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Archive for the ‘18th century’ Category


Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), A drawing of a girl reading her writing

Friends,

I’ve not written a foremother poet blog since I went to a Sylvia Plath exhibit last fall. For Wom-po Annie Finch and Pratibha Kelapure have revived the corner of the list’s website to begin to post brief essays on earlier women poets. They need not be very far back in time. And the first fine one was about Leonie Adams. I thought if I can contribute one this week perhaps that will stir others to pony up, and that community of poets might supply themselves with a foremother poet posting every week to inspirit and teach them, to enjoy.

Two nights ago in my continuing quest to explore the biographical art of Virginia Woolf as modernist and recently as by a woman, I came across a fine book by Caroline Breashears, Eighteenth Century Women’s Writing and the ‘Scandalous Memoir”, one chapter of which discusses the memoir startling for its candour and honesty of an 18th century women poet whom I was therefore drawn to a number of years ago: Catherine Jemmat.

These past couple of evenings I found Jemmat is more successful in prose than verse and presents herself first as a memoirist and then writer of verse and prose miscellanies. Reading over her poetry, her ardent and strident Memoir, and some of the essays she had printed in Miscellanies, in prose and verse (1765 edition), I see her ever struggling to justify herself, and obsessively retelling a paradigmatic story. Again and again she or her subject is mistreated by a relative. Sometimes the angle is ironic: an aunt writes a niece now fallen and in trouble to berate her. A clergyman’s family loses all their money and their father and when they expect to be supported emotionally and financially by an uncle, they are rejected and humiliated. Most horrifying is a story by a animal treated with great cruelty by a family who continually maim the creature (it opens with the master demanding her ears and tail be removed); she morphs into a smaller and smaller animal (finally a worm) each time treated harshly and without mercy. Jemmat says the purpose of this tale is to teach children to be more humane. She certainly does expose the false sentimentalization of family life as a haven. According to Breashears, this is precisely the myth presented in Eliza Haywood’s work (to cite a contemporary woman writer).

Jemmat’s best poems are short columns of verse, and refer to writing, to print. There are some longer prologues or epistles that read well. Lines here and there come alive. There are epistles to friends.  Two suggest that her brother was lost at sea, or died on board a ship. Numbers are addressed to titled male, someone in a position of power, a known artist or professional in Dublin. She is in a friendless state.  She is seeking patrons. Two exultant epistles are to Peg Woffington; one much quieter to Thomas Sheridan. There are poems on simple objects and stanzaic tales, some ironic. Moralizing verse on behalf of prudence. There is one in praise of science. She offers ironic advice to someone on her very latest marriage. She says because she has been saddened by her own life, she cries over stories in newspapers. One touching Prologue is for a benefit play for a hospital: “With sympathetic warmth to feel the throws,/And racking anguish of another’s woes.” She often personates an imagined character. The prosody and aesthetics of her verse are simply centrally 18th century Popian (there is one Miltonic imitation).

An epigram:

Three times I took, for better and for worse,
A bed-fellow, a fortune, and a nurse.
How bless’d the state, which such good things produce,
How dear that sex, which serves such various use!

This stands out:

Question, on the Art of Writing
Tell me what genius did the art invent,
The lively image of a voice to paint?
Who first the secret how to colour found,
And to give shape to reason, wisely found?
With bodies how to cloathe ideas taught,
And how to draw the pictures of a thought?
Who taught the hand to speak, the eye to hear,
A silent language roving far and near?
Whose softest notes out-strip loud thunder’s sound,
And spread their accents thro’ the world’s vast round?
Yet with kind secrecy securely roll,
Whispers of absent friends from pole to pole.
A speech heard by the deaf, spoke by the dumb,
Whose echo reaches far in time to come;
Which dead men speak as well as those that live:
Tell me what genius did this art contrive?

The story of her life indeed is (as retold and commented on by Breashears too) of someone betrayed by the family and relatives and friends she was was brought up to count upon.

Her father, Admiral John Yeo of Plymouther, is the worst of her family to her (when he should be the kindest she says). Her mother, his first wife, died when she was 5; he remarried a girl of nineteen who of course could not relate to another child.  As this second wife becomes a woman she becomes mean to Catherine. The father was often at sea. She was sent to boarding school. Then deeply disappointed of a love match: a young surgeon was going to marry her and died. She rejected the son of a tradesman. She doesn’t  want to marry for money.

She finally marries a silk mercer named Jemmat by whom she has a daughter, but he turns out to be cruel, accusing her of adultery, bullying her, making her fear him through violent behavior. She has a miscarriage. Her father will not give up the dowry, so the husband beats her, and her family actually refuses to pressure her husband to behave differently. She and her husband’s sister fight over power and space. She does “fall” at one point (sexually), but she does not tell much of that — rather we hear of the sisters-in-law fight over property and who will live where. So the escape from her nuclear family was far worse than the original sentence. Jemmat, abusive, often drunk, goes bankrupt. So Catherine was (according to her memoir) “thrown upon the wide world for support.”

We may imagine what this means, but she did survive and wrote a 2 volume book of Memoirs (1st ed, 1762. She became dependent on aristocratic patrons who had known her father. She must have lived in Ireland for a while and frequented the Dublin theater. She published a Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766), which includes an essay called “In Vindication of the Female Sex.”  She protests against the scapegoating meted out to women who may be said to have sexual relationships with anyone outside marriage (no matter when or how this is written or talked about).

Catherine Jemmat is not presenting herself as a fallen woman but someone brought low by cultural and financial circumstances and norms. She finds no forgiveness anywhere for just about anything. She flees to her family for succour and they only make things worse, especially her father. Breashears says her memoir is about a woman seeking a home, unable to find or create one for herself. Lonsdale says there are “mysteries” surrounding her — but there are about so many women writers. In Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist, two of the book’s memoirs demonstrate how little we know of women’s lives because quite deliberately their relatives and friends will say nothing truthful; so she slips from our grasp only glimpsed in a phrase here or there.

In her excellent book, Vita & Virginia: The work and friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Suzanne Raitt argues that the function of life writing when written by women is to restore to them their mother. Like other writers on biography, she collapses the distinction between biography and autobiography. Autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely, the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Raitt suggests when a woman writes of herself or another woman, she is working at restoring her inward health, to put together a new identity out of the fractured one.

Bell Gale Chevigny in an essay in Feminist Studies: Daughters Writing: Towards a theory of women’s biography that women write the life of another woman — who is usually younger than them, or perhaps now dead, from a daughter’s vantage point. Gaskell writes as a daughter of Charlotte. Woolf writes Orlando as a daughter of Vita Sackville-West. I know Elena Ferrante writes as a lost daughter, child, doll. As a mother rejected by her daughters. Jemmat was then fractured at age 5, then again by a step-mother, then by sister-rivals. Hers is an absent mother she cannot reach.

Here is what Jemmat writes to Peg Woffington “on seeing her in several characters:”

In silent wonder sunk, in rapture bound,
My captivated thoght no utt’rance found;
Each faculty o’ewhelm’d, its vigour lost,
And all my soul from theme to theme was tost.
Whate’er the heart canfeel, the tongue express,
The springs of joy, the floods of deep distress,
The passions utmost pow’r, o’er-rul’d by laws,
Which genius dictates, and which judgment draws,
Subdu’d thsu long my bosom’s grateful fire,
Silent to gaze, and with the crowd admire.
Stand forth confest, unrivall’d, and alone,
And view the human passions all your own,
Reign o’er the heart with unresisted sway,
The heart must beauty, and must power obey;
Each muse hath plac’d her sceptre in your hand,
And ready rapture waits on your command …

A second addressed to Woffington makes her into a goddess adorning the very earth and all the seas. She “moves obedient to the air like “bright Venus in the midst of spring,/Sports with the graces in the verdant ring,/The nymphs, the fawns, the sylvan crowd admire …


Peg Woffington as painted by F. Haytley in her role as Mistress Ford in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor

Ellen

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Chawton House and Church

Friends,

The two week set of videos and podcasts, full length essays (mostly as published in Persuasions Online) and linking prompts, found on the Future Learn site offers some worthwhile material to most people who’ve read Jane Austen’s writing, and want to learn about her, her work, and her era. The central target audience appears to be someone who knows little of Austen, and may not have read even the six famous novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817), but the choice of material provides new information and food for thought for serious readers, devoted fans, and even academic scholars. No small feat.

