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Anne Bronte by herself, drawn as a girl seeking, looking out

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of week ago now I wrote out some notes I took on two separate occasions, a talk on zoom from the Gaskell house and Haworth cottage on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, and two talks from an Anne Bronte conference (which also included material on Patrick, Charlotte, Emily and Branwell) on September 4th Well tonight I want make a second installment of notes on talks on Anne Bronte herself, her poetry, and mostly about The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I thought I’d begin backwards, with Anne Bronte herself as discussed by the award-winning journalist, Samir Ahmed, and here I’ll point out to how she won a suit against BBC for paying her derisory sums.

Samira began by telling everyone how early as a teenager, she was “blown away” by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (this made me remember how much Austen’s Sense and Sensibility has meant to me since my teens). Ahmed felt that Anne had an awareness when very young of injustice. As a graduate student, Ahmed’s dissertation was on “Property and Possession in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” She agued the book was written as a popular call that could be intertwined with a romantic novel story. In her preface she says she cannot understand why a woman cannot write what a men might want to and a man a woman. Her aim is to tell the truth.

In both Agnes Grey and Tenant there are experiences our heroines have, which are burned into their brains. Agnes Grey humiliated and berated for not controlling children allowed to become frantic and savage. She is giving testimony ever bit as surely as Christine Casey Ford. Anne was an intelligent woman with a need to speak. A mind seeking justice. At the time of the novel Frazer Magazine one could find awareness of the equivocal nature of the place of the governess. Agnes is paid barely enough to live on. Anne like the “fly” on the wall in a documentary for both her books. She claimed that you find in her books abhorrence towards hunting and going out to kill animals as a sport (I must carry on re-reading Tenant, which I’m doing just now; then turn back to Agnes). Both books too play upon the exploitative power children can give an adult — to oppress the adult, or to terrify her if she is the child’s mother.

She quoted Andrea Dworkin to align lines of hers with those of Anne Bronte. The last lines of Agnes Grey speak to an anti-materialist socialist idea:

Our modest income is amply sufficient for our requirements; and by practising the economy we learnt an harder times, and never attempting to imitate our richer neighbours, we manage not only to enjoy comfort and contentment ourselves, but to have every year something to lay by for our children, and something to give to those who need it. And now I think I have said sufficient.

I have omitted much that Samira Ahmed said about contemporary feminism, modern movie-making (the good Wuthering Heights films and the 1996 Tenant film), some actresses who have involved themselves in good causes, trafficking in women, alcoholism (with respect to Branwell). I wanted to concentrate on the central theme of her talk. What I loved best was she concentrated as much on Agnes Grey as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.


Anne Bronte as drawn by herself by a family dog
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This edition is by Stevie Davies:

Davies was known to me previously as a superb historian of women and original inventive fiction: her Unbridled Spirits is a part imagined history of 17th century British women – -during the civil war they gained freedom, agency and lived some of them remarkable lives; her Impassioned Clay brilliant historical fiction where the insight that what we are doing is ghostly, bringing back dead people becomes central (insofar as Gabaldon is aware of this, and so too the better writers of the TV serial there is invested in the series a ghost-like apprehension of the past).

Davies has gotten herself an academic position and edits Tenant of Wildfall Hall expertly. Alas, there is no manuscript. This happens with Austen’s novels. It’s not until way after mid-century (except for Scott) that writers save their manuscripts: they apparently gave them to the printers to devour. What we have here is the first edition of Tenant before Charlotte could abridge or tamper with it. Davies simply adds on the preface Anne wrote for the second edition.
Davies’ introduction is superb Among other things she brings out the subjective nature of the text, the ambivalence in the way Gilbert Markham is treated; she shows that many aspects of this book are a kind of inverse for Wuthering Heights. There are a lot of characters with H names in both. She finds a lot of the Gondal stories in both; she has Jane Eyre as another alternative in the same kind of vision about women artists, Rochester contrasted to Arthur Huntington.

There were five talks on Anne’s fiction, mostly on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, for which I have some brief or merely representative or summary notes.

