Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘20th century’ Category


Emily Mortimer as Florence near the close of The Bookshop (Croixet, 2018)

She [had] blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former at any given moment, predominating — Fitzgerald, Bookshop, Chapter 3, p 37)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m writing this in the spirit of my “39th footnote” to my review blog on the movie, Belle. This blog is a corrective, a qualifier of the one I wrote on the movie and book last summer. This time I take seriously poltergeist in Fitzgerald’s novella, align the novella with Austen’s use of a naif and satiric gothic in Northanger Abbey, and uncover a very different kind of novel than we (or Isabel Croixet) thought we had.

This summer I have been teaching a course based on Booker Prize books once again (see Autumn OLLI at AU, Spring OLLI at Mason). So for a second time I’ve read and discussed Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop with a class of retired adults. This time differed from the last because I’ve started bringing in my laptop and myself showing specific chosen clips from DVD videos to discuss film art for real, and connect what we learn from our viewing to the book.

Not because of the film, but because I managed to get more into the book with the class, into its details, this time I brought out the problem of the poltergeist in the novel much more emphatically. I suggested the existence of this poltergeist is a problem, because otherwise, even if the novel is not wholly realistic, is fable-like, it’s mostly realistic. And yet we have several terrifying scenes of rapping, harassing and haunted sequences where Florence alone and then Florence with her helper, the 11 year old Christine are frightened, made acutely uncomfortable. Add to the way the house is described as old, damp, falling into desuetude (needing work on pipes, on the heat): instead of a potential art center (which Mrs Gamart says she wants to make the building into) what we have is a potential trap for destroying a vulnerable heroine’s spirit or life. The book bears a mild resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

And that is precisely what happens because by the end of the book, due to the machinations of the spiteful domineering Mrs Gamart, and the complicit help of a banker, solicitor, people in the education department, Mrs Gamart’s nephew who passes a bill that enables Mrs Gamart to evict Florence, and the neighborhood which stops patronizing Florence’s store, Florence loses everything. Her life savings, the house she lived in before, all her furniture, and in the book is last seen at a bus stop with her suitcase and two salvaged Everyman books (Ruskin’s Unto This Last and Bunyan’s Grace Abounding), waiting to board a train to take her far from where she had had a home with her husband and after his death, the eight years of her widowhood. Shades of Cathy Come Home.

Then what happened is a couple of the people in the class said, why not take the poltergeist seriously. Between the three of us, we came up with the idea that the poltergeist is a doppelganger and surrogate for Mrs Gamart. This ghost stands for how Florence is undermined from within when Milo North, the treacherous BBC person, becomes an instrument of Mrs Gamart’s and tempts Florence to buy 250 copies of Lolita: an ambiguous book, both repulsive, pornographic, mean and yet much respected because thought to be “good” by Graham Greene and Mr Brundish, Florence’s one pro-active faithful friend, and a best-seller too. North offers himself up as an inexpensive employee when Christine is forbidden to work in the shop, but when Florence leaves, he turns the sign on the door to “closed” and allows the city inspectors to come in to find the house to be dangerous to live in. Jack Sullivan in his Elegant Nightmares argues that the ghost story is a popular version of Kafka where the universe itself turns malevolent and innocent victims who happen to be in the way of some harrowing vendetta end up destroyed or dead. Mrs Gamart is continually intrusive and insidious, a poltergeist herself.

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


Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe (Northanger Abbey, 2008)


Florence and Christine Gipping (The Bookshop, 2018)


Eleanor Tilney and Catherine reading Isabella’s letter (NA, 2008)

Another aspect of the book that came up in our discussions was its likeness to Northanger Abbey: like Catherine Morland, Florence is a good, kind person, generous, and more naive than is believable. Everything is so stacked against her. Everyone. It takes Florence a long time to realize that Mrs Gamart is closing a noose around her neck, and that she is fighting a battle she will lose. She is all heart and lives by love instead of distrust, false performative ways, manipulation. Northanger Abbey is an anti-gothic gothic novel: it critiques the gothic novel for exaggerations and promoting false (titillating fears) when real human nature is villainous enough. NA too has realistic sequences, and harrowing ones as Catherine begins to believe the general has hidden his wife away in some prison in the for 9 years. Mrs Gamart is just as much a vampire as Henry Tilney said his father was to his mother: she drained the life out of Florence’s shop and took the identity Florence wanted to build for herself.

The film by Isabel Croixet drops the poltergeist altogether and although she photographs the meadows, marshes, and the nearness of the seas, the basic tonal palette of the film is not grey, but often bright and blue, hopeful. She provides a narrator in the form of Christine now all grown up and looking back, concerned to explain, vindicate, show Florence’s courage and high selfless ideal to share her love of books with the people of the town. At the same time Florence has shown remarkable courage, a quiet desperate gentle heroism in holding out. And there are very happy moments, when for example, she sets up her shop and organizes her books, when she puts her sign out, and in the early days of interest and excitement; and in her relationship with Christine. At the close of the film unlike the book, Christine burns the shop down so Mrs Gamart cannot take it over, is seen waving Florence away, Florence still encouraging her to read, and now has herself opened up a very successful bookshop. In the book all we know is that Christine is “onto” North (“you’d better watch it”) and does not last in the bookshop that Mrs Gamart set up in another town as rival to Florence’s and that Christine’s mother sent her to.

