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I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that yes … All worldly advantages would have been to her — & she was of an age to know this quite well — Cassandra Austen speaking of Jane Austen’s refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither (quoted from Family Record, 93)

Ah! those were pleasant days when I had the Laconia! how fast I made money in her … ” (Wentworth, Persuasion I:8:67)

Once once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me immortal” — Austen’s last writing, on it having rained hard on the Winchester Races

Friends and readers,

This is to recommend not just reading but obtaining E.J. Clery’s Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. Clery carefully correlates documents left by Henry Austen’s life’s activities and those left by people he did business with, was friends or connected to (letters, life-writing, other texts as well as military, banking, lease and all sorts of contractual and court records), with close readings of Austen’s novels and her and her family’s papers, to create a fresh coherent story that sheds real light on aspects of her life and outlook, on his character, and on Jane and Henry’s relationship.

Clery gradually produces a portrait of Henry Thomas Austen as an ambitious, chance-taking, highly self-regarding man who aspired to gain a higher status in life and more respect for his personal gifts than the fourth son of an Anglican clergyman was thought by his world entitled to. At the same time or throughout each chapter Clery attempts to create the contemporary socially engaged businesswoman Austen favored today moving through the familiar events of Austen’s life (there have been so many biographies of Austen by this time) and writing or thinking about writing each novel.

Clery is not the first critic-scholar to assume that Jane was closer in mind to Henry than any other of her brothers, nor the first to credit him with the initiative and knowhow to help Jane achieve her heart’s desire to publish her novels. (And by this earn our gratitude.) But Clery is the first to interpret these novels metaphorically and literally as engaging in and critiquing or accepting financial outlooks literally analogous to or undergirding the outlooks Clery assumes Henry’s military, business and clerical behavior showed he had. Each chapter of Clery’s study begins with a retelling of Henry’s business and social life at the time of the publication or writing of each of Austen’s novels (chronologically considered). Clery then produces an interpretation of the novel in question, which assumes Jane’s cognizance of Henry’s state of mind or business at the time and that this alert awareness actuated some of the novel’s major themes (perhaps hitherto overlooked or not quite clearly understood).


Henry late in life, a curate

Beyond all this, as a mine of information the book is as useful as James Thomson’s explication of the money system in the era in his “Patterns of Property and Possession in Fielding’s Fiction (ECF, 3:1 [1999]21-42)

This book, then, is not a biography of Henry Austen. Its matter is made up of explications of Henry’s business practices, living arrangements, day-to-day activities in the context of what was happening in business, military, court and city events. His marriage to Eliza Hancock de Feuillide takes a very much second place in the scheme of things nor do we learn much new about her, though Clery is concerned to defend Eliza against the implication she was a bad mother or somehow cool, shady or amoral person, which the insistence on a direct connection between her and Austen’s portrait of Lady Susan and Mary Crawford has led to in the past. She also suggests, I think persuasively, that over the course of the relatively brief marriage Henry and Eliza grew somewhat estranged: she had not been eager for the marriage, and once obtained, he was not especially keen on her company nor she on the life and Austens at Godmersham.


A very poor miniature of Eliza Austen when an adolescent girl


Her gravestone: appropriately Henry buried her with her mother and son

After Henry’s life considered almost sheerly from a career and advancement standpoint, we are given an explication of one of Austen’s novels: like David Nokes in his underrated biography of Jane, Clery has read the letters with an original thoughtful alertness as to the events found in them. She tells us what on a given afternoon Jane or Henry (or Eliza), was doing and with whom, and how this related to what they did yesterday and the following evening and some ultimate career goals (which these business friendships fostered). In these vignettes she comes near to recreating Henry and Eliza and Jane as characters, but is hampered in the case of the first two complicated, enigmatic (neither wore his or her heart on sleeve) people by her acceptance of the Austen’s family’s adversarial dismissive portraits of them, with Henry “wayward” and Eliza ever a flirt (see my blogs on Henry and Eliza). The book is then or feels like a sort of constrained dual biography which then morphs into not always wholly persuasive yet intriguingly innovative literary criticism of Jane Austen’s oeuvre.

There is so much to be learned about financial practices and banking in each chapter; she goes well past the level of generality found in the previous articles (by Clive Caplan and T.A.B. Corley) to give us an in-depth picture of how Henry actually got himself promoted, put into positions where a lot of money went through his hands (a good deal of it which legally stuck to said hands), who he knew who mattered, who they knew whom they pressured, and how once “fixed,” Henry preceded to develop his interests further. Receivership, speculation, the “rotten” credit system come one by one under the reader’s eye. We learn the state of the economy in crucial moments, especially with regard to war, which all these people looked upon as a money-maker for them (thus Tory and Whig enthusiasm). Where we the Austens living in London when the successful business of publishing Sense and Sensiblity began, and what it (and the other novels) entailed. I give Clery great credit for providing us with the sums to see the profoundly immoral and unjust systems at work (for example, the money in the military sector was to be made buying and selling commissions off the table). Henry was of course “conscious of no criminality” (290).


Modern photo of the site of Henry’s bank in Alton today

One is struck by the small sums (£100) Henry and Francis disbursed yearly for a few years to the mother and sisters in comparison to the thousands they pulled in and spent on themselves. Clery mentions the Austen women were utterly dependent on these men who controlled the women’s movement and spending. The year Henry was said to have gone completely bankrupt and he said he could only supply £50 for his sisters, and mother his closest long-time partner, and Henry Maunde probably killed himself (283-84); there were intense recriminations among those involved about how much money Henry and Francis had held back. Suits and countersuits. Henry was resilient enough to almost immediately turn back to a clerical career, begin study for a title, and two years ahead of time (of James’s death) write begging letters in order to gain his brother James’s vicarage (312). Clery also reports in slow motion Henry’s two illnesses during the period of the decimation of the country and other banks when the (“rotten”) credit system (based on massive loans unaccounted for) imploded, and it seems to this reader by no means was Henry’s much boasted about optimism thick-set into his being.

But if it’s clear he had to know (it’s right before him, us and Clery and all) how insecure were all these securities, nonetheless he gave both his sisters crucially bad advice when it came to offers of money for Jane’s books. It’s important to remember that when Jane self-published Sense and Sensibility, and lopped and chopped First Impressions into Pride and Prejudice and sold it outright for £150, not only had her work been continually rejected, no one had offered her anything. It’s repeatedly said in his behalf (for the letter disdaining Murray’s offer of £450 is in Henry’s idiolect) that self-publishing was the common way: not when you were given such a ready money large offer. In just about all the cases of self-publishing I know of there has been nothing like this offer; as for the other common route, to solicit subscribers you need to know people, you need to be well-connected, you need really to be known and you have to have people solicit for you — those cases I’ve read of slightly later (including Burney much later in life) the person hates to solicit. It’s more than half what Radcliffe was paid for The Italian. Murray was not a “rogue” in this offer; he knew the market for fiction far better than Henry or Jane did. Another comparison might be Charlotte Smith; the sums she was offered early on with her first successes are smaller than that offered Austen. Murray was said to be a generous publisher (as was Johnson to Smith).