The first week tells Austen’s life by sheer presentation and description of documents published by her family. Henry’s biographical notice, from what’s left of her letters, uncontroversial timelines for early family members, and much from what is made available from Chawton house and Chawton cottage. We are shown a map of places Austen and her family visited and which towns and seashore meant most to her It can and is meant to function as an advertisement (information about) Chawton house, its programs, library, gardens. So someone knowing nothing is not presented with bogus histories or legends or excessive hype. A plain photo of Chawton cottage is used.

The strongest sections where something beyond these primary basics are presented in the first week are thus understandably about Jane Austen’s reading and 18th century social norms for uses of gardens and house landscapes. Gillian Dow (Director of Research at Chawton House and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton) and Daren Bevin (Chawton House Librarian) discuss what is in Chawton House library (1:9).


From Horden House (another private library)

For Austen’s reading, Gillian showed the family copy of Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, said how Austen’s brother, Henry Austen, said it was Jane’s favorite book, showed the ms of the parodic playlet Grandison in Austen’s own hand, but then said (quietly but repeated it) it’s odd how this copy of Richardson looks like it’s hardly ever been read while Mary Brunton’s Self Control looks very worn. Who is Mary Brunton and what Self-Control? she was a very popular writer of Austen’s era, and someone Austen cites in her letters more than once, and clearly regarded as a peer and rival. The participant is then offered a copy of Self-Control to read online. The book has been reprinted in an inexpensive edition in the 20th century but for those who don’t have a copy, here is a chance to read a contemporary text from the context Austen was part of. The reader given the text of Henry’s hagiographic defensive piece and a couple of comments if listened to suggest how this is shaped to suit Henry’s respectability agenda.

And finally at the bottom of one of the sections, linked in is Dow and Katie Halsey’s essay, “Jane Austen’s Reading: the Chawton Years,” Persuasions Online, 30:2 (spring 2010). It is excellent, much improved on the older one by Margaret Anne Doody in David Gray’s Companion Handbook, or the one in Janet Todd’s JA in context by Alan Richardson (“Reading Practices”). I feel that finally the real particular books Austen knew well and respected are singled out — partly this is the result of their having access to the list of books at Godmersham and the books at Chawton house. It’s the specificity of what is listed and the descriptions of content and book. These are taken from Chawton House and Godmersham libraries, culled from Austen’s letters and novels, and supportive contemporary circulating library lists. What she literally had available during her years living in Chawton cottage, in the Chawton house and Godmersham libraries, what is literally cited in the letters and culled from a close reading of the novels.If you are not “upgrading” (not paying) you can download these immediately, and it’s well to because when the 7 weeks or whatever the time is up, the whole thing will disappear unless you’ve paid them $50 by May 20th.


The Walled in Garden at Chawton

The video of a discussion between Kim Simpson (post-graduate fellow at the University of Southampton) and Stephen Bending (a historian and specialist in landscape gardening) on the gardens and grounds of Chawton offers real insight into the gendered nature of house landscaping. Austen’s representations of gardens and landscapes in her novels replicates what she saw in the cottages, country houses and estates around her. They talked of specific areas in the gardens at Chawton and in Austen’s novels, for example, the wilderness, a place using diagonal paths to suggest something somewhat less formal than a shrubbery near the house. You were supposed to contemplate your relationship with God (said Bending). A ha-ha is a sunken fence, it keeps sheep out of the controlled areas, and gives an impression of far more space than a given owner has when you look from it out to the distance. The garden, walled areas, and wilderness were feminised spaces, outside versions of the domestic spaces inside a house: women walked there and certain kinds of behavior were demanded. Beyond these pleasure grounds, hunting took over and these were considered male spaces. They quoted and explicated texts from Emma.

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19th century French edition of Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield

I enjoyed the first part of this second week especially. Dow travels to France to speak to a French scholar, Isabelle Bour, Prof of English Literature at the Sorbonne, Paris, who has studied Isabelle de Montolieu among many other 18th and 19th century French women authors. They describe Montolieu’s career (she was the famous woman), and how her translations of Austen differ significantly from Austen’s texts. I’ve read Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility and can vouch that they say is accurate. They talked about translation in general and touched upon Montolieu’s extensive oeuvre in original and translation work. One claim did puzzle me: Dow believes that Austen knew nothing of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. It maybe there is no proof or document showing Austen did know but from my research and (others I’ve read) and a line from an original source we know Austen read Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, gave a copy to Fanny Knight advising her to read it. I’ve argued (and so have others) that Caroline de Lichtfield is a direct influence on S&S.

I have a whole region of my website dedicated to two French women authors, later 18th into 19th, who influenced Austen and I put a novel each on in the French: Sophie Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield and Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield. I wrote a short biography of Montolieu and my etext edition of Caroline and scholarship there have been commended in a peer-edited French journal. I know it’s been read by the equivalent of two high school classes in France. I reprint Montolieu’s preface to her two translaions: Raison et Sensbilite; or Les Deux Manieres d’Aimer. I discuss the preface to her La Famille Eliot, our l’ancienne inclination where Montolieu shows she has read all Austen’s novels and discerned repeating patterns in them (like the heroine experiencing agony from a tabooed and necessarily secret love for one of the heroes).

Dow and Professour Bour discuss translation in general briefly, and then go on to the idea of adaptation as a form of free translation: arguably Montolieu’s text is an adaptation: she adds passionate and sentimental scenes where Austen has none, and she changes the ending: Willoughby’s wife dies and he marries Eliza Williams.
Prof Bour was indignant at how Montolieu’s text is sold as a straight translation this year still (2018). Dow remarked that Montolieu’s translation of Austen’s title as Raison et Sensibilite takes into account the the two are not opposites in Austen’s book. She and Bour said the recent and the best translation of S&S so far as La Coeur et La Raison makes the opposition emphatic. I agree. I also agree La Coeur and La Raison is the best translation: it’s published by Pleiade; I own and have read it. it’s by a French scholar who understands Austen very well: Pierre Goubert.

Nancy Mayer and I discussed the idea that Austen did not know of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. Unless Gillian Dow has some proof that Austen did not know of the translation of her book I will continue to believe she did. Gillian may feel that’s Austen should have been indignant. But there was no copyright respected across nations. We also are missing many of Austen’s letters; may one did record her discomfort. I’d feel uncomfortable being told someone translated something I wrote until I saw the text or unless I knew the person’s work and could trust the person to translate without violation or false distortion. Part of my disbelief also comes from my sense Austen knew French literature of the period. She will carelessly (effortlessly) refer to French texts in passing. circulating libraries included French texts; as English texts were published in Paris so French texts were published in London. Friends shared books too.


In my judgement the best translation of Austen into French thus far: Felix Feneon’s late 19th century Catherine — see my published essay, “Jane Austen in French,” Ekleksographia Wave Two, October 2009

I’m not saying Austen read her novel in Montolieu’s translation, only that she probably knew of it. She and her family members seem to have been so tight on money when it came to “luxury” expenditures. Nowadays we’d say why does she not obtain a copy and read it. Think about how she did not pay back that 10 pounds that in 1803 the publisher gave her for Northanger Abbey until 1816 when she had had 4 successes and was determined to rewrite and publish the book. I suspect that was she didn’t want to spend the 10£ – nor her family! she clearly had a manuscript of her own as she threatened to publish it unless the publisher sent it back; he responded insultingly he would sue her unless she paid him the money he had bought the copyright with. Imagine such a state of finances. We might conjecture that the French S&S never came to London because why should it? it stayed in France and was sold there.