But this time I did notice many more dark scenes, more distress, the indifference of the townspeople, their anger and alienation from Florence at the end precisely because they have given in & helped Mrs Gamart destroy her; and above all, the role of Bill Nighy, nervous recluse, who while his taste leaves something to be desires, goes out to fight like a knight, and loses the battle. Telling truths to Mrs Gamart does not deter her, and he has an heart attack from the effort.


The brilliant Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish trying & failing to get through


Sky afterwards


Leaves on the ground — it’s November


Far shot of body — we glimpse Florence’s kerchief in his pocket

It might not have taken that much to add genuine shadows of the gothic

The novel is very sad, melancholy, the darkest of all Fitzgerald’s books, and now I’m thinking that a gothic film more in the vein of Northanger Abbey might have been made out of it, and also one which would have more adequately captured the intuitive spiritual feeling of Fitzgerald’s book. See where I wrote a couple of years ago now on just Fitzgerald as a writer in the context of her life and other works, again especially The Bookshop, but together with Offshore, Hermione Lee’s biography and Fitzgerald’s study of the poet Charlotte Mew.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Abbreviated subtitle in Italian translates as Youth


Abbreviated subtitle in Italian translates as Middle Time

Friends and readers,

It’s been five months since I wrote my second blog on Elena Ferrante’s work: in February I wrote about the issue of her choice to remain anonymous (now pseudonymous), a few of her novellas, her supposed child’s picture book, and the first of her quartet of Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, and the 8 part film adaptation of the book that was shown on HBO. Its abbreviated three subtitles translate into Prologue, Childhood and Adolescence. (My first blog was me being stunned by her Days of Abandonment, about which beyond what I could get from the book itself I knew nothing at all.) Since then I’ve read the second and third volume of this quartet as I think the whole group are intended as a retelling of the life of a woman in a fascist European society for and about woman by a compelling truth-telling self-consciously female novelist of our era.

One of the ways this is mainsteamed book and has been able to capture a large audience as Ferrante’s powerful novellas have not: like Sense and Sensibility, where the point of view is Elinor’s and Marianne is the one we watch, so here the point of view is Lenu remembering and so everything is softened, seen from afar or guessed at based on these notebooks that Lenu has dropped in the river. In the second and middle book Lenu (rightly for safety and some fulfillment of her gifts) buys into the same middle class life Nino manages to establish a better place in (on his own right, not through marriage). This also has the effect of not having to show us the pain, humiliation, difficulty that Lenu too has with her manners, lack of clothes, who she has to kowtow to. The earlier novels gave us Lila’s kind of experience raw and angry or nightmarish; or (The Il figlia oscura, the Lost Daughter), a quiet interlude of a Lenu kind of character at the beach contemplating the fraught experience from afar but only talking of what is happening now — as she steals a doll say, or marks papers. Imagine Sense and Sensibility from Marianne’s point of view. That is Ferrante’s novellas. Ferrante permitted herself to write an introduction to an edition of Sense and Sensibility, so important is this book to her; so too, apparently, Alcott’s Little Women.


From an add for the film adaptation of My Brilliant Friend


A still from Andrew Davies’s Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: he has framed the talk so that we concentrate on Elinor’s taking in of what Marianne has to say; Austen’s book and all the films are from Elinor’s POV

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

The Story of a New Name begins and ends in medias res. My Brilliant Friend ended with Lila’s wedding, and Stefano’s first betrayal of some promises he made to her. The storyline itself begins with their “honeymoon” where we get as graphic and disillusioned an account of forced graphic sex (Stefano continually beats Lila who appears to dislike sex — justifiably) as I’ve ever read. Lenu (Elena Greco) has dropped out of school so confused and frightened is she by how she is treated at Lila’s wedding, her mother’s behavior to her, what she doesn’t see as the result of hard study, and only gradually is she being brought back to study by Lila who buys her books (Lenu’s parents have no money for books or clothes for her, or even a private space) and gives Lenu a room of her own to study in within the elegant large apartment Lila has to live in as Stefano’s wife. Then Lenu attracts a mentor while Lila begins to thrive as a businesswoman for the Caracci and Solari groceries and shoestores: both displease their relatives, Lenu for seemingly doing nothing that will lead to money or the world’s respect, Lila for not getting pregnant and then having miscarriages (she is 17).

Lila is taken to a modern doctor and oh did this resonate with me. Room filled with customers, everyone in awe of this man. From Lila’s point of view, he gets to invade her with his metal instruments. She feels violated. And he says (I have heard a male doctor say this of me after examining me): “it’s all there” in this satisfied voice. I don’t know why I didn’t report him to Kaiser, but suspect it was because he was a black doctor (I’m really honest here) and was worried I wouldn’t be believed and be thought racist. There you go. But after that I never went to any male gynecologist ever. When I was 16 I was taken to just such a prestigious place and was violated similarly — or felt so. And given this “down from the throne advice” in this disdainful manner. I think the same things go on today in the US – clearly they go on in Italy. I never went to a male gynecologist in the British national health but remember the woman I got contraception from also treated me with a lack of respect because at the time I was not married.

