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The Door (2016, Istvan Szabo, Helen Mirren as Emerence)

Then she actually tried to leave, throwing herself out of the bed …. if she live to old age, must probably sink more … Emerence, The Door, Miss Bates, Emma

Friends and readers,

I’ve been listening to this translated Hungarian text byMagda Szabo read by Sian Thomas and occasionally reading it myself for the last few weeks, and it is has had mesmerizing effect on me. It helped me to think about it in terms of Austen’s Emma: the narrator is often as clueless and blundering as Emma; much irony directed at both women, and there are intriguing parallels.

The narrative is a book-long monologue by a woman never named, an apparently well-educated so middling to upper class novelist (“lady novelist” others call her) who was prevented from publishing for too many years under the communist regime, but since some unexplained change, can not only publish but has become popular, widely read, wins a (unnamed) prize. It comes across very strongly: it’s one of these semi-autobiographical novels so common in our age; perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is whether we are to read it as a novel or autobiography, probably both. This skein of this story in outline is that of Magda Szabo who hired a local more working class woman, child of a carpenter but with what we might call a peasant’s mentality, to serve her in just the way the second presence in the book does. Her name Emerence. Emerence cleans for a living, perhaps paid by the government for caring for several buildings and the street — she endlessly shovels the continual snow Hungary seems afflicted by — but goes well beyond that, not only hiring herself out to individuals to housekeep, clean, shop, and cook, but acting as an angel of charity with gifts of food in a beautiful crystal bowl to anyone in the neighbor who is ill, depressed, momentarily (I suppose she cannot this up) broke.

The story is that of their shared lives (so Magda would have us believe) their relationship with intense emotional ups and downs, fierce quarrels (at least on Emerence’s side), deep confidences by Emerence in moments of high passion to the narrator over many years. While the narrator complains Emerence is so private, we learn very little about the narrator’s private life. Emerence’s tales of herself are more than a little improbable, like some mad folk tale from the Renaissance: her twin siblings under the care are hit by lightening standing both a tree, both at once turned to ash after a series of deprivations felt as nightmares are inflicted on Emerence. Her mother’s first husband dies, the second is a tyrant; after the death of her twins, she throws herself down a well. I felt very angry with the stance on the side of atavism, an archaic woman, Emerence by name, someone often raging, furious, deeply resentful, who (paradoxically) seems to spend her life serving others almost selflessly.

Yet the narrator never endorsed Emerence’s rage or said it was understandable, what she seemed to admire was Emerence’s intransigence, her refusal to be tolerant of others at least in theory. Magda evinces or tries to a modern enlightened tolerant attitude towards all about her, we could call it religious humanism, for (paradoxically) Magda is religious to the point of unexpected beliefs: she goes to church weekly because she believes she can get into contact with beloved dead relatives and friends, especially her parents while there. Magda does not always believe Emerence’s told autobiography: the catastrophic disasters come too thick, fast, in extremis: for example, deep cruelty her traditional family subjected her to as when they believed she had given birth to an illegitimate child while the truth was she rescued a Jewish baby from probable extermination. Magda has bad troubles: her husband becomes very ill, and has to be taken to hospital to have a many-houred operation and then recuperates very slowly. (Szabo’s husband dies relatively young.). In the modern way.


With Martina Gedeck as Magda

Why do I say the novel seems to side with archaic anti-intellectualism? Emerence’s fits of corrosive scolding are worst when she begins to castigate the novelist for not doing any work in her life. To Emerence, intellectual work is no work at all. Real worthy work is always physical. So my life would by Emerence be called one of indulged luxurious idleness — I also hire people to clean my house but not daily, once very 3 to 4 weeks for an hour and twenty minutes or so. At the same time, the implied author or novel insofar as she/it can vindicates Emerence’s assessment of what is immediately happening at any given time while often it’s ironically clear that Magda is a sort of Emma Woodhouse.

She sees Emerence mistakenly, obtusely. She persists in the idea that Emerence adores her, loves her, cares tenderly for her. Emerence laughs this to scorn, insults, does spiteful things, but all this is dismissed because forsooth, Emerence keeps working so hard. She is paid by more than money: she gets to be important by serving others, in effect seems to control and dominate them. Her circle of friends apart from her employer includes a woman who kills herself, Polette. Emerence does not try to persuade this woman to live but enables her to hang herself, write the letter of explanation for her. Asked why, she says the woman wanted to die but shapes this explanation angrily: how dare Polette be dissatisfied? were not her friends doing all they could by being her friend, helping her, did they have it any better. Well if Polette than wanted to die, let her. The narrator is horrified at what seems Emerence’s heartlessness, except that we can see how upset Emerence is as she speaks, and when accused of helping to kill Polette, Emerence bursts in hysterical grief. She was hiding this.

She is a great one for hiding, is Emerence. As the novels opens the narrator tells us how she is haunted by dreams of a door. The door is Emerence’s: most of her life since Magda has known her, Emerence would not let anyone in her house. The door barricades the world outside. Over the years, Magda learns that Emerence once had a cat with her, but the cat was tortured to death by a neighbor who believed the cat killed his pigeon, and that Emerence helped the cat. When Emerence accosted and blamed him, he killed a cat she had adopted as a substitute. Clearly Emerence has to protect herself. We learn much later that eventually she had nine cats in her house with her. In one of her stories Emerence claims that a powerful (unnamed but probably modeled on a real Hungarian politician who went into exile more than once) took refuge with her since she was so obscure and loved and respected her very much. She’s no proof. The house seems to have beautiful furniture which Emerence took over after the Jewish family (the Grossmans) whose child Emerence took were deported by train to a camp where they were murdered. The narrator is at first indignant at Emerence for profiting from this family’s horrific loss.

Once when the narrator is invited to give a talk at a conference in the village where she was born, she asks Emerence to come with her as Emerence comes from the same village. They will go to the cemetery together. At first Emerence says maybe, then no, then reluctantly (it seems) shows up and goes with the narrator, but somehow stays away from the cemetery. Our narrator finds the gravestones of Emerence’s family and it is after this Emerence tells the narrator the story of the baby she adopted and was ostracized for. But she won’t go and look or wander among the graves as does the narrator.

Time and time again I identified with Emerence — the woman who seemingly has never learned to, does not understand how one performs manipulatively. In my neighborhood I began to give food to what seemed a stray or lost cat, and briefly tried to find out whose the cat was and if someone would help rescue it. The lies one woman told, the pretenses of the others that they knew all about local Humane societies which would of course come out to help take away the cat, would never kill it (“euthanize” was their term), and one woman’s letter in which she tried to embarrass me because she was irritated lest her lawn be urinated or shat upon by this cat riled me up. This level of bonding was never recognized by the narrator, again reminding me of Austen’s Emma’s attitude toward Jane Fairfax. Emerence tells the narrator she is clueless (or some such word) because she has led such a privileged life, even if her work was not published for years. If Emma pays lip-service to Jane’s literal destitution (dead parents, no money of her own, must go out and endure the stifling humiliated life of a governess (read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey sometime), her behavior is callously cruel: spreading rumors that can only hurt Jane’s reputation (her social capital such as it is), talking about her behind her back half-mockingly, and worst of all, indignant that Jane does not spill her soul. Why should Jane? I cannot say I ever bonded with the narrator, but then I most of the time don’t care for Emma.


Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma: Emma (Romola Garai) comes upon Jane (Laurie Pyper) fleeing and feels for her

Emerence makes a feast for a friend she doesn’t identify. She goes to enormous trouble for this. She obtains from our narrator permission to do this in the narrator’s house. What happens? the friend doesn’t show. I wanted to feel for Emerence. She was was so irascible and bitter it was hard to. Turns out the friend is this adopted daughter Emerence saved who now lives in the US. She had planned to come to dinner because she had a business trip to Hungary, but the business trip was called off. Who would spend that much money and time just for a dinner. This friend-daughter told this to the narrator when she came to dinner at the narrator’s house. Perfectly reasonable in the contemporary world thinks the narrator. But is it? should not Emerence bes someone special? not be stood up.

Emerence was left with all this food. Gentle reader, I have been stood up this way. The trope is the archetypal broken feast. I would show up. I’ve seen and myself spent large sums just to travel to see someone or attend a party. Not that I was thanked for it: months later the person took against me (as if she resented my kindness) but was not at all angry with another “friend” who would not take 10 minutes of her time in NYC out to meet this woman who would have traveled from a remote outpost in Brooklyn anywhere anytime. But this other woman had prestige (including was standoffish which makes her more valuable). Like Emerence, I have over the years hardly ever (remember Mary Crawford said the synonym for this is “never”) been invited to dinner anywhere individually. Of course the narrator understands. She probably goes out to dinner regularly. Not Emerence. She has lunch in a kitchen by herself. Or eats on her porch with her peers keeping the door on the house firmly shut lest they see it. Who knows what they’d say? I was (rightly) mortified by the outside of my house until I renovated it ($60,000 is what it probably cost me) this year.

Yet at the close of the novel, when the narrator goes on about how she is responsible for Emerence’s death, and if that’s too strong, certainly for her misery and tragic losses leading up to it, I couldn’t quite see it. Emerence (we are told) is about 80 when the novel opens and she has just died, and the narrator is having these bad dreams about doors, especially Emerence’s, which she was not permitted to pass. What happened was she sickened badly from some (unnamed) fatal disease, perhaps heart trouble, and would not see a doctor. It appears that for a few years she had refused to work so constantly for our narrator and now she just retires into her house to die. Neighbors bring food which she takes in on the other side of the door, just sticking out her hand. Somehow the narrator learns Emerence is laying on the floor paralyzed. Terrible smells begin to come from the house. The narrator has just won her prize and is so busy running to do TV shows where (she tells us) she makes a fool of herself by imitating the bland hypocrisies of everyone else when she had planned to tell bald truths. Be herself. (But who is she?)

So after Magda has implied how much she loathes interference by gov’t or impersonal agencies, she obtains a doctor’s services, a lawyer and team to come to Emerence’s house, herself tricks Emerence (this does take effort) to open her door. Emerence has threatened to axe anyone coming in with a hatchet. She has one. Nonetheless, half-paralyzed, old, weak from lack of ood, Emerence is grabbed and hauled away to tests, hospitals, treatment and her life seems saved. But as in a film I saw earlier this year, A Man Called Ove (by Fredrik Bachman), where people from gov’t agencies and making money, burn down houses they say are unfit to live in, take away crippled people they say they have no money to support outside the institution and so devastate the people’s existences, so the people from the agency in The Door couldn’t care less about Emerence’s feelings, what has meaning for her, whom and what she loves: they fumigate or throw out everything that has rotted in the house over the weeks; don’t try to rescue the cats (four of whom end up as corpses). She is mortified by the exposure of her lack of dignity. Her ending is pathetic and while the novel can be read as comic, it is more often (if you think about it, pathetic).