Henry repeats the same mistake years a few years later when Murray makes an overture to buy the copyrights of all six novels. After “consultation with Henry, Cassandra refused. Murray had “remaindered the 539 unsold copies of Emma at two shillings, and the 498 copies of the second edition of Mansfield Park at two shillings sixpence.” Of course he didn’t offer more for a “new edition” as she hinted. They ended selling all the copyrights to Bentley for £210 minus the £40 Bentley paid to Egerton for Pride and Prejudice, and they reappeared as inexpensive cheaply produced volumes for six shillings each (“sales were less than predicted and the number of copies issued each time was reduced”, 318-19)

Here is the source of the continual itching of the acid chip-on-the-shoulder consciousness that wrote the biographical notice, the continual bitterness, albeit mild, of some of his satire in The Loiterer. Henry cannot accept that the real gifts he felt in himself and by extension in his sister were not valued by a world he himself knew indifferent to integrity. He kept hoping otherwise when, Edmund Bertram-like, he studied for a face-to-face examination in the New Testament and Greek, only to be told by the Bishop “As for this book, Mr Austen, I dare say it is some years since either you or I looked into it” (291). He got the position based on his connections and family status.


Close up detail of Cassandra’s one portrait of Austen’s face

Some of the readings of the novels may surprise long-time readers of the criticism of Austen. Emma is interpreted as Austen’s rebellion against commercialism, a “self-flagellation” where we are immersed in a world where most of the characters who count are indifferent to money (242-43). Emma has been repeatedly read as a seriously Marxist analysis of society. I was surprised by how little time Clery spent on Sanditon. Clery seems to me accurate that the fragment represents a return to the juvenilia mode, but is after all a fragment and nuanced and subtle enough to support persuasive continuations about the proposed novel as about financial bust. Clery does uncovers some new sources of inspiration: a novel by Thomas Skinner Surr called The Magic of Wealth (his previous was A Winter in London); the author, a banker, also wrote a pamphlet defending the Bank of England’s paper money policy (see 295-96 and my blog on Chris Brindle’s stage adaptation).

But there is much to be learnt from Clery’s analysis of the juvenilia themselves, what’s left of Austen’s letters, the Austen papers; Clery’s reading of Sense and Sensibility as an “austerity novel” exposing ruthless “greed” and measuring everything by money as the center of society (139-51) and her reading of Mansfield Park as dramatizing and exploring “a speculative society” on every level (194-214). Clery precedes MP with an account of Eliza’s dying, Henry expanding his banking business by becoming “Receiver General for Land and Assessed Taxes” (190) and Warren Hastings’ pose of indifference: there is no need to over-interpret Fanny’s position as an exploited bullied dependent, or her famously unanswered question on slavery. Everything in MP lends itself to talk about money, only this time what is wanted and achieved by many is luxurious ease. Finally, Persuasion is presented as defending “embracing risk” (274-76), with Wentworth linked to Francis Austen’s admiration for a naval hero accused of “wrongdoing in connections with the Stock Exchange Hoax of 1814” (216, 275).

Details of their lives come to hand for each novel: “How appropriate that the party had a chance to see Midas at Covent Garden Theatre during a short three-night stopover at Henrietta Street” (204). The quiet disquiet over Austen’s possible incestuous feelings towards at least one of her brothers now becomes part of a Henry story across Austen’s oeuvre.  I’m not alone in feeling it was Frank, given the poem about his marriage, Frank’s providing her and her sister and mother with a home, the infamy of the letter “F” and clandestine Jane, the destruction of their letters (attributed to his granddaughter), not to omit Frank marrying Martha Lloyd (whom Jane loved) later in life (see Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life).


Green Park Buildings, Bath, end of the row — Austen and her family lived in Green Park buildings 2 centuries ago

In recent years there have been a number of books claiming to link this or that Austen novel with a building, a real life person or event never mentioned in the novel in question or Austen’s extant letters so it is so refreshing to be able to say of the bringing of contextual matter outside the novels into them not discussed before is not dependent on theories of invisibility or subtexts. I especially liked when Clery brought Walter Scott’s career, Austen’s remarks about him and his texts together. She brings out that Patronage is the contemporary novel by Edgeworth with Mansfield Park (193) but what Austen continually took notice of in her letters is how Scott is doing. In Clery’s book just as a number of financial scandals come into public view as well as Henry’s “precarious position” (Edward gives him a promissory note for £10,325), Mansfield Park is lagging in the “performance” department and Emma is not electrifying the reading world, Scott’s Antiquary is published, at a much higher price than either MP or Emma, and withing 3 week 6,000 copies sold, the author gaining half-profits of £1,632.” Jane Austen tells the truth as far as she knows it: it was disheartening.

When they all returned to Chawton Cottage, Jane wrote her niece Fanny of Henry: “London is become a hateful place to him, & he is always depressed by the idea of it” (292). I detect a strong plangent note in her closing letters quite apart from her last fatal illness. Stress can kill.

Deign on the passing world to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Letters to be wise,
There mark what ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jail,
See Nations slowly wise and meanly just
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

Clery attributes Jane’s burial in Winchester Cathedral and the floor plaque with its inscription to Henry and the publication of her novels too. He ended his life impoverished but, Clery asserts, Henry ‘s courage in life gave us his sister’s novels (324-25).

Ellen

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Watteau, The Serenade

Day 8/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. (For Day 7/10, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale). When I was around 17 or 18 years old, I was in a used bookstore in Manhattan called the Argosy. It was on 59th Street, near the corner of Lexington Avenue. How I got there I don’t know but someone must’ve told me about it — it seemed to be about 5 floors high with very old elevators (the kind that had gates that seemed near to falling on you), and each floor was filled with bookcases of dusty books, many very old and decidedly uninviting, some falling apart.

It was there I first came across Fanny Burney, in a one volume and in a three volume edition of her letters (brown, falling apart) and I have told that story in the Burney newsletter: “On First Encountering Fanny Burney D’Arblay.”  But it was what was nearby that riveted me truly: a single volume edition in French of the letters of Julie de Lespinasse, nearby a 3 volume edition in French of the letters of Madame Du Deffand. I opened them up and started to read and found them irresistible. I no longer have those books but I do have the Elibron facsimile of a 2 volume edition of Lespinasse and a 2 volume edition of the letters of DuDeffand edited by Chantal Thomas.