This is the youth of these young women. What stands out? All sorts of passionate incidents where the underlying values of the society are exposed in the most raw ways. Early in Lila’s married life how important are having expensive things and much money. The acceptance of the infliction of violence upon women by men in the women’s families. I was struck by how Lila ignorantly insists on going to a party with Lenu to which Lenu’s mentor has invited Lenu and Lila doesn’t realize until afterwards how she cannot and never will fit in again. How I bonded with her.

Before going, Lenu becomes intensely anxious over — in just the ways I would. What shall I wear? she has no money either. How shall I appear? what say? her problem is not solved by Lila offering to come with her. Lila does dress right (blouse and skirt, nice ones with heels) but does not at all fit in. It’s a devastating lesson for Lila which we see only from the outside. Lenu fits in because she is known for her good work and people talk to her of it (like I remember people talking to me of my blogs). On the way home Lila is malicious and does all she can to hurt Lenu: we have seen Lila walks around with bruises from that husband of hers, who himself had hoped to be let in. How they have no idea.

While there Lenu learns that Nino is being published in much more prestigious journals than her mentor: this is the kind of thing that now passes Lila by. The title of the book points us to how the story line of the book is the depiction of the life of Lila (Raffaella Cerullo) as long as she stays married to Stefano Carracci.

The storyline has them then both going to Ischia, because the doctor recommended rest and relaxation — but with Lila’s mother, Nunzia, as chaperon and guard-dog and sister-in-law, Pinuccia Caracci who has married Lila’s brother, Rino, and become spiteful under his mistreatment of her and Lenu as Lila’s paid servant. It is there the two girls re-meet Nino and fall in love with him. Lila and Pinuccia are utterly subject to their husband’s weekend visits (sex is demanded continually when the men want it).

About 3/4s the way through the novel Lila does the astonishingly brave act of leaving Stefano in the early stages of an ecstatic love affair with Nino Sarratore; he tires quickly of her, partly based on her working class manners which will prevent him from going on with his middle class academic-writer career, and she is rescued from destitution first by the faithful Pasquale Peluso (now a construction worker and communist), and then (becoming his live-in but not sex partner) Enzo Scanno (a peddlar of fruit and vegetables who under Lila’s influence studies mathematics, engineering, computer science. She has had a baby and believes it to be Nino’s — who takes no interest whatsoever in this boy. She lives in squalor because Enzo and Pasquale make very little money. All three become involved in violent working class politics against the fascist regime.

At the same time interwoven in by Lenu (Elena Greco) as the central narrator, is Lenu’s life as college student, her very hard work, and then (having been noticed and picked up by an important female mentor, a professor Galiani), first experience as a published novelist, and political journalist (very briefly). It seems that in this era it is very difficult for any woman to sustain a money-paying position in university. Both girls have by the end of the novel had at least two lovers — Lenu moves from an engagement with a neighborhood working class boy, Antonio, to a potentially high academic, Franco Mario. Lenu has learned the manners of the middling to upper class and has been betrayed by Nino twice: after he stood up for her novel at the close of My Brilliant Friend, he again thwarts her publication in one of the journals he writes for; he choses Lila over her without letting her know this until Lila exposes everything by flight; meanwhile he has gotten another girl pregnant and ignored girl and child. By the end of the book Lenu has become bethrothed to a male academic student, Pietro Airota, whose family connections, especially his mother, Adele, just about guarantee him a lucrative career in university. he is a kindly unaggressive man attracted to her body and mind.

The framing of this book must not be left out. My Brilliant Friend began with the disappearance of the 66 year old Lila. The Story of a New Name begins with Lila again near present time (in her sixties), who we are told is no longer close to Lenu, giving Lenu a large metal box with 8 — need I say precious – notebooks of her life story in it. Fat important unrepeatable diaries. After reading them, Lenu dumps them in a river. I had to stand up, walk about and then sit down for a while before I could take that cruel an act in. Since Alcott’s Little Women is again alluded to in this book let e say I thought about thow Jo could recreate a novel after Amy destroyed the manuscript. No one can re-create 8 volumes of daily & nightly record-keeping. Towards the end of the book Lenu recurs to this diary and says the suddenly inserted narrative she has of Lila’s life with Stefano after she went back to him briefly after Nino left her and now her life with Enzo comes from there. I should say the book is crudely put together at times.

I like this part where we learn of her studying, her trying to pass exams, finally the books she read, one young man she gets involved with and they fuck. But she says that she and Lila somehow came together in the old intense way and now she must tell of how wrong she was about what was going on. We are told how she surprised people by bringing together unexpected books, themes, characters, What is not surprising is Lila carries on with a torrid mad affair with Nino — reminding me of the 18th century Paul and Virginie only this time there is a husband. But in her notebooks (which we know after the first sequence Lenu unforgivably has dumped into the sea) what Lila exulted in was not so much the sex as what they read and talked about

Nor should I omit the art — or lack of it. Ferrante’s book is not polished and smooth, and unlike say Austen (whom Ferrante appears to admire and regard as a predecessor) Ferrante does not try to imitate the passing of time so as to give us a sense of long time for years passing and short time for quick events; she will leap suddenly forward and then turn back to tell what she had not brought in before. The Italian itself is far more demotic than the register for elegant concise English Ann Goldstein uses. At the same time unlike My Brilliant Friend where very few of the characters become alive and distinctive beyond our two heroines, by the end of this novel all the major players in Lenu and Lila’s life have become complex living presences.

