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Archive for the ‘18th century drama’ Category


Opening scene: Henry-Mirabell (Luigi Sottile) and Charles-Witwoud (Brandon Espinoza)

A remarkable adaptation of William Congreve’s The Way of the World at the Folger. As part of the on-going women’s festival of plays in DC, Theresa Rebeck updated Congreve brilliantly and then directed it with bravura and panache. Very effective. Interesting for anyone who has read or seen Congreve’s play and equally great fun for anyone who has not. Strongly recommended

Witwoud: “Truths! ha, ha, ha. No, no, since you will have it. I mean he never speaks truth at all — that’s all. He will lie like a chambermaid, or a woman of quality’s porter. Now that is a fault. (Congreve, Act I)

Friends and readers,

Although it’s too late to get to this surprisingly apt and often funny-cruel adaptation of Congreve’s The Way of the World by the successful woman playwright, Theresa Rebeck, at the Folger (tomorrow night is the last performance), I write to say hurry out to see it if is is revived anywhere near where you live. You need never have read or seen Congreve’s The Way of the World, so thorough going and consistent is the adaptation, though if you have, the parallels and comparisons reinforce the bitter things that happen and are said in Rebeck’s play. They also show the timelessness of Congreve’s types and situations which seems so easily retrofitted in 2018. The lavish costumes (over-the-top priced shoes, handbags and accessories) reflect actual realities in shopping today. Rebeck’s wit is penetrating as her doubles for Congreve’s players enact the aimless luxurious self-centered lives of the 1% to be experienced in the Hamptons on Long Island.

Three out of four reviews give it high marks

for fitting into other smash hits she’s engineered and written

Nelsson Presley: “What’s a hard-nosed Hollywood survivor like “NYPD Blue” and “Smash” writer Theresa Rebeck doing inside the cool, Shakespeare-ghosted marble of the Folger Theatre?

Letting blue language fly in her update of the Restoration comedy “The Way of the World,” for one thing. William Congreve’s takedown of money-grubbing nuptials is being updated to the Hamptons in a voice that sounds like pure Rebeck: energetic, contemporary, funny and brutally honest about gender and leverage.

for screwball cynical farce:

Jayne Blanchard: “The characters in The Way of the World are pros at sniping and subterfuge and show us peons how snark can be done with style … In other words, it’s a bitch to be rich.

No one feels that more acutely than Mae (Eliza Huberth, grounded and gleaming with goodness), an American heiress who wears her $600 million fortune like a giant price tag on her head. Well-meaning and altruistic, Mae feels—and rightly so, the way she is treated by family and friends—that no one really sees her, only a bunch of dollar signs and zeros.

and a paradoxical feminism, appropriate for this play, part of a festival of women’s plays going on in DC:

Caroline Jones: “As the male characters trip over themselves in search of sex and money, the women reveal that they, in fact, hold the power in most situations. It’s an appropriate theme for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which celebrates the work of tenacious female playwrights from around the world … Thematically, it’s clear that Rebeck wants her adaptation to focus on the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. That idea comes through, but what makes the play fascinating is the relationships between the characters and the ways they abuse the people they love. Their desires, both long-term and temporary, are wrapped up in other individuals, something you don’t typically see in a comedy that includes regular uproarious laughter.”


Rene-Lady Wishfort (Kristin Neilsen) and her super-rich niece Mae-Millamant (Eliza Huberth)

What I enjoyed most was the superb comic-acting, which in a couple of cases is suggestive enough to make one feel sorry for the character. The brilliant timing, wild-letting go, and seeming unself-conscious self-expose of Kristin Nielsen as the lascivious aunt who is grieving for her loss of beauty and lonely is the power-house at the center. Truly funny soliloquies by Ashley Austin Morris, the desperately over-worked, rich-people worshipping and thieving waitress who is snubbed and taken advantage of, sometimes in a very ugly ruthless way — Mirabell is turned into an utter stud: Henry fucks every woman in the play and one of the men threatens to take her to the police unless she uses her Foible-like talent for manipulation to help him corner Mae-Millamant.


Henry oddly venomous as after fucking Ashley Martin Morris as the waitress-Foible

The critics above all write of Mae as effective, but I thought the part made her silly: she wants to give all her money to Haiti but seems to have no idea how to go about handling or keeping her money herself, much less disbursing it to anyone. After the terrific anger she displays at Henry, and she utters the most lines taken straight from Congreve that I recognized and some of the best in Rebeck’s play, she becomes blandness itself, almost a silent woman, saved for comic effect by her tasteless golden-hard wedding gown, which she keeps complaining is “too tight.”

For witty lines Rebeck did much better with the modernized Mrs Marwood, Erica Dorfler as Katrina, the ex-mistress (old-fashioned word but “previous love” doesn’t seem right either) of Henry, one of a trio there to needle the other characters. She gets some hard lines.


Erica Dorfler as Katrina-Marwood, Daniel Morgan Shelley as Lyle (a fop?) and Charles

I found myself remembering that in Congreve’s play Mrs Marwood was the bitterest and the most hurt of the characters: she has carried on adultery with male named Fainall, who has used, abused, and reproached her for betraying her friend, his wife; he hates being married, but she cannot bear that she has been “vicious” on his behalf and only gotten punishment for it (Congreve, Act II, lines 145-220).

Both Charles and Lyle are given wry lines reflecting on our world today: both are gay and would much prefer to go to bed with Henry, but that he prefers women. Not all of Congreve’s characters are transposed. The Fainalls (Mr and Mrs) are missing, and there is no fop (unless Lyle is meant to be), but there is a clown-fool: Elan Zafir as Reg, the bumpkin from the country is a Trump male type, crude and concerned to protect his manliness. When he goes to bed with Rene, he manifests intense distress lest she tell anyone.


Reg-Witwood is the one with the crass jacket and beer in his hand

All four didn’t have enough to do with the story of Henry’s quest for Mae and her money — unless that was the point. Much of the skilfull manipulation is done by Henry in a final battle with Rene over who knows more than whom and can therefore cheat and exert power over the other. As in Congreve’s play this one ends with a final duel of words and threats and compromises between Henry and Rene (Mirabell and Lady Wishfort). Some of the themes were startlingly apt for the year 2017: everyone lies and it’s asserted repeatedly there is no such thing as a truth that counts if you can shove it out of sight and delude others. Money conquers all.

Congreve it’s not. Nowhere as deep or thorough, or angry or pessimistic or deeply felt — or witty. But I hope it doesn’t disappear because it is more than a flippant rancid-stew. There is feeling now and again. Katrina or Mrs Marwood is really hurt when Henry escapes quickly after their night together and never phones. She is told by Charles (Witwoud) that men do not feel about phones the way women do. Other characters want someone to phone them back — this is not a group into texting though they walk around with cell-phones.

Most of the emotion is felt by snubbed waitress and the ridiculed Rene, who gives a final speech which would seem to contradict the whole play: Rene asserts what makes life worth while is devotion, relationships, loyalty, even love. This is not let to stand for too long, but it is part of the plot-design that what the heroine, Mae, wants is for the hero-stud, to be concerned for her feelings, truly in love with her, not to lie, and to be sexually faithful.

Ellen

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John Radner (1939-2017)

Friends,

Christmas is upon us, and I’ve yet to transcribe my notes on this year’s early November EC/ASECS conference, held at Howard University! I did not stay at the hotel but took the Metro each of the three trips (one evening, two days) so I arrived a bit late and left earlier than usual. We had our usual Thursday evening (Nov 2) of reading poetry aloud with a reception of drinks and snacks. It was the first time I had been to Howard University and I walked around campus too. I have about two blogs worth of papers and readings to tell of. This first one is on the first three sessions of the first day. The theme of the conference was “Capital culture and cultural capital.” I’d have loved to give a paper on Anthony Trollope’s stay in DC and his thought-provoking description of the city and surrounding environs during the civil war (including Alexandria and near where I live) but he’s not eighteenth century ….

I arrived on Friday morning, November 3rd, in time to participate in the tribute to John Radner (9:00 to 10:15 am). He was a great scholar who devoted his life to study and teaching, with his central interest in Johnson and Boswell. Last year as a culmination of a life-time of reading and thinking he published his book, Johnson and Boswell: A biography of a Friendship. He taught at George Mason for many years where I knew him. His office was across the hall from mine and we frequently talked during a few years when we were both there at the same time. He was an active and long-time member of EC/ASECS and also taught at the OLLI at AU where I teach too nowadays.


Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson (intensely reading)

The tribute consisted of four papers read aloud and talked through by four close friends of John’s. Each paper had a theme dear to the heart of Johnson and/or Boswell. Ann Kelly was just finishing hers on her first trip to the Hebrides, with her children, commemorating John through how Johnson and Boswell’s have text stirred her (and many others) into visiting the Hebrides islands, and making friends there. Henry Fulton who has just published a massive biography on John Moore used an incident where Moore and Johnson came together through a poem by Helen Maria Williams. The poem was given to Burke, Burke shared it with Moore as did Reynolds who then showed it to Johnson. Henry’s point was to show the connections between these people whom John had been so engaged with over the decades. Linda Merians then spoke: John knew more of Johnson than anyone. Walter Jackson Bate who wrote the great biography of Johnson was John’s mentor. She talked of how John empathized with both Boswell and Johnson, and wrote of how each thought “I am never with this man without feeling better and rendered happier.” Melancholy united Boswell and Johnson who had a deep fear of breakdown. Beth Lambert whose biography is on Burke spoke of the failed friendship of Burke and Boswell. They remained aware of one another is as far as it got, Boswell transgressed by using some private confidence; Burke’s Irishness made him more sensitive to spreading gossip which could be turned against him. Burke in turn doubted Boswell was “fit” (not smart enough) for their weekly clubbing. In each case the speaker talked of his or her memories of John. It was a very touching hour.


Fanny Burney by John Bogle (detail)

The panel I was chairing, “Portraits of Frances Burney” came after a short coffee break (10:45-noon). Kaitlyn Giblin’s paper, “To nobody belonging, by nobody was noticed:” Navigating the bounds of Feminine Authority and Female Authorship in Burney’s Evelina. Kaitlyn examined the depictions of motherhood in Evelina; Caroline, Evelina’s mother, is not married and thus her daughter has no identity. Her very existence is to be hidden. Evelina gains some status when she is revealed to be her mother’s daughter, but she knows a seachange only when she marries. Mr MacCartney’s story fits into the same trajectory: he too needs legitimacy, recognition, acknowledgement. Kaitlyn’s paper fit into the rebellious but 18th century Johnsonian figuring of a public reasoning Burney. Noello Chao’s “The Arts and Indifference in The Wanderer” produced a different sort of portrait. Noello made the unexpected point of the price artists have to make when they practice their art. Her spirit is annihilated when she does practice because she is not appreciated and feels profoundly divorced from herself as she tries to play in front of others wholly alien to her. Burney presents the failure of art to inspire or make others feel meaningful; Juliette feels little pleasure or solace in what she is doing; she cringes because she has to sell herself. The novel is about the hidden costs of producing art. We also see how limited are the choices upper class women are given; susceptible to assault and invective. High continental forms do not satisfy; instead Stonehenge with its ancient natural space offers calm and a quiet place to feel herself. Burney does not reject labor but wants it to have a chance to be meaningful.

Lorna Clarke’s paper, “Juvenile Productions in the Burney Family” She discussed her discovery of the early writings of several members of the Burney family. They were an artistic group living in a vibrant atmosphere, in a sophisticated London culture with professional and amateur theatrics around them. It was wonderful to listen to Lorna’s enthusiasm as she described these works; they did resemble the Brontes in how they invented a magazine and shared their writing, inspiriting one another. They drew frontispieces, made indexes, were imitating published books. The experience (as practised by these children) was educational socially; they think of their audience. Lorna then read passages to show how these works are funny, nervy, uses legends; there is a 34 stanza ballad the children seek freedom as their narrators find their voice. They incorporate violence meant to be funny; and also have blood baths at the end of a tragedy. Sophia Elizabeth produced her own anthology; we know Frances wrote a novel about Caroline, mother of Evelina. The vividness of her style is there in the earliest of her journals. You can see gender at work. The figure of Persephone is used for melancholy and romance. There is ambiguity about being a writer. One of the children writing died relatively young after a period as a governess. There are also letters.


William Hogarth, The Graham family (children)

The papers had been so interesting, full of details and varied there was much talk afterward (as moderator I didn’t get to write it down so have no details). Several questions on the Wanderer and attitudes towards art in Burney’s family. Lorna seemed to have made us all want to peruse these juvenilia far more than I have ever wanted to read the Brontes’s famous tiny-lettered children’s lurid romances (until recently when in another context I heard a paper quoting from these, showing that in there are more passages than one might expect which anticipate their adult novels). I was reminded of the March family in Little Women who produce a Christmas number (a reflection of the Alcott family); the Austens, much older, wrote a periodical which had circulation among adult readers.

We adjourned for lunch and I went with two friends to a nearby Asian fusion restaurant where we had good talk and food.


Charlotte Ramsay Lennox (1730-1804)

For the first session of the afternoon I went to Eleanor Shevlin’s panel, “Collection, Curation & Classicism.’ It had a miscellany of papers. Hilary Fezzey talked about autism in the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote and Hugh Blair’s letters. Her argument was an interesting and worthy one, as her point seemed to be how neurotypical (as she called the non-autistic) people are treated as a norm which all others have to be like. Which is unfair. People who are autistic may be said to lack social capital. She said that from Hugh Blair’s letters we can see he was socially very awkward, dressed differently, lived a wholly interior life, did not follow social “rules.” He had no sense of social inhibition where he should have been inhibited; seemed very innocent to others. He was married for a time. She felt the explanation for Arabella’s obtuseness and obsession with later 17th century heroic romances was that she is meant to be autistic. Even if Lennox would not have used that term, Hilary seemed to feel Lennox meant to describe autism as a type of person. She does not pay attention to other people, has no idea of social conventions, and the novel condemns her at the end.

Sylvia Kasey Marks’s paper was on the 20th century great playwright, Arthur Miller and the 18th century forger, Henry Ireland. She discussed them as both appropriating the work or understood persona and style of someone else. In the early phase of his career Miller wrote radio plays, and some of these are dramatizations of someone else’s novel. She demonstrated that in Miller’s case we see him consistently change his original to fit his own vision. Unlike Ireland, Miller was not trying to find a new space in which he could create something unlike what others were writing at the time. He was building his career and operating within a considerable group of constraints (which include pleasing the audience). Sylvia told the whole sad story of Ireland, including a conflict with his father, and how we may see popular attitudes towards Shakespeare in some of Ireland’s writing.


Arthur Miller when young (photograph found on the Net)

Bill Everdell gave a detailed historical paper, excellent, on “the evangelical counter-Enlightenment.He discussed the relationship between ecstasy and doctrinal fundamentalism in 18th century Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He was exploring powerful social and psychological currents in the era. He went into the more learned treatises, attitudes towards self-determination, equality, passion, calmness. I couldn’t begin to take down the details.

There was not much time for discussion afterward so I was not able to register the serious doubt I had about analyzing a character in a novel according to 20th century diagnostic criteria in watered-down ways. I know from experience before someone is diagnosed for autism, they are interviewed and must have 2 characteristics out of six sets of them on six sheets of paper. Arabella is a naif figure in a Quixote satire. Hugh Blair’s self-descriptions are closer to possibility as he was a real complex person but we’d have to have more evidence from others. People did attempt to ask about Miller and also the Islamic Enlightenment.

More on the later afternoon and Saturday in my second blog.


George Morland (1763-1804), study of a cat

Ellen

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), inquiring at Trenwith for Elizabeth

Those who are left are different people trying to lead the same lives … Demelza to Captain MacNeil (Warleggan, Bk 1, Ch 4)

There’s no to-morrow. It doesn’t come. Life’s an illusion. Didn’t you know. Let us make the most of the shadows … Ross to Elizabeth (Warleggan, Bk 3, Ch 5)

Dear friends and readers,

For the second season of the new Poldark I’ve put all my blogs on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two. Since the matter is historical fiction and films set in the 18th century, it might be of interest to my readers here. Thus I’ve decided to put the handy list I make at the end of each season of a mini-series for the Poldark matter on Austen reveries.

I make the list this time for more than the convenience of anyone interested in these historical adaptation films. I’ve embarked upon a “discovery” exploration time for myself. I’m looking to see if I want to and can write a literary biography of Winston Graham: his life and work. I’ve begun by rereading his A Memoirs of a Private Man.

So as a help to myself too, I here gather together in one place my blogs written for the second season of the new Poldark series; the two papers I’ve written and delivered at 18th century conferences on the books and mini-series thus far; the handy list for the first season and a course I taught on the novels two years ago; my website pages for all Winston Graham’s novels.

I’m just now enjoying listening to the Graham’s fourth novel read aloud on CDs: Warleggan by Oliver Hembrough. Hence the opening quotations.