In the volume by Lespinasse I read she was frantically and abjectly in love with a M. Guilbert and wrote him desperate letters where she poured out her thoughts and feelings in the most eloquent language I had ever come across. In the course of telling the tortures of her soul, she talked freely about all sorts of things, writing dramatic scenes, commenting on books, on plays she’s gone, people she knows, but always she comes back to the main point, she loves him, she cannot do without him, why does he not write her, why does he not visit her, not even respond to her. It was a form of madness.


An engraving said to represent Madame du Deffand

Madame du Deffand was very different: acid melancholy, caustic wit, the most bitter and truthful comments about life, funny, she wrote mostly to a man I had never heard of before: Horace Walpole whom she was very fond of, but also Voltaire (I had heard of him) and people with strange (to me) titles, particularly one man, Heinault to whom she confided the secrets of her life. I’m sure I understood less than half of what I read but what I did read struck deep chords. At early point I understood she was blind. Well many years later I have read much about Lespinasse, niece to Deffand, and Benedetta Craveri’s Madame du Deffand and her world, and Chantal Thomas. I read these before I read the unabridged Clarissa.


Engraving representation of Julie

I took all these volumes home (including the Burney) in a big brown shopping bag, and since then have read even many later 18th century women’s letters and memoirs and novels, English and French. I typed and put two novels by two other women of this era (Sophie Cottin, Isabelle de Montolieu) on my website, and edited Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde for Valancourt Press. Jane Austen read some of these women (Stael, Genlis, for a start).


On the vast first floor

The Argosy still exists but is no longer many floors with ancient elevators; it’s one big floor with a basement and you buy many of its books through catalogues. Below is the Argosy from the outside ….

This coming fall I propose to read with a class at OLLI a paperback edition in English of Madame Roland’s autobiography and letters. I am very fond of a biography of her by Francoise Kermina, which is more insightful than the ones in English and also a Elibron facsimilar of a 19th century study of her by Charles Dauban which includes selection of letters by her to her friend and separate sketches of her relationships with different equally interesting people..


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

I put Ann Radcliffe here too, anong these women: my love for her novels, and the one travel book comes out of how the tone of her mind is coterminous with the tone of these other women’s minds of the later 18th century. I know I love the gothic which increases what her books mean to me, but basically her Mysteries of Udolpho is such another as Stael’s Corinne, ou l’Italie, and Madame de Chastenay translated Radcliffe’s great book into French and left a 3 volume memoir of her own.


Watteau, Iris (detail inside much wider vaster mural)

Ellen

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Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh 1939 in Gone with the Wind

Diary

Friends,

Day 5/10 of books that influenced me (growing up lasts a long time), that had a discernible impact.

Again for me this is problematic. Between the ages of 13 and 15 I read and reread four books to the point I knew many scenes by heart and can today still conjure them up vividly in my mind. Undeniably (surely we are to to be truthful, or What are we doing in such an exercise?), the first up in time (I was 12) was Gone with The Wind. It came into our house as a book-of-the-month club special for my mother, and I sat down and began to read. I was so entranced (with a four column page) read it so much and so often that the copy fell into pieces. The cover illustration was a collage of scenes from the GWTW books (hence not like the one I find) but my copy was a reprint of the first edition, the ample book behind this older cover:


Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover

The problem is that even then I knew it was a racist book and I am today deeply ashamed of myself that I ignored this. (Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover.) It was wrong and racist behavior on my part as the book has functioned perniciously in US culture. Still I am not embarrassed in front of GWTW. I have seen this reaction when I used to assign to students to read a book from childhood and the young adult was embarrassed to realize what the book he or she so loved was. I regretted when that happened. My father tried to read The Secret Garden to me when I was 10 and had to give it up so mortified was he to see the agenda of Burnett’s book. These books answered to what we were then

I was Scarlett in my earliest readings. GWTW led to my reading a helluva of lot of Walter Scott in my earlier teens.  In later years I have decided the heroine of GWTW is Melanie. I shall never forget her standing at the top of the ruined stairs of Tara with a rifle, having killed the marauding soldier, and now determined to lug the corpse to the field to bury it. When Ashley comes home, Scarlett’s wild desire to run to him, and Will saying, “he’s her husband.” I’ve expanded the heroes to include Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes and Will Benteen.  I remember so many scenes from GWTW; they formed a backdrop of women’s key emotional moments in my mind. Scarlett in her mother’s green velvet curtains trying to charm money out of the imprisoned Rhett.

It’s women’s historical romance first and foremost.

I’ve never given up this type of book and some are leftist and liberal. My most recent wallowing has been in the distressingly pro-violence Outlander (the first three books) and the brilliant voyeuristic film adaptation: I find irresistible the central love relationship of Jamie and Claire, and I bond with Claire in book and film. I find irresistible still her fierce adherence to Jamie, I bond with her in book and film.


Claire and Jamie starting out together …

People disappear all the time.
Young girls run away from home.
Children stray from their parents and are never seen again.
Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station.
Most are found eventually.
Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Usually.
Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years

I know the Poldark novels by Winston Graham belong to this genre so my study of the Poldark novels began here when I started to read Ross Poldark after watching a few of the episodes of the 1970s serial drama. It’s deeply humane in its politics.


My first copy of Ross Poldark, the 1970s reprint of the 1951 cut version, published in anticipation of the 1975 serial drama starring Robin Ellis

There were three other authors I read & reread around the same time, getting to know by heart key scenes: the second chronologically was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I recently reread it once again and am convinced it is a poetic masterpiece of l’ecriture-femme, one of the great novels for women and one of the world’s great novels in all languages. Who can forget countless passages like this: “I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay.” Contra mundi.


This is the copy of Jane Eyre I now own

At the time I was not alive to the crucial differences in language between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne DuMaurier’s RebeccaRebecca was another “extra” from my mother’s subscription to the US Book-of-the-Month Club. Like Bronte, like GWTW, DuMaurier’s books satisfied a need in me that recent Booker Prize women’s romance (Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac, A. S. Byatt, Possession) also satisfy. Bronte and DuMaurier explicitly make visible a woman’s vision using techniques found in l’ecriture-femme, but there were only 5 Bronte novels that I could read (JE, Villette, Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights) so DuMaurier functioned as yet more of the same: My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Branwell Bronte and above all King’s General. Last summer I reveled with a group of people in a class I taught at OLLI at Mason in reading together King’s General (17th century civil war, crippled heroine) and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. However vastly more perceptive about the nature of reality, Volcano Lover is still of this genre. All versions of the same kind of underlying deep gratification of soul.