Stephen Frye as Mr Johnson coping with Jenn Murray as Lady Lucy Manwarring and Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy (2016 Love and Friendship, scripted and directed by Whit Stillman)

After the interview with Isabelle Bour on Montolieu’s and other translations of Austen into French, there was an attempt to define a set of qualities or elements in a film that might made it “Austenesque.” You might ask why the speakers did not simply say “like Austen:” they wanted to define characteristics that are not necessarily in or like Austen at all but have come to be thought to be like her: one example I’ll give is romantic. Many Austen fans associate her books with romance and strong sentiment and yet this is not her quality or tone. They had in mind qualities films have made Austen associated with. The speakers in a video were Dr Will May and Dr Stephanie Jones, Dr Shelley Cobb and Kim Simpson

One problem for anyone listening is that they were talking on a level of high abstraction and generality: I felt that was to avoid offending: by not becoming concrete or giving examples, they could be less held to adverse response. They also could extend the idea widely – so widely that they came to the conclusion that Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is Austenesque and so is Clueless, and it’s arguable that within the Austen film canon two films could not be more unalike. Considered against lots of films that cannot at all be said to have anything to do with Austen (action-adventure) they might be seen as alike : women centered, about falling in love and getting married. They included clips from Clueless and Metropolitan.


Aubrey Rouget aka Fanny (Carolyn Farina) and Tom (Edmund Clements) discuss Lionel Trilling’s essay on MP: Aubrey says she finds Fanny very likeable (1990 Metropolitan, Stillman)

But to me at least terms extended so far become far less useful. Also I thought of P&P and Zombies where a film type — the horror film – and actions so endemic to American films nowadays – grotesque cruelty and violence – are now in the Austen canon. Yet I felt as they talked the term was not invented just to reify their ideas into some academic like category – it had a kind of usefulness to carve out an area of feeling and thought viewers associate with Austen. OTOH, a little while later it had the same feel of emptiness or barrenness or maybe thinnness I felt in other parts of the two weeks’ materials. This time it was not a result of the target someone who knew very little about the topic because clearly the people decided to one-third of only two weeks into movies because they expected the people who registered to know a lot of these Austen movies.

They also asked if Mansfield Park was a radical novel and the consensus seemed to be yes, sort of. No one objected to the idea that Clueless is Austenesque; there was no discussion of Emma in relationship to Clueless. This was just the sort of thing that was disappointing. For myself Clueless is one of my least favorite of the more famous Austen films (there are now more than 35 of these): I feel it’s a descendent of the 1939 MGM Pride and Prejudice, more Hollywoodized and celebrity-worshipping than anything in Austen and those films influenced by it similarly misleading. Yes she can be broadly comic, but in the spirit of burlesque as in her Juvenilia.

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A detail of Cassandra’s drawing of Austen: her face

I didn’t try to engage in any conversation after I realized so many of the “learners” there had not read much beyond Pride and Prejudice and maybe one of two others of the novels — just the six and nothing else seems to me a basic expectation for anyone saying they have an interest in Austen. Also as I skimmed in the first what they said, I realized the talk was often a mirror of popular unexamined attitudes. As such, for example, the interest they displayed in a “Radical” Austen showed why publishers are eager to publish such books. I noticed very quickly the word “austenesque” was objected to as snobbish; why do we need such a term? In the first week the whole idea of examining someone’s reading offended a number of people as elitist. So one couldn’t say anything that was not centrally public media mainstream while they were also aggressive in unexpected (to me) areas. Like their resentment at discussions of what Jane Austen read. I can’t figure out what is the going cant sometimes. And if it’s particularly pious or anti-pious someone will defend it. In the second week there was more content from those commenting, more people contributed who had read Austen and some criticism and history, and I noticed people doing their dissertations. Then there appeared “mentors” replying to them, but I felt who was responded to was carefully chosen and words.

I did tell of my page on Montolieu, where you could find her Caroline de Lichtfield, a short biography, information about her, an essay-review of my etext edition as well as her preface to her translation of Sense and Sensibility. Eventually I had 18 replies, one from one of the mentors and one from Gillan Dow (Herself!), very generous of her to take time. I include her comment and my reply in my comments here over whether Austen may have known of Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility. It’s not just ego that makes me persist, but that it’s an important question if you are interested in the interaction between French and English literature of the 18th century and would like to make a convincing case for Austen having been immersed in the French memoirs and novels of the period just as much as she was in the English ones. And for the record I did spend the $50 so I could have continual (as long as Future Learn lasts and keeps this feature going) access to the material offered in the course.

Ellen

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Madame Roland, from her last year of life

Friends,

For quite a while I’ve been considering giving a course on “The Enlightenment: at risk?” at one of the two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning I teach at, and finally I bit the bullet and wrote this proposal for an 11 week course at the American University OLLI:

It’s been suggested the ideas associated with the European Enlightenment, a belief in people’s ability to act rationally, ideals of social justice, human rights, toleration, education for all, in scientific method, are more at risk than any time since the 1930s. In this course we’ll ask what was & is meant by the term, how & why did this movement spread, against what obstacles, what were the realities of the era and what were the new genres & forms of art that emerged. We’ll read Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, and excerpts from Madame [Jeanne-Marie] Roland’s Memoirs.

I originally thought to repeat my work on Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, the novel of Naples in the 18th century, but decided it was too long, top heavy, and obviously tendentiousnessly pessimistic.

Then I discovered an English translation and good paperback edition of Madame Roland’s Memoirs as A Heroine of the French Revolution, translated and edited by Evelyn Shuckburgh. New York: Moyer Bell/Rizzoli, 1989. I first read Roland’s Memoirs in an Elibron facsimile of the 19th century original French edition published by her daughter, and at that time had just read a great biography by Francois Kermina (not well-known among English readers), Madame Roland ou La Passion Revolutionaire (Paris, 1976). In type Kermina’s biographies are like Amanda Vickery’s marvelous books, or Amanda Foreman’s biography of the Duchess of Devonshire. Beautifully well done scholarship meant to be read by the serious common reader, and written from a woman’s point of view. Not worshipful: she sees the ambitious conflicted woman who had an affair with Brissot. I enjoyed Gita May’s biography less because it seemed more superficial even if factually full. Gita does show what a reading girl Roland was. Now I look upon May as a conventional biographer with Kermina writing a modernist biography. Also Charles A. Dauban, Etude sur Madame Roland et son temps, another Elibron reprint, a perceptive study in the thorough 19th mode.

The value of Dauban is about 1/3 is made up of her letters. Though all my notes on a review I wrote of Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work, and Culture, ed. Linda V. Troost, an anthology of mostly excellent essays on 18th century women writers seems to have vanished, I have the review itself on my website. I’ll transfer it to the academia.edu page (where such papers get more attention).

One exception was of Madame Roland by Mary Cisar (“Madame Roland and the Grammar of Female Sainthood”). Cisar erases what Marie-Jeanne (Manon) Phlippon (born 1754, guillotined 1793) turned to in order to lead a life at odds with her era’s mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Cisar argues that Roland was an unconsciously religious anorexic recluse through a chart which correlates a generalized life pattern of a typical saint with Roland’s unsocial habits and, emptied of its political content, the record Roland left of her sexual and literary experiences; and through an insistence that a subset of religious books meant far more to Roland than all others. Cisar denigrates Roland: Roland’s memoir is “a somewhat self-indulgent reminiscence,” her “intellectual journey [is] hardly original;” she was reluctant to marry because she “considered all of [her suitors] inferior to herself”; her life was “flight from social obligation.” (How terrible.) Roland’s preference for communing with her books and thoughts and overt claims to “exceptionality” are treated with resentment.