******************************


Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) talking late into the night with Ross

The new series, the 2nd season:

The new Poldark, 2nd season, disconcerting news

Poldark and Outlander: Horsfield scripts; problematic parallels in attitudes on rape and violence towards women

The new Poldark (2015): the first season, looking at the scripts

2 Poldark 1-3 (as seen on BBC): a different emotional temperature

2 Poldark 4-5 (as seen on BBC): concentration on exemplary and tragic heroism

2 Poldark 6-7: Mourning; Fierce struggle to survive; rescued from ambush

2 Poldark 8-9: a marriage strained beyond endurance; parallel conflicted sex scenes

2 Poldark 10: Reconciliation and Forbearance, Finale

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Verity (Norma Streader) saying goodbye to Blamey after his duel with Frances Poldark (1975 mini-series)

Two talks on the Poldark novels and comparing the two film adaptations 40 years apart

“‘I have a right to choose my own life: Liberty in the Poldark novels

Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years on

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Ross (Aidan Turner), last episode, first season

A handy list of blogs for the first season and a course taught around that time:

Emma Marriot’s Companion: The World of Poldark

Poldark: the new incarnation, a handy list

Winston Graham’s Poldark, Cornwall and other books

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Dwight and Caroline Penvenen’s wedding, shot on location in Cornwall

Website pages

The Poldark series and other fiction and non-fiction by Winston Graham

A Bibliography of all Graham’s books and books on Cornwall and related areas


Bronze age tomb in Cornwall

Ellen

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charlottefelicityclare
Charlotte Heywood (Amy Burrows), Felicity Lamb (Bonnie Adair) Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan)

Diana’s letter: [Susan] has been suffering from the headache and six leeches a day for ten days together … convinced on examination the evil lay in her gum, I persuaded her to attack the disorder there. She has accordingly had three teeth drawn, and is decidedly better, but her nerves are a good deal deranged … Jane Austen’s Sanditon

Though he had not the character of a gamester, it was known in certain circles that he occasionally played well, & successfully; to others he was better known as an acute & very useful political agent, the probable reason of his living so much abroad — Of Mr Tracy, Anna Lefroy’s continuation

Dear friends and readers,

Today a friend sent me a news item that the first “period costume drama” of Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon is slated to be filmed, in an advertisement that says this is the first filmed Sanditon. Well not so. Chris Brindle’s play from Jane Austen and Anna Lefroy’s Sanditon is, and it’s the argument of this blog it’s probably much more in the spirit of Austen than the coming commercial one.

First, the ad suggests a cosy, creamy film (rather like the recent Love and Freindship), with the completion written by Marie Dobbs. Dobbs turned a satirical and highly sceptical story whose focus is a group of people seeking to make money on the false promises of a seaside spa to cure people, into a melodramatic romance, complete with an abduction, an elopement and three marriages, the accent now on love. Yes box office stars, Holliday Grainger for Charlotte and Max Irons for Sidney Parker have been cast. And much better — reasons for thinking this might be another strong Austen film: the screenplay writer is Simone Reade, who has to his writing credit a fine movie from R. C. Sherriff’s powerful WW1 Journey’s End and the 1997 Prince of Hearts. In addition, the director is Jim O’Hanlon who directed the 2009 Emma scripted by Sandy Welch and starring Romolai Garai and Johnny Lee Miller. And Charlotte Rampling is to play Lady Denham!

Nonetheless, I wanted to recommend not waiting and availing yourself of Chris Brindle’s production of Sanditon, available on DVD from http://www.sanditon.info. I’ve watched it three times now, and went back and reread (as I’ve done before) Anna Lefroy’s continuation, which, together with her aunt’s fragment are the basis for Chris Brindle’s script. It has that Jane Austen quality of telling real truths while leaving you somewhat cheered.

sandition
Shots of the English countryside near the seashore occur between scenes

This interlude between the two acts captures the brightness of the production; the singer is Amy Burrows who plays an appealing Charlotte. She also narrates the good 40 minute documentary available from the site about Anna Lefroy’s life and other writing and relationship with Austen as well as the circumstances surrounding Austen’s writing of Sanditon: Austen, as we all know, was fatally ill knew it, often in bad pain; this was her last piece of writing.


Singers: Amy Burrows and Nigel Thomas (click on the YouTube logo to go over to hear the song)

Brindle is an ancestor of the painter of a miniature of Anna Lefroy, and has interested himself in the landscape, houses, and culture of the era.

First some admission or warning-preparation. The people doing the production had a very small (or no) budget and parts of the play are acted in front a black screen; several of the actors are half-reading the scripts. I found this did not get in my way once I became interested in the play and characters and that was quickly. These parts of the performance reminded of good staged readings I’ve attended.

On the many pluses side: like Catherine Hubback’s Younger Sister (Hubback has also until recently not be a favored subject for the Austen family so that it was hard to get hold of her continuation of The Watsons), Lefroy clearly knows more of the direction Austen meant to take the story in than we can see in the extant text. In her Mary Hamilton she captured something of her aunt’s tone in Persuasion: here she continues the peculiar comic feel combining real hypocrisies, delusions, with a comic control from distancing style. Lefroy’s continuation was not widely known until 1977 when it was published in a good edition and is still ignored, partly because Anna’s close relationship is her aunt is downplayed in favor of Austen’s relationship with the richer Fanny Austen Knight.

mrparkerwantsasurgeon
His carriage overturned, Mr Parker demands that Mr Heywood (Adam Bone) produce a surgeon ….

In the film, the parts are very well-acted, especially of the key figures, Mr [now given the first name of] Tom Parker (Vincent Webb) and Lady Denham (Barbara Rudall). What Lefroy did was to bring out the implications of her aunt’s story: Parker is fringe gentry desperately trying to make money to support his gentleman’s lifestyle, overspending to make an impression, a physician-chaser (he deliberately allows his carriage to overturn where he thinks he will meet with a physician whom he can bring to Sanditon to allure the sick into believing the spa will cure them. For Mr Parker, there is just enough lightness of humor to make them sympathetic figures, without overlooking his actual predation, which is however registered by Mrs Parker’s querulous fretting (Bonnie Adair). It’s more than hinted in Austen’s fragment that the sanguine Sidney, the younger brother (played by Pete Ashore), is an intelligent decent man (a sort of Mr Knightley figure) who rescues Parker from bankruptcy. Lefroy’s text adds a villain-friend of Sidney’s, a Mr Tracy (Adam Bone) whom she characterizes in a more worldly way than any of Austen’s heroes: Tracy is rather like one of Trollope’s semi-rakes; he lives high off his rank, cheating just enough on cards and here as a speculator in a local bank, to sluice money off other people; his creditors don’t call his debts in because they keep hoping to be paid in full. Brindle adds further that Tracy also takes advantage of the delusionary conceited Lady Denham (a sort of Lady Catherine de Bourgh figure) to bankrupt her account.

ladydenham

clarabrereton
Lady Denham disdaining Clara Brereton in a scene between egregiously rude dowager and put-upon heroine that repeats across Austen’s oeuvre

This open emphasis on money as the girding understructure of the society is matched by a development out of Austen’s text: Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan) is a paid companion to Lady Denham, who exploits and bullies her; she is also being seduced by Sir Edward Denham, Lady Denham’s nephew. They have to hide this from her and Austen’s text ends with Charlotte spying them seated on a bench where Clara looks very distressed. In Austen’s text Denham is an admirer of Richardson’s Lovelace, and Clara may be seen as a short version of the name Clarissa. Brindle adds (somewhat improbably) that Denham is pressuring Clara to put some poisonous or sickening compound into Lady Denham’s medicines to do away with the old woman. Brindle has picked up a view of Austen’s Mr William Elliot I have and think may be seen in the 2007 ITV Persuasion (scripted by Simone Burke). Mr Elliot pretends solvency but is actually near broke; that’s why he is hanging around his uncle, Sir Walter and is willing to have a liasion with Mrs Clay to have evidence he can use against her if she should try to marry Sir Walter. Sir Edward Denham is in type a Mr Elliot: a really bad man, desperate for money. I found it an ambiguous feel was given this simple characterization when the same actor played both the good man (Sidney) and the bad one (Denham): Pete Ashore. The choices for doubling are effective: the simple good Mr Heywood, the smooth calculating crook Tracy: Adam Bone.

comicanguish
Diana’s anguish (wildly antipathetic comedy found more in Austen’s letters & juvenilia) is counter-checked by the clarity of Alice Osmanski’s delivery

arthurnearby
Arthur (Rickey Kettly-Prentice) nearby reacts

The best scenes though are those which don’t forward the plot directly. One set are those given where we have just Alice Osmanski as Diana Parker talking out Diana’s inimitable letters or place in dialogue with the Parkers, Charlotte and different configurations of the other characters. She was brilliant, vivacious, half-mad and well-meaning all at once. Rickey Kettly-Prentice is too thin for Arthur, but otherwise utterly convincing as this falsely hypochondriacal young man who finds he does not have to work for a living. Working for money in Austen’s novels is presented positively again and again, but Arthur is the first male to himself almost self-consciously enact a drone role.

misslambtellingclaraherhistory
Miss Lamb’s hard face while she tells Clara her history

The other are those where the plight or hard circumstances of young women without money or status are made central: the characters who carry this are Charlotte Heywood (not brought out clearly in Austen’s fragment because as yet she is not sought by Sidney Parker), Clara Brereton and Miss Lamb, her given the ironic first name of Felicity. Austen tells us only that she is a “mulatto,” very rich, brought by a governess along with a few other girls in a seminary arrangement to spend time at the seashore. Brindle has her tell a story to Charlotte and Clara that reminds me of the story of in the 1808 anonymous epistolary novel, The Woman of Color. Felicity is the daughter of a slave-mistress of her father, both badly treated by the man, with strong suggestions that she was sexually abused by Lamb at age nine. Fittingly for Austen’s fragment, Brindle has disease (a factor in the West Indies for the English who had not built up immunities) do him in. He loses all his relatives but Felicity, and ends up semi-dependent on her while she is there, and sends her to England in order (in effect) to buy a white husband in order to to produce whiter grandchildren for himself. In her intense conversation with Clara and Charlotte Bonnie Adair as Felicity seethes with anger and hurt and shows no disposition to marry anyone; she wants independence and liberty and the play ends without her having engaged herself to anyone.