Marianne Thormählen,”Literary Art and Moral Instruction” in Anne Bronte’s novels. She wanted to show us is how modern critical dislike or moral judgements and dislike of didactism has marginalized her novels. Juliet McMaster is one of those alive to lapping multilay humor, wit, a kind of low laughter, amid real pain and bruises. Josephine McDonagh brings out the actuality of the body in Tenant; how the body and soul are both threatened. The structure of the book has put off others: Markham for the first time, then Helen as an inset diary. I like her bringing up Antigone. You must learn to distrust what flatters you, look at what makes us uncomfortable — for my part I see little.

Amy Bowen presented Tenant as a horror of “gothic realism: about real imprisonment, a woman trying to escape an abusive husband (where she has no rights or power). The focus is the interiority. Enclosed imagery reflects the hard world outside. Helen resists engendered discussions about education: that boys are taught to be inconstant, indifferent to the pain of others; women taught to be constant with no knowledge of an abrasive world.


19th century painting by an unknown woman of herself as a painter

Emily Vause’s themes were female authority, authorship and one’s identity. Charlotte was conventionally female, and she insisted her sister hated Tenant (because she, Charlotte, did). Anne draws adults with discerning eye to her apparently widowed adult female. Vause’s paper delineated the excruciating interactions Helen has with Arthur’s guests; she has to withdraw herself from what she hates: the male gaze fixed on her. She denies him access to her bedroom and he is dumbfounded (May Sinclair said the resounding of that door echoed across women’s minds). In effect he had been raping her. He means to corrupt the boy to spite her, and she flees with him. Her autonomy as a woman she never gives up, nor her authority as his mother. Her authority by her art allows her to escape to self-sufficiency. At one point he casts her painting supplies into the fire. Vause saw a parallel between Markham and Huntingdon, and was disappointed to find at the end of her story Helen becomes subject to a new husband.

Jordan Frederick discussed gender, custody and child-care, a genuine issue from what I’ve seen and heard from ordinary readers reading the novels today. I find today that many readers are put off by Helen’s wanting to keep her son close to her, her refusal to let him be educated into alcohol (she makes it associated with bad tasting medicine. To protect your child as a woman was legally impossible (he cited the series of reforms, 1839, division of wardship; 1873, giving a woman custody of her baby and young child; 1886 guardianship of children). Not until his deathbed does Arthur exhibit any remorse; she must turn to Gilbert in part. The temperance movement, methodist magazines (ideas of bearing witness) and Anne Bronte’s experience of her brother also lies behind this book. Anne is questioning toxic masculinity; Helen actively criticizing and fighting against this formation of the male psyche. He talked of how the gothicism here is realistic and the setting itself; society itself is the threat. Her feelings isolate her. Here he agreed with Any Bowen. He felt much irony in the book but thought at the end Gilbert will behave in a way that allows Helen not to be entrapped again.

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A recent cover for Agnes Grey

Maureen Kilditz’s “Walking and Health.” Perhaps the most interesting paper for the group (from the way the talking went – this was just after the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan) was about walking as an act of liberty. Kolditz began with a quotation that indicated women were not seen walking in the street unless accompanied by a chaperon. Agnes Grey must find someone to walk with; not permitted to examine the employers’ garden. How can a woman obtain a position for work if she is not allowed to walk about casually (she would be mistaken for a prostitute and then arrested for vagrancy). Walking is a function of our mobility in the natural world. How to get to your destination if you don’t have a horse? Strolling was discouraged: when Mr Western sees Agnes walking he suspects something — a kind of latent sexual nuance lingers over this act. So walking is perilous — it represented “unfettered female agency.” At the quiet contented ending of Agnes Grey, Mr Western comes with his cat to invite Agnes to come out with them. Here it is pleasurable; not a sign of poverty or struggle.

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Wildfell Hall in the engraving by Edmund Morison Wimperis (1873)

I conclude with three of the four talks, which were on Anne Bronte’s poetry: Quinnell: ‘Tis strange to think there was a time’: Romantic Echoes in Anne and Emily Brontë’s Poetry; Ciara Glasscott, “Is childhood then so all-divine: representations of childhood, innocence and romantic imagery in the poems of Anne Bronte: and Dr Edwin Moorhouse Marr: “Even the wicked shall at last Be fitted for the skies:” Anne Bronte’s Poetry and the Hope of Universal Salvation.” I don’t want to repeat what they said lest I transcribe it correctly because much was subtle and attached to specific lines in poems. I omitted Sara Pearson on their afterlife because I couldn’t take precise enough notes. I’ll call attention to those poems the talks pointed and make some general remarks from what they said:

