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Archive for July 8th, 2021


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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