I had found my copy of Jane Eyre in a local drugstore for 40¢; I went back a few weeks later, and found imprinted in the same cheap way Austen’s Mansfield Park. Another 40¢ and home I went to read and reread MP. My fourth and nowadays favorite book of all these. When I got to the end and heard the moral of struggle and endure, I turned back to the first page and read the novel over again. I’ve never stopped reading it. It has never been far out of my mind, always at the edge of consciousness to be called up. I’ve never forgotten the cover of this MP: white, with 18th century type stage characters, and the blurb telling me this is a “rollicking comedy.” In my naivete I couldn’t understand why this blurb so false was there. But no matter I was Fanny, and this was a somber strong book.


The colors dark and distorted this is nonetheless the second copy of MP I owned

Since then I’ve seen all the film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park available.


Fanny and Edmund growing up at MP (1983 Ken Taylor BBC)

With GWTW, Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park I began my love affair with women’s great books, historical romance, and historical fiction. I’ve never stopped reading these and nowadays want only to write about them. And for me they include the great classics (in 19th & early 20th century beyond DuMaurier, English Anne Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Virginia Woolf, Rosamund Lehmann, Margaret Drabble).


Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre (Sandy Welch’s JA, 2006)

Ellen

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Anna (Hermione Norris) reading Clarissa’s letter telling Anna of her desperate need for some shelter as she’s pressured intensely to marry Mr Solmes (BBC/WBGH Clarissa, 1991)

Friends and readers,

I’m carrying on for the second day. For my second book of a 10 book list on what book influenced me most strongly — or, to echo the language used, as it makes sense in this case, what book had a [large] impact on me: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Again I don’t have a cover illustration from the book I actually read, as in this case again there was no paper cover, and I read the 4 volumes of the unabridged third edition of Clarissa in the old Everymans. Mine were maroon.

I don’t understand why in the original meme people were (in effect) discouraged from saying why this book was meaningful. For me the fun is in thinking out why this or that choice. The self-learning as the ten days go by.

So,

When I first read Clarissa at age 18 in a college course on 18th century English novels, I would read it 16 hours straight at a time. I found I couldn’t stop I was so intent. Just for coffee or say food or nature breaks. Then when I realized this savage egoist, Lovelace, was going to succeed in raping Clary, I began to feel intense nervousness and then when I got to his famous one-line letter to Belford, “The affair is over. Clarissa lives!” I was stunnted to think I’d missed it or we wouldn’t be told, but, no, the event was to be told in a flashback in a later segment of the book. So I had to read another 200 pages before I got to the humiliating aggravated assault and Clary going utterly distraught. That first experience was an abridgement, a Modern library blue book. Then as a graduate student taking a course in the 18th century novel, I did my talk and term paper assignment after reading the unabridged Everyman 4 volume set (I found it at the Strand in NYC). I decided to major in 18th century literature so I could write my dissertation on this book with Robert Adams Day as my advisor. Ever after I’ve been persuaded it had a central opening turning point for novels by women centering on women’s issues and subjectivity. I read so many epistolary novels, I love novels of subjectivity. When John Letts invited me to do a talk for the Trollope society at the Reform Club I wrote “Partly Told in Letters: Trollope’s story telling art.” (probably a high point in what may be said to be my career as a writer).

Years later (mid-1990s) I led my first reading group on the Net with a group of 18th century colleagues and lovers of reading on Clarissa in “real time” (following the calender in the book). After 2000 I finally had the nerve to write a deliver a paper at ASECS on rape in Clarissa, and then one on the masquerade motif in the 1990s film adaptation of Clarissa where I got to know the script-writer, David Nokes.  Hermione Norris became a favorite actress for me; I loved her and Clary’s friendship. I’ve read the unabridged Clary through several times, not to mention dipping in. As with S&S, I don’t forget the text. Of course I bonded utterly with Clary.

I’ll say simply too that sexual assault and harassment have topics of intense personal concern for me since my teenagehood.


Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) writing from the debtor’s prison (1991 BBC Clarissa, scripted David Nokes)

Diane Reynolds on WomenWriters@groups.io offered another way of “taking” or reading the “meme.” What books have been a revelation to you that made an impact or were important? Something you learned that changed your mind or you didn’t know before. These can come in adolescence or teenage reading — and sometimes much later too. once I got on the Net and made more friends and found I could reach more books and had a better idea of what was in them I had two stunning revelations: Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls; and Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities. I was about 48 to 50 when I learned that the horrible sexual experiences I had had with boys as a young teenager were in fact commonplace. What also no one told me was other girls were similarly harassed, fooled into acquiescing and then (for many) self-hatred and shame. Who knew? not me. I once tried to tell another girlfriend and she said, never tell anyone else this, and later another said to me, why did you tell X that? oh Ellen she went and told all sorts of people. Right; she belongs in the second season of the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale or some equivalent soap operas. So after that I didn’t try to reach anyone.

I still have these two books. They made me feel so much better. I felt such regret no one had given them or books like them to me at age 15 when I so sorely needed them. They didn’t change my life; not so much that it was too late to have reacted differently because my nature is the same today and I probably would just be able to retreat from that kind of abuse, which is what I learned to do (emulating Elinor Dashwood’s prudence and self-control). I would at least not have thought about these experiences the same way and would have known to blame the culture I lived in and all those colluding in it complacently.


Clarissa fighting back, insisting she wants to live the single life and to leave her be.

Clarissa was a self-help book. I was Clary and felt so much less alone reaching back in time. And I named my girl cat Clarissa, and now call her Clarycat, and she knows her name.

Ellen

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Three Guineas

“The worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is.” — Jean Guehenno

Friends,

Last term (spring), and this term (summer) I am again teaching about Virginia Woolf, and we are reading her mid- and later books, Flush; A biography; Orlando: A Biography; Three Guineas and Between the Acts (unusual historical fiction, shall we call it?). I’ve written about the first two separately; tonight I want to go on to the exhilarating and astonishing candor of Three Guineas. What I love and find exhilarating is Woolf’s words (if they were followed) would constitute a direct threat to so many values and norms thrown at us all the time, from society joining (don’t you want to identify with a group?), to ambition and competition as central to our mode of being, and to our incessant prize culture with its ribbons and awards (money) as central to why we want to achieve and how we measure our achievement.