“Tis strange to think there was a time\
When mirth was not an empty name,
When laughter really cheered the heart,
And frequent smiles unbidden came,
And tears of grief would only flow
In sympathy for others’ woe;

When speech expressed the inward thought,
And heart to kindred heart was bare,
And Summer days were far too short
For all the pleasures crowded there,
And silence, solitude, and rest,
Now welcome to the weary breast … (see the rest of the poem where you clicked)

This and others were said to emphasize a loss of early innocent childhood; then silence, solitude and rest is what was wanted; now night the holy time is no longer a place of peace. A grieving and regretting here that goes beyond Wordsworth. There is real fear in her “Last Lines” “A dreadful darkness closes in/On my bewildered mind”). In “Dreams” she imagines herself to a mother with a young baby, fears finding herself unloved afterward. There is a Blakean idea of unqualified innocence, an idealized nostalgia (it is highly unlikely Anne ever saw Blake’s poetry). There is great affliction in her poetry partly because she wants to believe in salvation for all. It was very upsetting for her to think of Cowper lost in hell. If he is not saved, what hope has she? She sought individual comfort; there is a deep seriousness about them all, and then quiet contemplation. I’m not unusual for finding Bluebell, one of her finest

A fine and subtle spirit dwells
In every little flower,
Each one its own sweet feeling breathes
With more or less of power.

There is a silent eloquence
In every wild bluebell
That fills my softened heart with bliss
That words could never tell.

It seems to me we have been misreading these poems by framing them in evangelical and sheerly religious contexts. We need to take seriously, the strong dark emotions as well as her turning to the beauty of the natural world and real and imagined memories of childhood.


Branwell Bronte

Ellen

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Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855), English writers.


Elizabeth Gaskell, late in life, a photograph

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past couple of months, while some of the new groups of people meeting about authors and books, have quickly returned on-line just about wholly (the JASNA AGM), others have wanted to stay partly online to gather in new people who could not have joined in where they require to travel wherever (the Trollope London Society) and still others have cautiously, stubbornly stayed wholly online (Sharp-l, Burney) or morphed into online experiences at the seeming end of the pandemic even now (National Book Festival in DC). The same pattern is seen in theaters, movies, concerts. Two organizations which have come to put themselves partly online are the people at Chawton, Elizabeth Gaskell House, and those at Haworth museum. So Austen, Gaskell and Bronte events have been still available to me (and I gather will be so still in the near future), and tonight I want to write of few that criss-crossed.

At the Gaskell House, they held an afternoon’s panel on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, where they brought in lecturers and people at Haworth; and another afternoon it was Gaskell and Scott (whose work, to tell the truth, was not very influential on Gaskell). Haworth hosted an all-day conference on Anne Bronte, which naturally brought in her sisters, Charlotte and Emily, and then Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, which book has helped shape the way we today regard the Bronte family, Charlotte especially. I attended a single lecture on a recent historical fiction-fantasy bringing together Austen and the Godwin and Shelley families — rather like Christa Wolf whose quietly beautiful No Place on Earth brings together as lovers an early 19th century German romantic male writer and woman poet.

I divide this material into two blogs, lest either blog become overlong. This one is on Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, the figure of the governess in Charlotte and Anne’s writing, and the Anne Bronte films. Part Two will be on Anne’s poetry (and Wordsworth and Blake), Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I would like to start with Gaskell’s Life of Bronte as discussed at Gaskell House. Libby Tempest, Ann Dinsdale, Susan Dunne and Lucy Hanks were those discussing Gaskell and her biography of Charlotte Bronte and they cited Patsy Stoneman, “Such a life …, ” Bronte Studies 41:3 (2016):193-206. So five voices. As they begun and sounded defensive and apologetic, I worried they had fallen for the anti-feminist indifference to Gaskell’s biography, were going to attack on the grounds Gaskell was all wrong about the father’s eccentricities, harshnesses towards his wife, their mother, and some intimidating and bullying he used on them. They began with Gaskell’s comment after the storm of objections broke: “everyone who has been harmed by this book have complained,” about the scurrilous articles, but turned round to argue it’s one of the most important of the early great biographies, important especially because by a woman writer, by one, meaning to define that new term. Gaskell, they quoted, told the truth with all her heart and considerable intelligence and sensitivity based on three years of hard research and writing.