denhampressuringclara
Denham pressuring Clara

Brindle also fills in Clara’s story: Lucy-Jane Quinlan speaks with a cockney accent throughout and is given a sort Dickensian deprived background, which is poignant. As it’s understandable that Miss Lamb should not be keen to marry any man, and want to control her money so it’s understandable the portionless Clara should be willing to submit to Edward Denham’s bullying, insults (there are brief moments of this) in order to marry him. It’s her only way to provide for herself she says to Charlotte.

sidneysavingtheday
Sidney saving the day

Telling it this way brings out the undercurrents of melodrama and harsh realities that actuate the crises and character’s hypocrisies. The appeal of the piece, its piquancy, is like poor Susan’s miserably over-medicated existence (appropriately Susan is played by the same actress who plays the hard-worked maid, Daisy, Ruby O’Mara), kept muted most of the time. Susan and Daisy don’t say much: Susan is continually using a handkerchief, writhing quietly; Daisy is kept busy. Only in the moments of exposure — such as when Sidney saves everyone by exposing Tracy (and declares for more building up Sanditon), or Mr Parker finds he must admit he is nearly without funds, and the hysteria of Lady Denham for whom a proposed income of £100 a month or a year is horrifying. Fatal. Otherwise how have a happy ending for Clara. I’m sure Brindle has also read Emma where Jane Fairfax’s happy fate is the result of Lady Churchill’s sudden death.

This is a play and production which does not turn Austen into complacent romance or uncritical social comedy. Not that Simone Reade’s production necessarily will. Brindle says in the documentary he meant to do justice to Anna Lefroy’s continuation, her writing and life relationship with her aunt. He does so. Perhaps the delight or feeling that this is world where there are good people whose strength has not been undermined or twisted by circumstances inheres most in Amy Burrows’s character and performance. She does not seem at all your moralizing exemplary heroine, just someone (as she says) who has been lucky to have kind (if not very rich) parents. She is given several wry choral asides for turns in the story.

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Delivering an aside

Try it, you’ll like it if you give it a chance.

Ellen

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Giovanni Volpato and Louis Ducrois, The Temple to the Sybil at Tivoli, 1750

Thus is a people gradually exhausted, for the most part, with little effect. The wars of civilized nations make very slow changes in the system of empire. The public perceives scarcely any alteration but an increase of debt; and the few individuals who are benefited, are not supposed to have the clearest right to their advantages. If he that shared the danger enjoyed the profit, and after bleeding in the battle grew rich by the victory, he might shew his gains without envy, But at the conclusion of a ten years war, how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes and the expence of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractor and commissaries, whose equipages shine like meteors, and whose palaces rise like exhalations? — Johnson, Thoughts on the Falkland Islands

When her mind was discomposed … a book was the opiate that lulled it to repose … Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (from handouts)

Dear friends and readers,

At long last my report on the EC/ASECS conference, whose topic was “The Familiar and the Strange.” Not only have I been delayed, but I will have but two blogs as I missed some panels, and was not able to take down papers from all I attended. I will offer the paper titles of those that sounded especially intriguing that I missed and surmise others might like to know of. Here I also take the step of quoting from some of the excellent handouts I came away with. How relevant are all these 18th century texts, and how they come together under a post-colonial perspective. As usual the reader must remember these summaries only offer a gist of what was said.

I chaired one of the panels of the first session, and I hope it’s acceptable for me to say of my panel, “Finance, Affect, and Gender,” (Friday, 9:30-10:15 am), the papers were excellent, fit together well, and the talk afterwards stimulating. Michael Genovese, “Strangers and Credit in Addison and Steele,” was part of a project where he focuses on the ways in which talking about money and talking about affect intersect with one another. He talked about the early periodical press, especially Addison and Steele, and Defoe’s writing where what is mapped is a relational rather than individualistic form of selfhood. People who are debtors and creditors react through communal sentiments as well as financial exchange and obligation. He suggested such mixtures are with us still; for example, a 20th century commercial about how friendly housing mortgage people in a company are. Sympathy is used to mitigate and soften money relationships from whence people gain status and power (social capital), and this makes catastrophe more bearable. In these texts forms of behavior are adopted which channel feeling. Steele makes the point that this is analogous to textual relationships where the writer owes as much to the reader as the reader owes to him. Some practical results include seeing the “dishonest debtor” as unfortunate, rather than a criminal; through adding sympathy imprisoning someone (which makes it impossible for the person to make up the payment) can be presented more convincingly as destructive as well as irrational. In effect too the subjective response of a creditor (i.e., anger, frustration) is diminished so some form of mutual benefit can emerge from an unlucky transaction.

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From the BBC 1996 Moll Flanders (scripted Andrew Davies): Moll (Alex Kingston) in partnership with another woman

Kristin Distel’s paper, “Bastardy, Shame, and Property: Moll Flanders, Crime and the Governess as Entrepreneur.” She began by pointing out that Defoe’s governess is not a realistic depiction. She is there to serve as a sort of pawnbroker where illegitimate pregnancy and theft are equated. She can operate a profitable business because she understands how to cope with shame through impudence. Shame is, she noted, is a discipline, a social and psychological tool rendering women powerless: they are led to internalize humiliation (this is Foucault). Thus they are kept in subjection. People in this era perceived that crime was on the increase: population was on the increase; options for paid work were limited. Suicides increased; women were indicted for theft more than men (she suggested punishments were actually lenient). We see Moll and her governess work together to survive, for profit, theft becomes their trade. Their vocabulary emphasizes (without explaining) “success” and while they report, they ignore name-calling like “shameless,” “immodest” and “unblushing.” She then looked at how by contrast punishment for women for illegitimate children, especially if the baby died, was remarkably harsh. The way the law was formulated the presumption was infanticide if the baby died; women did naturally try to miscarry; they would give away their babies when they could. Here in Defoe’s fiction the governess’s help is crucial as Moll suffers much more from this socially induced natural fear than shame. The two threads of Kristin’s talk came together as she discussed the ending of the novel where our heroine’s financial success frees her from fear, shame, and dependence.

NIGHT. Now Ev’ning fades! her pensive step retires, / And Night leads on the dews, and shadowy hours;/ Her awful pomp of planetarv fires, / And all her train of visionary pow’rs./These paint with fleeting shapes the dream of sleep./These swell the waking soul with pleasing dread; /These through the glooms in forms terrific sweep, / And rouse the thrilling horrors of the dead!/Queen of the solemn thought – mysterious Night! /Whose step is darkness, and whose voice is fear!/Thy shades I welcome with severe delight, / And hail thy hollow gales, that sigh so drear!/But chief I love thee, when thy lucid car /Sheds through the fleecy clouds a trembling gleam,/ And shews the misty mountain from afar, /The nearer forest, and the valley’s strream: / And nameless objects in the vale below, /That floating dimly to the musing eye, / Assume, at Fancy’s touch, fantastic shew, / And raise her sweet romantic visions high … Ah! who the dear illusions pleas’d would yield, /Which Fancy wakes from silence and from shades, /For all the sober forms of Truth reveal’d, /For all the scenes that Day’s bright eye pervades! — Ann Radcliffe

Rivka Swenson’s paper, “Making the Darkness Strange in Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest. Darkness is what we expect in a gothic, and this novel begins in a dark wild flight, but as it progresses what emerges is the story of a man who has run away to the forest, a young girl who writes poems to the night and finds a manuscript which tells of an imprisoned and therefore murdered man. In the book flight and a transcendant darkness beyond society’s eye are embraced. The last third of the novel does introduce a good man living in tranquillity whose name means light, but in the novel as a whole safety and quiet are found in obscurity. Rivka then talked of the female sublime, suggesting that we replace Caspar Friedrich’s familiar male staring into the iced distance with a female. We move from Aristotelian/neoclassical ideals to Burkean. Adeline’s poetry moves from evening and darkness to the coming of dawn, but Radcliffe’s prose leaves her in the dark still night where meditation provides intense inspiration to write the book.

There were lots of questions for Michael. People brought up (as a counter-examples) the story of Yarico and Inkle where he sells his beloved; he cannot feel a personal connection for someone of a different race and such low status; in Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling, sentimental characters show no interest in money. On Kristin’s paper, Did not Moll feel overwhelming Christian guilt at turns in the novel? how does that relate to the secular idea of shame?

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An illustration from an edition of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho: The Devil’s Bridge

I went to the session on Samuel Johnson (10:30-11:15) chaired by Anthony Lee. Greg Clingham’s “Sex and the City: Johnson’s Erotics of Reading,” was a meditation on one of Boswell’s striking metaphors: Boswell says that he’d write after his mind became strongly impregnated with Johnson’s “ether.” He was looking at the ways erotic content is redirected into reading: he loved conversation and worked hard to convey the talk. Johnson’s male biographers presented Johnson in ways that kept him separate from sex; yet sex was ubiquitous in Johnson’s life, not glamorous, not scandalous, rather human: from his wife, Tetty, to his relationship with Hester Thrale, Hill Boothby; he was comfortable with the prostitute, Bet Flint. When he writes of Rochester, he is not content to stay with the vigor of his colloquial wit, but looks at the poet’s mind, tracing a sexual degeneration and debasement: Rochester died at 31, exhausted. Dryden’s poetry is not overtly erotic, and yet we find Johnson reaching for a female metaphor to describe it. In Rasselas Johnson looks at sexuality in the harem of Pekuah where her assumption of agency enables her to triumph during her imprisonment. The question is, Are the demons of depression and loneliness (both Johnson and Boswell’s) kept at bay by fantasies of conversation in this biography? Well, Jorge Luis Borges saw the erotic in Johnson and Boswell from the depth of a human heart and mind on display.

