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Archive for the ‘19th century’ Category


Mary Taylor’s Miss Miles — one of several cover illustrations, Oxford UP, introduced by Janet H. Murray

Friends and readers,

I so enjoyed this book I am in danger of over-praising it. So I will begin by conceding it’s not Middlemarch; and if I say that I first read about Mary Taylor and conceived a desire to read her book from Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s portrait of her, description of her novel, and story of her friendship with Charlotte Bronte, which in their A Secret Sisterhood: the Literary Friendships of Jane Austen [Anne Sharpe], Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf also includes a number of passages from Taylor’s letters to Charlotte, you must not expect the density of poetic and erudite diction found in Charlotte or Anne’s novels.

But if you are willing to come down a little in your expectation, partly because this is Taylor’s first (and alas last) novel, accept some visible struggles in the structuring and knitting together of the book’s several stories, a multi-plot pattern which accommodates four central heroines, Miss Miles is as insightful, eloquent, with cogent dramatically realized lessons that women must be allowed to become maturely independent, self-supporting when the need arises (as it often does in ordinary women’s lives even among the 19th century middling classes), self-respecting and morally brave as many of the finer still read and known 19th century English novels. My header title comes from Murray’s introduction where she writes: the novel “reflects [Mary Taylor’s] lifelong advocacy of independence for women and her lifelong experience of women’s courage and sustaining friendships.”


An old photograph of Mary Taylor on an alpine expedition taken with friends in 1874: she is on the far left, age 57

I will leave it to my reader to click on Taylor’s name (above) to read Nick Holland’s short biography of Taylor. You will discover in Murray’s introduction a full life of Taylor’s teaching, rebellions, early traveling, time in New Zealand and long life in Yorkshire after she made enough money not to have to work. Ironically for all that she argued forcefully all women must work to become independent, as soon as she was able to stop all week long hour working in a business she created she quit — not to be idle, but to devote the rest of her life to reading and good causes — and travel and enjoyment with others. There are a number of characters and events that link Bronte’s Shirley to Mary Taylor’s life; nonetheless, Taylor severely criticized Bronte for her timidity in her books, for being coopted herself, for sacrificing herself to her father, and she did scold Charlotte in life. What is most poignant is that what emerges is the father was central to Charlotte’s choices for most of her life to self-erase, abase her talent, and sacrifice herself to him. Today we have a big chorus normalizing the man, making him ever so attractive, but here is another account which proves that Gaskell had it right.


The Red House, Taylor home in Gomersal (from In Search of Anne Bronte)

For other criticism, common readers’ voices, here is a sizable thread from “good reads”, where the central posting describes the book as original in its use of a bildingsroman for four young women, feminist, about women’s friendships, and morally intense. This prompts a number of postings by people responding well to the novel (one in Italian). It was written and rewritten over the course of Taylor’s life, so while it’s set in mid-century, the feel and attitudes of mind the book speaks to are those of century’s end, and is part of a series published by Oxford for the British Library, as by “female authors who enjoyed broad, popular appeal in their day.”

In a recent Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 2021 (p. 19), in “Tales of Hopeless Husbands”, Lucy Scholes writes charmingly about this series — of the intelligence, appeal and some of the common themes across these books. Scholes cites several and describes a few novels that sound very good, one by an author brought back by today’s feminism, May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven; a number of Sinclair’s novels are still read, and are reprinted by Virago too, e.g., The Life of Harriet Frean). Another author in this series is E.H. Young’s Chatterton Square in which the secondary heroine is a spinster wholly dependent upon a (married) friend for their shared income — the friend passes as a widow and is thus respectable but in fact she is merely bravely separated from her husband. Young is still remembered for her Miss Mole and found in Virago and Persephone books. Scholes thinks the best of the fine books she is writing about Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s O the Brave Music. In a number of the books described we discover marrying a particular man (a bad choice) ruined the narrator’s (or heroines’) hopes for a fulfilling life. A rare gay one is Elizabeth Armin’s apparently lesser known Father (rain does fall in this book).

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Taylor’s Miss Miles fits right in with the worlds captured in this British Library series. Eventually there emerge five distinctly different women characters, one, Miss Everard, somewhat older than the others so not part of the bildingsroman in quite the same way: they differ somewhat in class, nature, probably occupation (for all but one are intended to do something towards earning the family’s living and their own within the family), less so in age. However all five prove to be on the edge of economic disaster (and two topple over for a while, with one dying), their circumstances are different psychologically and sociologically:

Two of our heroines, Sarah or Miss Miles and Maria or Miss Bell, are strongly supported emotionally, intellectually and insofar as income will go, economically by family and close friends. Sarah is the daughter of two shopkeepers who encourage her musical talent; she must struggle with them to go to school,but they support many of her choices to become a servant (only for a while), to sing in a neighborhood choir (with young men) and then in the established church (they are dissenters) — though we see how obedient she is, and how they could thwart her. Maria, a Vicar’s daughter both of whose gentle intelligent parents die, leaving her with a small legacy with which she (against much disapproval and invented obstacles from the neighborhood and an uncle, Mr Turner, supposed to help her) opens a school. Dora Woodman’s mother, a widow, marries badly for a second time, and her husband, a brutal ignorant man, is partly responsible for her mother, his wife’s decline and death, with Dora left isolated, with no opportunity to learn manners, or to improve her skills from books or training of any kind. My heart felt deeply for Dora whose bearing and character slide down until late in the story her step-father’s death rescues her in the sense she must turn to Maria, come to live with her, who luckily at that point, has just enough to share and encourage her in a plan she has to become a lecturer (again against advice, which angers Maria).

The seemingly most privileged, Amelia Turner, a property owner’s delicately brought up daughter, engaged to a wealthy young man who pretends to share her genuine literary tastes, finds when her father, the same Mr Turner’s film goes broke for a while, she is forbidden to do anything to help support them or herself lest it should shame him or bring them down in status. It is she who is worn down by hostility in her family to her desire not to sit doing nothing, starving, pretending all is well, by the turning against her and dropping her of the still wealthy in the town; in this novel the decline and death of a female character is made believable by long experience of frustration, ostracizing, and desperation. Loneliness afflicts her, Dora, and Miss Everard, genteel in the manner of Amelia, whom we discover has been readily cheated by Turner for years since she was taught nothing about money and yet to fear to ask any male she feels dependent upon about her situation. Her class bias (snobbery) at once keeps her spirits up and estranges her from others who might help her; her pride keeps her alienated and supports her.


Roe Head School where Mary Taylor, Charlotte Bronte — and Ellen Nussey met and spent some of their years growing up together — schools gone to and the experiences had therein are enormously important in Miss Miles — and if a girl or boy does not go to school that is equally crucial to his future. At the same time we see how young adults do not at first understand why this “book” learning is so important until later in life …

Miss Miles has other female characters, several of whom figure importantly in the different stories as well as male characters who variously court, are friends with, help, or hinder our heroines: of especial importance, Sam Sykes, close to Sarah from childhood, who becomes Mr Turner’s partner for a while, is also cheated by him, but manages to escape the burden of debt that would have sunk him by selling the failing business and choosing another less prestigious trade; his sister, Harriet, who marries early on; they live close to the Miles family. Sydney Winde, part of this group of people just below gentility, a fine musician; Mr Branksome whom Maria becomes involved with (they write letters to one another); Mr Thelwal, who breaks the engagement with Amelia, and is a harsh creditor to her father. Mrs Overton and other wealthier county ladies; Mrs Dodds, a Vicar’s wife. A thorougly people world is built to represent Repton, and the West Riding around the town. I found myself utterly identifying with Taylor’s heroines in many of the scenes of social satire, and thought her text remarkably nuanced in exposing how people manipulate and put one another down, discourage, encourage, hurt in a variety of experiences. How people in power cannot always make up their minds to reveal vulnerability or need and so will puzzle those dependent on them for work or as educators.

One of people in our group wrote in to say:

I am actually quite engrossed by this novel and read ahead. What I like about the book is that it feels so raw and angry (note how often the word “anger“ is mentioned in the text). Yes, the writing is often clumsy and wooden but it does feel so honest. Taylor is grappling to find the right words to express how these girls are struggling in the world, how they are trying to find their place, protect those they love but ultimately cannot help (Dora and her mother – I could really relate to Dora – her helpless rage about her mother´s wrong decision in marrying this horrible man Woodman who just needs a housekeeper and his equally horrid, unkind, cruel sons). I really like this focus on women/mothers/girls and how they interact with one another. Also, it´s such a nice change not to have a love story lurking around the corner …

One of the themes of this book is there is more to life that makes it worth living than being monetarily successful or rising in rank. Yet one does need money — to back a school, to feed yourself, to pay what’s necessary for rent or taxes or loans. In one of the book’s turns, the world the characters live in suddenly becomes poorer — they do not understand the workings of this but they are many of the characters done in for a while or permanently by a depression. The key note is “There’s summat wrong somewhere,” repeated in variations, “There’s surely summat wrong when such as he wor cannot live,” just after a recitation ending in “He’s worked all his life, and couldn’t get on, an this is t’end on it!” The novel teaches that it is not an individual’s fault if he or she goes under and that after years of effort, you may well go under at any time. Taylor puts it this way for Sarah: she was “face to face with the great problem of existence, how was she to live.” Trollope makes light of women’s choices (marry the man and have two children and all will be well), thus dismissing the idea a woman has an individual existence, and will be responsible for herself when her husband fails, or leaves her, or dies. The narrator shows us how poverty leads to anti- or asocial behaviors — in desperation in phrases like “the fierce self-assertion that poverty makes necessary” (p. 175)

Another voice from our group:

” For me what stood out in this chapter was Sarah’s realization that despite years of hard work one could still end up poor, starving and dead. It’s definitely at odds with her longstanding goal of working hard which will naturally (in her mind) bring her wealth and happiness. It still seemed a shock when she said she would go into service like her sister. This reminds me of Gaskell’s novels where the working poor are disregarded by mill owners who don’t realize the extreme circumstances they live and die under. Here it is the government who is the culprit for not providing aid to hardworking people who face dire circumstances …”

Another: “I also found this chapter very powerful and felt deeply for Sarah as she asks if this is all there is to life. The singing and sense of community in the chapter help to dispel the gloom. I can’t help thinking this life was far gloomier than ours, as gloomy as life is right now in many ways, because they had less sources of entertainment, less connection outside their immediate community, less sense of overall hope for a chance to change their situation, and yet, I suspect they drew strength from the community in a way most of us don’t anymore.”

While there are bad and stupid people in Miss Miles, who make various individuals’ lives much worse (Mr Turner, Mr Thelwall, Mrs Overton), the situation itself is not attributed to specific individuals but implicitly to the whole system of money-making and trade. Gaskell also dramatizes how a crowd of people can emerge to demand the right not to starve, the right to make their gov’t improve their lives and works into her text the larger perspective of knowledgeable people — so explanations of what a strike is, a lockout, how pressing is wrong. Taylor tries to stay within in the level of understanding of her participants and she nowhere blackens them as a mob. She shows how hunger, loss, desperation brings people out because they do know there are authorities who can help them. Not only is “summat wrong,” there are ways to make it “right.” We see how chapel brings people together. Since her POV is a girl who would be forbidden to join and does join a march anyway we are so aware of how women aren’t wanted. They are told to go away. To this day many protests and demonstrations and mob scenes in the middle east are all men. No women obviously to be seen. We are witnessing these people educating themselves by protesting. In Mary Barton John Barton returned from London bitter and disillusioned from having tried to petition parliament (the chartist movement) but we do not experience the scene. Taylor includes this line about women: “for women to earn their own livings was almost impossible.” She is thinking of unmarried or separated or divorced or widowed women — women w/o men and unless in service cannot earn their own living. Maria’s school is not doing well. Sarah’s mother while overtly against her going on this march sympathizes with her when she does.


It seems to me closest in feel and story and class level to Miss Miles is Oliphant’s Kirsteen (subtitle: a Scots Story of Seventy Years Ago)

For me the qualified happy endings for all the characters but Amelia (and her bad father, Mr Turner, and a few others who die along the way) were convincing and satisfying. For example, the penultimate chapter “in which” Maria Bell rescues Miss Everard from starving in her cold flat; Miss Everard protests a little but soon is transferred to the house Maria has rented to serve as a school; a quietly Dickensian or maybe Gaskell-like scene follows as the two sup and eat by a fire together. Maria’s tutoring goes on, her small amount makes the difference as Miss Everard (who it turns out is owed money) becomes a sort of housekeeper. The chapter closes on Dora’s visit, with 5 pounds gift from her successful lecturing.

The book does end on two expected marriages. Sarah finally returns home from her various stints as servant, music teacher, companion, to find Sam returned from having chosen a failure that frees him to start afresh. Perhaps the scenes between them move too quickly, but we have much earlier in novel understood they are a pair and embedded in their intertwined family and chapel groups. But there will be no more invitations from the Overtons or the established church types for Sam and Sarah. I was reminded of Ross Poldark being told how he will now not be invited to upper class functions since he married his kitchen maid, Demelza. Ross: “Well I think I’ll survive it.” Our letter writing suitor, Branksome did have to persist, and here it’s telling that Maria never forgives him (but agrees to stop harping on it) for telling her to desert Dora (as beneath her). One of the women in our discussion did say (rightly) “the women were at odds with their future husbands, Maria more deservedly so I think. But within a flash, both admit their love and agree to marriage. Sammy and Sarah was interestingly without romantic language while Maria did admit she couldn’t live without Branksome and he declared he couldn’t/wouldn’t live without her”

“I don’t know how Amelia could have escaped the circumstances of her life. She had ideas of personal responsibility and work, but was too tied to her family structure and perhaps hadn’t the level of courage which Dora finally mustered that would have been required to leave home and make her own way. So I don’t know how the author could have resolved Amelia’s story except by her death. But it did remind me of the highly emotional withering away of other female characters, although typically for romantic reasons rather than being unable to pursue an ethical self-fulfillment.

The two outlier women, Dora and Miss Everard, seemed to represent the progress women have been making. Miss Everard totally ignorant of business which left her to be victimized by Turner for so many years versus Dora who has become a successful and independent career woman out in the world. Never could have guessed Dora’s outcome at the beginning of the novel.”

I responded that Sarah was presented all along as a pragmatic, phlegmatic type — a chip off her mother, whom she is not separated from. If there is less romance between our Sykes couple, by the book’s end there is already a little Sarah. Amelia’s is the tragedy of the book and perhaps that’s just right for it. Its deepest message is to keep women from working out their natures and capabilites and what is that in this world but often a job is to destroy them. In a deep way, unconsciously perhaps, Mary Taylor is defying gender fault-lines for understanding male and female characters. Men need to live emotionally fulfilling lives, and women need to be alive in the worlds of societies.

Taylor lacks the artistry of Oliphant and Gaskell — we see how she strains at the opening to introduce and to knit all her character groups together. She does not endow most of her characters with the learning Oliphant, Gaskell do — and of course Eliot and the Brontes both (not Emily). Perhaps also Gaskell is at times as angry at conditions for the poor or average person as Taylor is — as in heer North and South (remember Mr Higgins whose solutions are given respect, credence).


From the 2004 BBC North and South (Sandy Welch, Brian Perceval), Mr Higgens (Brendan Coyle)

I wish Miss Miles were a book one could assign in an OLLI but it cannot be. One cannot find enough readily available affordable copies and it lacks the prestige that would persuade the ordinary reader to try it.

Ellen

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Anna Bouverie (Lindsay Duncan) waiting for Flora, her daughter’s school bus to arrive


Rev Peter Bouverie (Jonathan Coy) waiting to be called in to be told whether he’s to be promoted or not

“the suffering spirit cannot descend from its dignity of reticence. It has a nobility of its own, made sacred by many tears, by the flowing of streams of blood from unseen wounds, which cannot descend from its dais to receive pity and kindness” (Trollope of Mrs Crawley, in Last Chronicle of Barset, “Lady Lufton’s Proposition,” Ch 50)

Dear friends and readers,

I was first riveted by this tale, Joanna Trollope’s first strong success (in every way) when, as I read, I realized she was re-creating two of her renowned ancestor’s most powerful characters, the Rev Josiah Crawley and his wife, Mrs Mary Crawley.  Joanna recreates a closely analogous pair of troubled lives in the story of the highly intelligent and well-meaning but underpaid, mildly disrespected, and therefore deeply humiliated, proud, inwardly raging the Rev Peter Bouverie, and his (up to this point) selfless, compliant, overworked and not paid at all wife, an equally intelligent talented and loving wife, Anna Bouverie.  Change the vowel sounds and you have Emma Bovary.  The allusions underline the idea this kind of story — the wife seeking independence is bored and what she needs is titillating erotic romance and seduction is misogynistic.  What Anna craves is liberty, time and energy to be and find herself. My latest re-reading of The Last Chronicle of Barset left me with a newly aroused-to-anger and hurt-for Mrs Crawley. To me she was the disregarded tragic figure (all the worse since she bought into her obedient enslavement to a will and decisions against her own) and I thought to myself, this is how Joanna Trollope saw Anthony Trollope’s frequently silenced, half-starved wife.