Susan Dunne answered the question, Why did Elizabeth take on this task. She had wanted to write a private memoir when she heard her friend had died from a miscarriage and serious bodily condition, but now almost everyone was dead and she felt such grief and a sense of betrayal, that she had not gone to visit Charlotte enough, that maybe she could have saved Charlotte’s life. Well she would save Charlotte’s reputation. Gaskell was seeking to explain away the attacks on the Bronte books, impossible to do as the motive was she was a woman and should not be writing this kind of book. It’s a book about, growing out of their friendship and identification as writers. Gaskell told of how the father would not give Charlotte money when she was younger as a means of control. He opposed her marriage to Nicholls. He said “Had I not been an eccentric person I am, how could my children have formed the way they did. He carried a pistol with him. Gaskell’s relationship with the father, Patrick, became complex; he and Nicholls (Charlotte’s husband) wanted Gaskell to write the book, and then were distressed at the libel suits. But he did tell Gaskell “you’ve never been an enemy of mine.” He was enormously proud of what his children had written. He would say “no quailing Mrs Gaskell, no drawing back.” And her book is fabulous, an immensely absorbing porous book.

Ann Dinsdale emphasized how Gaskell had such rich material to work with. She mentioned Kaye Shuttleworth had been instrumental in bringing Bronte and Gaskell together. She said Gaskell’s biography was “just ground-breaking; a brilliant use in it was the sense of a future to come in the earlier parts. To be sure, there are omissions: M. Heger,” the coping with profound disappointment. It is an inspired book.

Lucy Hanks talked about the manscript. Gaskell would normally create a fair copy after she wrote several drafts of pages; but now, pushed, she produced a messy, involved and disorganized piece. William, her husband, stepped in to offer more perspective. He helped also shape the material itself, thought for her of social pressures. She did mean to be diplomatic, wanted to harmonize the family POVs, and to “shoot down deeper than I can fathom” to reach deeper truths about all four Brontes and the father and aunt. Gaskell found Emily “very strange,” “selfish, egotistic.”  This remote sister was also “exacting.” Gaskell crossed out this sentence: “Her conduct was the very essence of stern selfishness.” Gaskell lived with an enlightened man, and could not easily understand a patriarchal male — very off-putting to see Bronte repress herself. She added that the biography is about how female identity has to be negotiated. A persona would be created by this biography — like one was created in Jane Eyre.

Elizabeth Gaskell liked to be in the center of a room, she liked to bring people together. The biography project was a prize and she was at first naive and optimistic. Volume the first she defended her friend. The second volume is far richer because it’s laden with Ellen Nussey’s letters, and Gaskell let Charlotte take over. She watched carefully for reactions to passages. Lucy thinks this biography changed women’s life-writing, changed the nature of biography, by bringing the person to life — she forgets Boswell did this first with Johnson, a male writer for a male writer too.

Libbey Tempest had the last remark: “without this book we’d know so little of the Brontes.”

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A Bronte conference, mostly on Anne, September 4th, all day Saturday, BST


Vera Claythorne, a real governess in the era

Kathryn Hughes, one of the biographers, gave the first, a key-note speech. Her topic was “Anne Bronte, Working Woman.” She found it extraordinary that Anne lasted in this work for 5 years. The deep clashes between the governess and members of the family is really the governess and the mother, who (Hughes thought) had to live with a companion to help her, couldn’t do the job of mothering alone or much better. The governess for the mother (and father too) could become a site of insecurity and jealousy. The governess was ever suspect. She was doing job not called a job. She is given almost no salary, but rather “a home” (not hers at all). Hughes thought no one in most households wanted such a woman there; she made everyone uncomfortable. What Charlotte does is eroticize the governess; Jane Eyre becomes Rochester’s betrothed in a game of power (over what she shall wear for example). Governesses were not supposed to have lovers, and fair game to the male servants.