Cisar cites and then ignores Caroline Bynum Walker’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast and “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols” (in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, ed, R. L. Moore and F. E. Reynolds [Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Relgion, 1984], 105-25) whose study of female saints, women’s symbols and individual women differentiates actual life patterns and those of women from men. Cisar also dismisses Edith Bernardin’s Les Idées Religieuses de Madame Roland (Paris, 1933), which does persuasively show Roland’s faith to have been theoretically optimistic, secular, and Rousseauistic. Roland’s references to Francis of Sales’s “La Philothée” (which Cisar makes much of), consist of one ironic reference to its sensuality and one anxious one to its injunction to repress unprocreative sex (Mémoires de Madame Roland, ed. C. A. Dauban [Paris: Elibron Facsimile edition, 2002], 50, 67).

Cisar reads Roland’s texts at face value. As has been shown by a number of scholars (e.g., Dorina Outram, The Body and the French Revolution, and Nicole Trèves, “Madame Roland ou le parcours d’une intellectuelle à la grande âme,” Femmes savantes et femmes d’esprit, ed. R. Bonnel and C. Rubinger [New York: Peter Lang, 1994], 321-40]), Roland’s writings are defensive, guarded, often disingenous to protect her, and contain a multiplicity of intellectual journeys, each fascinating and on the level of an original genius. Cisar does not cite Françoise Kermina’s Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1957; rpt. Perrin: Librairie Académique, 1976), which is meant to reach a wide audience and based on thorough archival research of her subject’s life. Kermina shows Roland to have been intensely ambitious: Roland’s writings hide from view her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and “une amertume terrible” (the phrase is Trèves, 322).

I would add that, like many another woman, Roland’s writings reveal a woman who valued the friendships she managed to sustain. There is a set of touching letters between her and a good friend, Sophie Canet; she was close to her mother and meant to be devoted to her daughter, who remained loyal. I think Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed. When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander very like that directed at so many other ambitious intelligent women), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.


I discovered an excellent Norton

The course will of course be but one quarter on Roland. If it goes well, perhaps another time I can try Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, and replace Johnson’s travel book with one of the era’s new biographies.

For the other three: I have not read Voltaire’s Candide in many years. When I did, I thought it was the 18th century equivalent of Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce for the 20th century, a sina qua non of the 18th century.


We hear her shouting and then muffled

I read Diderot’s The Nun in French (La Religieuse) and watched the extraordinary 1966 film directed by Jean Rivette, screenplay Jean Gruault, produced by George de Beuregard, starring Anna Karina as Suzanne when I wrote my paper on rape in Richardson’s Clarissa. A study which illuminates much of the process Clarissa and Suzanne go through is Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic violence to political terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992). For my study of Johnson and Woolf I’ve begun listening to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands (blended with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) on Recorded Books. The two readers do it very well.

Documents from the era in one of its new genres would make the point of what was the actuality of the era against its ideals more convincingly. I may add just snippets or excerpts on-line from the most famous books, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Hume’s famous chapter on the argument for a belief in God based on miracles (in the Dialogues), and Beccaria’s against torture from his Crimes and Punishments.

I can Sontag’e Volcano Lover, an important philosophical book for our time rooted in the 18th century — with Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General, in the spring. A reprise of the summer course I did at OLLI at Mason last summer.


An 18th century painting of “the Pont Neuf and pump house” (painter unnamed)

Ellen

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The Great Picture by Jan Van Belcamp: it takes three panels to suggest Clifford’s outer life

We should ourselves be sorry to think that posterity should judge us by a patchwork of our letters, preserved by chance, independent of their context, written perhaps in a fit of despondency or irritation, divorced, above all, from the myriad little strands which colour and compose our individual existence, and which in their multiplicity, their variety and their triviality, are vivid to ourselves alone, uncommunicable even to those nearest to us, sharing our daily life … Still, within our limitations it is necessary to arrive at some conclusion, certain facts do emerge … Vita Sackville-West, Introduction, Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (1923)

The knowledge that his arrow pointed to that impossible mark [‘a duplication of an image in the mind’] was Boswell’s source of confidence. Other biographers might forestall his book, but that they could rival it he never, in his most sombre moments, conceived. Those others did not know that biography is impossible … Geoffrey Scott, in the Malahide Papers, as quoted by Iris Origo, in “Biography: True and False” (1984)

Friends,

This is me again working out evolving thoughts about biography and the relationship of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as modernist biographers. I’ve gone on to consider Maurois’s Aspects of Biography and define Woolf’s Flush as a canonical modernist biography. I’ve been reading Iris Origo’s short biographies and her essay on biography as well as Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles as two true sources for Woolf’s Orlando. And I’ve spent two to three weeks teaching Woolf’s Orlando.

One of the characteristics those who first wrote and theorized about biography after 1910 (the year when, we will remember, the world changed) as such, described the history of the genre, its development between the early modern period and 19th century, and then outlined and defined the type they were writing as “modern” all come to when they discuss the genre is its impossibility. It is impossible to write a text that truly accurately tells the life of an individual. It’s arguable that the way modernist biographies were written in the wake of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide, and longer examples of the same sort of thing (it’s not true that modernist biographies are always concise) like Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and self-reflexive experiments, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, were attempts to overcome the considerable complicated obstacles in the way.


Two chapters are inserted fragments of an autobiographical memoir by Sackville-West about her sexually free marriage, her lesbianism and love of her husband, whom she nonetheless exploited hard

Most of the time this continual reassertion is dismissed because the plain reality is that these writers and others (colleagues, friends, rivals, people privileged by living knowledge of the subject) went on trying to achieve such impossible feats in words, sometimes accompanied by pictures, anyway. My feeling is this blithe sliding over is also done because at the same time it has proved also impossible to persuade the countless readers of fat popular biographies (“great men,” lurid women) to stop looking at the text they are devouring as a compilation of facts from unquestionable documents that add up to what is seen as an existence telling to know about. The “common reader” so strongly yearned after by Samuel Johnson and then supposedly targeted by Virginia Woolf also will not accept frank fictionalization in their intake of biography, and are on the record (on the Internet and elsewhere) as regarding another modernist tenet (admission) that the greatest biographies are autobiographies in disguise as a convenient way to dismiss a book that contains a perspective or whatever information they might not want to consider seriously.

It will be part of my iconoclastic argument that the value of examining Johnson and Woolf’s biographical art in alignment from a modernist point of view is that both worked hard in pursuit of their repeated self-appointed or commissioned biographical tasks conceived in the most high-minded way, all the while coming up against their own bedrock accurate perception that what they aimed to do was highly problematic, if not quite impossible. It is important to see where they failed in order to recognize where they succeeded, not just to do justice to to under-recognized because not well-known or long texts, but to grasp in what biography inheres. I want to write up first how they understood the biographical process, its aims and its problems, which they never solved. My belief now after reading so much (including Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale) is that someone’s biography is a product in the mind of the reader and writer after a process of induced identification and empathy: this process requires several texts taken together.

How about that? a biography and autobiography does not end where the text ends at all? I have to return to Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in Fictional Woods, which was so essential for my chapter on Trollope’s Autobiography in my Trollope on the ‘Net.