The cats are in the film, seen eating from nine dishes, here on the garbage cans? — is it a comedy, do the cats here represent the two women?

How could Magda have tricked her this way? then run away to her TV show interview? Emerence seems to get better and interacts with everyone but the narrator. When the narrator arrives, Emerence puts a cloth over her face, pretends not to know her. Emerence can no longer work and this narrator has offered to take her in. Emerence is having none of it. Wisely probably as the husband would be rendered miserable by her living there, if only because his wife (our narrator) is obsessed by her. Emerence is all spite, the narrator all quiet sorrow. Again I thought of Emma picking out the best, the very best arrowroot to send to Jane and it was rejected summarily. Emma came by with her carriage to offer Jane a ride. It would have indeed killed Jane to get in as it was Emma who had stirred up the antagonism between Jane and her clandestine lover, Frank, breaking them up — if she had no pride in front of him what would happen if she married him with his insensitive ways? Well Emma meant well, was doing the right thing, no? Emma never meant to break them up. Emma didn’t know they were engaged. She wants to help Jane. And let’s not forget at the end of Emma, Austen so far forgives Emma that she has Jane come out and gush in front of Emma, all apologies for not being open and all gratitude. I so loathe that scene.

It will be seen that this is very much a woman’s novel, a study of a relationship between a privileged upper class employer and a lonely woman utterly dependent on her labor who no one helped much. Emerence hates the church because when she went the other women giving out charity gave her a fancy dress. She took this as their comment on her clothes. Their respect for her to her became hypocrisy. What are they in church for? and anyway how can one believe in a reasonable benevolent or any God or meaning given experience? She makes out a will leaving what she claims is enormous amounts of money to her brother’s son (a nephew she doesn’t get along with) and the narrator and now the narrator has spoilt this bequest. It’s been written more often as about two women friends, peers who are very bad for one another, frenemies: recently Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and three more novels centering around a relationship. Margaret Atwoood’s Cat’s Eye. And of course Harriet and Emma in Austen’s emma. Novels of mothers and daughters. A few women in the book club saw Magda as playing the role of mother to the narrator. Marianne Hirsvh writes a long intelligent about the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in women’s books (The Mother-Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism). What woman writer worth her salt doesn’t write books about pairs of women at some point?

But it’s made to carry larger meanings.

Including the relationship of fiction to autobiography. After all if this is a fiction, Szabo has made the narrator and Emerence up. The joke is on the reader when the reader is made to feel that the narrator is lying and Emerence could not have acted like that and got away with it. She has to approve her employer. Could anyone endlessly sweep snow the way Emerence is said to? Sometimes the narrative detail is symbolic. At the end of the novel what is left of Emerence’s furniture is said to turn into dust.

The style in Rix’s hands is concise, strong sentences, not meandering at the same time it can be remarkably lyrical. In her introduction to the New York Review of Books edition, Ali Smith thinks it’s a novel about survival tactics, a study of “authenticity versus fakery,” of “old Hungary” versus the “new” (Emerence being the old? this narrator a new kind of person?) In a review in the New York Review of Books (April 2016), Deborah Eisenberg thinks it’s about two people who need one another, need people, the gulf between people and “rationales” we tell one another to excuse ourselves for “failing” to cross the door and “the costs of love.” The anonymous writer of the Gale Scholarly entry writes:

“Ultimately, however, the novel represents more than the struggle of two individuals to understand each other; the conflict veiled by the plot actually amounts to an inner struggle. Emerence is a moral genius–in the Kantian sense–who is part of all. She goes through the hells of human experience, recollects the barbaric and tragic events of fate, is capable of essential movements only, is generous, and in her every relationship seeks to defend and develop her own dignity. The novel is more than the struggle of two types of persons for mutual understanding; it is a duel that is really an inner struggle. Emerence and the fiction writer are then two sides of the same person. A human fragmented into roles searches for the self, for the Emerence that lives in all.”

All very satisfying, wholesome even. A doppelganger as the posters for the film imply.

A Hungarian reader, Clara Gyorgyey (World Literature Today, 69:4, 1995) finds Emerence to be magical, surrounded by mystery, a mythic figure (the narrator does go on about her being a goddess, a Valkyrie at one point), everyone is cured, animals obey her. (She takes over a dog, Viola, whom the narrator and her husband rescued from a cruel death by burying her alive in the streets.) John Cunningham says the film adaptation by Istvad Szabo (no relation, and it’s available at Amazon prime) is disappointing even if it has Helen Mirren as Emerence. I agree there; it’s so bland, he just didn’t know what to do with this troubling book. He made Emerence too soft, too approachable and realistic too. At this book club some of the women (all were women that day and most days most are women I gather) tried to categorize and tuck it away. One person said it didn’t have a “good” message; another (me) that there was precious little joy or satisfaction in the love or relationships people took some considerable risks for. It might be the narrator is made very happy by this husband she is devoted to, but we don’t see this. As far as we can tell, he’s an avoider. There was someone who said it was disquieting. We could take it as life-writing where Szabo tries to tell of the recent and older history of Hungary, the lives of vulnerable woman, of whom she is one, and cannot tell directly — as she could not take down any doors when on TV. Nor does Austen reveal herself directly either. But she is everywhere in Emma.


From Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma: Harriet (Samantha Morton) shows Emma (Kate Beckinsale) Mr Martin’s letter

Ellen

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Photo taken during Plath’s college years — this is one of my favorites (not in the exhibit)


One of several self-portraits in the exhibit — she is imitating the popular “abstract” style of the 1950s

Pursuit By Sylvia Plath

Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.
Racine

There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.

Most soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.

Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?

Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.

Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.

In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body’s bait.

Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;
Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;
The black marauder, hauled by love
On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.

Behind snarled thickets of my eyes
Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush
Bright those claws that mar the flesh
And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.

His ardor snares me, lights the trees,
And I run flaring in my skin;
What lull, what cool can lap me in
When burns and brands that yellow gaze?

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.

His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.

Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
— one of the poems typed by Plath in the exhibit, said to have been written almost immediately after she met Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Another foremother poet blog from a different angle than usual: I usually offer a few images from their best work, and comments, then a central section on the life and finally on the poetry in general. For tonight I want to describe a remarkable exhibit I saw and lecture I heard at the National Portrait Gallery: One Life: Sylvia Plath.

The exhibit was culled and put together by Dorothy Moss, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who also has taught at Smith College where Sylvia attended, and Karen Kukil, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Smith College, and editor of the first unabridged, uncensored (unbowlderized) books of journals, and now letters by Plath. Until Kukil’s work all the autobiographical writing by Plath that readers could reach were put together by Ted Hughes or only with his or his sister, Olwen’s approval; even now Plath’s daughter, Frieda, controls what is put in print, so there are still some letters, poems, pictures withheld, or where they appear framed and controlled by Frieda who is said to be a fierce partisan on behalf of her father, Ted Hughes. Frieda has written lines showing intense hostility and resentment towards those who want to know more about her mother’s life.

‘Wanting to breathe life into their own dead babies
They took her dreams, collected words from one
Who did their suffering for them.

They fingered through her mental underwear
With every piece she wrote. Wanting her naked.
Wanting to know what made her.

Then tried to feather up the bird again

The exhibit is small, only one room, but they pack a lot in. It takes us through her life at first using photographs, her own art work, letters about her by others, journalism, writing by her for obtaining prizes, an essay on the double in literature for a class, a recommendation by Ruth Beuscher, a psychiatrist who became her friend recommending her for a Fulbright after her time at Smith, and gradually focusing on her poems written upon specific personal occasions, and her later letters to friends in distress at Hughes’s treatment of her, trying to start a new life with two young children to care for. There is also a musical piece, an installation it’s called by Olivia Johnson, Glass heart/bells. On a table one sees glass jars and funnels, bells, light flickering, with some of Plath’s words from her poetry heard over and over (“I thought I could not be hurt”; “How frail the human heart”) and a line from Hughes (“a mirrored soul of art”). Moss and Kukil said they had a hard time getting the Smithsonian to agree to any exhibit: objections included the idea that since Plath killed herself, the exhibit would be dark and not appeal; the idea that Plath was not widely known. This is startling to be told when for most women poets she is the major figure of the 20th century. It reminds me of how until the 1960s Virginia Woolf did not receive public acclaim and only recently has her importance and greatness been acknowledged. Prompted by questions, Moss and Kukil agreed that her suicide has made her an ambivalent figure the way Woolf’s suicide has made her.

For the lecture, first Moss spoke for about a half hour, then Kukil for the same amount of time, then they took questions.

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

A depiction of Plath by her from the exhibit: here she is weeping over what she is reading about World War One

Moss’s lecture: She began by saying how tears welled in her throat when the exhibit was finally in place. She surveyed the many books, essays, poems published on Plath since her death, and insisted that in fact Plath is part of popular culture, however unacknowledged or acknowledged only quietly. She seemed to determined to alter the picture of Plath as dark and brooding; at least she was not so when she was younger, though she had a break down before she went to college. Moss said many readers say they do not feel so alone in their reactions to our society and one another when they read Plath.

This made me recall one of the poems I first read by her, which I remembered ever after.

The Applicant

First, are you our sort of person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we given you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt,
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit —

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of _that_?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
(11 October 1962)

I too hate interviews. In my experience they are forms of hazing as well as demanding the applicant portray herself as utterly willing to efface the self to be loyal to the institution, the people who are hiring her, someone of high status, with a great deal of pride and determined ambition. Oh yes and doing what is fashionable. The poem is not in the exhibit.

Moss followed what is fashionable today too. Plath was presented as constructing her image, posing and savvy before the camera, so a picture of her imitating Marilyn Monroe (they said) in a bathing suit was one self, but another of her with brunette hair, looking demur was for application for a scholarship was another. They chose her with a bicycle in front of a school building with a sketch pad to be the leading image outside the door of the exhibit because they thought somehow this showed her presenting an image of herself. The photo was taken by a good friend at the time, Marcia Brown, who stayed loyal to her after Hughes left her, and to whom one of the poignant letters in the exhibit was written. They chose the poem “It was the night before Monday” to show a happy moment with her parents, Winthrop and Aurelia Plath, and her brother, Warren.