I felt Hughes was very sympathetic to these upper class families. She was justifying these people. I would say that Anne and then her brother needed the money from the two different sets of families:  Anne had a dreadful time with the first family: the children were selfish, mean, supported by parents. She was courageous to leave — she needed them to give her a character remember.  With the second family the wife’s behavior was disastrous for Branwell. This is a case where the woman had a little power (not enough) and so she scapegoated her servant. In both instances the employers treated the Brontes with contempt.


Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham painting out on the moor (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1996 BBC, scripted David Nokes, Janet Baron)

In a talk entitled, “Anne Brontë in Film and Television,” Mateja Djedovic first gave a brief survey of all the many many films adapted from Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights — by way of contrast, for thus far there have been three film adaptations of Anne’s books. There was a Spanish Agnes Grey, about which he appeared to know very little, but he was taken with both a 1968 BBC and the 1996 BBC remake. Christopher Fry, a much respected dramatist, wrote the script for the earlier film; it starred Bryan Marshall as Gilbert Markham (Marshall tended to play romantic period drama heroes), Corin Redgrave as Arthur Huntingdon, alcoholic, and Janet Munro as Helen Graham. I’ve never seen it. He said it was too faithful, but brought out the austere, and reserved feel of the book; we have a recluse who has revolted, she is escaping a pursuit, and there is quiet happy ending. The later one is much more sophisticated, bringing out the feminist themes of the novel, with Toby Stephens as Gilbert more sidelined (sensitive type) in favor of a remorseful, confusedly angry, yet self-tortured Huntington as played by Rupert Graves.

I thought Djedovic should have gone over the landscape, the camera work, the way the script does follow the involuted plot-design of the book. Yes it’s erotic, influenced by Andrew Davies – who,  however, uses this eroticism to support Anne’s own outlook against macho males and on behalf of teaching humane customs or norms.


Chloe Pirrie as Emily, Charlie Murphy as Anne, and Finn Atkins as Charlotte

He then mentioned there have been several biopics, with all three sisters but all focusing on Branwell and his alcoholism. He briefly talked of a 1979 French film; a 1973 TV serial, where Anne gets one episode as a working governess. The most recent was To Walk Invisible (2017), which stressed the difficulty of being a woman author, how they have to hide their gender, but it also allows a negative picture of Branwell as destroying their lives to dominate the story.

I’d call this biopic a profoundly intolerant movie, using male weakness to explain why the young women so suffered.  They suffered because the water they all drank was laden with filth and sickness. I’d too add it misrepresents the father as ineffectual when he was a strong and intelligent personality; Charlotte as mean, narrow, very hard, with Emily as more than a little strangely mad. In fact prejudiced and as to biographical content nil.  I grant it’s photographed beautifully and well-acted.

I look forward to writing of The Tenant as feminist, as gothic, as grim realism, of Anne Bronte herself as a whistleblower, and of her poetry as at times Wordsworthian (he influenced so many women writers, among them also Gaskell) and at times William Blake-like. Gaskell and Scott and once again an Austen sequel.


Anne Bronte as drawn by Charlotte

Ellen

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New Penguin Edition


Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on plans to build cottages for tenants on her and relative and friends’ properties (never actually done by her)

“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it … the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone” (the last page of Middlemarch)

“Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life──the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within──can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances” (Bk 8, Chapter 73, Middlemarch)

Dear friends and readers,

The high moments of this summer (more than half-way over now) have been an eight-session hour-and-one-half class given online from Politics and Prose bookstore (Washington, DC) where Prof Maria Frawley (of Georgetown) held forth and talked of George Eliot’s transcendent masterpiece, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. I didn’t think I would but under Prof Frawley’s tutelage and inspired by her class, I reread it for a third time — it was my fourth time through if you count listening to it read aloud beautifully by Nadia May while I was studying and writing on Andrew Davies’s film adaptations.

The first time age 18 in a college class on the 19th century novel, the second on Trollope listserv with a friend, Martin Notcutt and a few others around 1998 (I was 52), the third listening in an early year of the 21st century, but none of them was the experience I just had where I know my attention was alerted sympathetically to much that intelligently and idealistically apprehended on the many realistic (psychological, social) levels of this novel’s language.