Taking it down form its shelf

With this kind of outlook or basis, one can then move into biographical texts by them that have attained the status of masterpiece biographies, Johnson’s Life of Savage and Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography. These two texts have seemed to do the essential required core of biography, convey a complex living presence, mind and body, in the context of, or emerging from a historically accurate portrait of their society as these people experienced it. I admit to loving the Roger Fry after having read some of Fry’s writing and Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry as an artist and art critic, connoisseur, museum person, curator. Woolf also wrote biographical fantasies one of which post-modern attitudes would include a legitimately biographical: Orlando: A Biography. It’s a woman’s time-traveling fantasy perhaps inspired by the idea behind a tiny girls’ book by Vita Sack-ville West (A Note of Explanation). I’m not sure how I feel about Orlando. At some level I even dislike it, it’s too frivolous for me, at times silly, and deeply elitist. How should a biography be written? is some form of verisimilitude necessary? I think so, so Orlando doesn’t make the cut at all. In some of Johnson’s unfair Lives of the English Poets he allows the political perspective of the whole set or his own personal distaste for a kind of personality or literary style or stance to lead him into fictional biography, the most obvious his life of John Milton — where Johnson gets away with what he writes by using verisimilitude with a seemingly practiced novelistic art.

All these texts stand up to scrutiny only in the context of more recent biographical, autobiographical, critical and even fictional texts on and by the subject — they are printed with long notes and annotations. In the case of Johnson’s Life of Savage, I am convinced after reading Tracy Clarke that like Boswell, concluded Savage was at first simply lying and then became a self-deluded impostor. Johnson’s text is also egregiously misogynistic towards Anne Brett (who appears as Lady Easy, a bullied woman in Cibber’s The Careless Husband). Johnson captures the pity of this gifted man never being given a real chance to enter the aristocracy or gentry he was so determined to belong to; his strangeness in some ways, the angry, the mysteries, that he was thrown away. But what was he? Tracy comes much closer to capturing the real man. Woolf’s Fry cannot pass muster without Diane Gillespie’s long introduction and annotations (two thirds again as long as the book). It should be considered a literary biography, the kind I can hope to write about Winston Graham. Orlando just won’t do (I shall write on it separately next week): it’s a time traveling wish-fulfillment fantasy, telling of the life of a woman writer seeking an identity in society. For Johnson’s Thomas Gray two modernist concise biographies: one by Edmund Gosse and the other David Cecil can function as touchstones on what’s lacking in Johnson: they are both so much superior, as is Frances Mayhew Rippy’s Matthew Prior (an unassuming Twayne book).

Which are or what kinds of other biographical texts constitute Johnson and Woolf’s problematic attempts and successes? Thus far from my reading Johnson’s Lives of Dryden, Pope, Thomson and Collins, and Virginia Woolf’s short biographical essays about obscure and unknown women (one of Geraldine [Jewsbury] and Jane [Carlyle] is superior to Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights, gathered in the Common Reader, others in other collections (especially Memoirs of a Novelist) and still more in the Collected Essays. In all these the needed background, the panoply of other texts are the paradoxically long biographies of the treated literary figures which fail to address central cruxes of these lives which Johnson and Woolf do.

Flush: A Biography is a wholly successful modernist biography if we take what Woolf says in her two essays on biography seriously. (Another would then qualify: Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, a fictionalized life of Marie de Gournay from the point of view of her maid. A fictionalized biography.) So is Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen more insightful than Josephine Ross’s.

I’ve also been questioning the assumed great worth of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, thinking about how good John Wain is, how original and questioning Nokes, and the respect I once gave to WJBates’s book. About 2/3s the way through the listening to Bernard Mayes reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I’ve tired of it. Johnson is there all right, but I have realized I have been mis-remembering, elevating him, forgetting how he regards women as instruments for men to make children with, yes an obsessive Christian; Boswell further skews the portrait by his constant justifications, idealizing, omitting Johnson’s sex life (very troubled), misrepresenting Mrs Thrale. Every once in a while a letter by Johnson brings his deeply humane character through, his comments his sensitive morality towards everyone (an off-the-cuff argument showing how slavery can never ever be justified in human arrangement, a deep violation). Johnson nails precisely that something is deeply wrong with a society where the homeless and sick are simply ignored — with the leaders he says, as they must act first. But I’ve stopped listening (gone on to Gabaldon’s Outlander 3: Voyager, read by Davina Porter). I probably much prefer Johnson straight than Johnson through Boswell.

I ought to decide which of the several still respected biographies of Woolf stands up: Julia Brigg’s Inner Life, Phyllis Rose’s Women of Letters, Hermione Lee’s old fashioned huge tome, whose aims are nonetheless those of modernist biography. I admit I need to read through the first two.

Not everyone fails; indeed my favorite form of reading is the literary biography and many masterpieces exist in the genre. This summer I read one: Claire Haman’s Charlotte Bronte, and Iris Origo made a career as a writer because she wrote great biographies and diary-journals. One of the great books for me of the later 20th century is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: The confessions of a Romantic Biographer, which I taught three times in a class called Advanced Writing on the Humanities.

And I still believe that the key to understanding any one’s art is to understand their lives and that means reading the life-writing coming from and attached to the subject in all its forms. Wrong-headed biographies if they are intelligent and written out of sincerity and original thought are important in understanding writers too, e.g., David Nokes on Johnson and Austen.

This is where I’m at tonight on this project. I think I had better give this one up for a while. Put it away. And come back to it in May when the heavy teaching and most courses end. My thesis as far as I can manage is the value of studying these two writers seen as modern biographers is in what they teach us about biography in their successes and their failures, brilliant insights and misapprehensions and along the way about the people they create or misapprehend.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader, and invite any commentary on what you think of biography as a form or any of the texts I’ve cited. These have been thoughts I pushed out of myself with difficulty and then added to late at night and then early in the morning before dawn.


Isabel Coddrington (1874-1943), Evening 1925

Next up: blogs on Woolf’s Orlando and then (if I can only discipline myself once more to it) women artists.

Ellen

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Detail of Murray’s face from painting by John Singleton Copley


A print of Foster’s face under a large hat

Friends and readers,

The last of this set of foremother blogs: two women writers, very enjoyable to read: Judith Sargent Murray and Hannah Webster Foster; and several others whose lives show the American colonialist environment: Susannah Rowson, Sarah Wentworth Morton, and Leonora Sansay. Murray is a deeply appealing writer of feminist essays; Foster’s novel brought me close to tears. Leonora Sansay was the Creole mistress of Aaron Burr.

I am taking such a long time writing about this early modern American women writers course: I was away in Milan last week for more than 12 days, which has occasioned this hiatus. I hope to be more regular on this site from here on in at least for some time to come.

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

The last session in terms of the writing we read in Prof Tamara Harvey’s course was the most fulfilling because it was the most pleasurable and insightful as writing. Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), wrote fiction and essays, poetry, plays, and was an effective advocate for women’s rights. Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), wrote a epistolary novel still in print because it’s still read for its own sake, a prose commentary on education for women in the US, had two daughters who themselves became professional popular women writers. They write in an attractive available style, with sustained intelligent thought, and humanely. Both had careers in or through periodicals that appealed to the educated common reader of the era.

Like many a woman reader before me, I much enjoyed Murray’s essay On the Equality of the Sexes, which is an important text in feminist intellectual history. Calling herself Constantia, she anticipates Wollstonecraft in arguing that women are born with equal gifts to men and would contribute much to society, be better people if they were permitted to develop these. That it is the thwarting of these gifts, and inculcating of behaviors false to nature that inhibits their abilities. She anticipates Virginia Woolf too in showing how in a family the brother of such a girl is given all opportunities and she is repressed into instrument to support him and the family. The strength of her reasoning and a foundation in reading other feminist women writers (Mary Askew is quoted; also Charlotte Corday) show a wide range of reading in the classics and European authors.