Joanna Trollope has given some very disingenuous interviews where she says when she began to write, Anthony Trollope (she found) meant nothing to her (Trollope, Joanna, and David Finkle. “Joanna Trollope: Family Plots with Untidy Endings.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 186, Gale, 2004. Gale Literature Resource Center).  The plot of her first novel, published with a pseudonym, Caroline Harvey, Parson’s Harding’s Daughter, and other of her early historical romance pastiche novels (using the same pseudonym), the literal happenings are very different from anything her ancestor wrote (Joanna’s colonialist, taking place in India); but names, character situations, motifs are taken from Anthony Trollope’s Barcestershire. In this one of her break-away from Harvey books we meet a Miss Dunstable, are in the familiar clerical world with caste and money problems.  I have to wonder what is gained by such denials.

To me much is lost. By reading the book as a re-write ( or post-text or sequel), Anna’s quest not just to be independent, but to stop being defined and controlled in her behavior by a category (the rector’s wife), or (generalizing out) one of many women supporting a male institution with work & a life no male would do or live — makes more sense. Joanna is objecting to the patriarchy. In the most searing and startling moments in the emotionally effective TV series (written by Hugh Whitemore, directed by Giles Forster), Anna is told she is not seeking individual liberty, to find herself, to carve out space for her to achieve some time for an identity apart from Rector’s wife & a mother). If she wanted that she would take a job more commensurate with her abilities  — as she does at the end of the book & TV series when she becomes a German & French teacher in the private Catholic school that has taken her daughter in.

No, she chooses to be a clerk in a supermarket to reveal to the world that the church establishment is refusing to pay her husband adequately, exploiting and preying on his silenced loyal family. Her closest friendship is with a woman deacon, Isobel Thomson (Gabrielle Lloyd) who confronts her with disloyalty to the church and God. Joanna’s book is a commentary on Anthony’s books & characters as her Sense and Sensibility is a commentary on Austen’s novel. It is a seriously intended depiction of people who take religious faith and their church seriously — if talking to God, discussing and acting for the church’s interests, trying to identify these are not just filler – and they are not.


Anna pushes back hard against the Deacon Isobel Thomson

It is also until near the end a defense of Trollope’s much distressed and half-maddened Josiah. We study or follow Peter becoming more and more rigid, more destructive of his own marriage, as he demands his own way and obedience to his will. He requires that Anna quit the job, refuses to because there is nothing to discuss.  He enlists sycophantic women to show Anna up. Finally he takes the extraordinary step of quitting for her.  He offends the people who work in the supermarket by implying the work his wife does is demeaning,somehow disgraceful distasteful work. Still as acted by Jonathan Coy he is suffering so strongly, aching with hurt and disappointment.  (A major theme for Joanna Trollope.)  We feel for him when he realizes he need not write a sermon this week for this is now the new Archdeacon’s job.


Anna with Jonathan (Stephan Dillane) on a bench near the Archdeacon’s home

I say until near the end, for in the close both book & movie go off the rails of a proto-feminist Trollopian fable: after all Anna falls into an adulterous love affair with the new archdeacon’s younger brother, a sexy idle university student (or lecturer), Jonathan (Stephan Dillane looking like a rock star from the 1970s), grief over which drives Peter to a half-suicide. Anna goes along with the church ceremonies but these over, professes herself so quickly (& to the archdeacon too) much relieved; it’s easier to be fonder of Peter now! She now assume her attitude, the choice of boyfriend will have little effect on her relationship with her children or their memories of their father. The last scene but one of book and movie has her sitting on her husband’s grave telling him it has all been for the best, and if he doesn’t think so he needs to be in paradise longer. The last phrase precludes the idea she is getting back at him for taking it upon himself to hand in her resignation. But there is a disconcerting lack of remorse.


Eleanor confiding in Anna during a visit, after a dinner party


Later that morning, Anne back home, waiting (again) for the bus, thinking

She now becomes a kind of guru or model to emulate for her friend, Eleanor Ramsey (Pam Ferris), a successful but bitter novelist who leaves her much berated despised husband. Brutish insensitivity characterizes other characters early on (her female rivals, her friend’s bullying ways); a kind of hard shell forms around the by this time over-serene Anna. As with her novel on adoption, Next of Kin, I felt embarrassed by the seeming unself-conciousness lack of shame with which her characters talk so explicitly and casually about their hitherto unthinkable hurtful behavior. People may think these things, but don’t often say them. I felt a oblivious selfishness and complacency in Anna’s behavior. How else escape? I don’t know.  I agree that Peter would not talk to her or respond to her overtures. I liked Anna thrusting a glass of water over Peter’s head when he continues to refuse to talk, to compromise, but can feel why so many critics and thinking readers are made uneasy by events in her novels.

Joanna Trollope has a Don Juan character, Patrick O’Sullivan (Miles Anderson) who mistakes her for an Emma Bovary and Anna lashes out more than once at him (as he does not give up easily) as arrogant and indifferently playing with her and other women. Trollope’s is a apt concise analysis of the cold egoism of the traditional rake. But her Anna is disconcerting too as she slipped very quickly into finding a lover in Jonathan. Peter is now dismissed facilely by all as having been sick — the community is let off the hook. Trollope registers her awareness that she has undermined her own book by having a comically cheerful singing rector and inflexibly bounce-y new Rector’s Wife take over after the funeral.

All this said, there is another aspect to this novel and the film adaptation that makes me want to read and see more of Joanna Trollope. The woman at the center of this novel and the film, as so beautifully enacted by Lindsay Duncan, embodied a reality and feel for a woman’s life with an unconscious self-enriched on-goingness I loved entering into. She is essentially good-natured, loving (which is why she has become the go-to person for everything in the parish and her home). The character does not look down on, is amused by what is different from her even when she sees it is someone living from a limited point of view or absurd behaviors (like the way she must stack cans on a shelf). In the film Duncan adds a sense of comfortableness in nature, with the things of society. She is so beautiful too.  I wanted to re-watch her the way I do Caitronia Balfe (in Outlander) and re-read scenes.

Joanna Trollope’s aim to give her female reader a character and experience to revel in vicariously is expressed reflexively in the character of Marjorie Richardson (played pitch perfectly by Prunella Scales), wife of a Major who has spent with him much time “in the colonies.”  Marjorie is seen by Anna as a snob, as critical of Anna, and superficially condescending from what Marjorie says and does — taken aback by finding Anna working as a clerk in a supermarket (!), saying aloud how glad she is that Peter doesn’t mind not being promoted (of course he will say that). But I noticed how the camera continually captures her standing behind Anna in church, near her here and there. After Peter’s death, she has her husband offer Anna a cottage to live in for free — a puzzling offer since it’s deep in the country, away from the town where the children go to school and lively social life goes on. Anna does not have a car after Peter totals his. This is never satisfactorily explained since when Anna comes to say no, Marjorie only says she wouldn’t want it either.


Marjorie (Prunella Scales) opening up to tell of her life


Again, after now renting her own flat — for herself and children

It functions as an excuse to provide Marjorie with an opportunity to open up to Anna for the first time. Anna learns that Marjorie gets through the day by drinking the occasional gin, and has led a frustrated non-life of the type Anne was trapped in as the novel opened. Marjorie was a category, a follower of male institutions, and now it’s too late for her to build her own life. Marjorie tells of her daughter, Julia, who, after giving her all for years during the war while her husband was away, found herself deserted and with no money when he came back and went off with another woman – and his salary. Marjorie wants Anna to meet Julia (or the other way round) and tells Anna she will be watching her in her new job and new flat enjoying from afar what she didn’t dare.

There is also some personal self-reflexivity in the film in the way Eleanor Ramsay’s books are marketed. Her name across the top, a cartoon figure of an over-feminized woman at the center, her picture at the back. In the book Anna has two girlfriends who became successful professionals, and details there suggest Joanna Trollope.

Yes it is a fantasy, wish-fulfillment, comfort novel. At the same time it is accurate to see the book and its heroine as in the tradition of 19th century domestic realism novels. Sarah Rigby writes of Anna Bouverie that she

takes a supermarket job because she needs money for her children. She could, more respectably, have chosen to teach, but the shop job seems less burdensome. The entire village (including her husband, the vicar) sees this as an act of betrayal and defiance; she neglects the church flower rota and her parish duties, and is no longer considered capable of ministering to her family’s needs. Alienated, she succumbs to one of many fascinated men, and by doing so precipitates a chain of events which leads to the death of her husband. She makes some money, moves to a smaller house, refuses all offers of help, and reconstructs her identity, to the frustration of her lover, who wants to rescue her himself, and who, ‘when he looked back … saw … her standing in a cage surrounded by people who were either longing to rescue her or determined that she should not escape’. Literature has many such heroines, trapped in stasis and admired as symbols all the subjects of male rescue attempts. Isabel Archer is one, with her sense of marriage as a safety net which would nevertheless trap her as ‘some wild, caught creature in a vast cage’.

It goes without saying that Trollope’s view of the world is not nearly as complicated as James’s, but the attraction to that security and the simultaneous reaction against it is one of her main preoccupations. As her own use of the cage image is developed, it is also subverted: ‘And then suddenly … the cage was empty and Anna had eluded all those people and had run ahead of them. … It was almost, now, as if she were in hiding, and they were all looking for her, guided only by bursts of slightly mocking laughter from her hiding place’ (Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 186, Gale, 2004)

Trollope does break taboos, while keeping her heroines safe by placing them in anachronistic environments. I don’t know if the religious belief in this one is common; there is another good mother superior nun to provide a place for her daughter, a job for her (reminding me of Mother Hildegarde in Outlander). Her heroine’s struggle is that of other heroines of women’s novels, of her readership, and dramatizes their compromised solutions too. In The Rector’s Wife, Trollope is at her best in wry undramatic dramatized moments, as we feel for her characters and ourselves getting through the anxious hard moments of our lives. In this TV series the material is the strongest in the confrontational scenes, and evocative in including shots of landscapes of southeastern England. We are meant also to revel in the loveliness of rural suburban worlds, small towns, with a sense of embedded histories of which this story is just one.


Concluding stills — Anna leaning down in the grass over her husband’s grave, and then walking back to her flat in town

I had wanted to read a book by Joanna Trollope for ever so long; her talk for the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival got me to do it. I have her Other People’s Children, Next of Kin, and Sense and Sensibility (which I tried and now want to try gain), all picked up at used book library sales, and have now put Other People’s Children on my nightstand – next to Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard, another novelist who I may now be able to find time and room for as I have stopped spending hours driving places in my car. Middle of the night reading when I need easy company. Have I mentioned what an deft writer Joanna is, concise effective, putting us into the situations she imagines before we are at the bottom of the first page.

Ellen

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John Everett Millias, from Irish Melodies: “An Excluded Woman” — the illustration was not for Agnes, but it fits central aspects of her existence, an outlier, outsider, excluded by belonging nowhere

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished reading another of Margaret Oliphant’s neglected masterpieces exploring aspects of women’s lives; I’ve written about these as a group (Novels of Women’s Lives: Marriage and Career) and individually (The Marriage of Elinor: scroll down); tonight I want to bring into play one aspect important to many of them, the widowed heroine. One reason Agnes has been neglected is that its emotional power, psychological brilliance, and just startling accuracy about the way a grieving widow might feel only begins after the first quarter of the second of two volumes. That is, Oliphant does not reach her electrifying content until she’s somewhat more than half-way through. And it does not come to the abyss of despair until her oldest child, an 8 year old boy, is kidnapped by her powerful aristocrat relatives in its concluding chapters.

Why does she take all this time? because the extremis anguish Agnes Trevelyan (nee Stanfield) knows occurs as a cumulative effect of years of life. First her suitor, Roger Trevelyan, after meeting her must contend with his family’s angry objections and threats to disinherit him insofar as they can, and William Stanfield, her blacksmith (as he’s endlessly described) father’s worry that the marriage is not a good idea for Agnes. Only William Stanfield, her noble-hearted kind insightful father (whom most of the genteel characters look down on because he is a blacksmith) finally consents generously to this marriage.

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John Everett Millais — Frontispiece for Trollope’s Rachel Ray (it seems to me appropriate for Oliphant’s first conception of Agnes when we first meet her)

Upon marriage (we are past half the first volume) Agnes begins to grow up: she finds Roger may be above her in rank but he is inadequate as man and a spouse. In Italy at first Roger wants to keep her ostracized, wrongly fearing others will look down on her; she had been framed as a vulgar, low-coarse ambitious woman, stigmatized by the envious of her own class. The couple go to Italy, seemingly for a honeymoon, but eventually (it emerges) as part of Roger’s plan to avoid the consequences of his decision: work for a living, make an genuine effort to integrate his wife into his society, something she is capable of because she in nature, fine, intelligent, and has been educated by her father (mostly through reading).

The result is 7 to 8 years of isolation, with a few true friends for her and him (better types here and there) until illness, which turns out to be fatal drives Roger back to England and his and Agnes’s family, their community, Windholm.

We must also experience more fully what a disillusionment Agnes goes through with his young man; she learns his is a petty, selfish, snobbish, idle nature; one of his few admirable traits is that gradually he learns to appreciate her through their years of “living on nothing at all:” borrowing, cadging, his father-in-law sending lump sums (whom Roger verbally abuses anyway), some gambling.  Oliphant shows us what it is like to live on nothing a year, abysmal, humiliating. Roger sees Agnes’s fine nature but also experiences her as a boring burden (his is a corrosive wittiness), who has also laden him with three children. She contributes nothing to the household as he sees this. When they return to England, they find that her father had built a beautiful house for them when he still expected his son-in-law to make a good living; they move in, and somehow William Stanfield keeps them afloat.

Agnes has known much emotional pain from time, circumstance, her situation and chance: she once had a close loving relationship with her father, and these years have estranged them not because they are angry at one another, but because they are unwilling to be disloyal to her husband, to face up to the realities of their lives. These include her father having remarried a deeply amoral stupid woman, jealous and envious, resentful of anyone who seems to have more than she, someone (we gradually learn) who has lived by semi-prostitution and had two sons born illegitimately from Roger’s own contemptible baronet of a father, Sir Roger Trevelyan.

This is yet another book by Oliphant which has the obsessively recurring male worthless in terms of any work he does, often drunk, often lying, irresponsible; not only does he waste money but he is sexually promiscuous and he lives in a predatory manner — off others. Give him any power and he inflicts himself and misery on others. I suspect this composite figure is her younger brother who she eventually paid in effect to stay away, with aspects of her husband, older brother and specific other men she’s seen or known thrown in.

She also has a cold spiteful sister-in-law, Beatrice, who is presented as also envious, and resentful because she is unmarried, has to live with Sir Roger, somehow (like Lily in Wharton’s House of Mirth) cannot get herself to marry a rich young man simply for his money. Agnes is innocent of malign feelings and has no idea how dangerous Beatrice could be to her or her children. After Agnes’s husband dies, and this sister-in-law and the father-in-law attempt to wrest custody of her beloved boy, Walter, from her, she does know. The court case goes nowhere because Roger did not leave a will specifying his son should be returned to his family for schooling, and because the judge interviews and discovers Agnes to be a valuable mother. Sometime after this Beatrice concocts a plan to kidnap Walter through Stanfield’s wife’s illegitimate children (her nephews though the book never uses this term of them).

Oliphant is not wholly unsympathetic to Beatrice Trevelyan: in her the condition of a spinster dependent on a cold indifferent father who will not give her much money is explored. It is only when Beatrice is discovered to have worked to kidnap Agnes’s son, that the book sees her narrowly as simply poisonous. In fact the portrait of Beatrice at different points of her life across the book is complex.