On one of the walls of the exhibit

She covered the usual early biographical material, her father’s sternness and early death, her closeness to an aunt Dot (Dorothy, her mother’s sister)), a picture of herself dressed as a nurse (done during her father’s illness). There were cut-outs by her: when young she wanted to be a fashion designer. These show an astute awareness of popular highly sexualized styles of the 1950s. (Yves Saint-Laurent similarly made his own beautiful cut-outs as a young boy; his were more original in style; see my comments on an exhibit of his art at the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond, Virginia.) There was a pony-tail, a long, Plath’s own from when she was 12 and first cut her hair, saved as a relic by her mother. Her mother wrote that she couldn’t sleep the night before Plath cut her long hair for the first time.

In her teens Plath drew herself again and again, imitating different styles. She was liberal in her politics , and some reflect that (there is a mocking collage of Eisenhower in the exhibit). She was horrified at the murder by the state of the Rosenbergs. Her pictures also imitate popular styles at the time (surreal, cubism), we see her as a clown. She originally wanted to major in studio art but soon after entering Smith her professors directed her into literature and writing.


A Fractured Self

Moss said the thesis about the double in literature reflected Plath’s own sense of her fractured selves. After she won a number of awards, she secured a position for a year working in New York City for Mademoiselle (much coveted). She interviewed Elizabeth Bowen; photographs of that interview are in the exhibit. She met Marianne Moore too. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, is about the disillusionment she experienced during that tie.

In 1955 she went to England on a Fulbright and there met Hughes whom she married a year later. There are many photographs of her and him together, and several familiar ones are in the exhibit, and a portrait by her of him (quite beautiful). Moss did not say this but it’s apparent (to me) that Plath unfortunately bought into the myth of the deep appeal for sexual women of aggressive, violent macho males and the poem “Pursuit,” and a letter she wrote immediately after that show her exultant upon meeting Hughes as a “savage animal.” She was in fact naive when it came to understanding the realities of living with a promiscuous aggressive domineering man; Moss said she thought she could change him; it’s not clear when she began to realize that he didn’t want to live a domestic life centering on children. She herself had longed to be a mother. Kukil said they included the famous poem, “Balloons” to indicate how much joy she felt with her children.

Here is one less well-known:

New Year on Dartmoor

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

It is said to be to her daughter, Frieda, as a little girl around Christmas. Plath’s greatest poetry comes from the period of her marriage and the desolation, despair and betrayal she knew in the separation.

Moss ended on Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In accordance with her upbeat presentation, she did not tell of the gravestone which apparently has had to be renewed several times as people keep trying to erase Hughes’s name from it. Nor did she mention that Hughes’s second wife, whom he was living with when Plath killed herself (not yet divorced) killed herself. She had a child too.

Another poem not in the exhibit:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odours bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

Diane Purkiss wrote an essay on this poem from which I quote: “Plath evokes first Cleopatra, whose serpents in Shakespeare are babies suckling her breasts, then Medea, whose ‘illusion of a Greek necessity,’ is revenge on Jason, her unfaithful husband.Medea’s revenge takes the form of child-murder. The woman in the poem hovers undecidably between the two figures, one whose ‘children’ killed her, one who killed her children, one whose violence turns towards her own flesh through her children, one whose violence turns outward through her children.”

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


Large Size Shoes by Sylvia Plath (this comes from an essay I read on another exhibit of Plath’s visual art — her drawings and illustrations, which are often very home-y and plain)

Karen Kukil concentrated on Plath’s writing, telling us briefly of the works she wrote, something of the history of the editions of the poems and letters. I wish she had told more about this. The exhibit includes the Royal manual typewriter she used as a teenager; later she has a semi-electric Smith Corona (so did I); then an Olivetti (in the UK). Kukil began by quoting a line by Plath: “I am in my deep soul happiest on the moors.” She is buried in Hepenstall (a parish church in Yorkshire). She covered The Bell Jar, the first book of poems, Ariel, with “Lady Lazarus,” a poem about suicide attempts. She too wanted to counter images of Plath as always a depressive by (as with Moss) by not giving the full context or de-emphasizing say her alienation from her mother’s form of ambition, such a poem seemed to come out of nowhere. She did talk later of the book, Letters Home, to her mother (Plath wrote altogether 747 letters to her mother); these show a happy complacent girl; they were carefully selected and censored after her death. Her mother had been very angry at the portrait of a mother in The Bell Jar, thinking it was simply her when it was a composite. Kukil said her own edition of Plath’s Journals (1955-62) is the first non-censored edition of Plath’s life-writing.

Plath, Kukil said, was “fearless.” That’s why she could write such frank bold transgressive poetry. She was an artist and would go through 15 drafts (of a poem “Elm,” a wood used for coffins, a poem about loneliness). She saved drafts of her poetry. All this was inherited by Hughes. Her poems also often have political context: so a poem on electrotherapy (which she apparently had inflicted on her) connects to her memories of how the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. Peter K. Steinberg whom Kukil worked with has created a website for studying Plath’s poetry. He is the co-editor with her of the two volume The Letters of Sylvia Plath (2017/18).

They then took questions. There was a good discussion. They told of how they came to study Plath. For Kukil it was being in Smith College. They were convinced that Plath knew she would someday be studied, and wrote at least some of her letters with a later audience in mind. She would write to Hughes saying they would someday be admired as a couple of poetic geniuses. (Their image has not emerged in quite the way she thought when she first married him.) They mentioned that Frieda has had a hard emotional life: her brother, Nicholas, Sylvia’s son, had a Ph.D. and did good work in science, but he too suffered from depression and killed himself. Teachers they had were important: Pamela Hunter gave a course which included work by Plath. Smith now has a rich archive of Plath material — bought from Hughes. They spoke of a course which joined together the work of Plath with Virginia Woolf. I made a comment at that: I said I thought that Plath and Woolf resembled one another in their after reputation: both died too young to control their papers; since they killed themselves, the reaction to their work has been affected by the average person’s discomfort with suicide, and this has kept the respect they both had early on subdued; that suicide arouses hostility in many people connected to someone who killed him or herself and by outsiders to the people most closely connected (say a husband). In Plath’s case there have been duelling angry biographies; in Woolf’s many attacks on her as elitist, “out of touch” with the world, often little understanding of Leonard. Both women commented on that, basically agreeing.


Stevenson has written about how she was hampered and stymied by Olwen Hughes

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

A Kitchen — by Plath

I’ll close on discussions I’ve had with people who’ve studied and written professionally on Plath, people who have taught her poetry, and people who have read her deeply. Often they object to autobiographical reading, but this seems to me cannot be avoided; the material is often rooted in the personal, and Plath makes this plain (as did a poet of the 18th century I’ve studied, Charlotte Smith.) Friends who suffer themselves from bad headaches mentioned that Plath suffered from migraines and how these are reflected in her poems; for example, the rhythms and imagery of “Lesbos.” One seeming impersonal theme that has general application emerges circles around Medea — as we know betrayed by Jason. My friend, Fran, wrote “one major aspect in Wolf’s own treatment of the Medea theme is the way people feed on other people’s catastrophes, scandals and often actually fan the flames of defamation themselves. Here you have a voyeuristic, vampiristic crowd gloating over a homier Medea’s personal calamity:

Aftermath

Compelled by calamity’s magnet
They loiter and stare as if the house
Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought
Some scandal might any minute ooze
From a smoke-choked closet into light;
No deaths, no prodigious injuries
Glut these hunters after an old meat,
Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.

Mother Medea in a green smock
Moves humbly as any housewife through
Her ruined apartments, taking stock
Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery:
Cheated of the pyre and the rack,
The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.

One last which seems to me to show Plath at her finest is vatic:

The Moon and the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness and silence.

Ellen

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graphicfreelibrary
From The Graphic, Women reading in the London Free Library, from Lady’s Pictorial, 1895)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Eight weeks: Monday, 11:50 am to 1:15 pm, September 20 & 27; October 11 – November 8
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax Va

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” and Oliphant’s Kirsteen.  We’ll also dip into on-line excerpts from Martineau’s Autobiography, Norton’s English Laws for Women in the 19th Century, Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” and journalism; Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women”

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, ed Macdonald Daly. Penguin, 1996 ISBN: 0-140-43464-X There’s a reading of unabridged text by Juliet Stevenson on CDs, Cover to Cover)

George Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance,” from Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. Jennifer Gribble Penguin, 1998. ISBN: 0-14-043638-3. There is also an online edition of Janet’s Repentance at the University of Adelaide’s website:

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/eliot/george/e42j/

Margaret Oliphant, Kirsteen, edited by Anne Schriven. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Studies, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-948877-99-5 or Kirsteen; or the Story of a Scotch Family Seventy Years ago, ed. Merryn Williams. 1984; rpt. London: Dent Everyman, 2012. ISBNs: 9780460011457; 0460011456. Not listed at Amazon. Available at Bookfinder: http://tinyurl.com/ycn3m6rz Also Booksource: https://mybooksource.com/kirsteen.html. Here are the covers:


Kirsteen, Association of Scottish Studies


Kirsteen, Dent Everyman

Digital editions of Kirsteen (if you are willing to read online): it is available online at the University of Pennsylvania:

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/oliphant/kirsteen/kirsteen.html#I

There’s a version of Kirsteen on Kindle for $4.99; The Complete Works of George Eliot are on Kindle for $1.99, and these include Scenes of Clerical Life (which would include “Janet’s Repentance”).

On-line:

Harriet Martineau, from her Autobiography (The Fourth Period), pp 139-60 and the first few pages of Section 2:

http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7103&doc.view=print

You can also read some of her masterwork travel analysis: Society of America:

https://archive.org/details/societyinameric04martgoog

An excerpt:
http://wps.pearsoncustom.com/wps/media/objects/6714/6875653/readings/MSL_Martineau_Society_America.pdf

Caroline Norton, from English Laws for Women: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/norton/elfw/elfw.html
Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” Great Speeches from The Guardian, 2007: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches1
Sylvia Pankhurst Archive: Selection, https://www.marxists.org/archive/pankhurst-sylvia/index.htm
Virginia Woolf, “Professions for Women:”
https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter27.html (Also available in Paperback titled The Death of the Moth and other Essays)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion (essays mentioned will be sent by attachment or are on-line).