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Reynolds’s famous portrait of Johnson, reading, taking in a text ….

John Radner felt his paper, “Johnson in the Hebrides,” was in conversation with Greg’s. Johnson and Boswell began their trip as teacher and pupil, substitute father and acolyte, and came back as an intertwined subject and writer of the biography. The two shared fantasies; both missed other friends and longed for letters and must’ve kept up journals for their later twin books. Hitherto Johnson with Boswell talked of his guilt, his wide range of knowledge not being used, but the sort of grim tone Johnson often had was lifted and he was usually gay, sort of off-duty and yet out of the trip came the Journal of the Western Islands Johnson had argued that traveling was a waste of time; civilized and barbarous people are the same. He had talked of Culloden as sheerly pernicious for all, but when he met a clan chieftains, and they talked of all sorts of intimate beliefs, he changed his mind. This unfamiliar experience and place for two men in an evolving love relationship produced great books as an unintended consequence. This morning I was thinking Wordsworth and Coleridge are a parallel male pair.

Anthony Lee’s “Strangely ‘sudden glories:’ Johnson, Hobbes, and Thoughts on the Falkland Islands was journey through a series of startling utterances by Johnson strongly relevant to our political situation today. He was delving complex words in various relationships. He began with Johnson’s strong disapproval and refutation of authoritarianism as found in Hobbes. He inveighed against Junius for the falsity of a man who won’t reveal who he is (a sneak), or anything about himself. Both men’s laughter is rejected on the ground that “one of the proper works” of a great mind is “to help and free others from scorn,” comparing themselves “only with the most able.” Johnson’s animus at Milton (a republican) comes from his repugnance at demonizing. In Johnson’s Falkland Islands we find this castigation: the colonialists are “men who, without virtue, labour, or hazard, are growing rich as their country is impoverished; they rejoice when obstinacy or ambition adds another year to slaughter and devastation, and laugh, from their desks, at bravery and science.” (I thought of Trump’s vile tweets at scientists, professional learned people, at John McCann.) Then Tony quoted Addison and Steele on the meanness of “laughing at our own dishonour.” Tony suggested that Johnson’s idiom is both transparent and opaque. What Johnson admired was a life commitment.

Johnson and Boswell would have liked the talk however brief afterward. Many in the room were Johnsonians who know each other well, others new to Johnson, some there from studies of Johnson’s friends and associates (Frances Burney, Hester Thrale). We stayed into the 15 minute interval.

Then I went to lunch with friends who were also going to Mary Ball Washington’s (George Washington’s mother) house (a small museum nowadays, but set up as closely to what the house was as time elapsed with all its changes allows).

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1941 print on a postcard

I could make out how dependent this white woman was on her black slaves, how surrounded by them, and thought to myself how do you make people accept such a status and stealing of their lives. The evolution of the house’s rooms was explained. So too that she was long lived and (as Austen might say) held up admirably under the vicissitudes of her eventful heroine’s life.

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Agostino Brunias’s “West Indian Creole Woman with her black servant” (the frontispiece for Lyndon J. Dominique’s edition of The Woman of Colour)

I arrived late for the early afternoon panel I had planned to attend, “Politics and the ‘Other’ in the British and American Novel (2:30-3:45 pm). I was able to situate myself and begin taking notes only for Emily Kugler’s paper on the anonymous epistolary 1808 The Woman of Colour,” which she called “Beyond the Marriage Plot: Friendship and Creole Companionship.” The novel is about a mulatto young woman, Olivia, whose father sends her to Britain to be married to a rich white man in order to provide himself with grandchildren who are only one-quarter white and to provide her with a high status husband. She writes to a friend. The model is Charlotte Lennox’s 1790s epistolary Euphemia where two woman friends pour out their hearts to one another and themselves literally travel, one across the Atlantic, both through typical women’s lives. In Lennox’s novel Euphemia has to endure an irresponsible and stupid husband. We travel to Canada and discover a colonial place which is contested. Maria Frawley, the second heroine has an absurd guardian who tests her; she manages to be obedient and gain a measure of space (to be let alone). The happy ending is they are reunited, but their lives have been badly damaged. Lennox’s is a pessimistic book predicting a failed patriarchal empire. By contrast, Olivia disobeys after she discovers that her father’s choice for her was already married, even though she loves the man because her marriage was bigamous: she refuses to remarry and returns to Jamaica. There is much anguish over skin color, much exposure of “how civilized behavior comes from the body” (a quotation from Dominique’s study, Imoinda’s Shade where he discusses the novel), of what passes as love, over trying to understand these communities. She helps her maid who is more vulnerable than she, and sticks steadfastly to widowhood! Her correspondent, Harriet, ends a suicide (Emily likened the character to Goethe’s Werther and suggested the lesson to be learnt was the danger of too much sensibility), but Olivia ends up free and independent, lasting into old age, caring for a little boy. Both novels show women seeking to make an identity and life for themselves, caring very much, in need of sister-friendships.

I’d add both novels show the intermix of cultural and gender relationships in evolving new-old countries, the problems of race and status intersecting with law and custom. Emily did not bring up that in Lennox’s novels the two women are sufficiently in love with one another to be considered lesbian, so another dimension in Lennox’s novel matches the unexplored because over-idealized slavery issue in the anonymous optimistic book. It’s an interesting exercise to think about which stories are withheld in both novels, hinted at but never told. The traditional story of the unmarried (virginal or not) white heroine, no matter how oppressed, at the end marrying, with a contented future (or not), cannot teach us much, however alluring they may be.

From Nick Dear’s screenplay out of Jane Austen’s Persuasion:

Mrs Musgrove: ‘What a great traveler you must’ve been, ma’am.’
Mrs Croft: ‘I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies, and in different
places about home: Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never was in the West Indies – we do not call
Bermuda or Bahama the West Indies, Mrs Musgrove, as you know.
Charles Musgrove: ‘I do not think mama has ever called them anything in the whole course of her life, Mrs Croft. [Interior. A Great house, night, around a dinner table]

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One of the last stills in the 1995 BBC Persuasion (scripted by Nick Dear): Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) has found some fulfillment and independence aboard her husband’s ship, doubtless on its way to either to East or West Indies ….

Ellen

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Outlander 2014 Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall in Starz’s Outlander Outlander 2014 Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall before Castle Leogh, 1945

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Castle Leogh, 1743

I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time …

Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer –but for some time without discovering anything of importance — perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open–a roll of paper appears–you seize it–it contains many sheets of manuscript — you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber, but scarcely have you been able to decipher ‘Oh! Thou–whomsoever thou mayst be, into whose hands these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall’ — when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness … Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, NA, Chapters 14 and 20)

Dear friends and readers,

Having finished listening to Davina Porter read aloud (remarkably well) the whole of Diana Gabaldon’s historical romance, Outlander, I’m ready to go forward with watching the second season, adapted from Dragonfly in Amber. I’m studying both the series of romances and the film adaptations as examples of what has happened to popular historical romance in an era where the prestige of historical fiction has gone way up. Historical fiction and post-colonial historical romance have again for some (as the forms did in the Victorian era) become an instrument of political import (mostly post-colonialist). At the same time there has been a fierce backlash against feminism and liberal attitudes towards homosexuality (lesbianism, tranvestism), and fascist ideas gaining ground, i.e, violence as a means of solving problems, individual liberty and thought are out, women are there as mothers, wives, sisters, not individuals in their own right. That’s why Gabaldon needed a 20th century woman in her book so she should have agency.

How does this relate to Austen: this sort of book, the romance, especially gothic and implicitly political, ambivalently feminist were the kinds of books she read and praised as works genius — Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Francis Burney, Maria Edgeworth — in a novel she rewrote endlessly in an attempt to combine satire of the form while embodying its truths persuasively, i.e., Northanger Abbey.

As a prelude, I’ve gathered up all the blogs I’ve written thus far on Outlander so I can refer back to them, and so my readers can see what has been our findings about this genre and film adaptation thus far:

Outlander: a cross between Frank Yerby’s Border Lord, DuMaurier’s romances, Sophie Lee’s Recess, Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, and epistolary subjective novels

Outlander and Poldark: Horsfield’s scripts; problematic parallels towards violence towards women & rape

Outlander 1: Sassenach and Craig Na Dun; People Disappear all the time … Radcliffe Redivida

1 Outlander 2 and 3: Castle Leogh & The Way Out: DuMaurier Redivida

1 Outlander 4 & 5: The Gathering and Rent; as a Descendant of Waverley

Outlander: 6 and 7: Garrison commander; Wedding Nights (2): tapestry

1 Outlander 8: Both Sides Now; The Long  night of the Wedding: magic

1 Outlander: 8 & 9: Reckoning; Both Sides Now, the historical sublime, Romancing History; 2:1 Through a Glass Darkly

1 Outlander: 10 & 11: Pricking of My Thumb; Devil’s Mark; babies & witchcraft; again the question of genre

1 Outlander: 12 & 13: Lallybroch and the Watch: you can’t go home again; gender roles transitioning

1 Outlander: 14-16: The Search, Wentworth Prison, To Ransom a Man’s Soul, Finale; The issue of torture

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I have read fans were dismayed by the choice of Caitriona Balfe — I find her very appealing. At no point does she have the lightly mocking jocular tone Gabaldon uses for her heroine.