In this later part of the novel, the kindly noble male, brotherly, who loves the heroine selflessly for years, and turns up in other novels is her as Roger’s old friend: Jack Charleton understands how to navigate the court system, and custody of her child is not taken from her. As with the other male figures of this type in other novels (The Marriage of Elinor has such a male), our heroine does not appreciate Jack. She does yearn for affection from him, and is gradually turning to him, capable given time of becoming his wife, but not once she loses her boy. Agnes blames herself for the kidnapping of the boy because she was writing to a (in effect) love letter from Jack so did not miss her son at first.

There are a few women Agnes meets her or knows who are decent people — serious, truthful, capable of love and concern for others, but the novel’s third central worthy character whose presence is part of the core value to Agnes of her life is her son, Walter. His abduction leads to the tragic final chapters of the book. Her beloved son dies trying to escape from his captors – he jumps out a window and crushes his body.

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John Everett Millais, said to be a print for Trollope’s “A Widow’s Mite” (where however there is not literal widow; the short story is an exploration of this parable)

So to the hidden life in this book as in others (Hester comes to mind) by Oliphant disclosed to us: long passages about widowhood as experienced by Agnes once Roger dies, shorter but heart-breakingly intense once her son dies. On widowhood Oliphant produces the most accurate truthful kinds of utterances, more central than those I’ve ever read — the closest about widowhood is Julian Barnes in the last third of his Levels of Life; the closest about how a mother can die before her body physically dies, just be there breathing on, doing what you are expected for others is in the last pages of Elsa Morant’s Storia, where after her 7 year old son dies of an epileptic fit, brought on by the school authorites, and the murder of his dog (the police) Iduzza is said to live on for 9 years, but only in her body. So too Agnes.

It’s hard to find a single passage (Matthew Arnold-like) as revealing touchstone, for like many fine novels, the language’s force also depends on cumulative effect. Agnes is not in fact literally alone: she has an 8 year old boy, two babies, one an neonate, the other not yet toddling, her father lives in a house within walking distance, and yet she has this experience of “utter loneliness which the most solitary of human beings could not have surpassed … ” Yet her desolation is unbroken, and among the phrases saying why I pick this:

there was nobody to share the burden that was heaviest. Henceforward that closest bond was rent for ever and ever. Nobody in the world could say ‘It is my sorrow as well as yours.’ She had to take it all upon her, by herself and cover it up and keep it from injuring or wearying the others, who had so little to do with it. This was also a thing quite natural, and of which no one had any right to complain.

Oliphant has just before built up to “the only real hardships in existence are those that come by nature — the only ones that are inevitable an incurable, and form which there are no means of escape.” Of course this was Oliphant’s case, surrounded by people — dependent on her once her artist-husband died, leaving her nothing but large debts and three children.

We move through the burial, the funeral and just after and with Agnes discover that she cannot go back and pick up with others what was before her marriage. Like her father, her marriage has altered her and him: Changed circumstances, long absence, and “what was still more important, the character of wife, had made between Agnes and her father a separation which had nothing to do with external obstacles.” She cannot confide in him any longer nor he her.

Oliphant describes the difference of a child’s grief for the loss of the father and hers, the child’s quickly exhausts itself, nothing left after a bit and Agnes “had already gone beyond his reach without knowing it …” — that’s also true if you turn to an animal for companionship beyond a certain point.

Then when Walter is kidnapped, she shows the helplessness of the child against adults determined to bully that child into doing what the adult wants. It is frightening and should be read by all people who vote for leaders who separate families and put children in prison.

From the final two pages of Agnes:

The vicarious life in which most women spend the latter part of their day might still remain for her; but her own life was over and done and she was not one of those who live till they die. So that I have told you all her story, as well as if I had put a gravestone over her and written the last date on it, which may not be ascertained for many years … grant to [women who have no other heritage] at the end of their many days a sweet life by proxy to heal their bitter wounds.

Agnes does have her two daughters, and her father.

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A 19th century engraving, Sorrento

Oliphant knew she was describing complex feelings and realities most novelists of her time eschewed. So she provides a preface in the Tauchnitz editin (Leipzig, 1865) where she warns the reader her book will cover material most novels never get to. She says “the great value of fiction lies in its power of delineating life” and to do this she must depict what happens in the later chapters of our existences. Novels teach us by revealing “sentiments which may be in many minds, but which none would care in their own person to give expression to.”

At any earlier point, before the boy dies, Oliphant felt Agnes needed work; she is at a disadvantage because her father support her — not having to work for a living in effect. Oliphant knows that her writing was what her life became – and had been before too, but differently. The same person living a different life.

I should remark on the beautiful evocative descriptions of Italy, Sorrento, Naples, Florence — it’s clear that Oliphant herself responded on a deep level to the landscape, cultural life, and art of Italy. It’s clear from her life that Oliphant herself loved to travel: she enjoyed research books on Italy and France because she could go there.

Oliphant declares firmly that Agnes’s experience was “no tragic exceptional case … she had only the common lot, darkened by great sorrows, but not without consolation.”  This is one of many places in her writing where Oliphant questions God, and puts before us the difficulty of believing there is a good God, for who, she asks, could “be cruel enough to deprive a mother of her child,” and here “God, who was supposed to be love, had done it.” (Only the more recent scholarly literary criticism of Oliphant broaches this topic with candor).

Ellen

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Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) threatening Offred (Elisabeth Moss): why so repulsive and terrifying

Sometimes (sadly) it seems Austen is the only writer among some of my favorites whom I’ve not gotten to. This fall I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood (oh yes again!), her Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, a supposed and part-sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale, but much more a reaction to (mostly against) the TV serial, which by now has turned into voyeuristic misogyny (what can we do to hurt women exquisitely painfully? show them hurting one another), mistaken by some for feminism (strength used for evil purposes, complicity and collusion mistaken for community, coercion for choice). I’ve reread her very first sinister comedy, The Edible Woman, which ends with the heroine avoiding the fate of marriage to a man who would devour (destroy) her; and am reading her most recent ghost-ridden desperate comedy, Stone Mattress, 9 tales (she says) of witches. I’m more than half-way through Laura Esquivel’s magical realism, Like Water for Chocolate, where the punishing of a few young and older women by a horrifically violent hateful faux matriarch, just startles me, especially since the daughters keep coming back for more. The movie (written by her, produced and directed by her husband) is soporific because it turns the material into an inane celebration.

A good essay on Rachel Cusk by Lucasta Miller (of all people) in Times Literary Supplement sent me back to her Aftermath, which I can see would make me bond with her, but lies unread for now on a TBR pile. She is castigated for telling hard truths about marriage, motherhood, and all their accompanying glorification rituals.

In all these cases I have taken extensive notes or gone to a class and taken down intelligent and insightful comments by others, or information, or felt hope, but none of it coherent enough for an essay-blog. I can report that unexpectedly the traumas inflicted on Esquivel’s heroine are parallel to, sometimes the same paradigms I find in Atwood. I should not be surprised as Atwood is as fantastical as Esquivel and both are writing serious l’ecriture-femme. Thus far my first experience of magical realism has shown me it exists to provide humor, wish-fulfillment, some form of kindness and beauty in worlds otherwise grim and impoverished; it grows out of pseudo-science. Atwood’s dystopia shows character reacting perversely to scientific knowledge; using it to control others. The central section of her Testaments provides us with a Ardua Hall, a community of women who (reminding me of Sarah Scott’s 18th century Millenium Hall) need not marry or have children: a happy escape for most you might think, not from control, manipulation and even suicide for the central matriarchs (Aunt Lydia, Becka). Characters left standing now include Offred/June’s two daughters, Hannah now named Agnes Jemima and Nicole (pseudonym Jade).


The most unexpected heroine is Beatrice, our heroine’s spinster sister-in-law who marries late in the book and her life

Among older books I’ve read the strange and powerful early indirectly autobiographical English-style novel by Oliphant, Days of My Life, her first three Carlingford fictions, “The Executor” (short story), The Rector (novella) and The Doctor’s Family (longer novella, which last I agree with Penelope Fitzgerald and Merryn Williams can stand with among the most remarkable and powerful of English novellas. I’m now into Agnes. All these concern women estranged from a husband, or single women supporting a whole family, or the experience of being widowed, when the man you were married to was (most of the time) a heavy, painful irritating burden who was anything but grateful to the woman so naive to have chosen him. In the one case where the man is a good man, the heroine coldly rejects him until near the end because he has participated in tricking her into a marriage she cannot escape and whose terms demand full obedience and the offering up of her body to him nightly. Oliphant’s heroines anticipate Cusk’s.

Again my notes are long and various; they are shoring up my idea that the anomaly (the woman living apart from men or at least responsible for herself) is not an anomaly and can show up far more starkly than stories of married women the painful inexorable predicaments patriarchy or a male hegemonic order inflicts on many women. Curiously in all the cases I’ve been reading widowhood is a liberation, and the woman who was a library waiting to happen emits books at a rapid rate for the rest of her days, from real women (Oliphant and Fitzgerald) to fictional ones (Atwood’s Constance in her “Alphinland” in Stone Mattress).


A curious figurine for Lady Halkett found on wikipedia

I was very disappointed in a study of English civil war spies, where I had read Anne Murray Halkett was to be a central figure: but while Nadine Akkermann in her Invisible Agents recognized in print what no one but me (as far as I can tell) that what silenced, thwarted and skewed all presentations of Halkett is that she lived outside marriage with the spy-mole (some would call him a traitor) Colonel Bampfield and on her own (by herself! in Edinburgh), this long period of her life is treated briefly and what is talked about at length are her superficial literally active machinations for a brief period as a spy herself (“colorful” spy story stuff) as if in these are found her primary source of strength and interest. It’s her sustaining her identity against all odds, her self true to her Scots and Cavalier connections and norms as well as her high intelligence and extraordinary ability with narrative that one reads her for.

For Austen in a (it turns out) misguided attempt to help keep a Janeites list alive and remain close to Austen in some way I have been close reading a series of essays in Persuasions 40 on Persuasion; my notes here are more coherent and shorter than those for all of the above; I had hoped for debates about the issues in the essays by others on this list, but it seemed those who are active were not interested in the arguments or points made by the essayist. But I am nowhere near the end of the volume (it’s huge if you count in what’s put on line) so I can hardly say for sure (though this is true of the printed 18) the volume is wholly fitted into an agenda where Austen is presented as optimistic, conservative leaning, didactic and conventional in outlook if spectacular in as an artist and intertextual super-genius (outed by these writers).


Best performance and most interesting character in Davies’s (et alia) Sanditon is Charlotte Spencer’s Esther Denham

I have been watching Andrew Davies’s Sanditon, and have read through Austen’s own fragment once again, but for me far more watching and re-watching of this jarring series and reading not only of the fragment, but about a few other of the important continuations (by Anna Lefroy, Chris Brindle) and insightful essays on the book (Janet Todd has one in her recent edition of Sanditon) are needed before I can say anything sensible, accurate, useful for anyone else. Austen’s is a work whose suggestiveness if truly written about would break apart the Persuasions monolithic agenda.


Catherine Despard, probably his legal wife, was the Creole daughter of a freed African woman who herself “owned” enslaved people; after he was hanged, she disappears from the historical record — perhaps went to Ireland in the hope his family might recognize or help her

That’s where I’ve been this month when it comes to women writers or the eighteenth century beyond reading a remarkable informative and insightful book on Edward Despard (Mike Jay’s The Unfortunate Colonel Despard), whose complicated and compromised life first as a military man and engineer for the powerful and rich and slave-owners, then as a elected reformer trying to build a working colony out of all the people in South & Latin American lands and waters (Nicaragua, Jamaica) Debbie Horsfield exploited but (I find) misrepresented in ways that support the establishment’s view of him as deluded — so that her fifth season of Poldark remains as anti-French revolution and muddled on English reformists as her fourth season where she at least had a coherent book (The Angry Tide): towards the end of the season (the last two episodes) she turned to the genre of action-adventure thriller.

I enjoy still the (to me) deeply touching persuasive romance of the love of Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser for her Jamie Mackenzie Fraser but I know this is based on a fantasy configuration of a an impossibly lucky morally and physically courageous well-educated female individual (using the few humane 1950s norms) finding validation (most improbably) and companionship, understanding from a protective tenderly loving analogously well-educated Highlander (using idealisms drawn from 18th century Highlander culture), both made supremely intelligent, loyal people of unusual integrity. I am pouring into them my dreams of what was my and Jim’s relationship over our lives. Gabaldon’s politics themselves are deeply retrograde, supportive of patriarchy

With a co-opted writers like these last two (I will be writing a blog on the Poldark‘s fifth season) supposedly on the side of “strong” women making central TV films, I begin to despair of any feminist movement in the popular media dramatizing on behalf of meaningful progress for women. I was using the word stunned to describe how I see the position of women today and how the better older and more recent feminist humane (not all feminists are humane) writers are misrepresented, castigated but be-prized (some of them), but I saw a better one used of herself by an FB friend: drained. She felt (and I also feel) drained.

Ellen

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Ahdaf Soueif

Would Austen have read this book? she would have seen it as an improbable Radcliffe fantasy (especially the trunk and manuscripts) and gobbled it up, all the while writing harsh abrasive remarks about it to Cassandra who would at least listen ….

Friends and readers,

I first read Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love some six years ago. I immediately recognized it as written in the Booker Prize mode: it has narratives within narratives, especially the past ones embedded into present day memories; deep subjectivity and reveries as the POV for long stretches; rich prose style. It seemed a cross between Ruth Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1984) and A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990), Brontesque in its passionate outpourings, a George Eliot kind of heroine (Anna is called a Dorothea Brooke by her great-great granddaughter, Isabel Parkman), neo-Victorian, self-consciously Orientalist. Unlike many Booker Prize winner (in the event it was merely short-listed) Soueif is more than anti- or post-colonialist: she is avidly pro-Palestinian, rightly searingly critical of British, then US, then Israel behavior towards Egypt. She provides an alternative and accurate history of Egypt within this book, teaching the reader to understand events she (most readers I’ve met have been women) has been mislead, miseducated or silenced about. I had a hard time with it because the first heroine we meet, the older new reclusive Egyptian journalist Amal al-Ghamrawi, tells her story now in the third person, now in the first person, and reads and tells Anna’s story in a similar woven way. But if you keep at it, you will find yourself enjoying a passionate historical romance masterpiece.

I reread it for a paper I wrote on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde, or the Recluse of the Lake as they seemed uncannily similar, with both having epistolary situations (epistolarity — characters reading letters and journals where we are aware of the other reader) and story-telling first person story-telling set in side-by-side time frames. Smith’s Ethelinde and Soueif’s Map of Love are deeply recessive novels. The stories and characters that matter most are suspended, remain latent until we are well into the novel. Characters who blend into one another so it’s hard to keep them distinct. Prevailing moods are melancholic, ironic and nostalgic despite considerable alienation, deeply erotic, paradoxically all the more when the main character, a woman or feminized hero, has chosen celibacy. Events occur in widely disparate geographical places, leading to estrangements between characters, whom memory nonetheless connects and who act based the connection. Books will straddle languages. Contain some form of influential armed war (whether or not off-stage). Ending in a periphery, where the characters accept severely diminished hopes, tragic deaths and loss. A retreat into a refuge, internal exile. And above all migrancy.  The trunk motif is first found in Godwin’s Caleb Williams. Intense love stories.

These past three weeks I’ve reread and skimmed and dreamt over it — for the love scenes between Anna and her Egyptian lover evoke in my mind or are very like those of Jamie Fraser and Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser in Outlander. At Politics and Prose Bookstore a 2 hour single session class was held on it this past Thursday. The room was full, and we had even a male reader. The teachers, Susan Willens and Virginia Newmyer, worked thoroughly to present historical and thematical and allusion background, then went over the story line section by section, and then we discussed characters themes POV politics settings moods. So here I am to share at least that part of that original paper concerning just Map of Love and offer a brief account of the politics of Soueif’s other novel, In the Eye of the Sun (set during the 1967 Israeli-Egyptian war), and at least mention her journalistic autobiographical account of the Arab Spring (2012), Cairo and her book of good essays, Mezzaterra (Fragments from the Common Ground) whose themes, attitudes and use of fragments as a way to speak remind me of Elena Ferrante’s La Frantumaglia.