Sept 20: In class: The writing career for women and Gaskell’s. For next time: begin Mary Barton; Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Part IV, Section 1 and 2, pp 206-17.
Sept 27: In class: Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Martineau’s career and writing. For next time Woolf’s “Professions for Women.”
Oct 4: I must cancel the class as I’ll be out of town. Read ahead and on your own.
Oct 11: In class: Mary Barton. The topic of women’s professions. George Eliot’s career.
Oct 18: “Janet’s Repentance.” For next week Sections 1 and 2 of Caroline Norton’s English Laws  
Oct 25: “Janet’s Repentance.” Caroline Norton; marital laws, custody of children, violence towards women. Read as much as you can of Kirsteen.
Nov 1: Oliphant’s career and Kirsteen. Reading Kirsteen and Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death.”
Nov 8: Kirsteen. The Suffragettes.


Margaret Oliphant when young (click on the image to enlarge it)

Supplementary books, films, audio CDs:

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.
Bulwer-Lytton, Rosina. A Blighted Life: A True Story, introd Marie Mulvey Roberts. Bristol: Thoemmes, 1994.
Mackenzie, Midge. Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. NY: Knopf, 1975.
Mill, John Stuart. On the Subjection of Women (1861). Broadview Press, 2000.
Mitchell, Sally. Frances Power Cobbe: Victorian Feminist, Journalist, Reformer. University Press of Virginia: 2004.
Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2015/04/05/elizabeth-robinss-the-convert-excellent-suffragette-novel/
Shoulder to Shoulder. Script: Ken Taylor, Alan Plater, Midge Mackenzie. Dir. Waris Hussein, Moira Armstrong. Perf: Sian Philips, Angela Downs, Judy Parfitt, Georgia Brown. Six 75 minute episodes available on YouTube. BBC, 1974.
Stebbins, Lucy. A Victorian Album [Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Margaret Oliphant, Miscellanies of writers]. NY: Columbia UP, 1946.

I am desolated to discover all but one of the 6 parts of Shoulder to Shoulder have been removed from YouTube. If you have looked at YouTube in the last couple of months or so, you will see this has happened to many.  I did discover one of the parts still there: Christabal Pankhurst, which includes her speech and a new video of the women’s marching song (that’s the song they sang when they marched. So here are the two still on YouTube:

Shoulder to Shoulder Part 2
Christabel Panckhurst

the Marching Son

Here are the titles and the list — so if you better at finding this stuff maybe you can find these:

Episode 1: Emmeline Pankhurst (Sian Phillips); Episode 2: Annie Kenney(Georgia Brown); Episode 3: Lady Constance Lytton (Judy Parfitt); Episode 4:Christabel Pankhurst (Patricia Quinn); Episode 5: Outrage! (it ends on Emily Davison’s suicide by throwing herself under a group of race-horses, Sheila Ballantine as Davison and Bob Hoskins as Jack Dunn); Episode 6: Sylvia Pankhurst (Angela Down).






https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73844XHY6Y0

Sturridge, Lisa. Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.
Webb, R. K. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. NY: Columbia UP, 1960.
Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. NY: St. Martin’s, 1987. Excellent.
Wingert, Lee. Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction. Ph.D. Thesis, Iowa State University. On-line pdf

seekingsituations-jog
Ralph Hedley, Seeking Situations (1894)

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Dear Friends,

It is gratifying to be told that one of your blogs has prompted another blogger to write further on its subjects: the woman in question was part of my two series thus far of women artists: Ellen Epps Gosse.

Roger Wotton, Professor Emeritus of Biology at University College London, was moved to write about the woman he calls (as did many people she knew) Nellie as Nineteenth-Century Wonder Woman. He grew up in Devon and his book is on Philip Henry Gosse, Ellen’s father-in-law, Edmund’s father: Walking with Gosse, Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts, the introduction by Sir Patrick Bateson may serve as a review as well as short biography of Prof Wotton. His blog concentrates far more on Ellen and Edmund’s relationship as well as (understandably) Edmund and his father’s, while mine sets Ellen in the context of the remarkable number of other women artists in her immediate family and nearby kin: Ellen’s daughter, Sylvia Gosse (1881-1968):


The Semptress by Sylvia

Ellen’s sister, Emily Epps; another sister Laura Epps ,later Alma Tadema (1852-1909), and Laura’s daughter, Anna Alma Tadema (1867-1943)


Eton College Chapel by Anna

If you go over to my blog you will find I have supplied at least one picture by each of these Epps-related woman (with the exception of Emily). I was demonstrating the truth of Deborah Cherry’s argument in her Painting Women that in the 19th century women artists emerged in connected groups from connected families. When we are talking of the photographer artist, Julia Margaret Cameron, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and Angelica Garnett (the last two writers, as was Ellen Epps Gosse occasionally). We don’t see Cameron, Woolf, or Bell, as a somewhat self-enclosed family group, but this more famous Bloomsbury group fits this Victorian pattern too. I mentioned in the blog and here add a few pictures by a third less-well known group come from the Hayllarr family: Little Stackpole, Edith


Edith’s Feeding Swans

Jessica:


Jessica’s Peonies

Kate:


Kate’s Sunflowers and Hollyhocks

and Mary. Although very different in style and presentation, if you look at Vanessa Bell and even Dora Carrington’s paintings, you will find similar subjects, attitudes of tranquil stillness in reverie (scroll down to see Vanessa’s family group).

I’ve not forgotten my series of women artists. for the first series I made a linked in handy list; for the second my reader will have to be content with names you put into the search engine. I’ve been so busy with projects that will lead towards published papers, reviews, or a book to write anything new since then, except for my review of the powerful movie, Maudie, about Maud Lewis (1901-70), who now ends of the second series.

Sofonsiba and Lucia Anguissola (1535/6 – 1625; 1536/8 – 1565)
Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670)
Mary Beale (1633-1699)
Anne Killigrew (1660-1685)
Angela Kaufmann (1741-1807)
Henriette Ronner Kip (1821-1909), Posy Simmonds (b 1945)
Joanna Mary Boys Wells (1831-61)
Florence Ann Caxton (1838-1920)
Ellen Epps Gosse (1850-1929)
Beatrix Potter (1855-1943)
Ethel Reed (1874-1912)
Dora Carrington (1893-1932)
Remedios Varo (1908-1963)
Maud Lewis (1901-1970)

I have tonight at least made up a group of candidates for a third series: Anna Dorothea Therbusch, Adelaide Labille Guiard, and Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun for the 18th century; Mary Ellen Best English and German, naive art, American looking, includes illustrations, 19th century

Elizabeth Nourse and Marie Spartali Stillman for the 19th century; Emily Carr, Vanessa Bell and Paula Regno for the 20th. If I can find material, Giovanna Fratellini for 17th into 18th century Italy; and Helen McNicoll and Elin Danielson for late 19th into 20th century (the same cusp as Helen Allingham and Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes).

Two self-portraits: women often do self-portraits


Giovanni Fratelli, a Self-Portrait (1720)


Elin Danielson (1861-1919), a Self-Portrait (1890)

I would also like this time to write about women illustrators, especially Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954)


One of Green’s An Old Woman

Ellen

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Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

“While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” — Eugene V. Debs who ran for US president as a socialist

Friends,

Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover: A Romance, was the historical novel I chose to teach this summer alongside Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General. As DuMaurier’s novel was our example of great old-fashioned (pre-1960s/70s) historical fiction, so Sontag’s was our example of contemporary post-modern (yet progressive), post-colonial, feminist, self-reflexive realism (and she is even pro-animal rights). A familiar embodiment of the old-fashioned type (to anyone reading my blogs) is Winston Graham’s Poldark cycle (the first quartet falling just after WW2: Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, 1945, ’46, ’48, ’53). Among the first embodiments of contemporary post-modern historical fiction (a first full flowering), Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, and a typical choice for the Booker Prize, whose choices are always of the post-modern variety, from Scott’s Staying On (1977) and Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) to Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009).

I confess the first time I tried to read The Volcano Lover, I couldn’t get on with it. That was in 1993 when my husband Jim, gave me this book as a Christmas present. It has an inscription — not written down by him but by me. At that time Sontag’s frequent changes of era and character for her narrator without traditional signalling defeated me. I did know it in the early simple form of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, but I didn’t connect Mrs D with Volcano Lover, and anyway I just wasn’t used to reading a book which attacked the very foundations of realistic fiction, of history writing. I couldn’t have begun to read Woolf’s The Waves. Since then I had conquered much more complicated versions of this: Graham Swift’s Last Orders (now one of my many favorite books, a Booker Prize winner), and with the use of Simon Slater’s brilliant reading aloud (on CDs), Wolf Hall (another favorite). Well this past Christmas (2016) I just fell into it. No trouble at all. Exhilarating because this new wildly free structuring is accompanied by an exposure of the limits of Enlightenment thought as winning out (however slowly) over the centuries humankind’s utter irrationality, vehement appetites, greed, deep-buried (only for some) amorality, atavistic beliefs, violence, and accompanying despair, the impulse towards death.

I’ve outlined the differences between old-fashioned, traditional historical fiction and post-modern, post-colonial too many times (scroll down). I taught a course in Booker Prize books. To be sure, there is no hard and fast difference between the two eras: both kinds romance a great deal, fantasize, use anachronism (all historical fiction and films intersect the past with the present). It’s a matter of emphasis: a romance. The best aim to combine the strange with the familiar. You embody history through novelistic elements so the reader (or viewer when it’s a historical film or adaptation) experiences the past as if we were there.


View of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 9 August 1799, after a drawing by Pietro Fabris

Onto this marvelous book: we had great fun in my class the days we discussed it. As is characteristic of the type, Sontag continually takes wholly unexpected angle: instead of telling say Emma Lady Hamilton’s story or Nelson’s as a dual romance (though they are often mocked as a whore, and half-crazy naive admiral), her center was Sir William Hamilton, the collector-husband of Emma (himself remembered as a cuckold). But Sir William was a brilliant man; his is one of the collections that the British Library began with. Here he is one of those people who are central in upholding utterly corrupt regimes because it’s convenient for them to do so, in their interest. Instead of pivoting from London, or Paris, or Rome, or the usual center of empire, we find ourselves in Naples, a highly corrupt marginalized cityscape, where Sir William had ended up ambassador (longing to be somewhere else, the city of his final destination not quite Moscow).