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Inverness where the novel opens

A few thoughts on Gabaldon’s novel:

Problems: in the present time sequences Gabaldon is American and has no idea how to write British dialogue or thoughts. She uses the phony language of 1950s romance as I remember it: Frank Randall calls Clare a wench; characters beam at one another; they are roguish. She has been influenced strongly by the 1940s British movies and this is reflected in the films in the way the opening new honeymoon scenes are done and the opening scenes of the second season when she has returned pregnant in 1948 after Culloden has happened but she somehow does not know what happened exactly, not even who won. In the opening sequence in the UK there is supercilious tone of half-mockery at reading people; a shallow amused jocularity and descriptions of what no British woman really did in the 1950s when they shopped. Gabaldon seems to think that genealogy studies are serious historical research — or she assumes her readers do. It may be this tone is intended to function like that of Lockwood in the opening of Wuthering Heights (supercilious and faintly ironic), but he never aims his irony at sensitivity, history itself and so on.

Oh and no one reads anything at all – except as part of a profession. The film did counter this gap in the book with literary allusion (all added in, poetry from Donne, Robert Louis Stevenson) and downplayed the heroine’s irony towards her husband’s literary research profession — though presented her as slightly bored by him, and the renewed marriage not quite working (so said the heroine in her voice-over). Gabaldon herself is clearly (I concede) drenched in the history of this period and all sorts of book leaning, biography, chronicles (disguised or referred to in her companion most cavalierly, sprezzatura and all that – she never sleeps, does no housework &c&c)

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Escape — Claire perhaps wanted to disappear — through the stones

At each deviation and choice the film-makers are better. They keep the significant and resonating lines unerringly. Her story is what makes the book in a way, and her characters are somewhat re-conceived. Litereally the mini-series is close. Her heroine has never had a political thought in her head. Gabaldon is also a master of romance style; she sustains eloquence about love; her dialogue is naturalistic once Claire moves back in time and to Scotland. The Scottish dialect does not feel like pastiche. They add “Madam” to Black Jack’s speech and sudddenly Randall’s is an 18th century male voice. Gabaldon’s strengths come out more too: she’s good at describing love-making, at erotica. These passages are important for today’s historical romance for women, as the love-making is told from a woman’s point of view (foreplay emphasized ….)

There is self-reflexivity. Clare comments how in romances the “bad male” of romance is never rooted in any local reality; Gabaldon feels she does this by her post-colonialist story of the vicious English against the Highland Scots, the corrupt Jacobite courts. She also (I think consciously) wants to give us a heroine who struggles against forces of nature: so we have Clare fighting a wolf and subduing and killing it! It’s very much a woman’s book — if you can get into this sort thing. Today I’m going to try Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General for a while to see if I can in her case for the summer term as I have to send in a proposal for this coming summer by Feb 10th! DuMaurier is a political innocent in comparison. The 21st century Catherine Morland would read both. — in preference to “real history,” which Martha Bowden in her Descendants of Waverley does not have that much use for either. Phillippa Gregory gobbles it all up to spit it out as historical romance: she has done that for Margaret Tudor too. The book as Emily Nussbaum wrote of the mini-series it’s mirroring our time. Anne Stevenson, one of my favorite 20th century women poets, has also written about the book favorably.

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Claire being taught how to kill with a knife

There are some troubling patterns of violence and humiliation across the first season which is much more emphatic in the book: the subaltern hero is intensely punished. The last two episodes of the mini-series are horrifyingly abusive of Jamie Fraser: he is tortured into submitting to anal sex, his spirit to resist broken by breaking his hand, the merciless flogging. I had realized his back shows horrific treatment too, well, this a pattern in the book too: the ritual humiliation of the heroine (occurs much more weakly and not as centrally) is nothing to this. I asked izzy about Games of Thrones, and she said yes and they are killed off; in Agents of Shield these central and subaltern central heroes go through enormous emotional turmoil.

I had noticed this pattern in Tudor dramas on film: the men took the place hitherto reserved for the heroine, and took it that the Henry 8 story appeal was the ability to show masculinity of a very different sort than the modern controlled invulnerable (unattacked mostly) hero, but maybe not. In Outlander this fits the (mild or undeveloped very much )post-colonial perspective, an unintended consequence inheritance from Walter Scott. Poor Jamie can’t go home again even: the result an unmitigated disaster. I’ve grown to like Jamie Fraser, have bonded with him and to some extent Claire (the text is strongly offset by the mini-series, its tone and especially Caitronia Balfe’s intelligent performance). I find myself very anxious as the story moves from distraught catastrophe to distraught catastrophe. I know this was the appeal of Poldark: I liked the central hero and heroine (and secondary ones, Elizabeth and Francis, too). In Tolstoy’s War and Peace I bonded with some of the central characters. It’s a sina qua non finally for loving a book — though one can love the imagined author as a substitute.

I found a long scene describing a childbirth very good. IN the depiction of Lallybroch, Jamie’s home, in the film instead of a long series of scenes of life in such a country place there was yet another action-adventure inserted betrayal: the book here is good. Both women’s point of view. At the same time the insistence on violence as an answer to problems becomes yet more overt. It’s not simply the book shows a man violent to a woman and her learning to accept just that once, but there are repeated instances of problems solved by violence. The idea is when there is no other way. I have said I think there are situations where the other side will not respond except through violence. To me the argument slavery was dying by itself ignores human nature plus the actual situation. I think the present administration thinks they can do what they want as the American people, especially democrats are utter cowards, despicably lukewarm (that’s how they see the desire to reason and negotiate). But many many instances should not turn violent; that makes for more violence — which does happen in the book: a man forced to give up his son whom he has been beating mercilessly by violence on hi then turns in our hero, so he may be hanged; our hero’s friends then set fire to his house or him (it’s not clear).

There is an obsession with defending violence as a way of solving problems (really — the belief is you force people to do things and then they retaliate if they are not scared any more), but also sheer pain, and combined with the at times faux at times earnest post-colonialism, it is an exploration of torture from the point of view of the horrors of the experience. You are not meant to be inured (as can happen and discussed by Susan Sontag in her Regarding the Pain of Others). This book sold widely in the US, is enormously popular. I’ve already mentioned the ceaseless attack on homosexuality through the depiction of Black Jack Randall — it’s kept up as mockery of effeminate males.

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Again the mini-series is an improvement: there are added and emphasized males who are thoughtful, gentle: like Willie — and favored

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Ned Gowan’s role as poet-lawyer is built up enormously — he appears only in the collecting of rents briefly and in the court scene in the novel — so the film-makers recognized this violence as a problem in the novel

In the final sequence of novel Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the film justice it was also deeply anti-torture. I could not get myself to finish one of books Jim was in the middle went when the cancer had affected his brain to the point he couldn’t read, Speaking About Torture, edd Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Looking it at now I find essays on “What Nazi Crimes tell us”, how torture is represented, the “rituals of hegemonic masculinity” John Yoo, the torture memo and Churchill. I find it used in studies of torture where it is suddenly introduced with insufficient information. At first I thought it referred to the purpose of torture (as defined in such studies) to through pain and terror “drive the victim ‘beyond the borders of death into [a state of speechless] nothingness; well, that is what Black Jack Randall has done to Jamie and it is Claire who must give him an identity again, a sense he’s alive, pride, should live; the idea of ghosts on the mind is part of the meaning and in the second season and Dragonfly In Amber Jamie is haunted by nightmares of Randall getting hold of him again.

Before the book ends there is a (to me) odd decent moral set of lessons: Claire seeks comfort in “confessing” to a priest and we see him calm her conscience over bigamy; try to give reasons for God having sent her back to this era. As with Austen and other popular books I’ve read two chapters before the end you get the characters discussing the moral of the adventures, of this time-traveling. She clearly believes in God, that this is a just universe with rewards and punishments and yet a moralism about life as a journey and self-development through helping others and so on is suddenly put before us credibly. The discussions include can she stop Culloden for then the people who are supposed to be killed won’t be? the responsibility of changing history. At this point the book is silly.

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Murtagh listening to the priest, Claire and Jamie in the monaster

The book ends with Claire and Jamie leaving the monastery through walking through a cave which has warm restorative mineral waters — like a spa, only dark colored, a mirror. This coming up from a recess is directly Sophia Lee and Ann Radcliffe material, only enhanced here by the sensual delights of love-making. The center of romance is the love story. They will go to Rome where he has connections and could get a position, be safe, and they work to prevent Culloden. Murtagh who we have learned once loved Jamie’s mother and regards himself as Jamie’s second father goes with them.