Soueif’s core story is of Anna Winterbourne, found in a trunk filled with writing. Anna is a fin de siècle English widow of a minor English colonialist whose early death is attributed to his experience of colonial war with Kitchener’s forces on the Sudan. Anna travels to Egypt and marries a middle-aged Egyptian nationalist bachelor, Sharif Basha al Baroudi, who, like Anna, by this marriage defies and cuts himself off from his own people. Anna’s trangressive history is held off, and surfaces as correspondence told by bits and pieces. Soueif’s Map of Love was for me a page-turner as I worked my way through parallel contemporary stories of Soueif’s direct surrogates, the older now reclusive Egyptian journalist, Amal al-Ghamrawi, who reads and tells Anna’s story, of Amal’s much younger American cousin, Isabel Parkman, who has an affair with Omar, Amal’s middle-aged brother (Palestinian, modeled on Edward Said, but made directly active in the Arab-Israeli wars), to reach Anna’s “translational” texts (Hassan). The Map of Love ends when Shariff is assassinated and in the novel’s penultimate passage a paragraph remembering the ambiguous close of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. Like Smith’s pro-active young woman-daughter Medora (from her last novel, The Young Philosopher), Isabel will not give up hope (516). Anna’s story is one of failure at the close: when Sharif is assassinated, she must return to England and bring up their daughter — shades of Outlander — but unlike Claire. Anna has not been able to create a new social identity as a result of her geographic and ethnic and marital dislocation. Claire becomes a healer in Scotland and America.  Anna remains an alien and unacceptable.

The power of The Map of Love resides in its stretches of intense interiority. The reticence Soueif felt appropriate for Anna, with a sophisticated understanding of political relationships provide neo-Victorian texts (Tolstoy-like, she says), which enable Soueif to weave the colonialist and nationalist politics of Eygpt in naturally. Anna’s main correspondent is Sir Charles Winterbourne, her dead husband’s now retired father. Soueif also (anticipating Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall) has Amal interweave a distilled opulent neo-Victorian novel which Amal simply tells and moves between the third and first person. The Map of Love has been called a “translational novel,” with Sharif and Anna supposed talking to one another in French (though the words are English). When it finally drives down to fleeting naturalistic exchanges between the two, I was deeply moved, especially at a long scene of his dying, and her relief to have as an option a final choice of retreat for herself back to England, to educate her daughter by Shariff, paint, garden, and care for Sir Charles in his decline (505). The real mark of the post-colonial novel is migrancy, a kind of ricochet.


John Frederick Lewis (1804-76), The Harem — the painter who inspired Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Egypt after her husband’s return from there and death

Soueif’s novel achieves its political goal for an English novel by weaving in nuanced accurate history of the earlier phases of the British take-over. Much remains unknown to readers of English, and rarely told from the perspective of the colonised subjects. We learn of the important Evelyn Baring, Earl of Cromer (1841-1917), a feminist Qasim Amin (1863-1908). The novel (like her In the Eye of the Sun on the Israeli-Eygpt wars) is meant to educate English-reading readers. Movement is temporal, back to Sharif’s father, still alive after decades of solitary confinement (political exclusion presented as religious), forward to 1900, when Anna’s eleven years in Eygpt begins, to her readers’ stories of Suez, 1952, Amal’s prime, in the 1960s, and Isabel’s now in New York, London, Cairo 1997. Soueif pokes fun at Booker Prize self-reflexive and cultural conventions, at the same time as she is open to “orientalist” texts. Shortly after her first husband’s death, Anna is drawn to return to Egypt when she is mesmerized (Map 45-46) by the Orientalist opulently colorful depictions of Egyptian street life, Islamic culture in schools, harems by Frederick Lewis (1779-1856) in her frequent trips to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert). Emily Weeks, an art historian has written an immense book on his work as cross-cultural. Map of Love is (Wylie Sypher like) a kind of verbal equivalent of Lewis (Sypher). Like Smith, despite the repeated failure of group efforts, Soueif hopes for an internationalism, though it has to be said that the kind of cosmopolitanism found in this novel, has lately come under scrutiny as a disguised mask for neo-liberal western-style colonialism.

Surely she was also hoping someone would make a film and she could make money that way. Increase her visibility &c

In the class we spoke of the importance of the women’s friendships and relationships within the novel, for me this was especially true for Sharif’s sister, Layla, and Anna. As is common for me, I discovered a common view of the book by the women there was critical of some of the more unusual sexual couplings which I had no trouble with. Anna’s granddaughter, Isabel’s older lover, Omar, has had an affair with her mother, Anna’s daughter, Jasmine. Some objected to the modern stories as thin, or unbelievable — no more so I felt than the Victorian one.

See this excellent review in the New York Times when the book first came out: Annette Kobak’s “Out of the Trunk.”. Also Emily Davis’s wonderful, “Romance as Political Aesthetic in Ahdaf Soueif’s The Map of Love, ” Genders 45 (28 July 2007).
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Soueif’s earlier and equally long novel, In the Eye of the Sun, reveals how self-consciously she has imitated the Booker Prize model — for this is not at all pastiche, but very contemporary in language and feel. Soueif mentions Tolstoy as her master, and here she is retelling what she suggests is the crucial war of the century, and how the betrayal of Egypt (its defeat) was engineered with Britain’s help, and fostered by some of the elite of Egypt too. While I can see that Map of Love is far more polished, more somehow artful, In the eye is the more living book. It is also like Tolstoy meaning to be accurate and meaning to inform her reader — as if she were a journalist

What Soueif shows is the Egyptian authorities deliberately allowed Israel to strike first in that war and so gave it the opportunity to destroy the Egyptian air force. Having wiped that out, it was relatively easy for Israel to win the war. Soueif indicts the incompetence & rivalries between different Egyptian people in power but what is striking to this reader is how she is careful to include someone saying to someone else, the Israeli planes are on their way a day before June 6th; that is June 5th. I remember how nervous the other character became, fearful that if Egypt hits first, Egypt will be the aggressor, blamed, and then the US will outright attack Egypt. But the US has not been in the habit of attacking other countries along side Israel whom Israel wants to destroy in some way. We give them billions, and share spying information but we don’t overtly attack. Now we are doing the same for Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

Back to In the Eye of the Sun, this idea that Egypt dare not defend itself from Israel’s surprise attack because of fear of US retaliation emerges as false since what happens is the surprise attack not only pulverizes Egypt but allows the rest of Egypt’s army to suffer horrendous casualties. Whole units wiped out. It is really implied this was collusion of some sort — could it be that those in authority were thought to want a capitalist order to replace Nassar’s open socialism — remember he nationalized or wanted to nationalize the Suez canal. He was replaced by Sadat a pro-US person (pro-capitalist).

The book has a good subjective heroine’s plot. One heroine’s husband who can do no real harm gets involved in quiet revolutionary activities and is imprisoned, tortured, psychologically and economically destroyed for life: Deena’s husband, Nur-ed-Din. Several of the women die of too many childbirths; they are shown to be very much bullied by their husbands, they dare not refuse sex and sex means children. Although brief, very good is  Marilyn Booth on In the Eye of the Sun, in World Literature Today 68:1 (1994):204-5.

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To conclude, I admit I was chuffed when I found the two teachers and I were agreed in some deep ways: they loved the account of the long imprisoned father of Sharif, his melancholy despair and his (religious) attitude towards existence that enabled him to hang on in solitary for so long and endure a life-in-death. I liked some similar characters. I was also drawn (on my own) to melancholy piquant details in Eye of the Sun, e.g., Aysa’s father loses his library; it has to be sold. It is in 1979 that Deena writes letters detailing what was done to her husband (terrible things); that was the last year that Jim and I were together in NYC and found we must move to Virginia.

Other of her novels I’d like to read: The Sandpiper; other of her essays, This is not a Border. I loved this essay: “The Politics of Desire in the Writings of Ahdaf Soueif” by Joseph Massad in Journal of Palestine Studies, 28:4 (Summer, 1999): 74-90

Ellen

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Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) demands that Gerald Maretti, the busdriver (Mark Ruffalo) confess he is guilty (Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret)


Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) hiding from Officer Hawkins while she seeks Hawkins out (Jennifer Kent’s 2018 The Nightingale)

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport – a line spoken by an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) which he explicates as meaning infinite, varied, and unjust is human suffering …. (Margaret)

Gentle readers,

In this blog I suggest that in recent 21st century women’s films the old humiliation, self-berating girl learns a lesson scene is gone, but it is replaced by the demand for confrontation where the result is counterproductive frustration and anger. Rarely is mutual understanding or acceptance sought, much less reached, in the way you can find in earlier books from Austen through Eliot. I ask why this is; why this changeover, where this insistent demand as the crucial climactic scene comes from, how does it function?

This week I saw two remarkably powerful, complex and intelligent women’s films, both of which I urge you to go see — or more probably rent from Netflix, or stream into your computer. Don’t miss them.

To find words to capture and epitomize the achievement and absorption you will experience as you watch Lonergan’s long Margaret, one has to begin with how like a novel it is, how the characters come across as having real human depths. Lonergan’s ability to capture and convey a sense of life happening from and through so many people, the streets and skyline of New York City, seems uncanny: his use of a cinematographer moves from documentary style, to meditate lyricism, to staged dramatic encounters, group scenes, self-reflexive theater and school room scenes; these countless moments form the background to a “coming of age” story. His script is believable and yet subtly meaningful, suggestive all the time. The initiating event: Lisa Cohen (our “Margaret”) partly causes and is close witness to the killing of a woman, a dismembering of her (her leg is dissevered from her body) by a bus going through a red light as she was walking without looking around her, straight ahead. Lisa distracted the bus-driver by half-flirting with him to get his attention and get him to tell her where he bought his cowboy hat.


Lisa running alongside the bus

What happens is over the course of the movie, Lisa realizes that nothing has been done to redress the loss of life, to make clear a horrific event has occurred, a deep injustice to the woman who died. Unsure of herself, and afraid from what her mother, Joan [J. Smith-Cameron) warns (she could cause the driver to lose his job), she says the light was green when he drove through. We see it was red, but the truth is she cannot have clearly seen the light because her focus was the driver,  and the moving huge bus was in the way. She comes to the conclusion that life is going on just as if this did not happen, except for the woman’s grieving friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) who organizes a memorial service, which Lisa attends. She thin ks that nothing was done to somehow register this event because she, Lisa, lied about that light.

All around her much life happens: her mother is in a play, begins an affair with a wealthy Columbian businessman, Ramon (Jean Reno), Lisa herself de-virginalizes herself by inviting a high school boy, Paul (Kieran Culkin) to her house, into her bed, has a relationship with another boy, Darren (John Gallager) where he is very hurt; she and her mother fight (she is obnoxious to her mother), her father and she talk on the phone (he lives in California with another woman and has invited her to come horseback riding), school classes go on (we see how argumentative, aggressive, uncooperative she is), she almost develops a friendship with Emily. But like most relationships in the film, this pair of people never really listen to or understand one another’s point of view (though we the viewer are invited to). One of the many remarkably suggestive brilliant moments show Joan coming out of a bathroom, her chest naked as she finds herself having to go to bed with Ramon when she is not sure she likes him. A fleeting few seconds conveys so much.


Emily and her mother in typical side-by-side moments but without much communication (Margaret)

Jim Emerson on Roger Ebert’s site writes the best review of Margaret, the most generous, and it is her who thinks to print one of those many scenes where the story is not going forward, exactly, one of several mother-daughter fights: Lisa has begun to talk of opera as Ramon is taking her to Norma and asks Margaret if she would like to accompany them:

LISA: I don’t like that kind of singing.
JOAN But you like classical music.
LISA Yes. That’s true. But I don’t like opera singing.
JOAN But when have you —
LISA It’s like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be. I don’t really find that very interesting.
JOAN Yeah… I know what you mean. I don’t like that really loud opera singing either. But it’s not all like that… You like “The Magic Flute”…
LISA OK, I guess I’m wrong. I guess I do like opera singing. I just didn’t realize it.
JOAN What is the matter with you?
LISA Why are you pushing this? I don’t want to go to the opera!
JOAN Yes! OK! It’s called an invitation. I’m not pushing anything. All you have to say is “No thanks!”
LISA I did! And then you were like, “Why not?” So I told you, and then you like, started debating me, like you assume I’ve never thought this through for myself — which I really have. Many times!
JOAN OK, well, that was a really contemptuous assumption on my part. I don’t actually like opera that much myself, but I’m trying to expand my mind… Maybe that’s wrong. I’m sorry..


Matthew Broderick as the English teacher

Some of the most important scenes occur in the English classroom. Among other topics the students discuss the meaning of King Lear, and it’s evident the discussion is meant to be applied to the film. Here the Hopkins’ poem to Margaret (“Spring and Fall”), which gives the film its title, is read aloud.

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Margaret high on “weed” with her friend, not going to class, the English male teacher’s POV

The compelling thrust of the plot-design seems at first Lisa’s desire to soothe her conscience by telling the truth. When the adults and authorities recognize she lied, & the new evidence is given in, she is told that still the busdriver will carry on driving the bus, because the verdict is the death was an accident, & there was no criminality involved. This is not enough for her. What she wants is to confront the bus-driver and wrench out of him an admission he is guilty, that together they killed the woman.

The center of the film in time and structure is her visit to this man’s house and demand he confess to her. A confrontation. He won’t of course — he fears losing his job, and he begins to explain to her how this accident happened from his stance. She doesn’t realize a bus is a physical object hurtling through space and it was already too late for him to brake as he was going through the light just turned red. Of course he should have paid no attention to Lisa, and put his brakes on much earlier; he implies this was already past doing, and repeats it was an accident. As she gets more excited and angry, he begins to sense that she is out to get him — and by the end of the film she couches her demand in confronting others that she wants him fired, arrested, punished. But no one will do this.


With Emily, Lisa gets advice from a lawyer to hire another lawyer

What the refusal of this guy leads her to do is hire a lawyer to sue someone. She discovers the only “compensation” the law will offer is money for “damages” (or loss) done to a relative. The MTA she is told more than once is in a labor dispute with the union, and it is they who would be sued. She accuses the police of insufficiently interrogating the (now) unfortunate bus-driver. The relative hardly knew the woman but contacted, and having visited NYC, at the end she is demanding the $350,000 the MTA offers to settle out of court — and over the phone seems to feel that it would be unfair or unjust for the driver to lose his job. There are shots of Maretti looking as scared as she, even towards he end (a fleeting still of his second interrogation.

The most convenient thing to do is done: no one is declared guilty. No one ever says aloud the truth that the woman herself wasn’t looking carefully and alertly where she was going herself: we are told she had lost a 12 year old daughter to leukemia, and she calls for this child as she dies. Lisa becomes hysterical, angry, over-reacts with emotionalism as if she is grieving for this woman she never knew, with more and more strident demands the bus-driver be punished.

I did become frustrated myself until near the end of the film Lisa suddenly bursts out that she (not the bus-driver) killed this woman by her behavior. It was good to know she recognized her error, but beyond that all we see is a kind of controlled chaos. That recognition does not improve her behavior: she is as frivolous and obtuse as ever at times: she gets back at the teacher, Mr Aaron, she has seduced, by telling him she had an abortion. . A central theme, as David Edelstein of NPR writes, of the movie is no one fully connects ever.


Here we see Margaret deliberately starting a quest for Mr Aaron (the math teacher, played by Matt Demon) where she goes back to his sublet, and overtly seduces him — then when she tells him before another person, if she had an abortion, it is either he, Paul or maybe Darren who is the father, all she is doing is hurting or worrying him. How much this is a male point of view is worth considering, sometimes Margaret is treated as if she were an aggressive young man ….

There is no closure. The film ends with mother and daughter at the opera watching (a close-up of) Renee Fleming looking awful in over-heavy make-up and ludicrously lavish decorated gown singing expertly, and then mother-and-daughter crying and falling into one another’s arms. The music itself has so stirred them in their fraught lives.