The later 18th century from Sir William’s continual presence allows for several meditations on why people collect, on art, on obsessions (like studying volcanoes); sometimes the narrator was your conventional implied presence erupting from the later 18th century and then again she’d be Sontag of 1992,the scholar-essayist, but slipping, less distinct, and we find ourselves in World War Two (and are reminded no matter how bad our present moment, they came back, we come back from the nadir of 1943) of just after; and then again zeroing in in a specific year 1798-99 because at the core of her book (the center of the onion) was the disastrous rebellion by a small enlightened and artisan group in Naples, put down by the great hero Nelson, abandoned by the other great hero, Napoleon, and then savagely tortured and murdered. And then the perspective turns again and you are in the story matter of Puccini’s Tosca (which occurs just after that rebellion).

The most moving part of the novel is probably Part Three, Sir William’s meditation as he lays dying, but it’s arguable that the novel’s main characters are the seemingly marginalized women who variously comply with the men, rebel against them, stealthily control them (the Naples queen, Maria Carolina, sister to Antoinette, kept the garantuanly fat, asinine, blood-hungry King Ferdinand IV, on his throne), are variously destroyed, or somehow survive, sometimes grow very rich and powerful but then at the change of a male can become destitute in no time. These women are the collector’s first wife, Catherine Barlow, daughter of an MP for Pembroke, a very wealthy heiress whose money it is that Sir William is spending and carries on spending after she dies. The first part of the book ends with her death (after falling in love with William Beckford, who unlike Sir William pays attention to her). There’s Emma herself (Lady Hamilton); Emma’s mother (Mrs Cadogan, whom like the actress Farrell and her mother, Emma never left behind), Efrosina Puma (great name), the sybil who reads everyone’s fates through connecting each to a tarot card, and last but never least a remarkable journalist-poet, radical political activist, deeply humane, idealistic, Eleanor de Fonseco-Pimentel (hung). Along the way, Maria Carolina remembers her sister’s beheading in a nightmare (when she thinks the Parthenopena Republic has a chance, and suddenly we are deeply inside the mind and body of Antoinette as David so cruelly depicted, all steely pride as the cart trundles her to the guillotine. The book just soars in the fourth and last part, the concluding monologues by Emma, by her mother and by Eleanor are as important as any before and we end on Eleanor – a revolutionary, daring journalist, poet imprisoned starved raped tortured and then hung. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time — and was senselessly murdered along with a profoundly important physician of the day (Cirillo among the dead, a friend-doctor to Hamilton), humane thinkers; people understood this was disgraceful and did nothing to stop it. Her words end the novel unforgettably:

I will not allow that I was moved by justice rather than love, for justice is also a form of love. I did know about power, I did see how this world was ruled, but I did not accept it. I wanted to set an example. I wanted not to disappoint myself. But I was afraid as well as angry in ways I felt to powerless to admit. So I did not speak of my fears but rather of my hopes. I was afraid my anger would offend others, and they would destroy me. For all my certitude I feared I would never be strong enough to understand what would allow me to protect myself. Sometimes I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable. Or I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman. Thus do all women, including the author of this book. But I cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or well-being. They thought they were civilized. They were despicable. Damn them all.

So, the book’s deeply feminist. The book opened with Sontag moving into a flea market, and from there the prestigious antique show, and then she is the alter ego, the absent-present narrator half-inside the minds of Sir William and his nephew (king and knave of cups) at an 18th century auction (where bankrupt people sold their cherished things). For those who love paintings, this book is filled with descriptions of paintings that once or still do exist, of caricatures, objects historically real, and faked, and when the scene is over, you have learned much more about history than most other ways. Part of the fascination is how she brings in through allusion biographies, other historical fictions history; the book is anti-genre (these are false constraints, rhetorical schemes so slow readers can catch on) too.

But the only character I loved absolutely, bonded utterly with, cared about (well along with Catherine Barlow and Eleanor) is the monkey, Jack, whom William Lord Hamilton buys and at first loves him abjectly and shows it. At first the animal is himself and we see (Darwin-like) how just like human beings this animal is — as complex, as feelingful. But Hamilton doesn’t want that, he wants a toy, and teases and is cruel to Jack, who a quick learner, does a turn-about and becomes the performing anxious doll-like creature, the “monkey” Hamilton wanted. I felt the cruelty of Hamilton’s teasing and so bad for the monkey who died, partly of neglect (the servants would not care for it when Hamilton was away) and partly of a broken heart. Sontag has made this effect deliberately because she has Hamilton think to himself how he has been told to buy two creatures so they will not be lonely as they need their own species but he coolly will not do it. He is clearly paralleled in the book to Catherine Barlow who was depicted with Hamilton by David Allen (both impossibly idealized): she was his companion, played beautifully, gave him many ideas as she read with him


William and Catherine Hamilton

Human beings are given names they don’t lose; when they die, it is recorded; it matters, they don’t just disappear the way an animal will from a narrative. And after Catherine dies, the stage is open for Emma to come on, followed by Nelson. There is order, observance. Not for the other non-human animals in this novel. Immediately we are introduced to the disgusting King of Naples, we see him rushing out to the phony hunt, where all is set up easily for his and his courtier’s slaughters (the animals have no chance) and then we (and the king and courtiers) watch the desperately poor of Naples jumps on the non-human animals’ carcasses, tear them to pieces to eat them. Horrible horrible oh most horrible. There are scenes of such visceral depravity scattered through the novel as well as scenes of beautiful music-making, rehearsals of scholarship (on volcanoes), archaeological digs (Pompeii, a palace that is still standing in Palermo today).

I learned much reading it, what I had to look up to explain to students (about Goethe’s Italian Journal, one of Sontag’s sources). There are characters whose name she never uses: Sir William’s name appears, but he is most often called the cavaliere, Emma is occasionally Emma, but mostly the cavaliere’s wife, Nelson is always “the hero,” Goethe “the poet.” The point is to make us keep distance so we see this individual (however convincingly presented because of their idiosyncracies, there are no stereotypes here) as a type living today. The king reminds me of Trump. The (landscape artist), Tishbein (Goethe’s friend), the painter, David. Winckelmann is there, the philosopher, but what we hear about is his sordid death (a homosexual, he invited to his room a street male whore and was murdered for the money in the room).

So much learned detail of all kinds went into the book I couldn’t begin to explicate it. The novel is like DuMaurier’s anti-war and war is again seen from the woman’s point of view. A lot of the present action takes place in the palace in Palermo during the revolt against the Naples king and queen, and the brief republic that was set up – Parthenopean as I said), the ODNB retells that tragic disaster for the republicans and decent people briefly – January 1799 to middle summer 1799. Napoleon had successfully invaded in 1795 and for a while put his relative on the throne, then a deal was hatched and the Naples royality went back, the French gov’t of 1799 invaded again and this time set up a republic; but then Napoleon’s forces deserted and the reprisals taken were ferocious. Those who’ve seen the opera Tosca have been introduced to the monster head of police and torture, Baron Scarpia who did run a network of spies during this era. Angelotti– former consul, the painter, Cavaradossi — Sontag enjoys bringing in semi-fictional characters from other historical fiction works which is what the opera is,

At one point the characters are holed up in the palace of a Palermo aristocrat. Try hard as I did I could not identify who this Duke was, probably an Orsini (not Colonna), member of Patagonia aristocracy, a wealthy clan not gone from this earth even now; Goethe visited and described the villa. You can visit it today – much has been looted and is in museums. Villa La Baghera, east of Palermo. The place still exists –- this worship of objects as numinous is central to touring. Some of us might do some touring this summer – me too. I’m not exempt: we do an odd thing when we tour: we go to see something that is circled as super-special or why spend so much money and trouble to see them. We endow them with ideological magic forgetful of all the suffering and circumstances of other people at the time around these rich people who owned or made or had made these beautiful things, all these other people which made these things possible.

I now see that showing a character after death as talking to us about his or her life from the perspective of what happened later is a brilliant stroke. for myself I’ve felt that death defines life as we know it; we are ever aware how short our lives are, so a book where death is not taken seriously (where characters come back as in science fiction) must at some level be silly. I’ve changed that view. Time-traveling and the bringing back of a dead person, not as a revenant (sheer ghost) but presence of themselves are fantasy conventions that can be instruments for creating sudden illuminations. More pragmatically, I learned about another 18th century woman writer: Fonseca Pimentel is the center of a historical novel I will get to when I return to my Italian: Enzo Striano, Il resto di niente. Storia di Eleonora de Fonseca Pimentel e della rivoluzione napoletana del 1799, Napoli, Avagliano 1999; Milano, Rizzoli 2001 (available on Amazon for $4.91).

Settings include specific houses in Naples, London, the English southern counties, back to Naples, Palermo, we even go to Merton Place, the last idyllic house Emma created for her and Nelson to live out their lives together in. I said just about all the pictures including the cruel caricatures are pictures that really existed or exist still. Such things help us recreate the past. Single great lines by the narrator, single moments that strike us (probably why the book reminded the woman in my class of Tom Jones).

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I offered some history and brought into class the magnificent book that was published as an accompaniment to the art exhibit that resulted from this book: 1996: Vases and Volancoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection, ed Ian Jenkins and Kim Sloan. I passed it around the class so everyone could see some of the objects described in The Volcano Lover, and pictures of the semi-famous people. Sontag’s book shows us the circumstances surrounding these objects, and the privileges and deprivations of the people who owned or made them. The idea is to prevent cleaned up versions of what happened (ironically as in this book or exhibition) that mattered. I’m reading a book on the Highland clearances before I go see the battlefield of Culloden this August in Inverness, Scotland. Before I went to Leeds, England oh so many years ago I was told to read Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier.


Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun painted Emma Lady Hamilton as a Sybil (a Corinne) — Sontag thinks that LeBrun was half-mocking Emma here and either Emma didn’t realize this or didn’t care

Emma was famous for her “attitudes:” enacting goddesses in type roles until she grew very fat. A woman painter, Vigee-LeBrun also painted Emma as Ariadne – she was abandoned on an island by Theseus. Sontag remarks: “never in all the portraits made of her, was she depicted so patently as a courtesan (meaning whore).” I note Mrs Trump is no longer as scared to show skin; at first she was trussed head and hand to toe, not now.