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Crossing the Highlands together

I realize now I have listened to Porter read aloud the whole of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as translated by Maud — she provides brilliant reading of that too. I recommend her to lovers of books read aloud by tape, CD, MP3 or download.

Ellen

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maryprince
This painful image reflects the reality of black woman slaves’ lives — of which Mary Prince (1788-after 1833) was one

I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners: so that we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage. When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging of us to keep up a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing.**

** Let the reader compare the above affecting account, taken down from the mouth of this negro woman, with the following description of a vendue of slaves at the Cape of Good Hope, published by me in 1826, from the letter of a friend, –and mark their similarity in several characteristic circumstances. The resemblance is easily accounted for: slavery wherever it prevails produces similar effects.–“Having heard that there was to be a sale of cattle, farm stock, &c. by auction, at a Veld-Cornet’s in the vicinity, we halted our waggon one day for the purpose of procuring a fresh spann of oxen. Among the stock of the farm sold, was a female slave and her three children. The two eldest children were girls, the one about thirteen years of age, and the other about eleven; the youngest was a boy. The whole family were exhibited together, but they were sold separately, and to different purchasers. The farmers examined them as if they had been so many head of cattle. While the sale was going on, the mother and her children were exhibited on a table, that they might be seen by the company, which was very large. There could not have been a finer subject for an able painter than this unhappy group. The tears, the anxiety, the anguish of the mother, while she met the gaze of the multitude, eyed the different countenances of the bidders, or cast a heart-rending look upon the children; and the simplicity and touching sorrow of the young ones, while they clung to their distracted parent, wiping their eyes, and half concealing their faces,–contrasted with the marked insensibility and jocular countenances of the spectators and purchasers,–furnished a striking commentary on the miseries of slavery, and its debasing effects upon the hearts of its abettors. While the woman was in this distressed situation she was asked, ‘Can you feed sheep?’ Her reply was so indistinct that it escaped me; but it was probably in the negative, for her purchaser rejoined, in a loud and harsh voice, ‘Then I will teach you with the sjamboc,’ (a whip made of the rhinoceros’ hide.) The mother and her three children were sold to three separate purchasers; and they were literally torn from each other.”–Ed.

edna-st-vincent-millay
Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

“Conscientious Objector” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the
        clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the
        Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg
        up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will
        not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the
        black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but this is all that I shall do for Death; I am
        not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of
        my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the
        route to any man’s door.

Am I a spy in the land of living, that I should deliver
        men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe
        with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

Dear friends and readers,

On any other blog, this coupling might seem strange. I hope not so here. Mary Prince was that nearly unique presence in 18th century texts: a black woman slave who atttempted to tell the story of her life in her own words. Edna St Vincent Millay was a very great women poet. I’m carrying on my much delayed accounts of conferences and lectures I attended this past fall. Tonight I tell of two excellent lectures I heard at the Washington Area Print Group (WAPG) held once a month during the college semester at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. We look upon ourselves as a small “cell” or twig of the larger SHARP group (book history), which twice I was privileged to attend and once to give a paper on Anthony Trollope’s mappings of his imagined counties: Geographies of Power.

Here is the description of our October 7th meeting:

The slim pamphlet, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African (1831), has gained increased visibility over the last decades due to its claim to being the first slave narrative written by a woman in English. Yet, like its predecessor, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789), these British publications do not fully anticipate the genre models that would later be established by their nineteenth-century North American counterparts. And, unlike Equiano’s Narrative, Prince’s “History” also highlights issues of authorship that continue to raise debates over how scholars should view the autobiographical accounts of enslaved and formerly enslaved people. This talk will cover the life of along with the production and dissemination of the biography formerly enslaved Mary Prince (c.1788-after 1833, b.Bermuda), including her negotiation of familial and religious networks to navigate the West Indies and Caribbean while enslaved, and her eventual self-emancipation through alliances with abolitionist groups in London. It will also look at how Scottish-born Thomas Pringle’s editing of and libel trials over her biography fits into his own history as one of the “founding fathers” of South African settler poetry as well as how Susanna Strickland Moodie’s transcription of Prince’s oral history later shaped her work as one of the first Canadian novelists and the increased visibility in the second and third editions of reader-produced paratexts. This is part of a larger project that looks at women in the British Empire, and positions the writings of formerly enslaved women such as Mary Prince as central to the histories of Britishness, African identity, as well as foundational to understanding the writings of other more well-known authors, such as Jane Austen.The model of narrative, the history that leads to its publication, and the dissemination of Prince’s life history illuminates the way authors, especially women, negotiated the interpersonal and imperial politics of making their stories heard throughout English-language Atlantic print networks.

Susannah Strickland Moodie might be familiar to my readers through Margaret Atwood’s imagined recreation of the Journals of Susannah Moodie as well as the Booker Prize winner, Alias Grace. Moodie wrote the classic memoir of Canadian literature: Roughing It i the Bush, was a journalist and wrote poetry. Early Canadian women of letters;=, she and her sister, Catherine Parr, are the subjects of an illuminating biography, Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray (a wonderful read).

Here is a brief gist and transcription of what Emily said:

Emily’s talk was so stimulating of interesting questions and suggestive about so many concrete details about slave women’s lives and the difference between these (where there were moments of pleasure, often with their childen if they were fortunate enough to keep some semblance of family) and the texts we can or must rely upon.

The text of Mary Prince’s life is available in a Penguin classics, edited by Sarah Salih, ISBN 9780140437492. Her life has been published in a number of scholarly editions, with excerpts in anthologies. One of the best, which I can’t recommend too highly is Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader, ed. Antoinette Burton. for those seriously interested in Jane Austen, it is noteworthy that Bristol (from which it will be recalled in Austen’s Emma, Mrs Elton aka Miss Augusta Hawkins, daughter of a tradesman, hailed). Her life story was the first slave narrative attributed to a woman. Equiano was her predecessor in Europe; Frederick Douglas came after her. Her life was published as a tract of an anti-slavery society; her story came with a supplement by an abolitionist editor, Thomas Pringle, as “taken down by” Susannah Strickland, to which was added another yet briefer narrative of another female captured African slave. The questions swirling around it concern authority and ownership. Whose testimony are we willing to endow with authority? (We weren’t sufficiently to Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016.) Who owns the telling of their own lives, its perspective. We see in this text a cultural exchange between bourgeois “white” people trying to present the subaltern enslaved existence of someone regarded as ontologically “not quite human” (not mattering as in #BlackLivesMatter). She (and Susannah Moodie too) was helped to get into written history and then be paid attention to by the 19th century phases of feminism, or “Female Societies” for example for “the Relief of British Female Slaves” (founded 1825).

Mary Prince traveled around the world of Britain’s global colonial empire in her brief hard-working life. I have rarely come across someone whose bodily strength was so used/abused from the time she was outside infancy. Born after England abolished the slave trade, she was at first owned in Bermuda, Jamaica, by a very young girl as a present/toy/doll/commodity. When the chief male of the household remarried, Mary Prince was sold. She survived by luck and by her ability to negotiate with her owner/lovers. One problem in telling her life is she cannot admit to allowing her body to be used sexually. It seemed to me her most basic work-job was as a washer-woman (very hard work) cleaning clothes. She was made to work with half her body in salt water for long hours at a time (rice production) and that shortened what life her body managed; she was also subjected to severe flogging, partly (I think) a result of her strong intellect, which at the same time enabled her to survive. To try to imagine what her legs, feet and back looked like is probably beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not seen tortured people or someone who has lived in the extremis of harsh colonized existence (from Ireland to the Congo). Flogging was a commonplace yet horrific practice inflicted on slaves, colonized peoples, and mainland British males who were “pressed” (snatched as ruthlessly as any genetically African individual). Emily mentioned the “problem” of her being overly emotional, but it seems to me it’s important to keep registering (no longer is the present a better age) outrage. Equiano had the advantage of maleness so he was far better educated by those who recognized or used his real talents/gifts or those of our Mary. He lived well at times, rose to an office-linked higher status; as a woman she could never have this. On a couple of occasions, men who became Mary’s lover or others who became attached to her tried to buy her freedom. This appears to have enraged more than one employer, and she would be whipped ferociously because these attempts had been tried.

On her text’s publication, there were lawsuits, set on essentially by the people (John Wood specifically) who had owned her and whose cruelty her text made plain. First Pringle’s veracity was questioned by the editor of the Glasgow Courier in Blackwood’s Magazine (wide circulation); Pringle sued Cadell, the publisher of Blackwood’s; then Wood sued Pringle. Mary was forced to take the stand and told of her sexual relationship with a Captain Abbot with whom she lived for seven years and to whom she was emotionally attached. (She would hire herself out or be hired by other families where men would take her body either for money or free, if they could.) This kind of thing damaged her stature and reputation further in the eyes of the public (the public did not respect slaves); and she had to leave one society she had joined, the Moravian, and went to live with a freeman, Oyskman who promised to buy her freedom from whoever nominally owned her. Susannah Moodie Pringle had to justify herself again and again for being an amanuensis (probably more like an editor) and defended Mary Prince’s chastity (as if she didn’t, hers would be called into question).