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Clare


and Aidan from early in film

I would not have noticed the centrality of the scene where Margaret confronts the busdriver had I not the next day gone to see The Nightingale. This is a harrowing tale where we see what can be done to inflict pain, misery, humiliation, rape, beating, death (whatever) when a group of people are deprived all rights (convicts, aborigines) and subject to the will of a few men who are not held accountable to anyone else. Read Robert Hughes’s great and crucial book, The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia through convict transportation and settler colonialism (with ethnic cleansing too). The villain, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) begins by refusing to give Clare her earned ticket of leave, raping her nightly, abusing her. When her husband, Aiden (Michael Sheasby) also an Irish ex-convict, protests, Hawkins brings his man to their hut to beat them, gang-rape her; and when the baby begins to cry loudly, Hawkins bullies a soldier into killing the child.


Hawkins confronting Billy

Hawkins has been told he will not be promoted and leaves the camp for Launeston with five men to try to negotiate himself into a captaincy. At the same time Clare, in a state of stunned grief, after asking others to bury her husband and child, takes the husband’s horse and rides after him. She is persuaded to enlist an aborigine, Billy, to lead her to the town; without him she would die in the bush.

What emerges is a quest of the two parties across a deadly wasteland, where meeting one another is the greatest risk. We see another woman, aborigine, grabbed, raped, forced to leave her child to die by Hawkins and his vicious or obedient men. Clare has lied to Billy and told him she is seeking her husband in Launceston but gradually he learns she has lost her baby, the husband is dead, and her goal is to kill Hawkins — far from avoiding this pack of killers, she is trying to reach them. As with Margaret, other incidents happen, we see aborigine people living, we see convict gangs in chains, a rare white old man gives our pair of friends shelter and food, Billy performs rituals, helps Margaret repress her milk with some concoction, but the compelling thrust of the plot-design is her stubborn determined attempt to reach those who killed her beloveds. By this time too Hawkins has become in behavior a sadistic psychopathic killer, killing people on whims, including the elderly aborigine man who is his guide, and who is Billy’s uncle — they come from the same village.


A passing scene of a house burned down — a war between the aborigines and the colonialists is said to be going on

What happens is ironically the man who killed her baby because he was forced to is left behind. When she comes upon him, and his apology is the morally imbecilic defense the baby was noisy, she begins frantically to stab him to death, beats him with the gun, takes an ax to him until her rage is gone. What neither she nor Billy realize is when they do finally have a chance to shoot the captain, she will now hesitate, and that gives Hawkins his chance to escape, get to town, and then, if he can, blacken her and turn her back to becoming a “convict whore” and simply kill Billy. Aborigines throughout are shot the way cats are said to have been shot in 18th century Europe.

Nonetheless, she again returns to her aggression and now drives Billy with a gun to carry on to Launceston, and then what does she do? at great risk to herself, to Billy (with whom she has now formed a touching friendship), she goes to the tavern where the captain is sitting with all the men, and just like Lisa before the bus-driver, she demands a confession of guilt, an admission he has done horrific wrong. Hawkins scorns her; we can see he is worried that the commanding officer is beginning to suspect him of evil-doing but before Hawkins can try to turn the situation around, she repeats her claim, says what he did, and flees back to Billy in hiding, and the back to the bush.

The striking thing is she appears gratified at having had the confrontation itself — though it is so unsatisfactory and dangerous — from the other white unenslaved, unconvicted people in the town.

The movie is a tragedy; Billy now understanding what has happened fully, and knowing Hawkins murdered his uncle, enacts another ritual, puts on war paint and goes to town and himself with a spear, using the technique of surprise, murders Hawkins and Hawkins’s cruel sidekick, but not before Billy is shot through the stomach. the last we see of Billy he is sitting looking out at the river as he dies; nearby him Clare stands by her horse. She seems to have no hope of any decent life unless she were somehow to return to Ireland.

The film is also extremely brutal, with the only character (besides the old man) seemingly capable of tenderness, caring for others, & real friendliness Billy.

Both films have received strong praise, if in both cases there is an accompanying chorus of doubt. Kent is too violent; Lonergan too self-indulgent and ruined his film’s chances for distribution by fighting with the studio. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post finds the Nightingale explores and questions its genre. What is not noticed is this central plot-design. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian finds the movie provocative and brilliant, a depiction of today’s life. What higher accolade than an essay in he latest issue of PMLA: Alicia Mireles Christoff, Margaret and The Victorians, 134:3 (May 2019):507-23.  Christoff argues that Margaret (this is why the title) is another Victorian afterlife film; it is finally dissatisfying because it is still mostly relying on Victorian film pleasures instead of seeking a new film aesthetic and patterns.

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Brianna (Sophie Skelton) walking along just after she is raped (Outlander Season 4, Episode 10)

And now I must confess that I noticed this new confrontation pattern in women’s movies recently because I’ve also been puzzled by just this demand for confrontation by wronged heroines in several other period and high quality video drama when the central characters are women, or the films are by women, or the expected audience is majority women. The Nightingale has a woman script-writer, director, and producers, and its central presence is Clare, its her POV except in a few places where it’s Billy watching for her. Margaret is a feminine counterpart to Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea; it is about a young girl-woman growing up, learning painfully her own insignificance. The secondary relationship is with her mother, a pattern seen in woman’s literature and movies. The difference is these more “pop” films make the confrontation explicitly central — and the anger, frustration, resentment.

However many men are writing, directing, producing the video adaptations of Outlander, many key roles of writer, director and other central functions (costume design, set) and the author herself are all women. Brianna (Sophia Skelton) is raped and possibly impregnated by a wantonly cruel criminal type-pirate, Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) in the fourth season. When she is finally brought to safety at her aunt Jocasta’s to have her baby, I was startled when Brianna not only at the risk of everyone else (a friend in jail, another friend who is being hunted down as a regulator [tax-avoider] and trouble-maker), and herself not only demands but is taken to the jail to do what? confront her rapist (now in chains) and demand he confess his guilt, admit to her he has done wrong and to her. He won’t of course.


Bonnet listening to Brianna’s demands

This time (Bonnet being a witty man), laughs at her, mocks her stance, parodies a rueful apology. She falls to scolding, and then the story takes a worse dive when he shows an interest in the coming baby and Brianna seems to think he has some right to. All is interrupted by the attempt of other friends to free those in the jail by throwing a fire-bomb in. They all escape, just, with their lives


Demelza remaining angry

But the central scene is this demand – and Brianna made this so explicit, and uselessly & causing risk to all, she seemed over-the-top.  What gratification could she imagine herself to get from this man? Even three swallows do not a summer make, so more briefly now: one reason Horsfield’s Demelza’s first response to Ross when he returns from bedding Elizabeth all night (after begging him not to go that night) is to slap him in the face so hard he falls to the ground.  (Brianna also slaps people : she is again explicit, crying out that no one has more right than she to be angry). Then utterly unlike Graham’s book/Demelza, Horsfield’s heroine turns snide, sarcastic, making nasty comments, with her face tight and resentful, each time she sees Ross. Yes he raped Elizabeth, but how is demanding that he confess his guilt, and repeatedly acknowledge he has wronged her help matters? She seeks revenge by going to bed with Captain MacNeil, but when she feels she cannot, she still seems incapable of reaching a mutual understanding by listening to him or talking herself openly of her hurt; instead she openly refuses to forgive when he does apologize and behaves embarrassingly abjectly (Poldark, 2017, the third season). She says all she wants is for him to say the truth, but the truth is complicated and that she does not concede at all.

Needless to demonstrate, June-Offred (Elizabeth Moss) of Handmaid’s Tale fame hungers for confrontation, and sometimes gets it — violently.


Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) and Darcy (Colin Firth) walking and talking together just as he proposes (1995 Pride and Prejudice, scripted Andrew Davies)

I thought back to Austen and to the woman writers of the 18th through 20th century and women’s films of the 20th century. I rue the repeated use of the humiliation scene (it’s there is Austen too) in films where the heroine either in front of others, or herself and the audience admits she has been all wrong, scourges or berates herself, vows to do better, but the “girl learns a lesson” is far more varied in the books.

As to confrontation, in Sense and Sensibility Austen’s Marianne is pulled away from Willoughby. Elinor worries about she and Marianne being shamed in public. Marianne likes to hear she was not altogether wrong in her judgement of him, but from afar. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth never writes back to Darcy. She reflects constantly about his letter, over and over, but she has no need to confront him when they finally meet. At the end of the novel, they discuss their relationship and attempt to come to terms with one another. So too in Persuasion Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth. In Emma Mr Knightley confronts Emma after she insults Miss Bates and it does have an effect — he says he has a need to but he is not asking for a confession or admission of guilt. He needs none. He is shaming her. And Emma becomes the young woman who has learnt a lesson.

Why do these 21st century women need this explicit admission of guilt or confession to them, why do they seek a mostly frustrating, often counterproductive, rarely useful confrontation? The counter-examples in Austen prompt me to realize how rarely the couples drive towards mutual explanation. When in the Poldark books Ross and Demelza try to explain their points of view usually towards or in the last chapter, what happens is they get angrier, and reconciliation comes from admitting there is a gender fault-line here, from exhaustion, and real need and love of one another and a mutual resolve to carry on with forgiveness quietly.

One couple do successfully explain themselves in these 21st century films: Jamie and Claire Fraser.  I’ve come across two reviews of these programs which make this their central argument for why they like Outlander, and why the love story and frank graphic sex are a good part of the shows – because before they have sex they have a mutual explanation, which sometimes begins as a shouting match but eventually they are listening and have recognized & acknowledged one another’s point of view as understandable. Before proceeding to a gratifying & tender sexual encounter …

In Austen, in Elizabeth Gaskell, in George Eliot, in other women authors I particularly like such scenes of reconciliation and acceptance come from more than kindness: it’s a belief in the ability of someone to care for someone else, to listen to them, and to respect (in Austen’s language, esteem) them without having to inflict on the good and mixed nature characters all around them more risk and pain.


This is called a mood piece from Margaret: but it is Margaret walking along in a hard kind of isolation

Ellen

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Latest version of Little Women opens with  a deeply intimate-feeling scene of adolescent girls in their bedroom privacy trimming and curling the long hair of one of them (2017 BBC, scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswell)


A version of this iconic scene, the four girls circled around the mother reading aloud the letter from the father away in the army Christmas time, is what usually opens the movie (this from the first 1931 George Cukor film)

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men) by mature women too …

Friends and readers,

It’s no wonder I feel as if I’ve been reading a good deal of Anne Boyd Rioux lately: I have! I did not mean to read her study of four 19th century American women novelists together with her study of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (by which throughout this blog I also mean Good Wives), but I ended doing so when TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io decided to read this book. I didn’t mind; Meg Jo Beth Amy seemed an extension, a particular case in point of the lines of thought of Writing for Immortality.


This is the outside of the edition of the book with just these illustrations that I read and gazed upon for hours at age 10-11

While the book is presented as another of a recent favored genre, the biography-of-a-book as autobiography of this author (remember Michael Gorra’s masterpiece study of James and The Portrait of a Lady; think Rebecca Mead on Eliot and Middlemarch), it is more a defense of the book, something neither Gorra or Mead could possibly find necessary. Rioux argues for the depth, maturity of understanding conveyed, and original creativity in Alcott’s Little Women, and for including it in the curriculum of junior high school good books for both boys and girls, and in women’s studies in college. Beyond telling how the book emerged from Louisa May Alcott as an individual and in the context of her life and era, of its extensive and profound influence on countless people, about the stage, film and post-text legacy, and offering an array of interconnected readings, and of course retelling her own and her daughter’s experiences with this book, Rioux goes about to seek and finds very rare even today another or other books dramatizing and exploring problems experienced by adolescent girls and young women. If it were that a woman’s powerful book of genius could receive the kind of serious on-going attention and respect that such books by men regularly do, it would be recognized that Little Women changed the expectations we come to great children and young adult literature with.

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men). One of her chapters (longish, the fifth) is simply a recounting of many famous people’s (mostly women’s) praise and precious memories of reading (and nowadays), seeing, acting it out. I admit that by the time I got half-way through that I was relieved to be told Hilary Mantel “hated” it, Camilla Paglia saw it as “poison,” and Edith Wharton “avoided” it. I began to wonder how many people were just repeating cant. Surely there must be something wrong when there is such a uniform chorus of praise. But no she persuaded me her witnesses meant it.

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The “prologue” where Rioux claims this is a book women share with their daughters just invites an autobiographical response so I’ll oblige again: yes Little Women is a book I shared with my daughters, and both read it. Laura went on to further Alcott and it turned out preferred Little Men mightily, identified with Dan (ever getting into trouble), but it was not given me by my mother as a book she cherished. She never read it, but gave it to me as an appropriate gift-looking book for an 11 year old girl; I went on to read Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, but began to balk at Rose in Bloom. Laura (at age 15) and I also shared Gone with the Wind, while Izzy took up Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion (before she was 13-14). I might as well get Rioux’s other assertion that comes up so quickly about Little Women (and she never quite leaves) over with: I never wanted to be tomboy or a boy; I was a reading girl. I also loved the romance of Prof Bhaer in New York City and when he comes to the March home to become Jo’s beloved partner, a tenderly loving older man seemed so perfect for her maturity. I did not want her to marry Laurie who seemed a boy in comparison, nor did I demand she remain unmarried since she did not seem happy up in her attic writing on alone.

The first part of the book (Chapter 1) offers a biography of Alcott in the context of portraits of her complex family members, their transcendental “high literary” milieu, and because of her father’s inability or refusal to conform to mainstream US norms to be able to make a living, hard poverty, strained physical existences, continuous work outside the home for all the daughters, but Lizzie (=Beth) who withdrew psychologically from what must have been an often silently traumatized scene and died young. As a group of readers, we hauled Bronson Alcott over the coals. Then Rioux recounts the extraordinary early and continual success (the “phenomenon”) of the book, the early editions, the re-printings, the way contemporaries talked of it, the two direct sequels (Little Men, Jo’s Boys), and the illustration history. This prompted several of us to describe the books we had read Little Women in and retell our favorite memories. Also what other children’s books we read: Elsie Dinsmore, What Katy Did. I talked of The Secret Garden and Nancy Drew.


Although of the elegant lady variety, Jessie Wilcox Smith’s pictures are felicitious


Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) and Jo (here Winona Ryder) have the iconic umbrella moment but I prefer this of them going over her story in the lodging house (1995 Miramax Little Women, directed by Gilliam Armstrong, scripted by Robin Swicord)

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June Allyson as Jo has some very real moments (1949 Mervyn LeRoy, directs — this one includes the girls putting on a play)

The second part of the book, “The Life of a Classic” offers a long chapter (4) on the stage plays and films made from the book from the very first up to the most recent, as well as an opera and Broadway musicals. As someone who has seen many of the films I found her analyses (the text is not soppy memories but genuine film study) enjoyable and accurate. It moved me to know the first stage production began with the words “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” and the performance had to stop to allow the “fervent applause” to finish itself out. She rightly goes on at length about the 1931 film, since it has been so influential and is still watchable; at the same time she’s right to say Katherine Hepburn (who is so paid attention to by critics) postures too much, jars as exaggerated, and we never forget the actress in the role. It was spoofed by Jack Benney as “Miniature Women” or “Small Dames.” The 1949 MGM film (June Allyson as Jo) and the 1995 again rightly take up much space (both genuinely thoughtful productions making of the characters evolving role models for adolescent and young women). I want to put in a good word for the old 1970 many episode BBC serial drama: for all its embarrassment at itself, it is the only film to give time to the later part of the story, Jo’s (Angela Downs) hard experience as the daughter left caring for two parents


Meg (JO Rowbottom) and John Brooke (Marvin Jarvis) were credible as young lovers in the 1970 BBC serial

The filmic artistry of all the films could have been paid more attention to; Rioux is rather interested to discuss whether the films convey the living power and emotions of the book, and both films are problematic: the MGM film is so lavish, the images highly magazine-commercialized, and women’s ambitions given short shrift; Armstrong and Co were so afraid to be seen as feminist, that the film is oddly bookish and stilted, too idealizing, no struggle, no anger, no gender ambiguities, to me recently it felt like a pretty Christmas card.

Of all I’ve seen (and not because it is the most contemporary) I find the BBC 2017 the closest to the spirit and themes of the book, and admire specifically how the women director and writer put Marmee on the scene re-experiencing her daughters raw emotions (as a kind of reflexive framing), and I’ve never seen Beth so empathized with as she tries repeatedly to get herself to come into the Laurence’s house and play on the piano as invited to.. Maya Hawke is not a celebrity so she has not been made a fetish of in the ads but she is pitch perfect as a sort of tomboy, as a girl who wishes she had been born a boy, as someone ambitious for a life outside being sexually a woman. At the movie’s end, we fast forward to see her running her school with Prof Bhaer (Mark Stanley) the one playing with their children.