There’s a rare superb biography (not condescending, not salacious) on Amy Lyon with Horatio Nelson as a secondary subject by Colin Simpson. Emma Hamilton’s birth name was Amy Lyon. Her mother was Mary Lyon and she was illegitimate. Impoverished people. She is said to have been very beautiful – 18th century taste. Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh was one of the first young squires in Cheshire to “protect” Emma, Simpson called him “an archetypical wicked philandering squire — he taught her to ride and introduced her to Charles Greville the heartless nephew of Hamilton; Greville was the one who taught her the surface manners of upper class life and then offloaded her onto Hamilton. But it was she who created (fashioned if you will) herself into a courtier; it was she who kept the Queen of Naples contented with Hamilton, she who organized fetes, she would brought Merton Place in her and Nelson’s very few months together in England. She couldn’t spell very well, but she was eloquent. In her desperate last years when she was living in hovels fleeing the creditors’ bailiffs, she wrote Featherstonehaugh (it took a lot of pride swallowing) and wonderful man sent a present of game (how good of him) and promises of more and maybe a visit to his house (that would have helped) “when times were quieter” (meaning he too worried lest he would offend). She was enormously good-natured. So many relatives were in effect vindictive and they were so lest they might have to pay her something that was intended for her. Others who said they were on her side (very like people jumping on the Trump bandwagon) could not be bothered to do anything lest somehow somewhere it hurt their interest. After all she was she: Mary Lyons’s bastard daughter and who had she been? and they couldn’t have gotten away with it but for the debtor’s laws, and I had two sentences in mind as I closed the book.

As a character in the book: very able, finds passages in texts that are wanted, writes to the Queen – she rose because she was bright, pro-active –- late in life a good hostess for Nelson and very motherly to him. The improbable couple. The thin crippled man, the heavy tall full-bodied woman. She is blamed for spending – get this. Like people on medicaid are not supposed to want white teeth like others. How dare they? She’s blamed for keeping Merton when the wise thing to do was sell immediately (her last home, made for Nelson and herself, from a raw downtrodden place into a pretty farm house, with gardens, cost a lot) but her way of how she survived so luxuriously and with upper people through life was to always keep the parade up. In her closing letters she is keeping it up with her clearly half-delusional upbeat lies (some would say looking through rose-colored glasses, others how brave and gallant)


Most depictions of Nelson are reverential (so leave out his missing arm, shoulder, eye, damaged legs, that he was so short) or they are caricatures so we might as well have this idealization: it’s a detail from Nelson imagined deeply in thought before a window and the battle of Trafalgar

Nelson: the key here is he was originally lower class; he rose through the ranks quickly in war and the two identified with one another. He was vulgar and poorly educated except insofar as his technical educationin the navy. He and she shared tastes. Each time he had a defeat he was in danger because he had few familial connections. That he died young prevented any of this from coming out. Simpson is continually showing us how the historians have distorted and got what happened wrong, and without saying so explicitly as with Sontag exposes the viciousness underlying the worship of great heroes. He’s (Simpson) is not having any of this naval genius applied to Nelson: it was the psychology of the man (coming out of his lower class origins, his ambition, his continually asserting himself with these rewards against insecurity), reminding me of a couple of mad-dog (I allude deliberately) confederate generals who were similarly early wounded and killed. Very nervy, very daring. Side issue: he was so short – like Napoleon. Nelson begins in the book on p 188. He vaults into their lives. Thumbnail sketches of people scattered through out the book, so how he looked when Emma first saw him as envisaged by Sontag; then how he looked another time. Sontag does not take sides the way DuMaurier does though we may infer her horror at Nelson’s support of the King and her detestation of the queen whom all recognized for what she was.

But “the hero” was treated very badly apart from when out of this wild risking of his and everyone else’s life to win a battle, this extraordinary daring when (to revert to Tolstoy) he realized inspirited the man to fight wildly, desperately, heroically (if we must use such words): time and time again he is snubbed; he is promised big payments which never come. Property which never materialized. He has no connections which matter. He is small awkward and his accent like Emma’s) never disappears: he likes her because she is of the lower class like him. He did leave her adequate money but the trustees and lawyers refused to pay out on all sorts of invented grounds. This part of Emma’s life reminded me of the plight of Charlotte Smith. Don’t be a woman in this world.

I didn’t omit Sontag herself. She is in her book. She was celebrity among a subset of of “in” people in New York City in the 1970s through 90s. A celebrity is someone who is famous because they are famous – much awe and silly amounts of ink or electrons are now dedicated to this topic; TV celebrities are famous because they are famous: they are just the types those who watch TV during the day want to identify with. Arts-in people who know everyone who writes for the New Yorker. She was better than this intrinsically: a writer of real depth and originality and her series of non-fiction essays have been very influential – not given the credit Foucault is because she’s a woman and not French. Against Interpretation. On Photography, Illness as a Metaphor – expatiate; Regarding the Pain of Others – expatiate. A political activist: active against the war in Vietnam, against colonialism as practiced by (among others) the US. She became infamous for a short while after 9/11 when she said, well what do you expect? You go around repressing social democracy, bombing people, training death squads, backing dictators and especially killing and destroy the chances of middle eastern people (especially young men). Not a good moment to bring this out.

As with DuMaurier, there is a complicated personal life and unusual, she made it by unconventional paths, not through her high degrees, getting tenure, giving papers but by the force of her personality and people she became closely associated with – as editor, fellow writers. She is said to have thought of herself as a novelist but her fictional corpus is very small -but then her non-fiction essays are not long either. Volcano Lover is her longest book. She wrote “an acclaimed” novel” in the 1980s. The Way We live Now, about AIDs Sontag’s parents were Jewish NYC, father died and mother remarried US army chaplain Nathan Sontag. She said her mother was distant and cold; they lived in California; her career begins when she goes to the University of Chicago where she graduates with a BA at age 18. She married Philip Rieth, father of her beloved son David; divorced after 8 years . Basically she got into circles of influential people, original thinkers, studied German. She went on for a Masters in Philosophy. Lived in late 1950s in Paris – – she said most central time of her life. She wrote and directed four films,Lady from the Sea, Alice in Bed. Bisexual and last long-time lover and partner was Annie Leibowitz; hence we have many photos and hence her book on photography. A role model, she died in 2004. she had had cancer twice before, but it came back raging Illness as metaphor came from the first bout when she had breast removal and painful bone operations – about how people treated her when they discovered she was mortally ill.

The life of Sir Wm Hamilton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is excellent and justifies Sontag’s choice. He took the post in Naples, collected Emma; Nelson too, patient, tolerance, brilliant use of an access to wealth – he was not a fabulously wealthy man like his cousin, Beckford. The nephew, and his heir, Charles Greville, cold, coolly selfish, passed Emma along to William.

Hamilton, as a character very good natured well meaning intelligent man, generous too, kindly. what’s the irony? He supports such vicious regimes. King of cups in the tarot pack Puma says. The continuance of social evils is not due to the fact that we do not know what is right, but that we prefer to continue doing what is wrong. Those who have the power to remove them do not have the will, and those who have the will have not, as yet, the power – R.H.Tawney. I don’t know who said;  “Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced.” I liked him but should we like him? – look at his behavior to Jack, to his wife Catherine. He seems to have been more taken with Emma than she with him. Entranced with her youth and beauty. His detachment suited her purpose. There is his obsession with volcanoes: by gathering things, and information he gains power and thus prestige. He counts, he matters, he is meaningful. Towards the end of the book when Wm is dying with Nelson and Emma by his side, he confuses Nelson with Tolo, his one-eyed valet (whom he calls Cyclops) who climbed up and down with him but is killed in Ferdinand’s disastrous march on Rome – anything that king did was a disaster – utterly incompetent cruel narcissist. There’s a pathos in Hamilton remembering him with such fondness late in the book

Charles Greville – selfish narrow cold mean – lots of people like this – a monster if to take care of yourself first and foremost and all that takes it is to be a monster. Both Hamilton and Greville left diaries, letters, sales catalogues, wills. Nephew and heir. Probably if I knew more about tarot cards and the pack we’d find another skein of allusion. He is Knave of cups. To jump to late in the book, Emma’s mother summing up Charles: she is ever saying all is for the best (in the best of all possible worlds). Many of Hamilton’s letters are to Charles: instructions, directions. We’re told he went after widows.

Catherine Barlow whom Sontag attributes a number of the central insights in Hamilton too left very little. As many women did and Sontag has her express relief that she will not be laughed at.  Queen of cups. Great pathos. It’s that she loves him and seems also to die of no one paying attention except for Beckford. The parallel character is Jack, the monkey – who I said was my favorite character.  I liked Harriet Fitzgerald best of all in Tom Jones. One woman in the class said the book reminded her of Tom Jones, only we didn’t have the supposedly rational narrator to fool us.

Hamilton watches Catherine die (pp. 113-16) the narrator moves forward in time about what Hamilton cannot see. I like to be taught new things: I never considered how powerful it is to have a character who is dead brought back and comment on him or herself – which is the ending of the book. New function for ghosts.

Her monologue at the end (375-80) He left her alone too much, she was not a hermit, she didn’t go to the court because she didn’t like falsity at court. When dead she thinks to herself he is remembered as the husband of his second wife, she not at all. 

The Queen of Naples peculiarly mean and vicious; we are shown during the rebellion, it matters who is in power to the powerless and vulnerable. She comes into her utterly selfish own. At one point Sontag remarks that the well-meaning are just unspeakable naïve and easy to destroy. The peasants supported the idiot king.

Sontag moves in ways that allow her to zero in on specific moments and live them fully from within and without – like the beheading of Marie Antoinette. Begins with how The Cavaliere keeps the king company and Emma, the queen. They write letters. And suddenly we are in Maria Caroline’s mind and her worst fears, her nightmare (and unadmitted to guilt): she would (rightly) be butchered. Both of them have a need for female friendship (as did Antoinette with her ladies) – she imagines herself carted away, beheaded (p. 132) – of course during this time her sister was and we have David’s cruel picture of Antoinette at her journey’s end – the two of them grieve (p 134) – we move to the volcano, then an allusion to a famous book by Elias Canetti: Auto-da-fe.
 