She has a more overtly moralizing tone because in the US religious organizations were far more more forceful (taking the space that perhaps class adherence had in the UK), but her horizons are secular in aim. I delighted to discover she had read Vittoria Colonna (as the Marchioness of Pescara), and other Italian Renaissance women (Isotta Nogarella), Marie de Journay, Madame Scudery, Anne Murray Haklett and other women from the English civil war, and then the list of 18th century women writers is long and formidable (Genlis, Barbauld, Seward, Cowley, Inchbald, Smith; Radcliffe , Williams, Wollstonecraft). Alas one author she does not know was Jane Austen. Except for Austen, I felt Murray had been reading the same books I had. This is rare for me. Stories of an individual woman's capability in the public sphere are accompanied by an insistence in the importance of building women's self-esteem ("complacency"), as a foundation for economic independence. She was indeed radical. She reminds of me of other women in the later 17th century (Lucy Hutchinson) who were educated in a religious tradition (in her case "universalism") became devoted to a husband who helped her develop her gifts. John Murray was her second husband and it was his status (a rich shipping mercant) and career (a teacher) that enabled hers.

She wrote in magazines and produced fiction and a play centered on women as a group interacting with one anther rather than women seeking men (husbands, with courtship all the book would be about). Her The Traveller Returned and epistolary novel (really a series of essays with stories exemplifying), The Story of Margaretta is are over-didactic, with the latter more effective in showing how the development of sensibleness and abilities prevents women from making self-destructive miserable choices during the period of what might be called sexual and adult awakening (the theoretic point of say Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall).


Sarah Wentworth Morton, said to have been very pretty as seen in this portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Harvey wanted to stress how Murray was involved in building a career for herself and devoted what class time there was to a quarrel she had in print with another woman journalist and poet at the time, Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759-1846), who had called herself Constantia too. Morton’s husband had gotten Morton’s sister (staying with them at the time) pregnant, and the sister killed herself,and this private trouble emerged in public. Morton claimed the name was hers first, and she used it to signal her constancy to her husband.

I felt this focus undermined the respect for them Harvey was meaning to build. Morton wrote verse featuring non-white characters, a popular elegiac poem on behalf of abolition of slavery (The African Chief, based on the life of a slain St Domingo enslaved man) and Ouábi; Or the Virtues of Nature: An Indian Tale in Four Cantos, a European style love-conflict poem featuring native Americans (the story reflects Morton’s life troubles). These works sound much less readable than Murray’s (or Foster’s), but it used to be thought Morton wrote another epistolary novel, The Power of Sympathy (printed with Foster’s in a Penguin classics volume edited by Carla Mulford), with a believable enough psychological acuity.

It’s noteworthy almost all these early modern to later 18th century women writers were given these over-the-top romance names (Morton was also called Philenia & a Sappho), which had the effect of leading to their being taken less seriously than male writers.

Harvey spent all the time we had for Foster on The Coquette, which I have heard papers on before (see my report on a paper on The Coquette at the 2015 ASECS). There is nowhere near as much known about Foster as there is about Murray, probably because most of Foster’s publications are in fiction; essays invite a certain amount of autobiography, but The Coquette has been written about academically even frequently since the feminist movement.

The story is as follows: Peter Sanford, a libertine male seduces Eliza Wharton, a flirtatious young woman; he has no intention of marrying her (as beneath him), marries someone else while as his mistress she is gradually isolated; she becomes pregnant, gives birth, and dies shortly thereafter; no one attempts to go to her to help her. Ironically, there is information on the story’s source in real life scandal and death of an isolated mother and her stillborn baby.

What rivets the reader is the personality of the heroine, Eliza. She has escaped marrying a elderly clergyman she did not like, and finds herself pressured to marry another clergyman, Rev J Boyer, who is a decent man and would be a good husband to her but bores her as he attempts to control and thwart what are her enjoyments. Influenced by Richardson’s Clarissa, Foster has Eliza attracted to a rake, Sanford who is well educated and attractive, a secular young man; she is a reasoning secular young woman. Each major character has a separate correspondent and their voices are all individuated, believable.

The novel becomes a satiric philosophical debate on what is friendship. Eliza’s confidant responds to Eliza’s frank talk and real needs with mild but steady and unsympathetic moralistic scolding. What is proper entertainment? what do people want out of marriage? In this book they marry for money and rank, and Eliza’s refusal to follow this pattern isolates her, and gradually the novel turns into a poignant tragedy. She is never a libertine like Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Austen’s Lady Susan. Gradually her voice vanishes from the book, and we feel her punishment is unmerited. This is in contrast to a didactic parallel popular American novel by Susannah Rowson, Charlotte Temple (also with a source in real American life at the time). Forster’s book leaves the reader with a sense of grief for Eliza and indicts the rigidity of her society. It moves away from the religious morality of the time more than Samuel Richardson’s novel which equally indicts the other characters of his novel but rather for their greed or inhumanity or cruelty.

I found myself unexpectedly really enjoying reading the novel; it was a page-turner until Eliza understandably falls into her strained depression and moves towards death. She is so dependent on letters. I found tears coming to my eyes as I read about her death. She could not find a world to belong to and in this new country could not exist without one.


This may be a depiction of Leonora and one of her children (by John Vanderlyn)

Professor Harvey hurried on to bring in yet another American novelist of the era, probably a Creole Leonora Sansay (1773-1821), born Honora Davern, who became the mistress of Aaron Burr. Very like Jane Austen’s aunt Philadelphia, Leonora was married off to the powerful man’s client (Hancock was Hasting’s client); it’s not irrelevant both lives in colonies run by the empire of which they regarded themselves as a sort of member (women are only sort of members). As Hancock became obsessed with controlling the daughter who was fobbed off on him, so Louis Sansay eventually became intensely jealous of Leonora and violent, and she fled him and Haiti rejoining Burr and supporting him when his ambition led to his being accused of treason. Eventually after a few aliases, Leonora disappears from the public record; she appears to be yet another American woman writer of this era more interesting for her (amoral in her case) life than what she wrote.

If you followed along, the course did open a terrain of American women writers and their lives and the environment they had to live in politically, socially, religiously, one of dangerous wars, ruthless slavery and for most women obedience to repression or erasure. Judith Sargent Murray was a rare lucky woman in this colonialist world. For myself I most enjoyed communing with the women’s texts I had once known and had had no one to talk to about, and being introduced to new ones, though I concede had I had such a course as an undergraduate I might have been sorely tempted to research the origins of the women’s literature in America some of which when by women I do so enjoy today.

Ellen

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Dear friends,

Although in the first session of Prof Tamara Harvey’s Early Modern American women writers, I regretted that she didn’t show the truly appealing poems of Anne Bradstreet or Sor Juana, in the second session on captivity narratives I had to admit someone today would not read the texts chosen by Mary Rowlandson and Phillis Wheatley for their subtlety, beauty, or true self-exploration. Again, as with Bradstreet and Juana, against all logic, natural emotion, and reason, Rowlandson interprets her horrifying experiences as evidence of God’s grace. Wheatley falls all over herself with gratitude to the Deity as well as her condescendingly kindly owners, then friends. Both are writing forms of captivity narratives. Rowlandson experienced the horrors of continual war: murder, destruction of communities, and then a hostage-worker. Wheatley was slave from a young baby, her gifts recognized and developed — up to a certain point.

The once enormously popular captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711), is printed with many different covers and additions to the text. Only a few of these today sport the original title, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God &c). While remarkably vivid and direct, Rowlandson presents a very limited view of what’s happening, of herself, of the Indians controlling her (enslaving, terrifying, killing, putting her and her neighbors and their children to work). The Indians are the savages (never mind the colonialists slaughtered them in thousands), she is the melodramatic victim heroine.