What can I offer for thought tonight better than a (I hope) suggestive outline of this book? A poignantly still crucially needed book. Nothing more relevant tonight. I now understand Reagan’s term of benign neglect. Trump and his regime do not benignly neglect people. It’s an aggressive campaign to criminalize, imprison, impoverish, punish all those who don’t submit — new laws everywhere and now they’ll purge voters. Tax the poor, let the corporations reign and isolate us. I wish people would stop saying Trump’s picture is as if we were in a banana republic; this is as if this were a nazi state — his picture is that, this is, this is US because enough of a majority supports and is for all that is happening. I did the Three Guineas finally because each time he bombs people, the newspapers rally round him and his regime. And this week the imitation becomes more complete: Nazis told people as they entered the death-prison camps here is soap and you will take a shower; we rip their children from their hands and tell them they are going to have a bath, and then we put these children in cages and will not let reporters in to see what is happening to these children.

Three Guineas consists of three essays or letter-chapters. In all three Woolf is answering someone or more than one person. In the first, she says she has been asked by a high-ranking gentleman to join a society to prevent war. Is not this astonishing? that she should be asked to join a society to prevent war? as she writes on, we see the problem is she is not asked to figure out who is responsible for war — for to prevent something, do you not need first to discover who is going to do it? and then to stop the people, do you need not to discover why they do it? Nor is the society examined? In the second, she has received a letter begging for money to support a girls’ college – and to join them. If she doesn’t have money, any left-over object in her house, she doesn’t need would be appreciated for their bazaar. She could become one of them that way. She is stunned: Why is it that a woman’s college has so little money as to beg for cast-offs? In the third, she decides to speak to a third woman who would like her to join a society on her (this woman’s) lack of money, and professional women and discovers that the problem is the way women make money (when they do make it) to sell their brains and advocate causes and beliefs that stifle them and lead to war.

So there you have it. I have read Three Guineas numerous times. Each time I have read this book I think to myself it is one of the most important essays of the 20th century and along with Primo Levi’s If this be man, and The Truce, ought to be required reading for every adult alive who can read. I used to assign it every time I was given the second half of British literature to teach. Sometimes along with Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and a couple of essays on the Spanish civil war he published elsewhere. But it hit me anew because since Trump won I have been inundated with requests to join groups, told how wonderful the society and members are, and begged to send money – not to prevent war but to stop Trump, to renew democracy and the idea is sending a check, joining this group will be doing something useful or a very good thing. I will be a member of them, and then I read an advertisement telling me of all the good the group does.

A guinea has never existed as a separate coin. It was the name of a gold coin worth one pound and one shilling. Stopped circulating as of 1813, but elite shops kept expressing the amount of an item in guineas. Medical consultation fees were often expressed in guineas. You paid actually pounds and shillings but this was how it was expressed. So it’s an allusion. The working title of these essays was Answer to Correspondents

I can give only the gist of each letter-essay. In the case of the second and third I cannot follow the lines of argument as they are too circuitous in order to be suggestive and allow for further extrapolation. I also have not cited or described most of the individuals she uses as examples and quotes from. If you want to know this level of detail, read the book. If readers ask for some, I’ll come back with select quotations tomorrow night.

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Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

She begins: she has waited three years since receiving her first letter. Why? The person she must write to is a professional man high in a learned prestigious career with much power. How can she talk to him since her and his life have been so different, and why is this? For a start: Arthur’s Education Fund. Arthur and all her brothers, father, any son have been given the best and most expensive education the family can afford and the girl taught nothing but to be a wife to a husband, chaste so that she will be sure to bear only his children. He has lived out in public and she has been kept at home. What can she possibly say that he would understand?

But by 1938 the question has become so important. All around her, around him war is beginning, being fought, and i the newspapers fierce propaganda to support it. She must speak. She holds out some photos of recently dead bodies and destroyed houses. (Probably from Spain. One of the immediate promptings of this book is the killing of her nephew Julian Bell in the Spanish Civil War where a fascist take-over of Spain was being allowed, funded by the surrounding capitalist states.)

She says looking at these: there is nothing worse or more destructive of all people hold dear. Yes the very wealthy might make huge sums but they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people; not just those who fight, but those who acquiesce, those who support the activity. Why do people go to war? A subsidiary question for Woolf is how the subordination of women is central to this way of life — because wars fought so often become central to a way of life, always there, on the edge, waiting to be indulged in.

So why do they do it? It would be laughably simple if one did not know the results. Men are incessantly honored for it: it’s presented as a profession (soldier), a source of happiness and manliness – yes manliness. It’s better to be kill than be killed. They get to wear great uniforms, everyone bows down in parades. Lots of ribbons. They are continually trained in fiercely competitive games, modes of learning, aggressive professions, adversarial behavior.

An immense amount of money is spent on these colleges, these professions, these awards. (I’d compare these colleges Woolf describes in the UK to the immense amount of money spent in and on elite colleges in the US –- with no money in the society for the rest of to go to much less funded colleges). Right away when you go to these colleges you are confronted with hierarchy, this is prestigious and that is not. Join this one and you make the right connections. Exclusion is central to privilege.

Woolf asks if anyone asks, What kind of a human being do you want to produce? All the many things that can be taught cheaply should be taught cheaply. No barriers. And everyone including women taught how to be independent, how to earn your own living so as to not have to obey someone else’s interests, to be able to think and act independently. What are truly useful and good results for all.

Women are of course excluded. Why? Because everything a woman is taught is in service of preserving her body for a man, making it look appealing to a man. Women who wanted to go to war were escaping that loathed private house, its hypocrisies, cruelties, its immorality, its inanity ….

She goes over the dress code, the advertisements everywhere.

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Isobel Bishop, Reading Together (1935)

Second letter: here we have this college and it needs money so badly the women don’t even have enough cast off clothes for a bazaar. This letter harks back to A Room of One’s Own 1929 which originated in a lecture Woolf was asked to give to Newnham college in October 1928. Julia Briggs suggests that Woolf had in mind Pernel Strachey who was a principal at Newnham: in the earlier essay we see how poor the meals, how inadequate the library and how the women are excluded from male libraries which contain all the serious research material.

Whitaker’s Almanac is called in evidence to show how little money women make; ludicrously less. They are not paid at all for all their work in the home, and to say they share their husband’s salary is absurd because we find their husband’s salary after minimal needs (rent, food) goes on all his luxuries, male sports, male cigars.

She says some pointed questions: women have the vote and yet they have not changed the terms of their existence. Why is this? why have they made so few gains after the initial ones of being permitted to own property, permitted to keep their salaries, allowed to have custody of their children, allowed to obtain a divorce (if they can pay for it) on more grounds than he came near to destroying you by beating you and was egregiously adulterous. They have failed she says because men have continued to withhold positions in universities, positions in the professions, posiitions in parliament, and through these means refused to pay them an equal wage, to promote them. Frightened and jealous of them. The way a higher job is gotten is still through influence and patronage.