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Susan Sontag makes me think of Umberto Eco: a critic and essayist who turns himself into a novelist but remains a critic and essayist. Her book like DuMaurier’s is also l’ecriture-femme: the cyclical structures, the topics or subjects, the point of view, real inwardness (more than DuMaurier in KG). One of the online YouTubes of Sontag has her discussing fiction with John Berger: his and her books are about what we see, and the ethics of seeing, what is it we are seeing in this photo in this depiction of pain, how do we judge central states of our being when we refuse to recognize as natural like illness and death. Illness is not the nightime side of life. Sontag says we tell stories to give value to a life; that we long to see taboos violated; that you can tell in written form what you cannot say orally. Fiction is often moralized fantasy.

From the Savanna Illinger lecture: Sontag’s looks especially at the ethics of representations of other people’s pain. Sontag asks of a text, Does it advance our understanding of the real, denounce that which conceals human misery, substitutes sentimentalism (shallow feeling, not rooted in anything really felt). But can art make us understand the reality of another person’s suffering? If we understand, the text is still not functioning ethically unless feeling is translated into action. (A high standard here; I think it’s enough to make another person think and feel morally, recognize what is ethical, and one can then hope this will influence him or her.) For Sontag the trouble with photos (and nowadays we must add videos) is they acknowledge but do not explain. Art must create and explain the conditions that make for sympathy for those who have been victimized, ridiculed, their lives wrecked. In The Volcano Lover Illinger thinks Sontag was interested in the political consequences of egoism (the characters are all egoists). Did their art or knowledge or science contribute to a just society? For the 18th century significant moments were just before the horror falls; it seems audiences now want to experience the trauma of violence, of indignity. Sontag is not sure this helps, but she writes a book offering this latter.

To return to the course comparison of DuMaurier and Sontag: we had two fine examples of historical fiction, both by women, both anti-war. The book far truer to experience, and thus more serious, is The Volcano Lover, but both very much worth reading and studying, talking about, writing about. I was told by women in the class that most of them had not heard of The King’s General; it is one of her novels that have fallen out of public memory (there has been no film to date), so I was glad that I had assigned it. The closest non-fiction memoir I could compare KG to is Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-44 (an extraordinary book).


Daphne DuMaurier around the time Vanishing Cornwall was published

Ellen

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Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) and Maudie (Sally Hawkins) early on in film

Dear friends and readers,

A few days ago I saw a extraordinary movie which had a moment so uplifting that it caught my breath: Sherry (Kari Matchett) asks Maudie (Sally Hawkins) what has sustained her, enabled her to survive to paint these marvelously colorful expressionistic depictions of gardens, people, landscapes. Maud says with a deep sincerity, she has had windows to sit by and look at the world out of, and these experiences which she paints and from which painting and interaction within herelf give her such fulfilment, it’s enough. What more than this core does anyone have. Words to this effect.


An image of one of the real Maud Lewis’s paintings

She is living with Sherry because Sherry has taken her in after she left her partner-husband, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) because his latest form of obtuse bullying includes trying to stop her from talking of the baby she gave birth to many years ago, and how it was taken from her immediately by her aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), how they claimed the baby was born deformed and died, but was in fact (her aunt has now out of guilt and respect for Maud told her) perfectly formed, and lived. Her brother “sold” the baby, says Ida, because the couple was a stable, good pair of people and they thought this was for the best. They cannot have had Maud’s feelings in mind: we now realize she experienced an agon of grief, loss, and despair (she was led to believe she should never have children).

This is just one of an at first ever-growing pile tragic traumatic experience visited upon Maud (that we get to see): when we first meet her, she seems old, wizened, badly disabled by arthritis or some such condition, and despite this painting gay flowers. Flashback (the rest of the movie) to her in say her twenties when she is living a stifled life with this same aunt, no money, no access to any enjoyment, spoken harshly to, ripped out of her mother’s house (which her brother has now sold — he is into selling things) and left to rot with this aunt. Late at night, she quietly leaves the house and haunts a nearby roadhouse, where people are drinking, dancing, talking, and she can cage cigarettes, a glass of beer, and dream amid the noise and stars. She finds (most improbably it might seem) liberty, and then creates her life as a painter and loving companion with a silent seemingly “retarded” (he is autistic) fish-peddler (precarious living) she sees in a general store asking someone to write an advertisement for him for a “housemaid.” His house is a filthy shack. Ignoring the aunt’s protests, sneers, predictions she will be a “love slave” (which she laughs at astonished), she approaches this man and gets permission to become his housemaid.


Everett at work

More oppression is what she finds: giving her hardly any tools, no money, he demands she clean the house, cook for him (he is clearly impoverished from the state of his kitchen pots, utensils, stove), is barely civil. She has nowhere to sleep but next to him in his bed in an attic room. He speaks of an orphanage, and we gather his abominable behavior is what he learned there: he seeks control as a way of stablizing his environment. It gets so bad, he is so distrustful of her encroaching on him, taking power, that when an associate of his (also staking out a precarious living) speaks to her, and she responds, he hits her hard across the face. Her startled scream of anguish made the single slap and its sound means more than 100s killed in other movies. I thought to myself, if this keeps up, I can’t stay, and wondered if my friend (I was with a new friend) would mind if I insisted on leaving. But this is the nadir of the film.


Ride in the Snow (the movie landscape is filled with ice and snow)

Gradually she wins him over, by her patient improvements of this cottage and then her cheerful naive paintings celebratory of all around them, the natural world (we learn eventually we are in Nova Scotia, Canada), everything in the cottage, him, her, invented anecdotes. First the walls, then we see her making her painful way to a shop, grudgingly he buys her paper and paints because she has begun to use one can of paint to paint on discarded boards of wood she found outside the shack. The state of their relationship may be measured by his beginning to follow or go before her with his wagon, and then his putting her in the wagon while he pushes it ahead of him. It is Sherry’s first visit to complain that Everett has not delivered the fish she paid for that effects the first transformative change: Sherry sees the paintings on the wall, and asks Maud to paint postcards for her. She will pay Maud. Out of his first success, and Sherry’s advertising Maud to other people, telling her NYC friends, associates in gallery, Maud’s first enlarged custom comes. By this time Maud is regularly lying with Everett at night and when once he is moved to try to have sex with her, she has told the story she was told of the birth and death of a deformed baby. At that, he moves back, but he is not turned off. She has begun to write down an accounting of his business (money taken in, fish promised), and he has begun to do some and then gradually more and more of the household chores while she paints. He is alive to the money she is bringing in. The film is not sentimental. They form a partnership.


The marriage day — outside the church

But it is touching even if we feel that the roughness from him, and abject acceptance from her never goes. If I were to characterize their developing emotional relationship for the rest of the film I would use the word tender: a vein of tender affection is drawn out of him as he increasingly compensates himself for what she cannot do easily. They do make love in that bed, and (very characteristic throughout) she says gingerly and then repeats the idea they should marry, and eventually we see both of them dressing themselves respectable and carefully and then with the original friend-associate and his girlfriend coming out of a church a married couple. The mood of their life is cheerful, because very unexpectedly as soon as she is treated with minimal decency, a kind of laughter comes out of her eyes, her face shines with eagerness; she is quietly buoyant and I was reminded of the first time I saw Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s Happy-go-Lucky (as long ago as 2008), which was about a stalwart happy community (that I now associate with Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls). Hawkins has the unusual ability convincingly to bring joy out of anguish (that is what she did as Anne Elliot in the 2007 Persuasion). Aisling Walsh, the director gives them plenty of room for inward-outward display; Sherry White’s script is both simple and subtle.


Maud Lewis in front of the small house where she lived with Everett

Not until the end of the film did I realize that Maud Lewis was a real Canadian artist (1903-70), that this was a deeply empathetic biopic of a beloved artist, who had indeed been arthritic, disabled, and rescued by while she rescued, an isolated man, also disabled. Just as the credits are about to roll, photographs of the real Maud and Everett Lewis appear (and we see these actors modeled their bodily appearance on the original people). As Glenn Kerry puts it, “This film fits into a particular kind of sub-genre: the story of two lonely people, societal outcasts, who find comfort and solace with each other.” But it does not treat this theme (or any other) conventionally. It’s not a story about how wonderful is fame — indeed I as a viewer kept worrying that somehow the increasing number of people showing up at the cottage, and eventually the crooked brother, would somehow break this couple up. The suspense of the film comes from our fear they will lose one another because they remain inarticulate: each concession comes unexpectedly, not prepared for. After Maud returns to Everett, and a scene between them where each has trouble acknowledging love (for different reasons):


she listens to him, pays attention

After they come back together, he seemingly suddenly drives her to a respectable looking house outside of which is a young 20 year old woman and her husband. Everett says “there is your daughter.” He has found the girl and Maud begins to cry. They also do not move from this isolated existence, so towards the end when her arthritis is much worse and she falls in the snow while Everett is off selling fish, she is in danger of freezing to death, of badly hurting herself.

What breaks them is aging, her disability gets worse. She cannot walk far, can hardly hold her brushes. She has throughout the movie smoked and now she can’t breathe. A doctor shows up, and declares she has emphysema and must stop smoking. Everett declares (in his usual bullying manner) she already has. But it is too late. One night together in their now electric-lit, heated, comfortable home, she falls over unable to breathe. He rushes her to a hospital, where she gradually dies. Hawkins performs her usual spectacular acting (she was an inimitable Duchess of Gloucester, jealous, foolishly playing with superstition, then blamed and tortured, gone mad in the Hollow Crown), but Ethan Hawke is not far behind. He looks different, thicker than his usual types, gradually utterly convincing. As he walked away from the hospital to loneliness in this cottage filled with her things, her absent present I remembered him when young in Sunrise, and then five years later Sunset with Julie Delpy, then ten years on, Midnight, and somehow this movie seemed another phase, with his beloved partner now deeply aged and quietly much wiser.

I write this detailed review because the blurbs on IMDB are so distorted (this is the story of an arthritic housekeeper who makes good in her community one runs — what community?) and the reviews few and uncomprehending or uncomfortable. It seems disabled people living in poverty need to be prettied up more. Manola Dargis sees the film as “about the fantasies we make of our lives as we spin beauty and hope from despair.” There is a book, Lance Woolaver’s Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door where he shows a desperate life. Everett Lewis was a far more difficult man to live with than the film makes out. The movie softens, but it’s often through remembering and emphasizing the paintings, the imagery, the artist painting.


Cats

I often despair, I’m alone much of the time, and it was good for me to have validated the kinds of moments (mine literary) I have which make all the hard and tiring parts of life, the awareness of how excluded I am, still worth enduring for me. This has come to be another in my series of women artists. Maybe I will find the spirit to return to these yet.