She just thrusts us into a layer-heavy experience. Her sister is dependent on her and killed immediately (this is seen as God’s way of rewarding her). Her baby dies during the march in her arms. The chapters are called “removes, so this is a journey. In the story we see her interacting with the Native Americans, in effect bargaining with them. She begins to know more about them as individuals and their customs; she suddenly uses their names. She eats their food, expresses kindness when she is treated decently. She is also at one point glad the native woman’s child is dead. She will in desperation take food from a baby’s mouth. She tries to change the outlook of those around her so they are not thinking how they are about to be killed. She also writes of other narrators like herself, other books so this text is not as unself-conscious as it seems. She presents herself as happiest at home. Her husband was a printer. Apparently he died and she remarried (became Mary White). The native American she is servant to is killed and she records this. There is no closure for her though: she tells us that since her experience, she can no longer sleep.

The text also functions as an exemplary conversion experience. I was interested in how she managed not to become a concubine while maintaining in her text not a hint of anything unchaste going on around her. Did the native people rape their captives: apparently they tended either to kill or adopt the person into their culture. It makes visible how continual and internecine fierce quarrels often resulted in mini-wars. There were native people who themselves converted to Christianity, and they were called (derisively) “praying Indians.” There are moments where she reproaches the English for not saving them. She was accused in turn: why didn’t you escape? why did you stay with them? Ironies: she is seen as having asked too much for herself when there was ransom bargaining. Her plight was real and she got very little sympathy (as victimized lower status women today often don’t).

For my part I thought the most effective places were where Rowlandson lets go and puts on the the raw emotion she is experiecing without knowing why or understanding herself: she is landed by her captors who are in canoes; they all come ashore, the people about her talk, laugh, are happy with their victory:

Then my heart began to fail and I fell aweeping, which was the first time to my remembrance, that I wept before them. Though I had met with so much affliction and my heart was many times ready to break, yet I could not shed one tear in their sight, but rather had all this time been in a maze (8th remove)

Apparently some Americanists try to argue these narratives were influential on the Anglo-European novel. They were read avidly out of curiosity to learn about the colonial experience and the American continent. Another captivity narrative by Hannah Duston shows as exemplary a murderous retaliatory heroine. Tamara Harvey ended this part of the session by talking of Jill Lepore’s book In the Name of War, which reveals the mindset we see around us today, the paranoid beset and beseiged, the notion that violence is a solution, that there is something special about the US experience is fully here. Wars of this era include King Philip’s, Metacun Rebellion, the Pequot war. It was all about slaughter. No wonder the Quakers were so anathemized. Lepore is today an excellent staff writer for the New Yorker. You can read Chapter 1 of her book here; hers is a book about the nature of war and how people write about it.

I regret to say I regard Phillis Wheatley’s neoclassic verse in the same light as Rowlandson’s prose: historically important but as poetry, thin, imitative, a rigid prosody, with a content where she shows that after she was literally freed, she continued to spout the (especially with regard to her) semi-hypocritical rhetoric used to disguise the aggrandizement, exploitation, destruction of the people native to America, the Africans kidnapped and enslaved, the indentured servants and convicts brought over from the UK. Perhaps I’m not being fair and there are many good lines if the book is studied carefully.This good paragraph comes from a poem to William Earl of Dartmouth:

Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood,
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat:
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labour in my parent’s breast?
Steel’d was that soul and by no misery mov’d
That from a father seiz’d his babe belov’d:
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?

Still, I have to admit it seems to me the scholar-critics want to avoid saying how unsatisfying the idiom of this poetry is. To see this clearly is to see the tragedy of her short life. Hers is the story of the lucky token exception with powerful patrons who recognized her gifts, and in return for presenting the Wheatleys as super-good people and behaving exemplarily (as the white colonialists saw this), she is protected — for a while. Wheatley was the family name; Phillis the name of her ship. There seems to be no memory of her earliest childhood. When she married, she found she had to work very hard for little money. The contemporary biographer blames John Peters, her husband for what happened to her. Dead children, herself very sick. Of course in comparison with most African people, she was treated like a princess, with respect, attention, and equivalent humanity.

Prof Harvey treated the volume and story from interesting angles (as she did Sor Juana and Bradstreet). Living in Boston was another stroke of luck; she showed us how Wheatley’s texts were marketed by looking at details in the titles of the poems. Wheatley was writing to middle and upper class women; there are elegies for the deaths of family members, for George Whitefield, a well-known Methodist; she addresses George Washington. In one epistle she writes of the Countess of Huntington and abolition movement; she writes to male aristocrats who were patrons. We see her in a community of well-connected people. Later there appear to be poems to or also about black people, a man manumitted at 40. She wants to associate with the local elite where she moves to, to admire a black nun, to think the city she lives in represents something great. Yet there is said to be an awareness in her of women across the globe who she might be like but had not had her luck.

The best book is Vincent Carretta’s Biography of a Genius in Bondage; I’ve met him at conferences and lectures, and heard him speak eloquently about Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano. We can see all that was available to a male once freed, not available to a female; Equiano lived a full life on his own while she had to marry, be dependent on her husband and died young of too many children and poverty.

I wish I felt more for these women from their books than I do. I can’t find a way into an attitude of mind so deeply guarded by religion and convention however clever Mary Rowlandson was. I can see that Wheatley survived and had what achievement and pleasure she did by somewhere deep in her fiercely repressing any anger. I find what is written about them resonates more.

Ellen

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Pilgrim children dressed for church (17th century American art and dress)

Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours (Bradstreet, “The Prologue”)

In darkness foundering
Words fail the troubled mind.
For who, I ask, can light me
When Reason is blind? (Sor Juana, “On the effects of Divine Love”)

Dear friends and readers,

Among the delights I knew this early winter was to hear for the first time ever some American women writers I once spent hours and even weeks reading in the Library of Congress talked about intelligently and in words I could understand for the first time. It’s an odd feeling to have felt and thought about these women writers and their texts in the silence for long periods, shared my pleasure and thoughts with no one, and then suddenly confront a living constituency. I took a course at the OLLI at Mason in Early Modern American Women’s Writing. Four sessions of reading.

Not only the professor from George Mason, Tamara Harvey, had studied them thoroughly, but this was no dumbed-down course:  she cited articles, books, and talked of colleagues and students who also had read with interesting comments they made and perspectives written about. Had clearly discussed them in conferences, taught them to coming scholars. She took a perspective I had not thought of, and chose quite different poems from the ones I had so loved when I read their work in the 1980s on weekday nights and weekends in the Library of Congress reading rooms. I had looked at each as an individual and was absorbed by their life stories, chose the immediate personal texts, or texts that immediately appealed by their easy eloquence or wit or humor or pathos. Prof Harvey chose texts which could show the reader the origin and development of the American imaginary that is with us today. For all of them were born or writing or lived out their lives in the North American colonies and then US states.

There has been written a good sympathetic biography by a modern American woman poet, Charlotte Gordon: Anne Bradstreet, The Untold life of America’s First Poet. Anne emerges as a reluctant American, and you gain her full personal context:

I’ve never written about these American women writers in public before. The first two wrote texts which even at their most attractive show them thanking their God for dire punishments inflicted upon them personally, or when they try to assert their love of writing or desire to express themselves, they have first to argue for a right to write in the first place (which they seem to have to), in language so self-berating, so without any overt sense of their strong value, it’s hard to find several verses altogether unmarred. In her A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf complains the problem with 18th century poetry by women (in the UK) is they cannot forget themselves, are continually so aware of harassment, of embittering experiences as women, of obstacles set in their way for any kind of individual fulfillment, they are ever writhing with complaint. What about disfigurement and deformity & miseries which you feel you are forced to be thankful for? Religion has not just veiled and repressed the minds of women writers in the US, it makes them express patently perverse ideas.