She is Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter — why and how she got the role — as well as good acting, here her face has a convincing hard edge of understanding as she grows older

But the meat or core of Meg Jo Beth Amy — why we should read this one by Rioux and Little Women by Alcott — is in the sixth chapter of this part and the seventh and eighth of the third. Most of the films end in a romantic arch that makes marriage the center of all three living daughters’ lives; when we look at the debates over its meaning and how it has functioned in American and English-speaking and European cultures, we find a very different story. Rioux covers in details how different critics across the 20th century and intelligent readers have discussed the book. It emerges as a deeply feminist (l’ecriture-femme) book which explains and defends young women’s natures, and goals in taking on those of life’s burdens suitable to them. One of the people in our group, Nancy Gluck, directed us to a blog she had written when reading Little Women with others as a feminist classic: A Feminist Book. There are conformist and feminist strands in the text, and Nancy distinguishes her terms carefully to emphasize what is liberating and valuable about this book:

“These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

To me the absolute hallmark of masculinist and (one step further) misogynistic literature is this presentation of women as “noble and good” or “entirely” (or almost entirely) “evil and dangerous.” It so bothers me when I have to listen to exegeses (or just do read) of Poldark where the women lambast Elizabeth as almost entirely malign, ill-meaning, awful, with Demelza as an ideal close to that of Meg, Jo and Amy wrapped into one.

Another member of our group, Judith Cheney, wrote: “I am convinced that the Alcott’s aspirations for her Little Women are ones that young women today might still find helpful guideposts in their growing up out of girlhood years.” This is the chapter where Rioux goes over modern post-texts for Little Women.

Rioux looks at how far feminist and in what ways. She wants to defend the boo from the same modern thoughtful feminist point view that she uses in her Writing for Immortality and against the same wall of indifference by respected critics: a book can be sold widely, paid attention to by enormous numbers of people, made money off of and still not achieve the kind of recognition of (however temporary the earth) immortality (to use her words in the other book). By end she is discussing recent scholarly editions by Elaine Showalter the Library of America which printed the “Jo” trilogy (so to speak) and arguing for regarding all three together, even if the other two are not as central, as Alcott’s masterpieces. I found myself drawn to the sharper criticism: by Patricia Meyer Spaces: it’s a “glorification of altruism” – this would hit at the above as too soft, not telling the hardness of life and the people we must deal with and the money we must have to live. See Jill May’s “Feminism and Children’s Literature: Fitting Little Women into the American Canon,” CEA, 56 (1994):19-27.


This one has her novel, Work, about a young woman who during the civil war works as nurse, seamstress, governess, actress and companion
Alas it lacks Hospital Sketches and perhaps her short masterpiece, “The Brothers,” sometimes titled “Contraband,” which appears to be no longer available for free as a pdf on-line (it was for years, but greed never ceases).

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

The first two chapters of Part 3 are rousing — one can get excited and even angry reading them. “A Private Book for Girls: Can Boys read Little Women?” is about the truth that Little Women will not be assigned in junior high to high schools, it is about how endlessly the books chosen in high school for all sexes is either by a man or focused on a boy, or, in the rare cases by a woman, she has a pseudonym, and they are mostly about boys — rare, Hunger Games, it’s about violent aggressive girl. Rioux mounts a convincing demonstration of at the core of this is an insistence on instilling macho male values (one parent catching a boy reading Little Women screamed, someone is making a “faggot” of his son), and refusing to acknowledge the interior life of women counts — and yes this all leads directly to rape culture. There is an attempt to keep LW private again, hidden — women belong in the home where nothing matters. She makes an attempt to show if permitted (not shamed or bullied of this) many boys will like and appreciate Little Women she describes individuals. They have to cope with seeing boys put in the marginal position in the book. A reasonable list of well known men loving Little Women follows — it includes Orwell, who I would not have expected to like LW. The opera composer, Adamo feels that LW is about “balancing our fear of vulnerability with our need for love.” That’s one theme but I doubt the central one.

“Being Someone (Chapter 8) treats Little Women as this educational “courtesy”‘ book (what they used to call these kind of book in the Renaissance). The situation and character types are made to do the work of situations and people analogous to girls’ situations as they are becoming mature. Not little girls, not fully grown (already married) women, but in-between, that time that books apparently still mostly avoid.


There’s been a TV movie and there is even a 25th anniversary Audio reading — on CDS, MP3s, downloads and you can find the audiocassettes too

But there is a problem with using Little Women this way — and it comes down to sex. None of the March girls is attacked sexually, harassed, none of them sexually shamed — I would maintain these are central experiences for all girls — probably then once they were allowed away from chaperons. Fanny Burney and various French women writers of the 18th century show incidents of harassment, mortification and rape.. Madame Roland shows how the aftermath can be as bad as the experience: her mother harrowed her with guilt and put her in a convent for a while and her sex life with a man never recovered: it took her years to marry.  Jenny Diski was raped at 14 and the way she describes this is just so usual. That does not mean she got over it or forgot. The experience shaped the way she behaved thereafter. I was raped at age 12-13 and can vouch for the experience shaping the rest of my life.

Rioux admits that sex is left out and “For girls, maturation has … always been closely tied to sexuality or the loss of purity or innocence.” Girls were preyed upon by masters, bosses, and yes (she omits this) family members. So how can Little Women be a central text? it can’t as despite dealing with other issues admirably (if too upbeat I’d say) it omits sex.

Rioux then deals with a second text whose popularity in the 1990s and continued sales power surprises her: Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. I read it for the first time in the 1990s and I cried. Had this book been written in the 1960s, given me to read, what a difference in my life it might have made. It is the first book I ever read which tells the truth about girls’ sexual experience in their teens. Rioux dislikes it because it shows girls to be victims. I’ve got news for her: they are. Rioux admits that ours is rape, misogynistic, stereotyping culture but not that Pipher does all she can — by telling the truth so we shall not be alone — about what happens to girls who complain and how they cope. Has Rioux never had such an experience? how about her daughters? her students, have they never written of this? Jo’s time in NYC cannot be a version of college or modern girl working because there is no sexual threat anytime anywhere in any way.

A side issue: I object to the idea in Beth we have an anorexic, or party an anorexic. First off, anorexia is not just a response to sex, to sexual maturation, it’s not just an avoidance though it is that. It is a response to a high pressure culture and family life. Why shouldn’t girls “want out,” as Hilary Mantel has written. Rioux does not know anything for real or fully about anorexia and she treats it and Beth as fundamentally very strange. Well in the book she is – because she is presented as super-religious and since Alcott dare not question that, she can’t make sense of Beth Apparently Louisa did not understand what was going on with Lizzie – it was more than a wasting disease like TB.

I suggest it might have been a hysterical response to living with a man (Bronson Alcott) who insists you drink water and eat bread, wear inadequate clothes, worship God all the time, and a mother who obeyed this nonsense. She was punishing herself because she was taught punishing was good – she needs to read books about the centrality of the family and what goes on in schools to the development of anorexia. I recommend to her and anyone coming to this blog Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Self-Starvation: from Individual to Family Therapy in the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa.  Very bad are the way sports are conducted: coaches humiliate, girls are mocked who are the least bit chubby and not competitive. To ask that this be forbidden is like asking a group American cultural norms to reverse themselves right now. And perhaps Lizzie was autistic – I’ve a hunch Bronson Alcott was – and suffered badly from misunderstanding.


Marmee (Emily Watson) watching over the daughter Beth (Annes Elwy) who cannot bear to go to school

I’d say if you gave a girl Little Women as an adequate educational treatise, you had better back it up by Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and tell for real what girls experience in adolescence. Rioux is not willing to do this. Is the fundamental conflict of a girls life “how to love and be loved without losing oneself? What ideal world did Rioux grow up in? Girls are pressured into making money, having a career and this presented as easy – Jo has no problem getting a flat, writing away – this is unreal. Add some Naomi Wolf on beauty and Promiscuities and don’t omit Anne Oakley on Subject Women (in colleges, offices). Rioux appears sheltered, an emotional conservative, and disingenuous: only once does she remark that Jo is a comfort to lesbian girls. And then she leaves the remark there. She’s not telling a crucial destructive truth that matters about adolescence and young womanhood for women today.

Her last chapter “Little Women and Girls’ Stories Today” (9) is weak again. We are in the area of popular wide readership and popular literature, and to me it’s no surprise (if a matter of regret) that the genre of serious domestic tale investigating real lives of girls has been replaced for most or many girls by fantasy tales, action adventure dystopias. Genre analysis of fantasy and science fiction as such shows that this is an optimistic genre where good people win out (however good is defined).  Hunger Games is so different from LW I cannot take seriously her allegoresis. Girls are also offered easy reading chick lit and mean girl books.

She then (in effect) forgets she has male readers (or has already forgotten) and moves to TV shows where she finds comparisons: I never saw The Gilmore Girls; after the second episode of Girls I tired of it– it was too much about how dismaying real sex is, and the startle and energy gotten by the expedient of suggesting fellatio and other practices dims quickly (for me at any rate). The girls needle each other towards the end of the series (HBO), and we see how (in Rioux’s own words at the opening of this last chapter) how maturation is seen as “walking the line between being sexy and being taken for a whore.” Until near the end the situations depend on ideas about how privileged girls are sheltered by parents.

Rioux seems to want books for girls growing up which teach companionate marriage and sisterhood as an ideal and “how to connect selflessly with another human being.” She wasn’t so keen on companionate marriage in Writing for Immortality. Maybe she is assuming most girls readers will not go on to be writers, but does that mean the self-sacrificing social life ideal that under-girds modern norms of motherhood are primary makers of a good life? Tertium non est?

Rioux also needs to read Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.. Traister argues mature women have always had long periods alone, not with a man, they just had no way to support themselves, no validation from the culture whatsoever (“redundant”! was the outcry when they came out of their closet in the mid-19th century) and thus live a life an individual person who happens to be a woman might want.

Ellen

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Friends,

This eloquent and persuasive study of four women writers’ work: — Elizabeth Stoddard, Louisa May Alcott, Constance Fennimore Woolson, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — is the fifth of several general books on women who spent long periods of time unmarried that I have been reading towards my project for a collection of essays in a book with the working title: Not an Anomaly. I recently produced an outline for myself, singling out the specific women I’d focus on over three chapters (widow, pariah, spinster). See At the Crossroads of this life (scroll down). One of my choices will be Constance Fennimore Woolson, (lesbian?) spinster about whom I’ve written here before: Hours of Good Reading: a 19th century woman of letters.


A drawing by Constance Fennimore Woolson

The unusual argument in the introduction (and throughout) is this: Just about all women who wrote about artists or women making money until the 20th century do not themselves say they are ambitious for power or fame (Stael is an exception), or they take their art seriously and want to be respected as artists: no, they are writing for money, they are writing because they have to, they have a family they must help support. Rioux argues that these four women by telling stories of women who aspired to make permanent remarkable works of art, genius, are breaking an important taboo and behaving in a radical way: affirming the value of a woman’s life for what she as an individual can create, for what she can experience as an individual and convey, for having gifts equal to or superior to men.

Rioux insists that it is important to understand this presentation of one’s book as primarily there as a great art, great vision and the real goal of the woman as creating great art (not for supporting herself) as radical and important in building esteem and validation for women as a group. We are so used to valuing things for the money, book history as turned into a branch of let’s study how capitalism, fame, and industry worked and the idea of writing as a vocation becomes something we scorn people for: what? they must be hypocrites and just say that because their books don’t sell. We are so corrupted to the folds of our minds — today unless a book wins a prize, becomes social capital for the writer, we doubt it can be any good. We see up a relationship between a book and money as the first and foremost measurement of value. So this is quite a radical book. Vocational behavior is what we find at the core of great writers and Rioux finds it among her subjects.

The book then divides into four long chapters: first, we learn how the four women when young discovered themselves to be artists, to have singular talents and conceived a desire to fulfill them in family contexts where it seemed this desire could be realized; we read how they expressed this. Aspiration towards high ideals and values is found in the works of these four women and those who encouraged them — Margaret Fuller comes in here. In the second chapter we see them experience adult and later mature life as what thwarts them, and presents obstacles they sometimes overcome but usually not wholly and sometimes not at all, and we read the stories of women artists they tell which narrate such experiences in particular ways. They are all to some extent crippled in their ambition or fame or even what they were able to achieve or write because of the demand they be conventional heterosexual and marry. One of them did: Stoddard and that stopped her producing any more than two good novels.


Elizabeth Stoddard — The Morgesons

Stoddard’s work combines the narrative style of the popular nineteenth-century male-centered bildungsroman with the conventions of women’s romantic fiction in this revolutionary exploration of the conflict between a woman’s instinct, passion, and will, and the social taboos, family allegiances, and traditional New England restraint that inhibit her. Her most studied work, The Morgesons is set in a small seaport town, and is the dramatic story of Cassandra Morgeson’s fight against social and religious norms in a quest for sexual, spiritual, and economic autonomy. An indomitable heroine, Cassandra not only achieves an equal and complete love with her husband and ownership of her family’s property, but also masters the skills and accomplishments expected of women. Counterpointed with the stultified lives of her aunt, mother, and sister, Cassandra’s success is a striking and radical affirmation of women’s power to shape their own destinies. Embodying the convergence of the melodrama and sexual undercurrents of gothic romance and Victorian social realism. But to read Rioux’s very inward account of Stoddard her writing shows intense doubts about herself and the value of what she wrote; Rioux says she stopped writing well before she had to, defeated as it were by her household duties -1866 when she died in 1902; a story she tells after she stopped writing, “Collected by a Valetudinarian” is about Alicia Raymond who keeps a diary, she is a woman of genius and finds herself isolated, lonely, finding no understanding; she refuses a suitor whom she says had the best of her, and slowly dies as her brother marries; her works are forgotten.

The others fought and produced and led a life they found satisfactory but to do so took tremendous energies which weakened them in other ways. I’d say this is even true of Alcott — fine as her achievement in children’s books is and here and there in adult fiction, it’s not what she could have done.

The second woman, Elizabeth Phelps (Ward) spent a good deal of her life unmarried but she finally did marry (a man 17 years younger than herself) and was prolific; in the wikipedia article we are told of 57 volumes, that she depicted women suceeding in non-traditional careers (physician, minister, artist) and like Frances Power Cobbe, wrote polemics against vivisection and on behalf of animal rights. But her novel, The Story of Avis (is about a woman whose talent is extinguished because she finds that supporting herself and her child and writing are by no means satisfying; she is said to have two inward natures, she feels it goes against women’s nature to become a great artist and her life leaves no room for it; she does have a daughter and the daughter it seems will have a career. In life Phelps had a mother Elizabeth Wooster Phelps, who wrote about the repressive lives of women; her career as a writer was cut short when she became a prominent minister’s wife; apparently the mother became ill, mentally and physically with this attempt to break out. The mother’s one short story, “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder”, illustrates the repressive burdens frustrating a wife’s creative ambitions and need to “cultivate her own mind and heart”. The story is notable as “one of the rare woman’s fictions of this time to recognize the phenomenon of domestic schizophrenia”, says literary critic Nina Baym. What her mothr is famous for is a book that sold widely, The Sunny Side; or, The Country Minister’s Wife. The novel sold 100,000 copies in its first year, eventually more than 500,000, and garnered international recognition. She died the next year and the daughter Phelps Ward said her mother died of this struggle.

The central enemies of promise are what allured women and did give them happiness: to marry and have children. So these are hard complex conflicts we read about.