Unexpectedly Nunzia is one of these. She emerges for the first time as a woman with a brain and a heart. She hardly ever leaves the house — so shy — but she loves being there and does walk out to the beach. She says how Lila should have gone to school and be going now but they hadn’t the money and her husband wouldn’t hear of it. She says they are far too young to be married. She likes Lenu — but we know were she alerted to what’s really happening on the island of Ischia (Nino’s affair with Lila, his pretended love for Lenu, and Pinuccia’s having an affair with Nino’s friend, Bruno), Nunzia would tell their husbands (paradoxically out of fear she backs the patriarchy that has destroyed her life’s chances, become the girls’ enemy.

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

The irony of the title, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is there is no leaving. Don’t kid yourself. You cannot escape the all encompassing mindset filth of the corrupt deteriorating world of 21st century Italy.

As the third novel of the quartet opens, Lila and Lenu are walking through the old neighborhood together. Lila is now living in her parents’ old apartment with her son, for now clearly identified as Nino’s. So her child has not a moron for a parent. Lenu is about to married to Pietro Airota, his mother Adele, has become her mentor, but because she did not go to the right university, she has a lower level teaching job and until she marries lives with her parents – not enough money. Lila has lost whatever conventional beauty she had, her thin hair is white, her face lined from exhaustion and worry, she is bitter. Lenu fights fat. As they walk they come across a horrifying corpse, it’s the remains of a suicide, one of the girls familiar from the previous novel, her face and body ruined, her mind devastated — it reminds me of Troubled Love, which is about the suicide of the heroine’s mother and the heroine’s attempt to cope with burying her.

We gradually move back to the scene we left off at where Nino had stood defending Lenu’s book, and now Ferrante makes this believable because she adds all the nasty politics of real university life. I have not read such a raw depiction of this milieu and from a lower class woman’s point of view (fringe person) before. I find such writing down of truth exhilarating. She includes the perniciousness of fights over theory (sexual and class oriented). She’s very good at how the language is used to exclude and protect, intimidate anyone not using it as inferior (stupid). Lila has not gotten to the first base to understand quite how she is shut out and why — or even that to help Enzo it is not enough that he should understand skills and content.

After Lenu dramatizes her fiancee’s meeting with her parent and his parents with hers, we see that Pietro is a man with considerable social gifts; I begin to get nervous because nonetheless the wedding is put off again; now his mother insists on using her influenced to get them a lovely apartment inexpensively in the part of Florence where high cultural people reside and an interesting life may be had. I fear Lenu will not marry him. Then we switch to Lila whose tragic hard story — not that she sees it quite that way — Lenu feels we must know — it’s happening at the same time

What I want to report is both girls are often sexually harassed. We get so many casual scenes of these male academics, old and younger, trying to get into bed or use Lenu. It rings so true. Similary in the horrible sausage factory Lila is assailed by the boss and others. Lila tries to soothe Enzo and Pasquale Peluso (who remains with her in effect as a loving friend) by saying she fends them off or they have stopped. But it’s not so. The book is so true to life — yet I want to say that for myself after my wretched teenagehood, when I went out to work by then married to Jim I was never so assailed. I’d catch a male looking at me, but no approach. I begin to wonder if I was ugly — or, what I do think, is I was so traumatized by what had happened to me as a teenager that I let off signals to the males in these universities, offices &c that this is the last thing in the world I’d want.

The narrative has switched to tell Lila’s story from her point of view as if we had an omniscient narrator — but we don’t. This is part of the book’s rawness. Lila’s life has become unbearably desolating: from the hard wretched work in the factory, the terrible conditions, how she right away understands that when she feeds information to the union, they have no idea how to act effectively. Her relationship with Enzo is troubled: he cannot understand that she wants no sex with anyone. When the book opens she is neglected looking,here we felt that she has developed a murmur in her heart so stressful is her inward existence …

Suddenly (as I wrote) Ferrante switches back to Lenu living with Pietro. In spurts going back and forth, she marries him and says she remembers nothing. So we get no description. In a couple of paragraphs she has a baby girl and insists on breast-feeding at first it goes well but quickly the child is biting, wailing and both just miserable. The mother-in-law moves in but Lenu remains fixated, she does not clean of keep the house. Her writing degenerates, no spirit in it. Ferrante is exploring motherhood again and trying to show how a mother can seem a monster but can’t get herself quite to pull this off clearly and sophisticatedly.

Lenu’s younger sister goes to live with Marcello Solaro, much older than she, a thug, fascist, and there has been no marriage. Lenu rushes with family and husband back to Naples to try to stop this relationship and finds she cannot. She is treated with envy and a sense of alienation and a false respect as is her husband. She has tried to have real communication with Lila but Lila remains at a distance, half mocking and we learn that along with her great prowess as a programmer she has something to do with the people who run around shooting politicians — from the side of the radical left.

I am puzzled with Lenu she is treated — there is so little respect with such a pretense of respect. She is forced into visiting her sister, and then finds a party set up and an insistence she and her husband and her children stay with the sister instead of escaping to a hotel.