To jump ahead again it is in the third letter she talks of how males – especially fathers do all they can to forbid their daughters from making money, to teach them making money is beneath them. She calls it “the infantile fixation.” She does not always define her terms. This second letter is a far more concrete practical, overtly angrier. Everything is done to teach them to want marriage and children first and only, to infantilize, not to teach them to thrive in the larger public world. In this chapter she shows that (ironically) what women have been taught is chastity, poverty, derision (of themselves), and freedom from unreal loyalties. What country when you are a woman? on the analogy of, What father when you are a slave? Freedom from unreal loyalties: one of these is the delusions of nationalism.

How is this connected to war? They cannot work against the norms of war until they can put pressure on men. They can only do that if they are equal in independence and respect, if they do jobs that are held to be so useful they are paid for to make sure they are done well.

In both letters a primary source of documents are biographies and she cites these. She finds that for most men still money-making takes over their lives and there’s no time for any thought, any protest. She finds there are hardly any professional women in the sense of holding positions of power and making money. She finds that when women do campaign for change that will improve their lives, by the time the reform is turned into law, it is set up to protect men, not women.

So since sex is so central it is no coincidence one of the earliest campaigns (beyond stopping alcoholism among men as it makes them violent and trying to secure the vote) is Josephine Butler’s campaign on behalf of prostitutes: the contagious diseases act was set up to protect men and not women and did not stop trafficking in female children. She was not able to get them to stop imprisoning women, condemning them to hard labor if they would not submit (a recent anti-abortion bill in Virginia included a requirement that demand a doctor violate a woman’s body if she sought an abortion). So Butler turns to work for public housing, and ceaselessly to abolish prostitution, to make it illegal.

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Primo Levi’s If this be man

This letter contains some of my most favorite passages. In this one in talking of what is written and published, she says before you judge it you must think of how much in that piece of writing is there for (p 115) “the money motive, the power motive, the advertisement motive, the publicity motive and the vanity motive” – let alone all the other more a particular ones depending on the local politics of those involved in the topic. I remember reading a review of a friend’s biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer where I was struck by how much of this review was pretense and performance, and what the reviewer cared about was how she appeared to what she took to be the hostile audience to the book –- she was writing for her own career first, her position in the organization second, fame third, showing off fourth (the style) and only after that did the quality of the book and its content concern her and she shaped what she had to say in terms of the first four goals.

She reverts to opening request from a different angle: how can professional women help to preventing war. You must not sell your brain. Margaret Oliphant is brought in as a representative of a finely gifted woman who sold her brain for money. Right now in 1938 Arthur’s education fund has been spent, war is imminent and that means that education has failed, professional women have failed — they have not even made much money.

Now she says women must have different weapons than men. They must take into consideration they have lived and continue to live differently. This is imposed on them but it is part of what they must candidly look upon. So what can they learn from their own history? How can they resist being pulled into that male procession of fancy costumes and ribbons? They must in their minds constitute themselves a society of outsiders. They have been excluded and oppressed, now they must remember what they perceived themselves for real and act on that. Here she shows how the private world of the house and women is inseparably connected with the public one; tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.


Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf

Who will listen to us? what are we writing? what reading? This is where she brings in the how the money, advertisement, publicity, vanity, power motives permeates what people write. How most people don’t try to divest themselves of these motives. (This is why she and Leonard opened Hogarth Press so there might be a press apart from this mainstream — a word Woolf doesn’t use.) She had earlier pointed out how newspapers are so influential by what they leave out (that’s in chapter 2) and now shows what they put in is often rotten with distortion and self-interest. So who is in charge of the newspapers, and the institutions these newspapers support, which usually support them.

And again she makes the connection between all the dead bodies and the destroyed houses in previous wars and what we find in public writing. What are the real purposes of the various societies that produce this writing too. And they want her to send them money? Are they kidding?

There is a suggestion that in lieu of the celebratory parades let’s show the condition these men come back in. One can do small things. Increasing beauty in landscape, in places not intended to advertise a public company or body of people. She talks about the value of obscurity (as she does in Orlando). Let’s dispense with all those distinctions, these ribbons, refuse to knit socks for war.

And so she comes to the end of her work and goes for the core. At the heart of the desire for war is fear, and a male desire to control all others, all women and those men you can make into docile workers. The major support for this fear, for chaining people up in strictly controlled heterosexual marriage is found in the male priesthood (religion). And she is back to the sexual taboos central to controlling women and powerless men’s behavior. In this section she brings in Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father (Flush is not just a jeux d’esprit); how Patrick Bronte did what he could to stop Charlotte marrying, to control her for himself. It is telling which women she does cite — whose life or work or character meant most to her.

The only way to escape is to have a room of your own and income to support yourself adequately. Tonight in my house I watched Gosford Park for an umpteenth time: it is a form of cheer to see the world’s order so caught up in this ironic melancholy formula, the brilliant acting, the wonderful singing of Jeremy Northam of Ivor Novello’s songs. The land of might-have-been:

It’s not that the Republicans have taken over; it’s that the values we follow enable them. Our lives as presently lived do not have to be this way.

Ellen

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Cattle Watering perhaps by John Glover (1767-1849)

Gentle readers,

I’ve had some troubles over the past two weeks: my PC Dell Desktop computer died, and it has taken two weeks to replace it with a new one (Windows 20); alas while I was promised that all my files would be retrieved and put back into my new computer for reasons that remain unexplained, the IT people did not manage to do that. So I’ve lost many of the stills I gathered over the past five years and worse yet some of my more precious files in my 18th and 19th century folders: the material for Charlotte Smith that became the Global Charlotte Smith, much of my recent notes and work on Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell. Very unlucky.

There is a silver lining: I paid to have the material said to have been backed up in the hard drive put into a commercial “icloud” set up called Carbonite and that has now been put on desktop and I was shown how to retrieve these lost files individually. It is arduous but can be done, one by one as I need them. Or so it’s said. I’ve yet to try alone but I believe I will as the need arises — or before when I have time.

Thus my usual work came to a stop for a while. I read on and for communication used my now beloved Macbook Pro (apple). It has been my savior twice, as this is the second time since Jim died a computer died on me. I wear them out 🙂 It also has the files as they were 5 years ago and this Friday I have promised myself at long last I will again contact the IT company I use for Macbook Pro and have them update and “clean it out.” Fix my icloud so that all that is in that computer will be in the icloud. I have learned new things about computers and coping with technology these past two weeks.