In a third chapter Rioux goes over carefully stories they told as they imagined women artists creating art and their lives. In these stories we find women who do not married (and have children) are regarded as unfulfilled failures no matter what books they write. Her book is dismissed as irrelevant and besides the point of her existence – while it’s what the heroine wants to pour all her existence into. So the question becomes how can one combine the two sets of activities, two different roles. I thought of how Gaskell’s Life of Bronte is really an apology for the woman artist and that while Gaskell was determined to normalize Bronte and her family, and show Charlotte involving herself in what was considered suitable for women, she still presented Bronte’s father (and I think rightly) as domineering, her marriage as simply getting in the way, isolating her, and destroying Bronte in childbirth. Phelps by the way allowed herself “aspiration” but not ambition, saw deeper satisfaction in love relationships for women than writing. I also omitted how another escape route from the conflict of career and personal artistic fulfillment and what their life circumstances demanded and what everyone around them probably said was to choose a male narrator at the center. Emma Lazarus had male artist figures at the center of her fictions. Another ploy was to have a maternal narrator – a mother figure. I don’t mind the mother figure or stance but know I prefer the daughter one. I know I often find very frustrating (even angering) the choice of a male in the center. That’s why I’ve not read DuMaurier’s later novels. To me it seems a betrayal. Somehow using the disguise of a male in Wolf Hall made me accept Mantel’s use of the ploy — this earlier era (unless you have a time-traveling heroine, pro-active from the 20th century) precludes active heroines.


Louisa May Alcott

Alcott as we all know strove to be a “dutiful daughter” and that is the phrase used here — it’s echoed in Beauvoir. Alcott wrote a novel she never finished Diana and Persis, which mirrors what happened to her and her sister May. May went to live in Europe, helped to get there by Louisa, and then lived a satisfying life (like Amy, except as an artist) but Louisa had to return home. In the novel Persis (May) at first has this satisfying life as both mother and artist, but soon she stops painting because she has had a child, and in an outburst (like Romney) it emerges despite her husband’s encouragement of her and saying if a woman will have courage and strength she can both, he berates her over her choice of her child when the child almost dies. It is a wish fulfillment book in that Diana (Louisa) becomes a sculptor, falls in love sort of with another (male) sculptor, Stafford, finds how wonderful it is to have this support, and then the novel breaks off. Rioux discusses her Hospital Sketches and Moods too. Rioux’s own Meg Jo Beth Amy, a kind of biography of a book is the one to read here.

Of the four Rioux concentrates on Woolson is the woman most pessimistic about this combination: Woolson’s register intense grief — as in “Miss Grief.” Woolson derided woman’s books which were “pretty and pleasant’ (idealized) romances, and writes about writing a story about a woman artist, Mrs B, that she never wrote out but the idea is she seeks to compete with men; Woolson has a male writer who realizes he cannot compete with the “power of a woman’s gifts of the heart” and a woman artist who feels she lacks the culture, learning, intellect of a man — this seems to mirror her idea of herself and Henry James. Alas she is best know for her relationship with James; late in life she went to live in Europe and didn’t return to the US, and apparently (I do think this is the truth) killed herself. Did she jump out a window or fall? Rioux stays on the fence but I feel thought she did kill herself. Woolson appears to have been bisexual.


Constance Fennimore Woolston

Grief is also central to these women artists; they grieve that they cannot come up to what men are granted as having achieved; they feel only unhappy women take to writing, they cannot sustain the achievement and eventually they die, killed by neglect, by exhaustion, live lives of quiet desperation. A less common theme (in both Woolson and Stoddard) is the need for women to have a belief in their own powers. She feels that their poses (however grating) could and maybe should be see as them finding authorial identities with which they are comfortable. Many of their heroines (or enough) really do aspire to be great artists, and they manage in different ways to circumvent the impasse they are confronted with by their culture, and how pessimistic they are, we see that in fact they had much success and real careers

Alcott seems single minded in her avoidance of courtship for herself, and intense grief in her novels. She was not unwilling to write uplifting girls’ stories. Phelps and Alcott openly advocate the single life — George Eliot could get away with the best of all worlds (she avoided time-wasting visitors is how I’d see it) because she had Lewes as her businessman. (Not mentioned by Rioux but Margaret Oliphant was envious and found that having to cope with the business end of her profession and support herself and family decreased her time and ability to produce the masterpieces she actually yearned to create. In Rioux’s re-telling, Stoddard emerges as the most poignant figure, for after her serious masterpiece, The Morgesons, still in print, the pressure of marriage and childre made her give up writing.


Mary Cassatt — Lydia at the Tapestry Loom (1881)

It’s not a story of what was not achieved though but of eloquent poems and life-writing, of great books, fascinating heroines and their stories, moving life achievements which at first gain an audience and respect or now and again gain these as if for the first time, but finally are placed in unknown and isolated limbos of neglect and disparagement, or just not valued for real. It’s a story of heroic struggle, of almost making it or making it for a while and then being stifled. I enjoyed reading the summaries and analyses of their books; Rioux makes these come alive with issues that women today who aspired to writing as a career (or any career) will face. I found myself indignant at the way particular editors and male writers and critics put these women down, refused to acknowledge their value, made fun of them, heaped withering scorn and resentment on them, would never give them equal respect — from Howells, Hawthorne and James to lesser known men (but powerful at the time) and the treatment the men and family members the women lived with did not sympathize, understand, and corroded their abilities. What differentiates American from English women was when in Europe they had the sense of being perpetually watched — paradoxically, the idea found in Henry James’s Daisy Miller, led to journalists and ordinary people in letters trying to watch and write about American women writers to see if they led moral as well as successful lives

Along the way Rioux brings in other women writers, especially those whose works did achieve longer lasting fame and recognition at least as first, as influential on our four. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a narrative poem about a woman trying to live the life of a woman writer. Phelps is quoted saying of Aurora Leigh: “I owe to her, distinctly, the first visible aspiration (ambition is too low a word) to do some honest, hard work of my own in the world beautiful, and for it.” Germane de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy, a tragic novel of a woman whose muse creates this beautiful poetic book, at the end of which she is rejected as a woman and artist. She also treats of Eliot’s Armgart, a poem about a singer I have read, a narrative novel where by the end the heroine loses her voice. This is so common in 19th century novels for women artists — it’s a punishment (like the scenes of confession and humiliation for heroines in many American movies still today). There is a typology of writing or artist heroines in the novels of this era: in the US a sentimental artist heroine who can and does marry and we see her troubles; in the UK and Europe, the woman of Romantic poetic genius, who most of the time comes to a tragic end. They also turned to real women they knew or knew of: Charlotte Bronte as presented in Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of her; George Eliot as the model they all yearned to be as novelists. There are explicit intersections Phelps’s novel, The Story of Avis by Phelps and both Corinne and Aurora Leigh – Avis, who becomes an artist is engulfed by her husband and her gifts lost. Phelps does not think that the conflict is a society-imposed one but inherent in women’s nature — she also refuses to give her heroine genuine ambition.


Emma Lazarus

Rioux also (or along the way) discusses Rebecca Harding Davies, Helen Hunt Jackson, Emma Lazarus, one black woman who was never enslaved and lived a middle class life, Charlotte Forten Grimke, as women who either wrote less, or what they wrote did not achieve the same level, or who did not deal openly with the issues of their own lives and those of women from a woman’s point of view, but whose work placed in the same context emerges as similarly unfairly marginalized. She excludes Sarah Orne Jewett and Emily Dickinson because they did not seek careers and in a sense validated the idea that women should stay in some private retreat.

The last chapter is a convincing demonstration that the male white academy of the 20th century excluded all but white males like themselves in a canon they invented and taught; that the four were similarly dissed in the marketplace, pushed into writing less aspirant books (children’s books for example) and how they never were able to reach the status and receive the recognition their work deserved. One must admit an oddity here: these four women did write prolifically, all were in print and had careers, one now still famous, Alcott, and one now still respected for her artistry, if not well known (Woolson) and one respected as achieving something beyond a historically important still readable book (Phelps). Still, this is the saddest chapter of the book. I found myself embarrassed as I read: Rioux is showing that these women chased after males; they wanted recognition so badly, that they kowtowed before them, behaved in deferrent and self-humiliating ways. I know I have done this and wish I could altogether stop. What really hurts is the situation described in the early and mid-20th century history of the Atlantic Monthly obtains today. Yes the women’s page and their normative heroines are different from mid-century but underlying it all is the same non-valuing of literature by and for women. Maybe it’s that I’ve experienced editors “losing” the attachment, never writing back. The part of the chapter about how critics treat women’s books rings loud still. It’s a masculinization of taste.

Rioux’s last topic is the canon. Brigid Brophy was a breath of fresh air, among the first of the 1970s feminist books on women writers. Brophy’s contribution was to agree these are “dreadful” books and because they are dreadful they are masterpieces. She turns the charge of sentimentalism on its head — the sentimentalism is what makes them great – they are morbid, complaining, sad, emotional, say things matter that in life “adults”‘ learn (so it’s implied) to get past, slide over, ignore. In short, they are powerful great grapplings with life in art. Rioux returns to her four women in the end and tells of their later years — betrayed by “new” women replacing them, so Edith Wharton never acknowledged their real influence on her work. Then a marvelous bibliographical essay, which takes the reader through the important cited books a history of feminist scholarship in the last quarter century.


An early important book, which meant a lot to me when I was young

Rioux’s book is so rich in details, in retellings of stories by so many American women writers, of the circumstances of their lives, in quotation (how shocked women were when they sought the vote and discovered males were violently hostile … ), I can’t begin to do justice to it. Read it yourself, and then do like me, turn to read at least some of the literature Rioux has digested for us. I’ve also got myself a good biography of Alcott as a reformist, written in an intriguing way: Kit Bakke, Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for reforms of all Kinds.

Ellen

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Miniatures of Philadelphia and George Austen — Jane Austen’s aunt and father


Five Dancing Positions

Dear Friends,

The second half of the Jane Austen Study DC hosted by JASNA-DC at the American University Library, as “curated” by Mary Mintz. In the morning we listened to excellent papers on some realities and perceptions of religious groups and servants in Austen’s day; the afternoon was taken up with the equivalent of photographs, miniatures, and drawn portraits, and how dance was so enjoyed and a source of female power in the era.

After lunch, Moriah Webster spoke to us about miniatures in the era; her paper’s title “Ivory and Canvas: Naval Miniatures in Portraiture [in the era] and then Austen’s Persuasion.” Moriah began by quoting Austen’s pen portraits in her letters on a visit she paid with Henry Austen to an exhibition in the Spring Gardens in London, where she glimpsed

“a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs Darcy; — perhaps I may find her in the great exhibition, which we shall go to if we have time. I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s paintings, which is now showing in Pall Mall, and which we are also to visit. Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself -— size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite color with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow… Letter 85, May 24, 1813, to Cassandra, from Sloane Street, Monday)


Samantha Bond as the faithful Mrs Western, next to her Mr Elton, to the back Mr Knightley (Mark Strong) and Emma and Mr Woodhouse (Bernard Hepton), trying to lead a discussion of picture looking to favor Emma’s depiction of Harriet (1996 BBC Emma)

The detail and visual acuity reminded me of many other verbal portraits in Austen’s letters and novels, which I wrote about in my paper on “ekphrastic patterns in Austen,” where I went over the attitudes of mind seen in the way she explained her own and others picturing process, both analysing and imitating the picturesque seriously, and parodying it. She asks how does the way we think about and describe, the language we use and forms we absorb enable and limit what we can see.

Moriah was not interested in the philosophical and linguistic issues (which were the subject of my paper)

“He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side-screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape (Northanger Abbey, 1:14)


One of the many effective landscapes from Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility (director and screenplay-writer and Elinor n Miramax 1995 film)

Marianne argues passionately “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning (S&S, 1:18)

but rather the real miniatures and drawings we know about in Austen’s life as well as how the way drawing is approached distinguishes a character’s traits of personality, and the way pictorial objects function in the plot-designs of her novels.

I offer a few examples of what interested her — though these were not delineated in her paper:


Irene Richards as Elinor Dashwood is a fairly serious artist (1981 BBC Sense and Sensibility) who can be hurt by people’s dismissal of her work


Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price dreams over her brother’s precious drawings of his ships (1983 BBC Mansfield Park)


For Kate Beckinsale as Emma drawing is a way of manipulating situations, defining her relatives, a vanity she does not work hard enough at (again the 1996 BBC Emma, with Susannah Morton as Harriet)

She did dwell on Persuasion. The novel opens with Anne cataloguing the pictures at Kellynch Hall; and has a comic moment of Admiral Croft critiquing a picture of a ship at sea in a shop window in the same literal spirit as Mr Woodhouse objects to Emma’s depiction of Harriet out of doors without a shawl.

Here I am, you see, staring at a picture. I can never get by this shop without stopping. But what a thing here is, by way of a boat! Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be, to think that anybody would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that? And yet here are two gentlemen stuck up in it mightily at their ease, and looking about them at the rocks and mountains, as if they were not to be upset the next moment, which they certainly must be. I wonder where that boat was built!” (laughing heartily); “I would not venture over a horsepond in it.” (Persuasion 2:6 or 18)


John Woodvine as Crofts regaling Amanda Root as Anne and us with his reaction to a picture in a shop window (1995 BBC Persuasion)

More crucially we have a cancelled chapter and one about a miniature of someone who Captain Benwick was engaged to and died (Phoebe Harville), and is now prepared to discard and use the framing for a miniature of her substitute (Louisa Musgrove); this becomes the occasion of a melancholy and passionately argued debate over male versus female constancy and prompts Wentworth (listening) finally to write Anne Elliot a letter revealing the state of his loving mind.

What Moriah concentrated on was who had miniatures made of them, for what reasons and how much individual ones cost; how these were made, and who they functioned as social and cultural capital in these specific people’s lives. All the miniatures we have testify to the status of the person pictured, a status (I remark or add) that Austen (apparently) never achieved in the eyes of those around her.

Although she didn’t say this it’s obvious that Austen’s brothers had miniatures made of them because they rose to important positions in the navy; her father was a clergyman; her aunt became the mistress of Warren Hastings.


Francis who became an admiral and Charles in his captain’s uniform

She did imply the irony today of the plain unvarnished sketch of Austen by her sister, located in the National Gallery like a precious relic in a glass case in the National Gallery while all around her on the expensive walls are the richly and expensively painted literary males of her generation.

I regret that my stenography was not up to getting down the sums she cited accurately enough and the differing kinds of materials she said were used to transcribe them here so I have filled out the summary with lovely stills from the film adaptations — it’s easy to find many of these because pictures, landscapes and discussions of them are more frequent in the novels than readers suppose. Miniatures as a subject or topic are in fact rare.


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth during her tour of Derbyshire with the Gardiners (1995 BBC P&P) is placed in a clearly delineated landscape (1995 A&E P&P scripted by Davies) and is reminiscent of


A William Gilpin depiction of Dovedale

There was some group discussion after this paper, and (as seems to be inevitable) someone brought up her longing for a picture of Austen. She was reminded that we have two, both by Cassandra. But undeterred she insisted these were somehow not good enough, not acceptable. Of course she wanted a picture that made Austen conventionally appealing. At this point others protested against this demand that Austen be made pretty, but she remained unimpressed by the idea that women should not be required to look attractive to be valuable.

It is such an attitude that lies behind the interest people take in Katherine Byrne’s claim a high-status miniature (the woman is very dressed up) that she found in an auction with the name “Jane Austen” written on the back is of Jane Austen. See my blog report and evaluation, “Is this the face I’ve seen seeking?”

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Dancing in the 2009 BBC Emma: at long last Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley gets to express himself to Emma

The last talk was delightful: Amy Stallings on “Polite Society, Political Society: Dance and Female Power” dwelt on the dances themselves, how accessible they were, the social situations, how they are used in Austen’s books, and finally how in life they were used to project political behavior or views in assemblies and private parties and balls too. Her perspective was the political and social functioning of dancing (reminding me of Lucy Worseley), going well beyond the literary depiction of dance in Austen. She scrutinized ballroom behavior and dance to show that the ballroom floor was a kind of stage on which a woman could find paradoxical freedom to talk with a young man and older women might project political agendas and alliances (especially if she was the hostess).


If we look past the movie and see this scene as filming a group of famous admired actors and actresses we can see the same game of vanity and power played out (everyone will distinguish Colin Firth as Darcy in this still from the 1995 BBC P&P)

Her talk fell into three parts. First, she showed how dance was made accessible to everyone in the class milieu that learned and practiced such social behavior. This part of her talk was about the actual steps you learned, the longways patterning of couples, how it enabled couples to hold hands, made eye contact. Longways dancing is a social leveller, she claimed. I found it very interesting to look at the charts, and see how the couples are configured in the different squares. As today, it was common to see women dancing in the men’s line. People looked at what you were wearing and how well you danced. She quotes Edgeworth in her novel Patronage (which like Austen’s Mansfield Park has both dancing and amateur theatrics). There was pressure to perform in dancing (as well as home theater).