Emily then contextualized Mary among other African-American women. She covered the life and poetry of Phillis Wheatley (left poems), Margareta Mathilde Odell (poems and a memoir). One has to resort to finding names. (I find this is still true of 20th century women artists who participated in the surrealism movement!). Much is to be gleaned from John Gabriel Steadman’s narrative of Surinam (Emily didn’t mentioned Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which while it is a romance, has led to serious texts about Latin and South America), the narrative of “Joanna, An Emancipated Slave,” from the colonialists of North America, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Elizabeth Freeman who was Sedgewick’s nanny, Florence Hall (but 4 pages). Such texts are still often dependent on staying in print by attracting women readers. The average woman reader wants an upbeat story, something where she sees something like instant emancipation when at its rare best is gradual. They are trained to want a veil on sexual experiences, on sexual violence.

I found one of the most disturbing aspects of her story is that she was forced to allow other women to examine her body to prove her stories of abuse were true. We see here what also happened to working class, agricultural, servant women: if suspected of being pregnant, other women had no compunction against coming to them and literally grabbing a dress and feeling the woman’s body. There is no protected space around a woman, her body is not her own if she has no high status to protect her.

As to what Jane Austen could read or know of this material: she had Cowper, Thomas Clarke, Charlotte Smith, Southey; her younger brothers. while ordering flogging, and her older brother witnessing and accepting as a local militia man the anguished punishments of mutiny, could at least tell of what they saw — though it was commonplace then as in World War One not to tell.

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millaybook

Here is the full blurb for the Edna St Vincent Millay meeting on November 18th:

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was a daring, versatile writer whose work includes poetry, plays, essays, short stories, songs, and a libretto to an opera that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera to rave reviews. Known for her free-spirited lifestyle in Greenwich Village, Millay wrote poems promoting personal freedom that resonated with a generation of youth disillusioned by the social and political upheaval of the First World War. Millay’s literary executor Holly Peppe will present an overview of the poet’s life, illustrated with slides, and suggest reasons for her poetry’s uneven critical reception. Dr. Peppe will also talk about her friendship with the poet’s sister Norma Millay. Dr. Timothy F. Jackson will discuss Millay’s manuscripts, her publication history, critical reception, and the process of editing Millay’s works.
    Holly Peppe, literary executor for Edna St. Vincent Millay, has written and lectured widely about the poet’s life and work. Dr. Peppe’s essays appear in various books and periodicals including Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal (Southern Illinois University Press, 1995); Millay’s Early Poems (Penguin Classics,1998); Collected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2011), and Selected Poems: An Annotated Edition (Yale University Press, 2016).
    Timothy F. Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Rosemont College. He earned his doctorate in editorial studies from the Editorial Institute at Boston University. While a CLIR Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he served as an assistant editor of the Walt Whitman Archive and was the initial executive editor of Zea E-Books. He has edited work for traditional and digital publications in a variety of fields, including poetry, philosophy, and business.

Both talks were very engaging. Holly Peppe: Millay was regarded by academia as simply this “song-bird,” and not seen as the major American figure in letters that she is. It was the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature which first featured a variety of her poems and took them all seriously. An obstacle to writing her life accurately is her sister, Norma, still alive, is determined to censor anything that might be seen by the average person as “negative.” At the same time she (who has much insight into her sister’s life and politics) controls all the papers.

On her background: her mother provided her with a steady diet of interesting music. In high school she worked for the literary newspaper. It was after graduating college, that she was writing poetry and first attracted a modicum of serious attention and respect. She wrote political, love, confrontational poems. She was the first to introduce and deal with themes of real female sexuality in American literature. She was fortunate to attract patrons. She had won a couple of contests, and Caroline Dell heard her read and paid for her to go to Vassar. From 1917-21 she became part of groups that included important critics (Edmund Wilson) and painters as well as writers (Isobel Bishop, Max Eastman who escaped Nazi Germany). To make money she wrote “pot boilers:” Nancy Boyd was her pseudonym. She was consistently anti-war. She met and married Eugen Van Boissevain, widower of the labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland, a political icon Millay had met during her time at Vassar. A self-proclaimed feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their twenty-six-year marriage.

A pivotal moment was buying a 700 acre farm-house, Steepletop, which became a core place around which they built a shared unconventional life. Both drank a lot. She had a much younger lover, George Dillon, whose presence is the center of her erotic sonnet sequence, Fatal Interview (which became one of her signature texts with her wider public). One finds her with Charles Ellis Norton (important intellectual of the era just before and early 20th century); she became active in opera patronage. Her writing is written from the woman’s point of view: the woman’s body is central to her experience of social life (how men like, are attracted to, marry a woman). It was in 1940 she first was attacked for a Notebook she published. A few close relatives and friends died, and she had a nervous breakdown. Remember this is a time of barbaric war. Her sister, Catherine died, and then her beloved husband of lung cancer (1949). She returned to Steepletop to live alone. She translated Latin texts during this time. She did drink heavily all her life, and at age 58 she died from a fall down the stairs.

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The main house at Steepletop

Tim Jackson told us more about editing the texts — which was his basic function. There have been many reprintings and editions of Millay’s work. Since 1912 her poems have appeared in more than 50 anthologies. To do a collected standard edition of course requires going to the manuscripts. He was interested in who influenced Millay (and also who her work influenced). Millay copied out John Donne, Housman and Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” She read the later 19th century French poets. She wrote Edmund Wilson about her memories of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and she wrote Matthiesen about her later poems. T.S. Eliot was interested in publishing her poems but as they appeared in first editions. but she would tinker endlessly (revise and revise small things). We find her angry at publishers over specific lines: she worked very hard on prosody, rhyme.. Her most popular book was one filled with lyrics, Figs from Thistles (the poem people seem to have remembered “My candle burns at both ends”), and by the wider public her earlier poems are much much better known, especially her sonnets. Apparently (for reasons I can’t figure out), “Rendez-vous” is among her most widely read and praised:

Not for these lovely blooms that prank your chambers did I come. Indeed,
I could have loved you better in the dark;
That is to say, in rooms less bright with roses, rooms more casual, less aware
Of History in the wings about to enter with benevolent air
On ponderous tiptoe, at the cue, “Proceed.”
Not that I like the ash-trays over-crowded and the place in a mess,
Or the monastic cubicle too unctuously austere and stark,
But partly that these formal garlands for our Eighth Street Aphrodite are a bit too Greek,
And partly that to make the poor walls rich with our unaided loveliness
Would have been more chic.
Yet here I am, having told you of my quarrel with the taxi-driver over a line of Milton, and you laugh; and you are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed–with pumice, I suppose–
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish I did not feel like your mother. (from Huntsman, “What Quarry?”)

I found the above on the Internet with an ordinary person explaining why she personally loved the line “I could have loved you better in the dark.”

In her notebooks one finds quite a lot humor and comedy, comments on the immorality of the “seven deadly virtues.” She also wrote an essay on faith as a philosophical groundwork for herself. By John Crowe Ransom, an important contemporary critic, she was treated with disdain mainly because was a woman; and it has been her gender and the preference of the wider public for love poems that have gotten in the way of her gaining the respect and place in American letters she should have. In life she found herself dunned by the IRS for information about her tax liabilities. Eventually a historian, Alice Burney, interested in her work gathered a great deal of it and sold it to the Library of Congress. She made a lot of money and with her husband’s accumulations, was able to live the life of a chatelaine, farmer, and women of letters at Steepletop, an estate of 300 acres, which is nowadays a “site of memory,” a place you can visit. There are regularly scheduled tours.

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Kauffmann, Angelica; Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses; National Trust, Saltram; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/penelope-taking-down-the-bow-of-ulysses-101590
Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807); Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses

There is no comparison between the hardships of Mary Prince’s life and how all she ever said was brought into question because she had been a slave; and the liberty, fertile and happy relationships of Millay’s and a relative lack of respect for her work because she was early on marginalized as a woman. In her brief and frank autobiography (her voice does come through), Mary tells of how she saw herself as chained to a washtub for most of her waking hours in her strongest years. The line quoted by Sarah Salim as an epigraph for her edition of Mary’s life brings out how African-American women were seen and used for the first two hundred years of living in the US: “The nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God, 1937). I first became interested in Millay when I read her “Conscientious Objector” in Jon Silkin’s great anthology of war poetry, The Penguin Book of First World War One Poetry. In the edition this poem first appeared, it was in the back of the book with other poems by women. At first there had been no poetry by women worth reading according to Silkin’s anthology. His book has been much admired and reprinted several times: the most recent edition threads the women’s poems in chronologically and at the back we now have superb poems originally written in other languages and translated into English (a number of German poems, Russian including one each by Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, by Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti). I hope the new edition is part of a change placing Millay in the contexts where her work truly belongs. This does not just mean in “mainstream” American literature (preponderantly by men) but books of women’s poetry too. I’ll end on two. Here is “Menses” at the Poetry Foundation (also read aloud) and

An Ancient Gesture

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried

Ellen

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