In the meantime I don’t like to leave this blog with nothing. I carry on with Virginia Woolf and am reading about Vanessa Bell still and the art of the Bloomsbury circle. Soon I will be able to post a syllabus for reading Woolf with a group of retired adults this summer. Tonight I am sharing a proposal for a paper that was accepted for the coming EC/ASECS (Eastern Region, American Society for 18th century studies) in Staunton, Virginia. This is a mid-Virginia town where Mary Baldwin college is located and the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company, a repertoire going for many years which Jim and I used to attend regularly. We’d make a day of it as it is a three hour drive from Alexandria, Va. There are two blocks of restaurants and tourist-y places, historical sites, a lovely landscape all around.

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in the scene from the novel where Anne remembers Smith’s poem (1995 BBC Persuasion)

How to perform Charlotte Smith and Mathew Prior in the same novel: Intertextuality in Austen’s Persuasion

A proposal for the EC/ASECS conference in Staunton, Virginia, this October 2018.

In this paper I propose to explicate two diametrically opposed moods and points of view on the human experience of profound loss in Austen’s Persuasion. Pervasively and across the novel Austen alludes to Charlotte Smith’s plangent and despairing poetry of loss, embedding the novel as well in the romantic poetry of Byron and Scott. Arguably the crippled, bankrupt and betrayed Mrs Smith is both the genius loci of the novel and a surrogate for Smith herself, whose life Mrs Smith channels. At the same time, it is of Mrs Smith’s apparent cheerfulness when she is with other people that Anne Elliot declares: “Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (Volume 2, Chapter 5). In addition, Austen is careful to contradict Anne Elliot’s despondent musings as she walks alone in the autumn: through allusion Anne is thinking: Ah! why has happiness—no second spring? (the last line of Smith’s second sonnet in her much reprinted and ever enlarged Elegiac Sonnets).


Dancing at Upper Cross — one of the lighter moments in this film (the same Persuasion)

As if in mischievous contradiction to all this powerful passionate protest and investment in grief in the novel, Austen also alludes explicitly a very different kind of poet and poem: Matthew Prior’s semi-burlesque rewriting of an older ballad, The Nut-Brown Maid as Henry and Emma. In his frequent vein of cynical disillusionment with much realistic detail supplied about the lives of two characters where the male demands abjection from the female to prove that she is in reality irrecoverably in love with him after her father has explicitly rejected him as a worthy suitor. Emma is up to each turn of a screw Henry inflicts on her. The parallels with Wentworth and Anne present a serious critique of Wentworth’s behavior, with her usually much-praised new independence severely undercut. Austen seems concerned to undercut the misogynistic theme of testing a woman so prevalent in literature, among other texts in the era Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

There’s evidence to show that Austen knew both Prior and Smith’s writing well. It’s tempting to unite the two disparate veins as variations on dark themes of an authentic self and constancy: in her famous dialogue with Captain Harville Anne asserts as her right, is a knowledge of ravaged grief and permanent desolation as strong as any man’s. When we get this far with these skeins, it seems to me we have reached Northrop Frye’s once well known last phase of irony and satire, only instead of winter, Wentworth breaks through with a letter and we tumble back into romance, with even Mrs Smith knowing retrieval at novel’s end (as the real Mrs Smith never did, quite).

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The regular reader of this blog will recognize I’ve put together two previous and drawn on my knowledge of Smith and Prior. I never tire of Austen’s Persuasion either nor the many film adaptations made from the text since the first in 1971 (click and scroll down to reach 6 blogs & essays on 5 Persuasion movies).


Anne lending herself to be lifted into a carriage by Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) (ditto)

Ellen

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Vanessa Bell, the artist, the theme this time a woman drawing

Dear friends,

Some more thoughts on women as autobiographers and biographers. I’ve been reading yet another autobiographical novel by a woman, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. It’s another that conforms to the characteristics of women biographers and autobiographers as outlined by Suzanne Raitt and Gale Bell Chevigny. Again one must collapse distinctions between autobiography and biography and fiction and non-fiction. This brings us back to Max Saunders’ Self-Impression with its argument that in our century the central genre has been “autobiografiction.” In Stauffer’s book on the Art of Biography in the 18th century he suggests that 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. Anyway the history of all three forms cannot be understood apart from one another. without the history of the other.

Jigsaw is centered on Bedford’s fractured relationship with her mother and what she is doing is restoring their lives together, imagining them as more one unit than they were because so often her mother was absent from her. The mother was with a lover, with her husband (Bedford’s father), leaves to live with another lover. From afar the mother tries to dictate or show interest in her daughter’s schooling, reading, what worlds she belongs to, but the effort is largely imaginary. The mother’s first loyalty is to the man she is living with, dependent upon.

How many absent mothers do we find in women’s novels. This paradigm is usually explained as allowing the daughter-heroine liberty but from this new perspective it is a mirror of how daughters experience their mothers in a patriarchal society

Then yesterday and today I read two essays that felt very old because they were printed in pre-Internet days and are not on-line. The first, Patricia Meyer Spacks’s “Reflecting Women,” in a 1974 Yale Review (Vol 63, pp 26-42) offers yet more analogous marvelous insights into women’s life-writing and fiction which anticipate and indeed say more graphically, less abstractly what Raitt, Chivegny and others on women’s life writing from the Renaissance to today put forth as a new findings. Demoralizingly I thought to myself what I’ve read other unearthers of a women’s tradition in this or that art:  how can make progress made when each generation has to re-fight the same battle. Yes women were great artists and here are their names and history. Yes this is the genres they paint or write in and the latest critics proceed to re-invent what was said before and has been forgotten because what was published was so rare and then it was forgotten — like this one by Spacks.

Spacks is more penetrating and ranges across classes and eras and conditions in ways none of those I’ve read recently do. She discusses the rich society woman, Hester Thrale Piozzi’s continuing re-telling of her life story in most of Piozzi’s writing and compares what is found there to the deprivation and racial punishments known by the young African-American woman, Anne Moody in Coming of Age in Mississippi; and yet more appalling for what was done to her, Mattie Griffith’s Autobiography of a Female Slave (first published 1857; first published in an affordable paperback in 1974). In one scene Mattie is tied to a post, stripped naked and whipped and violated sexually, then laughed at and denigrated and then compared to an non-human animal. I wonder she did not become deranged or kill herself. Emily Kugler on Mary Prince’s autobiography rejoices that she has found Mary Prince as an almost unique autobiography by an enslaved woman in the US; Kugler has not heard of Griffith it seems. Spacks moves to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (17th century writer during the civil war in the UK). I never forgot the pathos of the final paragraphs of the Duchess’s brief autobiography where she says she writes for “my own sake, not theirs” (others) so it does not matter that her readers assume what she writes does not matter, and has only written so she will not be mistaken in history as another of the Duke’s wives now that she has written his biography. to Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa to Ellen Willis’s Up from Radicalism: A Feminist Journal (1969).  Ellis fears her arguments with her partner and his disapproval of the ways she lives will lead to their parting: she needs the comfort of his presence, his money. In later years well after Spacks wrote, Ellis married her partner to have his access to good health care when Willis developed and then died of cancer.