That’s why I never made a foremother blog for Anne Bradstreet 1612-72). She’s a strong poet with an individual voice, as in this opening of some vereses upon waking up to find her house burning down (July 10, 1666):

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look …
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old

She writes of her children as chicks in her nest — she’s another woman poet who identifies with small vulnerable non-human animals:

I had eight birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest,
I nursed them up with pain and care,
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare … (“In reference to her children, 13 June 1659”)

She writes so intensely about her love for her husband, and what a good man he was (as all as her father), is guilty about the trouble she caused her (apparently) incessantly pregnant (and bodily miserable) mother, her fear herself of death from childbirth:

And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thy arms (“Before the birth of one of her children”)

I had stayed with the domestic woman’s art, her private life. Well, now I branched out over the week in my reading. I read four poems on the four seasons (summer “with melted tawny face, and garments thin”), filled with wonderful home-y imagery of her life. Tamara Harvey said her favorite of Bradstreet’s poems is “Phlegm,” which she said was about medical science of the era, and which I discovered when I went home and read my one paperback (The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Jeannine Hensley, foreword Adrienne Rich) is unqualified angry at the behavior and language of most people she encounters

Patient I am, patient I’d need be,
To bear with the injurious taunts …
I’ll leave that manly property to you,
I’ll love no thund’ring guns nor bloody wars …. (from “The Four Humors”)

It was still to me counterproductive for the professor to have picked out to concentrate on the worst stilted poems (admittedly by Bradstreet probably thought her most serious), as Bradstreet in epic form at length retells some Biblical or ancient history, and I thought to myself the other women around me (there was but one man in the class) will never seek out this woman’s book, but in these the professor found assertive feminist ambition (interwoven with the usual half-thwarted ambition) and comments allusive of American experience historically.

I now reread Rich’s introduction and found for the first time she too was interested in Bradstreet’s early depiction of the American experience: Rich stayed with the poetry one can read (descriptive) and we end up with Hart Crane by way of Cotton Mather. All those many years ago I had compared her to Anne Hutchinson, persecuted (like the French women of the 1790s,e.g., Madame Roland), speaking out, acting publicly on behalf of radical political beliefs. Now I see Bradstreet much more in a line with the political learned Lucy Hutchinson, down to having written an epic poem too (Lucy’s is actually readable), who, happily I have written a foremother blog for.


Sor Juana, portrait by Miguel Cabrera (see essay by Elizabeth Perry in Early Modern Women, a Disciplinary Journal, 2012, Vol 7, pp 3-32)

The professor chose the same kinds of high ambition poems to stress in the case of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95). These are truly awful, some plays where allegorical Catholic figures declaim and dance, again with the twisted self-accusatory, self-assertions. Sor Juana was much worse off: illegitimate, the child of small landowners, she’d have no dowry and (reminding me of Galileo’s unfortunate daughter) was made a nun, and for a while let alone to read and study and write love poems to imaginary lovers (the poems reminded me of Andrew Marvell, somewhere between the metaphysicals and clarity of later 17th century verse). These were those I read, plus a few others to Mexican aristocratic women, sometimes on classical myths I could recognize (Pyramus and Thisbe!). I did remember one where she justified the enslavement of a girl. I seem even to have tried to read a book on her poetry, and got half-way through her life and religion (!) by Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, on “the entrapments of faith.”

No one to talk to, I somehow did not realize that what happened was she defied a bishop (guardedly, qualifiedly) and that was enough to lead all around her to quash her gifts, stop her writing; silenced, made to “do penitence,” no surprise she didn’t live long after this. Prof Harvey revealed also that Sor Juana was strongly hostile and aggressive towards native people in the US (for savage reprisals, strong nationalist), wrote blood-thirsty choruses,reminding me now of the sequences of “savages” dancing in the Americas in the film adaptation of Outlander (so we haven’t gone far in popular conceptions of African-derived rituals or native Americans, it seems). I began to see why I read only a third of the one volume of poetry I have (A Sor Juana Anthology, trans. Alan S. Trueblood, foreword by Octavio Pza) and never opened one of these half-crazed vision books (Sor Juana’s Dream, trans., intro, commentary Luis Harss), filled with guilt, agony, torturous versions of mystic neoplatonic readings of ancient kingdoms.


17th Century Spanish church (American, Yucatan, San Pedro)

Poor woman. I now think what I managed on my own was from her short period of joy, and reading over the week came to the conclusion she was a lesbian, and her bitter encounter with the bishop was preceded by equally crushing relationships with court women. She began as an innocent with a kindly good heart, naively reaching out to people expecting reciprocation:

And although loving your beauty
is a crime beyond repair,
rather the crime be chastised
than my fervor cease to dare.

With this confession in hand,
I pray be less stern with me.
Do not condemn me to distress
one who fancied bliss so free.

If you blame me for disrespect,
remember, you gave me leave;
thus, if obedience was wrong,
your commanding must be my reprieve …(“Excusing herself for silence, on being summoned to break it”)

So this time I read on into two-thirds more of my anthology of her poetry. It is equally hard to find a whole poem to share that is not painful. The fantasies of herself with the imaginary beloved in natural landscapes (reminding me of Anne Finch’s reveries) are lovely. There are long winding verses with deep grief at separation from the beloved, relief in his company where she can tell of her cares, “insidious memories,” awareness of the fleetingness of their beings. Some are addressed so directly and intimately to a lover (sonnets like Vittoria Colonna’s, but better, less repetition of the same imagery and more truthful) where she imagines him strangling her with a rope, teasing, vexing her with vacillations; in one she is widowed in a series called “Vicarious Love.” In the English translation, she’s at her best in short lines with four line rhyme schemes:

That my heart is suffering
from love pangs is plain,
but less clear by far
is the cause of its pain.

To make fancy come true
my poor heart strains
but, thwarting desire,
only gloom remains …
I yearn for the chance
to which I aspire
yet when it impends
I shrink ….

She has so few color words, I share this stanza for the sake of that word “green:”

Return, beloved one;
my weary life is suffering decline
from absence so prolonged.
Return, but if you stay away,
although my hope is fed by tears of pain,
I’ll keep it green till you return.

There’s a series on the relationship of convent to court. Any individual stanza gains its individual meaning from context so again it’s hard to convey why anyone would be drawn into these. There’s one on music which attempts to imitate music, a series on the self in the world (things are pretty bad, even learning is harmful for many). She recognizes the great cruelty of people, but also that hers are imagined troubles too, so some are “happy in their unknowing.” Paz finds her not so melancholy as I do since he follows her astronomical poetry and, through his religious belief, enters into her Dante like visions where she transfigures her longing spirit for love and understanding.

When it has come to the desired place,
It sees a lady held in reverence,
And who shines so, that through her radiance
The pilgrim spirit gazes on her (Paz, “Council of Stars”)

Nonetheless, in the dream book I mentioned, now opened and at least skimmed, this self-insight is not uncommon:

… to the undaunted spirit
that, disdaining life, determines
to immortalize itself in ruin.

I thought of the Renaissance poet, Margaret of Navarre’s Prisons, but perhaps for the modern reader, Emily Dickinson, Gabriela Mistal, and Elizabeth Bishop (drunk, lesbian, living at the edge of a world that did recognize her) would be more helpful in situating her among women. For art work, Remedios Varo (see my blog series, women artists) who spent her last years in Mexico and ended making surreal mystic fantasias.


Varo’s The Escape

I’ve four more, long 18th century women writers from this course on American roots, for our imaginary. The writer of a once widely-sold captivity narrative, Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711) and the neo-classical verse writing Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), in a deep sense a captive all her life; then journalist, essayist, playwright, poet, advocate for women’s rights (an American Mary Wollstonecraft), Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), playwright and still in print and read novelist.

I’ve spent this evening in the company of two great spirits.

Ellen

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