Lila’s part of the novel (also Pasquale) are a series of newspaper reports (in effect) of who murdered who, who destroyed whose legs, face, business.

The last quarter: “life goes on.” The details told about Lenu’s life especially mirror those we find as central to the lives of her heroines in other of her novels. In The Lost Daughter, the woman who has left her husband, gotten a job teaching (in a college of some sort) has had two daughters who sided with the father. Lenu now has two daughters: Adele and Elsa, and she has not been getting along with Pietro for all sorts of reasons for quite some time. At one point Again Lila unloads her son, now called Gennaro, on Lenu one summer and Lenu is really expected to take this child on because Lila is busy with her spectacular managing and pre-computerizing of companies. Lenu does balk and finally send the boy back (he is a Stefano) but she is breaking an understood demand

Just about all the characters who came alive at the end of the second volume are part of her story and there is a frightening acknowledged class war going on with people who are socialists murdering the fascists after the fascists have murdered or imprisoned them. Pasquale and Nadia (Galiani’s daughter) are part of this. So too Lila is a participant on the side. Grim horrible working conditions and poverty are part of this.

In the last part Nino insinuates himself into the home of Pietro and Lenu, and after first seducing Pietro to become a best friend, Nino insults and alienates him, and simply takes Lenu as a lover. Against the anger, will power, hurt of Eleanora, Nino’s dull uneducated but rich wife, Nino is leaving with Elena. She just drops, or abandons her two daughters; by leaving Pietro in this way Elena’s publications (the product of Pietro’s mother’s influence, and the influence of his sister) are in danger. Nino too is casting aside many of his relationships that he needs as a successful professor.

At first I felt that wrongly Ferrante was on the side of Lenu as striking out for whatever gives her joy, leads her to write. She has long been bored by Pietro, but the parallel with what Nino did to Lila at the opening of the book is so explicit. We are told Lenu and Nino especially are dazzled by this mad relationship of frantic love making; he is leading her into the same act as he led Lila, but we know he left Lila one month later.. Said he couldn’t stand her or it, and many years later bad mouthed Lila to the point of scorning her way of giving herself sexually to him. He is promiscuous; cared nothing for Gennaro (turned out he is Stefano’s son but that’s not why Nino didn’t care); he has another son he pays no attention to. A page before the end Lila calls to tell of yet more political murders and when Lenu tells Lila what she is going to do Lila vehemently reproaches her for leaving her good husband, home, educational position. Has she learned nothing from what Nino did to Lila (she was rescued by Pasquale and Enzo from the brutality of Stefano)?

For myself I found Lenu’s behavior to Pietro ugly and so utterly selfish — so he seems dull and cautious; she uses him and abuses him emotionally. She grows angry at him when he will not countenance students who are violent revolutionaries and wants to turn them over to police. Ferrante leaves tones and nuances that suggest the stance towards Lenu’s behavior she expects Is Lenu is utterly unfair to her husband here. His mother and sister are also doing all they can at this juncture to publish a third book she has written. Will they carry on?

Lenu is also deserting her daughters – in the earlier novella, The lost daughter, there are two daughters and one like Dede (Lenu’s older daughter) who sides with Pietro though longs for her mother to stay. Lenu goes on about how she is now leaving, not staying but in fact she is repeating the ruthless behavior of everyone around her. The third book ends in the maddened muddle the second book ended with, only this time it’s Lenu fleeing with Nino, who we now is not worth it. His father was a better man in many ways: he stayed with his wife, supported his family well, took them on holidays to Ischia.

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


Victoria Crowe, November Window (a 21st century woman artist)

Last thoughts for now:

The Lila story suffers from continual spectacular idealization: we are really expected to believe she at home conquers pre-computer machines and teaches Enzo to and they are offered super-high salaries to make whole companies efficient. I just don’t believe it. Ferrante has persisted in this idea that this girl is a genius and can do anything if she sets her mind to it — only lacks upper class manners, ways, and an academic style. Lila for example liked the second novel or appeared to but hadn’t the language to say why (or so she said).

Concrete circumstances are significant. Lenu does not get a job teaching at a university. I am startled by this as Professor Galiani is a woman — so women taught in upper level schools. It could be that in the 1960s or 70s women were still very rare in universities but Lenu does not say this. Her husband has a high position as a professor in Florence. Instead her choices are stay home and immerse herself in domesticity or get her mother or mother-in-law to do this while she writes a book or articles for magazines. It seems almost common, nothing out of the ordinary for these grandmothers to leave their lives and in effect work for Lenu. A third choice is what? none is given beyond that she makes Pietro socialize and becomes the center of a networking academic world as a faculty wife and one book author.

She’s deeply dissatisfied at times by this life but the lurching element makes jumps and sometimes she is satisfied. She writes a second novel which is never published because her mother-in-law detests it as does her husband. It mirrors the radical leftist politics at the time. Is not a romance at all. They say it’s crude and vulgar. She takes the content from stories Lila tells her of what’s happening in Naples and to some of her old friends. Her articles are also rejected — she says they are no good but doesn’t quite say why.