Spacks uncovers that the underlying perspective of all these is that of women who are dependents. Hester Piozzi Thrale was forced to marry Thrale, a man much older than she, vulgar, cold, a bully, by her mother who proceeded to dominate Hester for decades during which Hester was continually impregnated by this man. Thrale bought attention and respect by her salons filled with prestigious people; that was one of Samuel Johnson’s functions at Streatham. What view can a woman have of herself who is a bondswoman, whether to other women, a selfish domineering mother, or a man however professional and rich. Hester’s salons were to entertain him and pass the time. I remembered that when Hester married Piozzi, Johnson cursed her and she was utterly ostracized by her daughters, friends, family; deserted by Frances Burney for whom Hester had done so much (as she did for Johnson): that’s why she went to Italy. I have had to give up on writing my half of a Woolf-Johnson paper partly because I knew what I now have to say about Johnson will be so utterly out of kilter with my partner would and will pay as well as everyone in that volume. It’s conceived as demonstration of Johnson’s modernity. Modernity? A feminist avante la lettre is what is partly implied no matter how qualified the assertion

Mattie Griffiths escapes because her white mistress left her a legacy and her freedom. She still had to flee to realize it (with money hidden away), and went to live in Massachusetts where she taught “African children.” She then wrote her autobiography using the style, language, tropes of European tradition. Her book is written in a stilted style so as to gain respect, an identity and tell of the intolerable conditions under which she had lived. She is safe by assimilating herself in a book. Spacks compares her to the 20th century Brazilian prostitute, Carolina Maria de Jesus who lived in one of the unimaginable slums of that land, writing on scraps of paper picked up in the street, using for money what the father of one of her three children gives her for serving him sexually when he visits. She loathes him, is disgusted by herself because she is a woman. Like many another woman at the bottom she lives in fear of arrest. Readers Digest rejected her manuscript. Arrest, illness and then death is the fate of a major character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th century protest industrial novel, Mary Barton: for vagrancy, she is given 3 months hard labor, and then ejected with nothing on offer to help her. What matter if this is nominally fiction.

Women become mirrors of their men; they avoid reality by fantasizing in print, in their writing, says Spacks. They write not only to create an identity (that I have known since reading Paula Backscheider and Margaret Anne Doody on women’s poetry) but to assert themselves at all. They justify themselves by claiming exactitude in truth. They are safer because their bodies are not immediately involved; yet they don’t have to claim anything for themselves beyond the recognition of the literary effectiveness. No political action need be taken. Sexuality is a trap. Men look at sexuality as a challenge, the woman is a pleasure to acquire as a subordinary part of their lives.  For women it becomes an agent of her defeat (as she has children and begins to live apart from the larger social world). I used to write in the interstices of time when my children were young. The classic mode is that of translation or the sharp perceptive observer, both of which I did.

Do I dominate my own experience by writing about it? I know I don’t. My rational for this tonight is to make sure that Spacks’s essay is not forgotten. But I am creating an identity as a (I hope) respected writer, scholar, teacher, blogger online.


Isak Dinesen’s hard-won house in Africa

Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s “Dependents: The Trials of Success” is a companion essay to Spacks. It caught my eye as next (pp 43-59) and because in my last Sylvia II blog I wrote of false imposed definitions of success. This is a remarkable analytical essay, much longer than Spacks, which I cannot do justice to. Rorty begins by saying the US nation began with an assertion of independence based on war. Autonomy and power are what we focus on; self-respect comes through self-reliance. Of course we know independence is a myth for anyone; as a criteria it’s a killer for women who are automatically failures when they don’t define their lives by themselves. As an ideal it makes women resent men and men resent the dependence of women on them. Mobility is demanded — individual assertiveness comes first. The arts of self-expression cannot be valued. In trouble and need where can people turn? They hide their families; put children into schools that socialize according to to these norms, and women become even more beside the point, functioning as “consumers.” But productivity is the mark of worth.

When she comes to women married to professional men who are intellectuals, she moves into details close to my own experience and heart. She says to create you need to be in a world working with like-minded others, in a special environment where intellectual work is a full-time job. Juggling very differrent other demands makes for half-hearted half-time scholarship, perhaps competent. Slowly the “shadow of self-contempt” moves in. She thinks this is not a specifically female problem, but the problem of a “harried and torn person.”

An interesting side question is her idea that only when people work together do we come to know one another’s strengths and virtues and she thinks it’s taking on responsibility that offers fulfillment far more than any leaning on love. Mutual reliance among equals, and now her essay turns desperate as she returns to US values of domination which results in one group of people giving up so much (and it’s not natural) for another. We are back to the bondsman and master. It’s in this light Rorty questions the reality of “liberty,” “satisfaction,” “success;” the last is experienced as trial, ordeal in a juggernaut of power. There is thus a high cost or price paid for what is called “progress.”

She then goes on to say we must revise our conceptions of human worth, respect a whole range of talents, temperaments, redefine our grounds for mutual esteem. We need to get back to shared social planning for all. Utopian? She ends with recent travels where she became convinced the conditions of women in different countries are too different for any general solution that is gender-based. General solutions across cultures are economic and ideological. She thinks the “mechanisms” of “social vindictiveness” against “social explorers” in the US are paradoxically stronger than ever. Do not let yourself be unprotected against the rage the whole system engenders and then what you need to do undermines any social transformation.

I have gone a long way it would seem from women as autobiographers and biographers. But the content of what women write about has brought me here.

From “Biography from Seventy-Four” by Patricia Fargnoli

She is not who she was.
Last week, she dreamt
she could still run.
She ran and ran a long way.
She sleeps uneasily now,
waking and turning,
waking and turning.
If she could be anywhere
she’d be on the windjammer
sailing to Martinique,
the one she remembers
that comes back in dreams,
the sea dark blue and rolling,
that paradise, green mountain
and white sand in the distance …
Grace: what is given
without being asked,
what makes one able to rise.
The last time she felt joy
so long ago she can’t remember.
She is afraid
of thunder that comes too close,
war and the threat of war.
She tries to protect herself
from the wind of no good …. (from Winter)

Ellen

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