I became far more open to what is in the novel than I ever had before — as in the depiction of the Garths, which I had been inclined to see as simply unconvincingly exemplary. I reveled in the movie serial twice through(!) with a renewed enthusiasm. Saw its hour-long feature along with a BBC4 special: Everything is connected (on Eliot) . I reread some of the criticism, and biography, including the now famous My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Had there been no pandemic, I might have re-listened to the CDs in my car.

For myself I find Middlemarch a transcendent book because of the in-depth understanding of human nature all its complicated ideas are based upon; and the intent to offer this kind of knowledge, which the reader can use to find some happiness or ways of coping with unhappiness in his or her life. The deeply humane and forgiving point of view is one human society is in need of — as long as the line is drawn at giving into evil and harm to people to gratify the greed and cruelty and egoism also found in groups of people who band together or individuals who inflict pain on others. It must also be drawn at self-immolation and self-sacrifice of the type we find in Dorothea at first, and Lydgate at length driven to. So on my own statement, the heroine who comes closest to staying with the good is Mary Garth; the heroes Farebrother and Ladislaw. Not that Lydgate does not do some good when he writes a treatise on how to cope with gout.

This blog is rather about the content of the class and how the book emerged through that.  So what can I convey of such an unfolding and complicated nuanced conversations (the class was filled with thoughtful readers too).  I shall have to revert to my compendium method for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala because there is far too much to tell of what was said.


Douglas Hodge as the yet unbowed eager Dr Lydgate (his is made the central shaping story paradigm of the serial)

As luck would have it, the online Literary Hub led this week with a much linked-in couple of columns, “George Eliot begins writing Middlemarch this week.” The site tells the familiar story of how Eliot began by writing the story of Lydgate (an aspiring young doctor), then separately “Miss Brooke” (an ardent young woman with no outlet for her intelligence, imagination, desire to do something for others in the world with her wealth), with Eliot afterward seeing how the two characters’ personalities and stories could be situated in one place, and then fit together in a artful design.

But it adds that there was a fragment written earlier — about Mr Vincy (Walter, the Mayor of the town, and hard-working merchant) and old Featherstone (the miser the Vincy family hopes to inherit a fortune and a house, Stone Court, from). Featherstone torments his young housekeeper, Mary Garth, who links to Mr Vincy because Featherstone enjoys humiliating the Vincy son (Fred) who loves and wants to marry Mary, among other things bringing her books, like Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein, which Featherstone forbids her to read, lest she have any enjoyment of her own during the time she is supposed working for him. So there are the three story matters. Eliot did keep a notebook of quotations, so you can try to follow her creative process just a bit. She meant it to be a study of provincial life.

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From Book I: Now Prof Frawley emphasized the metaphoric and inward perspectives embedded in these stories and ethnography. And I here present her ideas as they worked out during class discussions in which I participated too. Eliot presents herself as watching human lots (in the Greek sense of your fate, what cards you were handed) organically inter-related. Yes the biological connections are real: Lydgate is deeply erotically attracted to Rosamond Vincy, the Mayor’s daughter; his patron, the evangelical town successful man, Nicholas Bulstrode, is married to Vincy’s sister, Harriet. Dorothea becomes enamoured of the aging scholar, Casaubon, whose nephew, Will Ladislaw, comes to work for Dorothea’s uncle, Mr Brooke, who, running for public office, hires Ladislaw to edit and write articles in a newspaper on his behalf; Ladislaw is emotionally drawn to the idealistic Dorothea, and flirts with Rosamond Vincy once she marries Lydgate.

But Eliot is representing the interactions between their inner worlds and realities of outward life (class, money, rival ambitions); the way society distorts (town gossip is central to what happens to these people) their awarenesses and conscience; how their consciousness distorts what they see of and in society, how they understand it. Mirrors are an important metaphor in this novel (as is tapestry, webs of interconnections). Casaubon also shows an ability to feel for Dorothea when he realizes he has made a mistake in marrying her: she is too young, too eager for him to be a great hero, and the mirror she shines up in his face mortifies him so he strikes out to silence her.