I know by our era there are many or as many women academics as males in Italian universities but my experience has shown me they are usually of very upper class background. Without that you end up a person with a vocation, teaching adult ed, teaching in lower schools, writing for various magazines but rarely without another full time job. There are not enough paid positions in universities in Italy to begin to provide real jobs for a wide range of people teaching. Ferrante may want her story to be universal or of general application but often it is rooted in Italian norms and customs.

The over-all scheme of the three books is to expose to us the horrors of patriarchy and class-inflected capitalism. All the men ruthless, beating their wives, everyone twisted. A fascist society no one gets to leave from – when Lenu went to live in Florence she found herself in a society very like the one she grew up in in Naples; the richer quarters of Naples are not much different in culture and attitude from the poorer.  It is still crude as the use of irony is not clear; there is a lack of proportion in the parts, some ought to be developed slower and others contradictory.


Another cover illustration — the book read aloud on CDs

I can see why the key book remains Alcott’s Little Woman, and also Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (the double heroine), but want also to remark (as part of the general anti-intellectualism of Italian culture in general) that Ferrante is another novelist unwilling to cite other important Italian books and authors. Does she fear being too bookish? And she does not cite her modern predecessors.  Where for example is Elsa Morante? Natalie Ginzsburg? Grazia Deledda? Christa Wolff. I wish she were franker, used her real name. It would be a great help in understanding her books if she could be brave enough to withstand what will probably at first be resentful reproach.

So I end where I began my very first and second blogs: the problem of the author’s stance and identity (as bound together).

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Emily Mortimer as Florence Green in the meadow contemplating opening her bookshop (2017, Isabel Coixet, The Bookshop)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Four Tuesday afternoons, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
June 4 to June 24
4801 Massachusetts Avenue, Washington DC 20016
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We’ll cover two (short) short-listed Bookers, one (short) winner, and watch one movie (outside class) from a screenplay by a Booker winner from an American novel it’s said could have “been in the running” had the prize been opens to Americans at the time. Our novels: Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop; J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country; Julian Barnes’s A Sense of an Ending, and a Merchant-Ivory film, screenplay Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, The City of your Final Destination (from Peter Cameron’s novel). We’ll discuss our prize-obsessed culture, how the Bookers function in the literary marketplace, and their typical themes, techniques, and moods: autobiographical, historical, self-reflexive, witty, post-colonial, mostly melancholy books and films

Required Books & a film (in the order we’ll read & see them):

Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Bookshop. 1978; rpt. NY: Mariner, Houghton Mifflin, 2013 ISBN 978-0-544-48409-2
Carr, J. L. A Month in the Country. 1980: rpt. NY: New York Review of Books, 2000. 0-9040322-47-1
Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. 2011; rpt. NY: Vintage, 2012.

One film: Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala 2009 The City of Your Final Destination, featuring Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alexandria Maria Lara, Omar Metwally, Kiroyyuki Sanada. (Please see this on your own outside class by the fourth session.)


Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth as James Moon and Tim Birkin eating lunch amid the tombs (1987 A Month in the Country)


Jim Carter as Mr Ellerbeck offering Birkin an umbrella (ditto)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

June 4: Introduction: The Booker Prize: history and context; begin The Bookshop. I will review James English. “Winning the Culture Game: Prizes, Awards, and the Rules of Art,” New Literary History, 33:1 (Winter, 2002):109-135.

June 11: The Bookshop into A Month in the Country. If time permits, we’ll see a clip from Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, featuring Emily Mortimer and Bill Nighy and Patricia Clarkson.
June 18: A Month in the Country into The Sense of an Ending. On this day if the class decides to, we can come in at 11:15 and see the whole of Patrick O’Connor, Simon Gray 1987 film A Month in the Country, featuring Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Natasha Richardson, Patrick Malahide, Jim Carter. I will send by attachment Rosemarie Gerr, “It’s not all that easy to find your way back to the Middle Ages,” Criticism, 47:3 (2005):353-86.

June 25: The Sense of an Ending; the film adaptation tradition: James Ivory, JPJhabvala 2009 The City of Your Final Destination


Jim Broadbent as Tony Webster (2017, Ritesh Batra, Nick Payne, The Sense of an Ending)

Suggested supplementary reading:

Barnes, Julian. Flaubert’s Parrot. NY: Vintage, 1984. Short-listed for the Booker.
Cameron, Peter. The City of Your Final Destination. New York: Penguin Plume, 2002.
Fitzgerald, Penelope. Offshore. NY: Houghton Mifflin Mariner, 1979. The Booker Prize winner for that year.
Gray, Simon. Old Flames and A Month in the Country. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. Contains screenplay for the film adaptation.
Groes, Sebastian & Peter Childs, eds. Julian Barnes (Contemporary Critical Perspectives). London: Continuum, 2011.
Hopkinson, Natalie. “The Booker Prize’s Bad History,” The New York Times, October 17, 2017. Online.
Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life. NY: Vintage, 2005.
Rogers, Byron. The Last Englishman: The Life of J.L. Carr. Bodmin: Quince Tree Press, 2003.
Strongman, Luke. The Booker Prize and the Legacy of Empire. Netherlands: Rodopi, 2002.
Todd, Richard. Consuming Fictions: The Booker Prize and Fiction in Britain Today. London: Bloomsbury, 1996.