A slightly sadder picture

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred, and Martha (cannot find actress’s name)

Friends and readers,

I’m over a week late in writing about the finale to this year’s film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9), but I want to offer some closure and a comparison with Atwood’s novel’s close.

This was another intensely grim and cruel episode: every human feeling that is natural and loving is thwarted; all the people living under this regime who are said to be powerful are seething with frustration; there seems to be no kindness anywhere until near the end of the hour when Moira-Ruby reaches Canada, and when Nick seems to enable Offred to at least leave the dead souls (man and wife) now at the core of the Waterford home. The only natural people are Nick, the Martha (who tells the story of her son’s death during the war they lost, for whom she grieves still).

As in the first episodes, the film-makers are past masters at coming up with the most terrorizing kinds of moods — Offred is to be punished with the other women — she showed she had power in the previous episode when she had to be turned to to persuade Offwarren not to throw her baby over the bridge: she is viciously hurt with that electric prod; she is taken and something seared in her ear; then Mrs Waterford is beating the hell out of her for the adultery she has endured in the Commander’s bed — Mrs Waterford has found her dress, and then dares to challenge her husband, which gets her nowwhere (as he answers to God, so she answers to him, a rephrase of Milton’s famous: he for God, she for God in him). What saves Offred momentarily is she is found to be pregnant and that overcomes all he transgressions (no, I will not use the verb “trumps” as it is now peculiarly ruined, sour) — except Mrs Waterford tells the commander it’s not his. That this does grate on him is seen when he questions Offred and elicits from her the misinformation of course the child is his. In fact, we have good reason to believe it’s Nick’s, and without sufficient explanation it is Nick who somehow engineers her escape from this home at the end of the episode into a shut truck which may be taking her into worse darkness or into the “light” (liberty)


Nick’s response when he realizes that Offred is pregnant and it is probably his

Offred now entitled to a good breakfast, but after witnessing the above scene of natural affection between Nick (glad of the pregnancy — this idea of children, sentimental behavior to them is not challenged by the series) and Offred takes her and cruelly shows her Hanna from afar without letting Hanna get close. Offred is locked in a car with strong windows and she cannot reach her child sitting on a school’s steps. Offed goes mad with frustration. Mrs Waterford re-enters the car and threatens to kill Hanna if this baby that Offred is carrying does not survive. Or she Mrs Waterford does not somehow become its mother. In a review I did some years ago of a study of the function of discarded children, nowadays abortions, dead babies, child-abandonment or murder, I discovered that such events are often at the core of searing novels (from Christina Stead’s The Man who loved Children to Winston Graham’s Marnie, an image not mentioned much in all that has been written about Hitchcock’s film) Offred, terrified because she cannot control nature (guarantee her pregnancy will go to term), tells Mr Wwaterford about his wife’s threats; he refuses to believe her. Meanwhile the man whom Offwarren had had to service and exposed as seducing he is humiliated and the egregious hypocrisy of a council leads them to use science – one of these hideous operations to which our society subjects people — to cut the man’s arm off. This “operation” is classic gothic (used in Branagh’s Frankenstein): one of the motifs of gothic is exposing science as inhumane, cruel, used for perversion. I have reason to know tonight egregious operations are performed in dentistry too.

Late that night Offred tries to visit Nick and he seems not to be there His house is shrouded in darkness, — or he’s not coming out in the night. Tired, she returns to her room and opens the package that Jezebel had delivered to her, and discovers it is brim full of hundreds of notes telling the dire stories of the different handmaid’s. We watch her reading these with a kind of joy, and then carefully stowing them away. Near the close of the episode they are rescued as evidence by one of the hand-maid’s.

Woven into the episode (across it, like a tapestry) Ruby-Moira’s escape to Ontario. We see her toil across snow and ice, avoid shots, and finally arrive at a bleak garage like room where she is taken in. Switch to a hospital like place where she has been fed, redressed, is asked if she has any family, and when she says no, is provided with a family from Offred (her husband Luke) and then (wonderful to an American) given insurance cards; welcomed warmly, given warm close and looks about her to see pictures of other invented families on the boards of the hospital corridor. Humanity conquers biology.


Luke in corridor in Canada

The final perversion in Gilead is the handmaid’s are led into a circle to stone someone to death and discover the person is Offwarren, subject to such brutality and from their hands for endangering her baby. First one brave handmaid refuses this outrage and a guard beats her ferociously, but then Offred steps forward into the circle, and drops her tone on the ground, “sorry Aunt Lydia,” and all follow suit, one by one. Lydia seems to feel here is a battle she should yield on (however temporarily). So she gives in, but says ominously “there will be consequences.” The girls return home as a group in triumph, each off to “her” home.

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) confronts Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) over cradle

These are seen at the ending as Offred remembers a happy moment with Luke after she is first pregnant with Hanna or has given birth (marveling over the child’s hands). This contrasts with a scene between the Waterfords where she and he attempt to reach one another humanly, to make love, but are intensely stiff, and seemingly fail emotionally. They must first admit and resolve their new perverted emotional lives, hers one of extreme resentment, frustration and probably self-blame, his still obtuse hypocrisy and reveling in power.

Then the ambiguous ending: as before Offred is woken in the middle of the night, pulled out of bed, dressed but as she comes down the stairs, she finds that both Mr and Mrs Waterford are desperately protesting and cast aside. There is Nick telling her to get into the truck, and she is locked in, the truck driven away. The camera focuses on he inside and for reasons that do not seem reasonable she is filled with hope and triumph (yet says she does not know what is ahead). The episode is called “Night.” Many of the episodes are filmed as if in night’s darkness. The 1999 film has Offred escaping with Nick and he daughter to a landscape of refuges, now pregant, rather like Julie Christie at the close of Heat and Dust finds peace in a refuge center high on a mountain where she comes to give birth. I am not eager to watch next season unless Atwood herself writes the script — I fear that the hard satire at the center which came from Atwood’s extraordinary book would not be kept up.

Atwood’s book’s ending is utterly different from both films: it is a piece of astonishing sleight-of-hand utterly skeptical of all we have read – not we did not experience it, but that we are led to see it as a manuscript from a time a century or so ago whose truthfulness we cannot check. Atwood times travels for her close. We are at a conference where the male professors are discussing a manuscript from another time and place. So fast forward to the future and the past looks very different, not so searing as here we are today, presumably safe and sound. This coda is a satire on academics, and their pretenses at humanity. The patriarchy reasserts itself too. The story in the book is more persuasively real than either film because psychologically credible throughout with the characters having inner complexities, especially Offred in her relationship with Mr Waterford (though this tends to excuse him, it even handedly shows sympathy for males caught up in patriarchy).

Here’s a personal take: the vision of this society is of imprisonment. Inside Gilead all are in prisons, prisons made of mind-sets, prisons dependent on punishment, prisons of hypocrisy, prisons of power. Supposedly competition is eliminated for some greater good, but the greater good is for the very few and is itself hedged by ideas that natural pleasures are sins.

We are in prisons or what we’ve built from our pasts; my neighbor-friend told me once when I was first friendly with her, that she felt when her husband died, her past had been wiped out, it was as if it didn’t exist. She was talking of personal memories, and the reality that they were diplomats and moved around the world so she first took root again in DC — luckily for she had a good job at the German institute, a private educational place serving the public (like so many in the US part private) teaching foreign languages to people going to and coming from abroad (then English), but much of her life is the product of her past. I’ve tried hard for 3 years to create a new existence for myself but find I cannot escape my past and to make something new and new relationships, create a new self at 70 well nigh impossible. My beautiful house, the books — if I move and reject them, then I have nothing. Both parents dead, no siblings, a couple of cousins and aunt who lives far away. As we age, we are prisoners of time and our bodies and these a product often of years of interaction, some considered and more free, others subject and subjected. The series is about enforcing pregnancy and regimenting the body. Power in it is based on paining bodies. Others are imprisoned in other ways — social life’s customs and patterns deeply fixed, regiments. Even the weather here — now ceaselessly hot — keeps people in who are not at the beach or taking trips.


Samira Wiley who plays Moira-Ruby — off hours, out of character

Atwood is showing the imprisonment rituals and ways of life are perverse in our world by her exaggerations of our world in her Gilead. At the time there were other female dystopias about wars between the sexes (one by Suzie McKee Charnas) where the women win or they lose. There is no gain for real from it. Interesting all the non-Gilead pasts in the min-series are of a hard brash difficult commercialized world where happiness is snatched at home from tiny nuclear groups attached to one another. It’s not really a Nazi or fascist vision, but simply capitalist and militarist in all the buildings and appurtenances we see. Food is associated with women who are cooks both in the past, outside and in Gilead; it is women who give birth but the outcome of this process intensely controlled.


Atwood herself in an authorized photo

Of course Margaret Atwood is a foremother and present-day poet of great achievement and stature. From her rich poetic writing, here is the appropriate (for Handmaid’s Tale)

Werewolf Movies

Men who imagine themselves covered with fur and sprouting
fangs, why do they do that? Padding among wet
moonstruck treetrunks crouched on all fours, sniffing
the mulch of sodden leaves, or knuckling
their brambly way, arms dangling like outsized
pajamas, hair all over them, noses and lips
sucked back into their faces, nothing left of their kindly
smiles but yellow eyes and a muzzle. This gives them
pleasure, they think they’d be
more animal. Could then freely growl, and tackle
women carrying groceries, opening
their doors with keys. Freedom would be
bared ankles, the din of tearing: rubber, cloth,
whatever. Getting down to basics. Peel, they say
to strippers, meaning: take off the skin.
A guzzle of flesh
dogfood, ears in the bowl. But
no animal does that: couple and kill,
or kill first: rip up its egg, its future.
No animal eats its mate’s throat, except
spiders and certain insects, when it’s the protein
male who’s gobbled. Why do they have this dream then?
Dress-ups for boys, some last escape
from having to be lawyers? Or a
rebellion against the mute
resistance of objects: reproach of the
pillowcase big with pillow, the tea-
cosy swollen with its warm
pot, not soft as it looks but hard
as it feels, round tummies of saved string in the top
drawer tethering them down. What joy, to smash the
tyranny of the doorknob, sink your teeth
into the inert defiant eiderdown with matching
spring-print queensized sheets and listen to her
scream. Surrender.

Ellen

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