Dancing difficult maneuvers in the 1983 Mansfield Park: Fanny and Edmund

The second part dwelt on dancing in novels of the era. She quoted from Henry Tilney’s wit and power over Catherine in their sequences of dancing:


JJ Feilds as Tilney mesmerizing Felicity Jones as Catherine (2007 ITV Northanger Abbey)

Her partner now drew near, and said, “That gentleman would have put me out of patience, had he stayed with you half a minute longer. He has no business to withdraw the attention of my partner from me. We have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening, and all our agreeableness belongs solely to each other for that time. Nobody can fasten themselves on the notice of one, without injuring the rights of the other. I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.”
“But they are such very different things!–”
” –That you think they cannot be compared together.”
“To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour.”
“And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. — You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else. You will allow all this?”
“Yes, to be sure, as you state it, all this sounds very well; but still they are so very different. — I cannot look upon them at all in the same light, nor think the same duties belong to them (Northanger Abbey, I:10.

and alluded to (by contrast) how Darcy will not permit Elizabeth to achieve any power over him through dance or talk; in his downright refusals and more evasive withdrawals he robs her of status and any hold on him. So she becomes grated upon, frustrated. Amy discussed Scott’s Redgauntlet as containing a particularly effective pointed description of a tête-à-tête; the disruption of walking away, walking out and its potential to humiliate is drawn out in this novel.

One of Jane Austen’s most memorable masterly depictions of social humiliation and kindness is in the scene where Mr Elton deliberately sets up Harriet to expect him to ask her to dance, and then when Mrs Weston takes the bait, and asks him to ask Harriet to dance, he can publicly refuse her. I thought of a similarly crestfallen hurt in the dancing scene in the unfinished Watsons where a young boy is carelessly emotionally pained and (as Mr Knightley does here), so Emma Watson there comes in to rescue him at the risk of herself losing social status by dancing in the lead position with a boy.


Mark Strong as Mr Knightley observing what the Eltons are doing


The expression on Samantha Morton’s face as she is drawn up to dance by the most eligible man in the room is invaluably poignant (once again the 1996 BBC Emma)

Amy’s third part was about the politics of the dance floor and particular assemblies in particular localities. First she did insist that Austen’s novels are explicitly political in various places (including Fanny Price’s question on slavery, Eleanor Tilney’s interpretation of Catherine Morland’s description of a gothic novel as about the Gordon riots &c). She then went on to particular periods where politics was especially heated and cared about, often because a war is going on, either nearby or involving the men in the neighborhood. She described assemblies and dances, how people dressed, what songs and dances were chosen, who was invited and who not and how they were alluded to or described in local papers in Scotland and England in the middle 17th century (the civil war, religious conflicts and Jacobitism as subjects), France in the 1790s (the guillotine could be used as an object in a not-so-funny “debate”), and in the American colonies in the 1770s.

Amy went on at length about particular balls given in 1768, December 1769, May 1775, where allusions were made to loyalist or American allegiances, to specific battles and generals. One anecdote was about a refrain “British go home!” While all this might seem petty, in fact loyalists were badly treated after the American colonists won their revolution, and many died or were maimed or lost all in the war. Her argument is that women have involved themselves in higher politics (than personal coterie interactions, which I suppose has been the case since people danced) through dance from the time such social interactions occurred in upper class circles and became formal enough “to be read.” We were way over time by her ending (nearly 4:30 pm) so no questions could be asked, but there was a hearty applause.

Again I wish I could’ve conveyed more particulars here but I don’t want to write down something actually incorrect. I refer the interested reader to Cheryl A Wilson’s Literature and Dance in 19th century Britain: Jane Austen to the New Woman. The early chapters tell of the many dances known at the time, the culture of dance, and what went on as far as we can tell from newspapers and letters at assemblies, with a long chapter on doings at Almack’s, where Jane Austen just about whistles over Henry her brother’s presence. Frances Burney’s Cecilia, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair are among the novels mined for understanding. Wilson goes over the quadrille (squares) and how this configuration changed the experience of hierarchy and then wild pleasures of the waltz. Here Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? and The Way We Live Now are brought in. Lady Glencora Palliser and Burgo Fitzgerald almost use an evening of reckless dancing as a prologue to elopement and adultery. I imagine it was fun to write this book.


At Lady Monk’s ball Susan Hampshire as Lady Glencora and Barry Justice as Burgo Fitzgerald dance their way into semi-escape


He begs her to go off with him as the true husband of her heart and body

It was certainly good fun to go to the Jane Austen Study Day and be entertained with such well thought out, informative and perceptive papers very well delivered. I wish more Austen events were like this one.

Ellen

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A 2017 production of Etheredge’s Man of Mode


A painting of an unknown young woman in the Berger Collection, Denver Art Museum

Friends and readers,

I held off writing about the rest of the autumn EC/ASECS conference separate sessions this past fall at the East Central, American 18th century society, a regional group (for a brief account and link to my paper on “Intertextuality: Charlotte Smith, Prior and Crabbe in Persuasion”), I held, I say, off for so long that I have lost my stenographer’s pad of what my now slow weak fingers and clumsier hands can capture. So I have determined not to wait so long for transcribing what was I able to take down, from the ASECS (American 18th century Society) conference I went to three weeks ago, March.

For the rest of the EC/ASECS I’ve described what the trip ordeal was like and what I saw of Denver in my Sylvia II blog Afterpiece (scroll down, not too far) and the two panels, Factual Fictions and Fictional Facts, one of which I chaired, and in one of which I gave my paper on the historical fiction of Winston Graham. Now I can offer a summary of the keynote lecture.

Matthew Kinservik on Etherege’s “Man of Mode and Its influence on 18th century comedy” has just been published in the March issue of the Intelligencer this year too. He asked why such an “oddly unfunny play” should have been such a hit and deemed representative of the finest intellect, controlled emotionalism, and satiric nature of comedy in the Restoration era. He explicated Steele’s adverse response and Dennis’s defense of the play. From close reading this debate Matt demonstrated that The Man of Mode survived as a period piece, highly artificial, a throw-back to an earlier era, historically acceptable, in which a central (no longer socially admired) aristocratic type, Dorimant, does whatever he wants and is made acceptable by the hypocritical codes of England “of the past.” It was therefore seen as safe, non threatening, and as a flattering view of the Restoration — all the while presenting sex-antagonism, on a bedrock of spite, as a serious exposure of earlier (still ambiguously attractive) norms. Etherege’s text emerges as even then (the early 18th century) the darker play it feels like and must be played for today. Perhaps I should have mentioned that of two of the plays performed in the Blackfriars theater next door to our conference while we were there, one was The Man of Mode — so after Matt’s paper we had quite a frank discussion and dispute over all sorts of aspects of the production, which used costumes that combined 21st century motifs with later 17th century ones.


Walking in the Wood (Davies’s 2007 NA)

Onto ASECS, Denver:  I link Matt’s lecture/paper to a Thursday afternoon session on “The Eighteenth Century on Film” (a NE/ASECS panel) where the topic was TV movies mostly, popular social art of our own time, using texts either from or based on 18th century history. Sarah Schaefer gave a paper (and did a power-point presentation of on the openings, framings (paratexts) of Black Sails, Outlander, Poldark and Westeros, Westworld and Games of Thrones were all brought together.


Poldark paratext (2015 — the oceans of the world gazed at)


Outlander paratext (2015 — linking 18th to 20th century world)

She argued the point of the images was to build a global world in which we see geopolitical tropes at play. Poldark is the most heritage-like of the costume drama films she covered; in Outlander the fantastical leads to a historical setting. In these liminal vast pictorial spaces we enter foregroundings of humanistic feelings and themes. Emily Sferra spoke on Andrew Davies’s 2007 adaptation of Austen’s Northanger Abbey: she criticized the film for making Henry as teacher of needed moral lessons to Catherine instead of allowing Catherine’s movement from a naive response to gothic to a mature understanding of how true terror, oppression, cruelty enters our lives. She felt Davies had lost Austen’s peculiar satirical tone. The movie also pleases the male gaze and desire (say) to look at other males as JJ Fields is sexy in an elegant artificial way. I add that in that this interest in the male body and beauty Andrew Davies’s NA then resembles the movies Sarah Schaefer was discussing. Zoe Eckmann made a case for regarding the depiction of female sexuality in The Favourite as liberating for the 21st century female gazer; she saw it as satire presenting women as aggressors. It overturns the way we expect women to behave submissively; audiences don’t care about historical accuracy.


Emma Stone as Abigail Masham


Rachel Weisz and Olivia Coleman and Lady Churchill and Queen Anne

The audience for these papers turned out to be people who had watched precisely these film adaptations with real care and investment of themselves. I presented an argument against Zoe’s view (made in my blog-review a couple of months ago: “Repulsive, obscene, gut-level anti-feminism”) and then the conversation became as lively as the one over Matt’s paper and the production of Man of Mode that audience saw. I wish I could remember all that was said, we went way over time ….

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On Friday early morning, I again found myself able to take down what was said about Gilpin and his relationship to other landscape gardeners and illustrators on “The Landscape Garden in the Eighteenth Century” panel. Elizabeth Mjelde talk on Gilpin’s work at Stowe began unexpectedly in Sri Lanka where she located evidence of the global impact of Gilpin’s work in an English officer’s private commonplace book about seeking new sciences for transforming the landscape, exploring it, testing it. In a place where harsh colonialist practices were the norm, here are dialogues and pictures about one’s duty to keep the desire for retirement, and another way of life “in its place.” Dana Gliseman’s paper was about the intersection of literary and artful imaginative terrains (descending from Gilpin) with concrete literal places. The ha-ha comes from a desire to make a trompe-d’oeil. I think she meant to suggest that the central concern with sexual reproduction (marriage, sexual transgression) found in characters in novels otherwise highly pictorial and picturesque show a linkage between landscape, the natural world and moral meaning.


Villa Medici, Fiesole

I assume others like me when we moved from these papers citing the usual English novels (Tristram Shandy, Sidney Biddulph, Mansfield Park), to Felix Martin’s remarkable talk on the development of landscape art (JW Turner), then schools of picturesque and classical architecture, parks which are genuinely global, rooted in documentable history, and finally considered philosophical aesthetics — were bowled over. Mr Martin was himself an architect who has studied in Italy, Dublin and the Warburg Institute and he brought a wealth of slides to enable us to journey through time and space and end on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesen (his own country seat in Wisconsin), landscaped houses, and those of followers of his work. He went over different architectural schools as seen say in Blenheim and the Medici gardens in Fiesole, Castle Howard (familiar to some of us as Brideshead in the movie). He moved from the writing of Shaftesbury to Blake, to modern landscape design in Arizona. As Olmstead had come up in the panel I chaired where there was a paper on the later Gilpin-rooted influences on environmentalism, so Olmstead came up again as against false pomposity and for a cosmopolitanism that builds with local geography and flora in mind. The Denver park is an Olmstead creation.


Wright’s creations in Taliesen restore the landscape

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Prometheus Painting by Prince Hoare

I’ve two more papers to report, one from a Friday mid-morning panel called “Picturing the Stage,” the other the key note address of the conference by Melissa Hyde on women artist of the era, especially two almost unknown Frenchwomen, much of whose work seems to have disappeared. Mark Ledbury’s “Painter, Playwright, Entrepreneur: Prince Hoare in 1790s London told the remarkable story of a man whose father had been a painter, and who somehow went to good schools, learned several lagnauges, got himself to Rome where he was supported and befriended by radical talent and rich people (Fuseli, and the Cortellini family) who was continually re-inventing himself, and turned to acting, to writing plays (one farce out of a tragedy), left a book of fascinating essays about his own era from an artistic and theater man’s point of view called The Artist. He asked why is this man forgotten and the answer he came up with is “art history” is still plagued with and organized around (money given) the respectable known canon


Marianne Loir, Portrait of a Gentleman reading

The title of Melissa Hyde’s “Ambitions, Modest and Otherwise: Women and the Visual Arts in France,” emphasizes the perspective of her talk: the struggle of women artists to find time and space and materials to paint with, to find clients to paint for, to have them recognized, their name known and talked about. Women artists had the problem unreal depictions of the female body were used as a matter of course to embody “the glory and fame” denied most women whose bodies did not at all look so well-fed and fecund. She discussed French 18th century women artists and learned women whose names have come down to us, whose rare but nowadays sometimes re-printed books are known, findable, in print even. She contrasted the famous successful Vigee LeBrun (with brilliant memoirs to make her presence understood). The first woman is Marianne Loir, who died age 28. She painted Jean-Francois de Troy; produced a portrait of Madame de Chatelet. she never married and appears to have lived independently, alone for a while and also with a sister. Francois Hubert was her teacher; Prof Hyde showed us images Loir made of women as young girls, society ladies, ordinary unidealized people. Prof Hyde was forced to start her lecture late (an unnecessarily prolonged giving out of prizes ate the time up), and I had to rush away to my panel, so only heard of the beginning of Mme Lusuler’s career (I am not even sure I have her name correctly): she painted men, a “boy with a violin,” psychologically revealing portraits. She was well-connected, studied with academy teachers, received an “eloge” in two columns

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I had to leave on Saturday sometime mid-morning at the latest so missed a panel I would have loved to hear, “Marriage Rites and Marriage Wrongs: Feminist Thinking, especially a paper Condorcet: “One injustice can never become a legitimate reason to commit another (on women’s suffrage and marriage reform) by Guillaume Ansart; “Domestic Tyranny and Civil Slavery: Marriage in Catherine Macauley’s History of England” by Wendy Gunther-Canada;” Louise d’Epinay as a site to study the need to reform marriage and the state through education.” There was in the early morning a panel on health and disease in the 18th century chaired by Chris Mounsey (he chairs excellent panels on disability). But I did the wise thing in leaving at 9 am or so: given plane delays, airport troubles the trip took me 9 hours, and I needed to be home on Sunday to work towards my teaching, to drive Izzy to ice-skating, to say nothing of resting myself.


Unknown little girls in the Berger collection — each girl has a symbolic toy

I also did not attend a panel I could have: at 9:45 on Thursday morning, chaired by Benedicte Miyamoto, four papers on artists: three enjoyable sounding papers were Sarah Bakkali, “The Portfolio as Portable Museum: Disrupting French Collecting Practices,” Cristina S. Martinez’s “The Removal of Poussin’s Sacramento from Italy: smuggling, displacing cultural property and developing copyright,” and Louisiane Ferlier’s “Royal Society: Classifying the Collections then and now,” which Benedicte followed up with a visit for her panelist at the Denver Art Museum were they viewed the Denver Berger Collection. I know about this (noticed it) only because this Friday night I went to Eleanor Shevlin and Sabrina Baron’s Washington Area Print group’s talk by Benedicte (on her study of marginalia and reading practices in artistic manuals) and afterwards their dinner (or supper) at a local Thai restaurant. She and I got to talking of the conference we found we had both attended, and she told me of this panel (which I had missed) and showed me the above picture on her cell phone. Another graces the top of this blog.

I did not mention in my blog on my panels what a good time some people in the hotel appeared to be having on Friday evening. There was a concert on harpsichord and flute by two 18th century women musicians, Elisabetta de Gambarini and Anna Bon, both of whom seem to have had a hard life (one included beating by a husband): I attended this concert, quiet and unassuming and lovely. A film was shown in another part of the hotel. There was another concert in another venue further off (you needed to get a cab). People were drinking and began to play Dungeons and Dragons it was said — in 18th century costumes?

I did see some old friends (had coffee with them), and made some new acquaintances; got myself used to eating breakfast out of Starbucks (they have good coffee and yummy croissants) and hoarding snacks in my room. I took home a new edition of poetry by Charlotte Smith and bought on a discount when I got home two more biographies (of Catherine Clive and of Charlotte Lennox). I went to an enjoyable Burney dinner Friday evening, which dinner lasted until well after 10, and afterwards up to bed. I have still not tried to master putting on or changing the channels of any of the buttonless TVs in these fancy modern large hotels. It is still just that too much to ask. I worry the programs will be awful and I will not be able to turn the thing off.

And so ended another conference for me, not just this past Friday night but also in the act of writing out, and remembering what happened and some of what was said that I was able to join in on.

Ellen

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