Anthony Hopkins and Kiroyyuki Sanada as Adam Gund and his partner, Pete (City of Your Final Destination)


Charlotte Gainsbourg and Laura Linney as Arden Langden and Caroline Gund (ditto)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


A 2017 production of Etheredge’s Man of Mode


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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


Walking in the Wood (Davies’s 2007 NA)

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


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


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

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


Emma Stone as Abigail Masham


Rachel Weisz and Olivia Coleman and Lady Churchill and Queen Anne

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

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

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


Villa Medici, Fiesole

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


Wright’s creations in Taliesen restore the landscape

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


Prometheus Painting by Prince Hoare

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


Marianne Loir, Portrait of a Gentleman reading

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

[The article I wrote] was about old maids. ‘Happy Women’ was the title, and I put in my list all the busy, useful, independent spinsters I know, for liberty is a better husband than love to many of us — Diary of Louisa May Alcott, February 14, 1868

Friends,

This summary and review is a companion blog-essay to my review of Martha Vicinus’s Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1920. It’s true that C-S’s book is about a previous generation of women, but C-S’s book is about the same topic from another angle. C-S examines the inward and private experience of women attempting to live independent useful fulfilled lives and where do they go for these? the institutions that Vicinus book argues was the only way single women in the UK could find the power and money and influence to enable future women and themselves also to choose a fulfilled life apart from their roles with men.

C-S’s is a much more upbeat book than Bridget Hill’s Women Alone: spinsters in England, 1660-1850 or Vicinus’s, not because of the tone so much but because C-S has found enabling norms and thought and behavior in the laws and customs of the US in the northeast after the revolutionary and before the Civil War. The average marital age creeping up, and more women were not marrying. S-C focuses on individual single women for whom liberty meant: economic independence, a room of their own, and the expansion of the mind in genial company. In her introduction, she looks to “the search for autonomy among women” and found that in her chosen era in the US this manifested itself in bourgeois individualism: women had “internalized” an “individualized ethic” that came from changes in structure and values of early modern families. Out of the Enlightenment came changing family relationships, and out of the first years of the US “republican motherhood” as an ideal emerged. I’d say the whole emphasis on how important mothers and motherhood is comes from Rousseau, that Janus-faced “feminist” for 18th century women. Under this aegis women asked for more respect, mutuality with men, authority for themselves. .

She asks why some women don’t marry: marriage market numbers get in the way, costs of supporting children, domestic arrangements in some cultures; opportunities for other kinds of self support. There are intangible reasons too: a daughter consigned to take care of the aged Pin some households (Verity in Poldark), the family or the girl deemed herself unmarriageable (this reminds me of Verity Poldark in the Poldark books too smart, too homely, thinking for herself) and didn’t seek a partner for her; some women shy away from sexual intercourse, because of the dangers of pregnancy, perpetual childbirth means she has too many children to do anything else.

But women began to voice more reasons: desire for greater intellectual life, more interesting one!, had a vocation marriage & motherhood inhibits. Ideas of self improvement, ambition, service, achievement, duty, independence shaped by different attitudes towards gender in the US. C=S is careful to distinguish vocation from career. A woman might still be embedded in family and not independent – vocation not bringing in money to live — this brings in Jane Austen to my mind. Teaching won’t hack it; low prestige, low pay, long hours, looked upon as temporary.

Statistics show rise in unmarried women in Massachusetts, and also west and less so south. Problem for women in a society based on enslaving large numbers of people to do the hard work of the and not themselves overtly enslaved, experience shows that they tolerate no rebellion or independence, hierarchy is presented as unquestionable. Sometimes white women could end up very isolated personally and socially if they couldn’t manage to marry or to obey. Southern slave-based culture ferocious towards white women who broke away in the least ways: makes them docile, a “lady” first. In the west there were pioneer settlers, and gradually women were permitted to homestead.

She names seven women and offers brief resumes; some were part of unacknowledged lesbian pairs — lesbianism was not acknowledged by most people at the time. Laura Clay (1949-19410, daughter of Cassius Clay of Kentucky, lived with divorced mother, ran successful farm, deplored any arrangement where someone is dependent on another for life’s necessities; Clare de Graffenried (1849-1921), labor bureau social investigator; Elizabeth Grimball, South Carolina teacher, refused to return home to live with parents; Eliza Frances Andrews (1840-1931) wrote and worked for women’s education; Olive Johnson White, moved out west 1866, a homesteader; so too Edith Kohl; and Clarissa Griswold; “bachelor” Bess Corey another. Laura Crews homesteaded in Kansas and Iowa.

The introduction to this book ends on Nancy Choderow’s ideas about women’s psychology in The Reproduction of Mothering with her ideas about motherhood, and Carole Gilligan, Lyn K. Brown and Kate Millett with their theories of female development, affiliation with mother and then one another (sisters, friends) and nurturing and caring for others, the community as the dominating ethic rather than competitive individualism.