We have characters to compare: three central women: Dorothea (Dodo), Rosamond (Rosie), Mary Garth, heroines, and with them Celia (Kitty), Dorothea’s sister, Rosamond Vincy, Fred’s. Three men: Lydgate, Casaubon, Ladislaw, and against them, Bulstrode (as a hypocrite, hiding his criminal past used to rise in the world), with them, Rev Farebrother, Mr Brooke, Dodo and Kitty’s uncle. We see what six center presences do with their lives, what they make of them. We are led to ask by the narrator, Who among us could stand close scrutiny? to think pride is not a bad thing as long as you do not hurt others or yourself with your own. Some of these characters are given beauty in their thoughts, aspirations, generosity, but others show them unable even to understand the person right in front of them at all and no toleration at all for anything that might endanger their position in the world.

Both Lydgate and Dorothea make bad choices for their first marriage. Lydgate cannot escape his partly because of his conscience; Dorothea when she realizes she has make a mistake, recalibrates (like a GPS). The petty perspectives of a Rosamond, the small ones of the local rector’s wife, Mrs Cadawallader, and Celia’s husband, Sir James Chettam, a conventional county leader, matter too. We looked at beautiful statements in the first book about self-despair; Farebrother, the vicar, who while a humane man, has no real vocation to be a clergyman, found himself in studying insects, but he is deeply thwarted in his secular scientist study because he must spend time as a vicar, gets such low pay and is trying to support his mother, her sister, and an aunt. But also the inner rapture as the self involves its consciousness in study, which will also result in nothing practical. We are seeing the ways people struggle with their lives. We see our friends change, grow, mature as they try to follow a career.

From Book II: It is a novel about vocation; and for me, it is also about the enemies of promise that stand in the different characters’ ways. I loved how Eliot captured inner moments that can mean so much to us as we define who we are and follow a road possible for us — as when Lydgate realized he wanted to be an original researcher in medicine. Eliot writes:

“Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within (Bk 2, Ch 15, p 143)

I did tell of how after I read a moving passage in Wordsworth’s Michael, I knew I wanted to be an English major, to study literature.

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would break the heart … “

The intense emotional pain caught up in those lines took my breath away. The pain for me comes in how the words capture also the opposite reality: that few feel this love, and since Luke (Michael’s shallow son in the poem) had not, the lines are also about how at times we come near into breaking or our hearts are broken and we can scarce understand how we bear up.


Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw

While in Rome with Casaubon, who is spending most of his time researching in the libraries, Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw, there to study art, and he glimpses in her a buried, a repressed depth of emotion; Dorothea will find it like death, like a nightmare of dread when Casaubon attacks her for her nature. Prof Frawley said many times the book explores what it is be alive. The deeper question here is how we know others; a lot of 19th century novels are about characters some characters thought they knew but did not; how we really get to know who somebody is: in the case of Lydgate and Rosamond, they knew so little of each other, they understood so little of each other’s character. Rosamond is not interested in any character or desires but her own, and her dense tenacity triumphs over the sensitive Lydgate who yearns for her validation of him, and cannot bear her misery, no matter how stupid (he knows) the causes. Of course it is Lydgate who choose her, who is dismissive of women and yet she becomes his trap. The often-quoted passage is about how were we to be able to know the miseries of others (including the animals around us), we could not keep our equanimity

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity (Bk 2, Ch 20, p 194)

We had talked about the novel as historical, set back in time from the era Eliot was writing in; it is also devotedly realistic, turning away from romance, ever aware of actualities (as an artful norm discussed by her in Adam Bede). You can see her practicing her awareness of the natural world around her in her Ilfracomb journal. The question here is what can a novel do? how does one make a character resonate with a reader? She says her mirrors are doubtless defective however earnestly she commits to faithful accounting. The mirror is a mediator, not the thing itself — now it’s Dorothea who remembers Rome so intently vivid; it is an epoch to her, while to Casaubon, absorbed in his own central self in years of arcane study, cannot respond with any immediacy to what is around them, is imprisoned in self-preoccupation, thoughts of gaining fame and respect from others, fear he never will.

