of her homes meant to her, especially of course Camilla Cottage, which she had built with the money she made from her novel, Camilla, and was (even tragically) driven from because she did not own the ground it was built on and had depended on the Lockes to retain at least the length of her life. It was the detail about how Burney kept her papers, and how much the Professor “would give” that we should have some of the actual furniture the D’Arblays used in their writing life that set my mind working.


Amanda Vickery reading Dudley Rider’s diaries (At Home with the Georgians)

Ever since watching Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians and reading her Behind Closed Doors I’ve remembered the scene where she points out how the average women owned or controlled very little of her own space. Even married women had to owe as a privilege her husband provides her bedroom, her parlor. Unmarried women carried their very identities (all the things that made up their lives and which they cherished) in a box. She showed such a battered box (one from the 18th century), and I remembered the scenes in Wolf Hall (book and film) where Anne Boleyn, having to go to the tower, fills her box with her cherished things. I returned to Lucy Worseley (Jane Austen At Home) who would not have such a melancholy slant, but offers much material for demonstrating one. How Austen moved about and about, sometimes staying in castles and sometimes in houses near destitution (not far any way, as on Trim Street, how little control she had over the space she had access to or lived in.


Sydney Place, Bath, today, a holiday rental — where Austen lived with her family in Bath while her father was alive (from Lucy Worsley’s At Home with Jane Austen)

And no one would think to save such a box — this kind of true relic of a specific person does not come down to us — .

Title: “The importance of Her Box.” Women did not own the spaces they lived in; they could not control what was done with their papers after they died. So how could they form an identity: it is not to be found in the furniture they had around them but inside precious things (like a desk) or the box itself they put their things in when they moved about. I shall write about this as the core of an essay on Austen and her heroines moving about.


One of the papers at the Burney conference focused for a time on a pair of elegant lady’s shoes: well here is another ….

Vickery has written a number of essays on clothing and bags and shoes women wore — -these I have and they will be grist for my mill.

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Jocelyn (an Emma) reading for February (Jane Austen Book Club)

I do have plans for August. Since I won’t be going away and the two OLLIs I teach and attend courses at will be closed, I should have time and will try to discipline myself. Like I’ve seen other bloggers do, I will carve out such and such week, or these several days, read away consistently a set of books and then post about them.

I’m going to set aside one week for Austen sequels or post-texts. I want to reread Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Jo Baker’s Longbourn (wherein I try to think about what makes a good post-text), and for the first time read Diana Birchall’s The Bride of Northanger. I read a first version many years ago, and she is my friend so I shall try to remember the first for this last. I recently read a review of another post-text by Baker (she makes a business of these), and as for The Jane Austen Book Club


An appropriate figure by Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun

I watched Robin Swicord’s Jane Austen Book Club with a friend for the first time in a long time about a month ago. It seems more innocent post-Trump, post-pandemic. Mary Lee her name, appeared to enjoy it mightily She had read the 6 once each, but was able to remember them enough, for she remarked that you would not get anywhere near what you could from the movie unless you’ve at least read them all once or most of them. I said it was a movie that like Austen could take several viewings to get it all. I’d say the central ones to the movie are Emma, P&P and Persuasion — which are today’s most popular — you can’t miss NA (the gothic stuff), & Mansfield Park is directly quoted and attached to a character; Sense & Sensibility once quite popular has lost ground but clearly there explicitly for the mother and daughter and the same daughter and her female lovers. There have been many movies of S&S, at one time almost as many as P&P— though Emma is beginning to outstrip S&S, especially when the basic content is stripped from it (like the latest true travesty) and then others (alas) follow suit.


Rachel Cusk — photograph by Adrian Clarke

For another week I’ll read all three of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy: Outline, Transit and Kudos. Here’s Heidi Julavitz’s review for the New York Times. I had registered for a course at Politics and Prose to get myself to read them, but when I could see the course was going to be taught by an irritating fool (I tried one of her two Jumpa Lahiri sessions), I said to myself, you are the fool. The young woman, though said to have an MFA or some degree like that (her real qualification is she sets up lectures from acceptable/popular authors for P&P stores), approached the stories without so much as suggesting any overview of the author, any perspective on her work, but plunged into intense reactions on her part, and encouraged the others to do the same — as if her subjective “annoyance” with this character’s deeds for that character’s ideas is literary criticism or knowledge. I know people do this online all the time, often in unrationalized sudden bursts, but not the better responders. This is no way to conduct a class in literature so I dropped the course and will attend to no more of her solemn subjectivities.  I’m listening to the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) and maybe I’ll be into the fourth of four by that time, and I can compare the two sets (roman fleuves?)

So gentle reader, how shall I end this summer blog? By telling you I have returned to my review of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Anne Finch (I now have both volumes), and will thread this in too — though I imagine this will take several months, even — if I am to do it right. Today I began again to go over the major manuscripts and printed books and the minor ones and other sources for the poetry, in order to clarify it all for myself. This time I will take good notes. I don’t doubt Finch had a box too, for as a girl, and again as a maid of honor at the Stuart court, then Capt Finch’s lady, she went on many a trip before she became Lady Winchilsea — and not a few afterwards.

So much to live for I have to remind myself as I look at a beautiful book called Virginia Woolf at Home (by Hilary Macaskill). Tonight I’m retiring to Jenny Hartley’s Millions like Us: British Women’s Fiction of the Second World War (I’m loving it), one of the first non-fiction books on women’s literature that Virago published — this press was among the first to build something called Women’s Literature as an idea and then an imagined true reality.

The truth is I have been despairing these last weeks as I watch others go out and know I won’t and can’t the way they do; I should instead write blogs like this where I write myself into apparent cheerfulness, encourage myself to go on. I have no long-term projects any more because they are impossible without Jim’s help in traveling or merely compositing documents to the level demanded by most editors. I am bereft of joy and the deep sense of security he gave to me. I’m with Maggie Smith in this: since her husband died about 25 years ago (the marriage lasted 25 years), she says “it’s seems a bit pointless, going on on one’s own, and not having someone to share it with.”

Ellen

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