From Books 3, 4 and 5: We moved into how Eliot works up, depends on our responding with sympathy so that we may pass over this egoism. She shows us Dorothea aware of what another character is feeling through her sympathetic impulses; sympathy just erupts, but equally characters fail in sympathy. Frawley defended Eliot’s narrator as not intrusive, and there in the text tactfully, but also rightfully there, to thicken out the novel, to share things with us. She numbered the ways the narrator adds to our understanding and pleasure in the book. I remembered the narrator’s sense of humor at the auction later in the book where we invited us to laugh with her at the absurdity of the inflated descriptions, what the seller said about the items from people’s houses to push the price bidding/war up. She lends life to all the minor characters in the Featherstone story, the Garth family: Caleb sees the potential and real goodness in Fred, Mrs Garth feels the loss of money she has saved for months to enable her boy to become an apprentice


Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy being bullied by Michael Hordern as Featherstone, Rachel Power as Mary Garth looking on, Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond Vincy keeping well away

The medical history context as such becomes more important as Lydgate becomes part of the Dorothea/Casaubon story after his heart attack. Specifics go beyond Lydgate trying to institute reforms as Lydgate gets involved in individual characters’ health (like Fred’s, which leads to Lydgate’s engagement with Rosamond). Gossip begins to play a major role — how we come to talk and to know about one another (Book 4, Ch 41, p 412: the world as a “whispering gallery”). Last debt and obligation — how we can be saddled with moral as well as financial debt. Invalidism as a form of identity emerges in Victorian novels; epidemics are part of the this 19th century realistic world, and we see Lydgate struggling to be professional, to be taken seriously. Now the question is, What good can people do for one another in this world. We did talk of a Medical Act trying to set minimum criteria before a man can call himself a physician.


Ladislaw, Robert Hardy as Mr Brooke, and Stephen Moore as Mr Vincy on the hustings

Where does progress happen? Certainly Mr Brooke makes no progress on his estates nor does he help his desperate tenants to live at all better lives. Prof Frawley saw Brooke’s disastrous speech as an example of how hard it is to to get a society to support progressive legislation. She pointed to a debate between Lydgate and Ladislaw about measures, men voted in to pass them (Bk 5, Ch 46, p 465), which did remind me of debates between characters in Trollope’s political Palliser fiction, only here it did seem to me that the measures the characters were talking of were genuinely capable of helping vulnerable individuals (to be honest, I’ve never seen that in Trollope’s fictions — perhaps in his travel books, yes). The existence of (stupid) gossip connects here: ignorant people attributing malign motives to other people; people who make a living selling useless products. Change is therefore glacial. Lydgate finds himself attacked for dissections.


A Middlemarch grocer appeals to Lydgate to prescribe Mrs Mawmsey’s strengthening medicine, next to Lydgate, Simon Chandler as Farebrother

Prof Frawley called Eliot’s a “curative vision,” and admitted there is a conservative thrust to her work; she takes a retrospective POV and sees elements in community life as entrenched deeply. Middlemarch as a community is a social body. What can you change among such people? what do they value? (I’d say speaking general individuals their position and status first of all.) Characters find themselves powerless to stop ugly gossip. Dorothea can act once she is a wealthy widow, not before. She can decide on what she wants to do as social obligations once Casaubon has died; she would have obeyed him out of a deep feeling of pity and duty she had to him, but we see in her meditation how she is alienated at long last when she realizes how he thought so meanly of her. Meanwhile she is coming to defer to Ladislaw as he proves himself to her, and she wants to think so well of him. I’d put it Dorothea needs to, as part of her make-up and the way she needs to see the world. She applies an ethical compass to what Mrs Cadwallader tells her of others; at the same time she is realistic about people around her, and we see her hesitate when Chettam or Farebrother advise caution.

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From Books 6 and 7: I’d say the central most fascinating character in the last books of the novel is Nicholas Bulstrode; Frawley showed how Eliot’s analyses here are extraordinary for insight as well as compassion for a distasteful often petty cruel and power-mongering man in the way she enables us to see how he sees himself. (Cont’d in the comments.)


Clive Russell as Caleb Garth, Peter Jeffreys as Nicholas Bulstrode, and John Savident as Raffles

From Book 8: how we find all the preoccupations and themes brought together in this deeply felt consoling vision of acceptance (also Cont’d)

The 1994 serial: one of the best adaptations of a novel thus far ever made — if faithfulness, wonderful artistry appropriate to this book’s tone and feel, and depth of understanding matter (third continuation).


The coach loaded down with people and whatever goods they can carry, bringing people into Middlemarch and out again — the first thing we see when the film begins ….

Ellen

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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).

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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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