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


Edith Pijpers (1886-1963)

Chapter One: C-S makes the astonishing attempt to prove that there was a strain of thought that did not decry no marriage but looked at singleness as blessed. Just what Vicinus, Hill and others I’ve read on British women deny. C-S acknowledges customs against this idea: in the US communities actually required unmarried women not prostitutes to live in licensed families, headed by respectable property holding men. This reminded me of customs in Europe forcing a poor woman living alone to apprentice her sons and put her girls in service. No woman allowed to live unsupervised by a man. But she finds poetry and magazine columns saying that the question, why should a woman marry at all needs to be answered; these publications outline the misery and strife of being “fetter’d to a [man of a] different mold.” US literature acknowledges happy marriages are the exception, while marriage esteemed more highly, “old maids” were revalued. Religion helped: is the man corrupting her? she must ensure her own sanctity (this recalls Clarissa Harlowe refusing Lovelace after the rape). Women’s moral purity shows in lesser sex drive. God likes celibate people and grants them conversion experiences. “Fetter’d” was an adjective for marriage; religion’s powerful hostility to sex helped women in the US; women writers stories in the US of the happiness of a single life. She needed to be chaste and seen to be self-sacrificing, to be good because then she would be useful (defined as happy): the cause, US communities needed the services of single women.

Then she tells of stories Catherine Sedgwick a novelist told, of stories and columns in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which sanctify the celibate, a maiden sisterhood; Sedgwick emplies the less you bother yourself over love or sex the more you know peace of mind. Discipline is good for soul. Better to be single than suffer the miseries of a bad marriage or compromise one’s integrity to gain husband or competency: this idea found widespread currency In US newspapers, periodicals, fictions, advice books

Chapter Two, “Hymen’s Recruiting Sergeant” is supposedly about “factors influencing the rate of marriage,” except it’s not. The chapter does list all the factors pressuring women to marry but far more space is given up to speculating on why statistics and commentary shows us that in the northeast of the US and some areas of the west, considerably less women chose marriage than in the south, south east. There were opportunities for paying jobs, teaching among them, factories.

Women were made to be the daughter staying home and in this role could find much satisfaction in the US given the state of fluctuating social life. There was a shift from traditional family economies in the widening of capitalism and so much more land available so parental control over their children started to give way in the US far more than say the UK. In the US far less gov’t agencies or social network so unmarried women had a real function in a family and small community.

The discourse in the US was far more about the gravity of your choice and how once you chose to marry you give up your identity. You have to obey the husband, live for him, for your children and women were endlessly pregnant. I do think here out of Austen’s letters you can find out why she chose not to marry, not to lean on the few flirtations that did happen and fled the one proposal. Renaming yourself is loss of identity. Stories of male abuse, women deserted. She suggests that articulation of the importance of women’s friendships and that women find far more satisfaction in confiding in other close women friends than any husband or family member (who would be biased against many complaints). They open sought emotional and spiritual (back to how religious the US is at base) support from other women.

Yes spinsters dreaded old age, poverty, had a limited right for family support. What if you become invalided? Cult of domesticity was very strong. This line of thought takes us to

Chapter Three: “To what thraldom is her noble spirit subjected?” is about the meaning of antebellum marriage

C-S looking at women who chose not to marry. We get examples of women who just turned down good proposals. And stories and novels of women made miserable in all sorts of ways by marriage. Again Catherine Sedgwick, an important novelist, dwells on this terrain. The loss of individual goals, pursuits, one’s will — these stories remind me of Clarissa Harlowe’s meditations and reasoning for her refusal to marry not just Lovelace and Solmes but really anyone. “At stake was female autonomy.” And the one happy dream of Clary’s is she gets control of the small farm her grandfather left her and goes to live on it.

Yet US culture which supposedly prized individualism and autonomy did not value female autonomy and it was as hard here to get institutions to acknowledge women’s individual existences as anywhere else. So how did women come to value their private wishes. C-S says the US constitution influenced by philosophes whose thinking implies or states principles and laws and judicial decisions which value privacy, limiting states’ coercion of individuals; treatises and essays on the importance of protecting privacy and how the state should ensure this. Is not this the core of Rowe V Wade? Scaglia mocked the idea of individual privacy. The philosophes here are Marquis de Condorcet, Wm Godwin, and John Stuart Mill. S-C finds instances of spinsters resisting submitting themselves to state control. They would say they had things they wanted to do and to accomplish — children got in the way

S-C turns to American stories about misery and danger of endless pregnancies — filled with revulsion of feeling (reminding me again of Jane Austen, this time in her letters). S-C cites names familiar to me — e.g., Fanny Kemble’s diary of her time on her husband’s plantation. Kemble writes about the exploited, raped, women whose bodies were directly (by violence and marking and indirectly literally destroyed, their minds shattered, no identity allowed but that of cattle. S-C cites and describes Alcott’s Diana and Persis where the heroine is urged not to live alone with a group of like-minded women. Alcott proposes singlehood as a prerequisite for artistic development.

S-C feels the idea of a vocation grew in antebellum US — presented as for men, but women could of course think why not me? Individuals write about desire for high attainments. (I know when I try to say Austen had vocation not a career most Austen scholars and Janeites are not pleased with that: they want to hear she wanted to make money, have a public career — this is not what some of the US women presented here wrote about — this makes me think of Constance Fennimore Woolson’s heroine, Anne. Lucy Larcom’s life story is often used by S-C – she is one of those who pretended she was forced into publication, didn’t want reviews, was not ambitious but her stories show her true yearnings to use “the values of US culture” in support of individual courses of action — for women. Reading this helps develop a perspective for the “anomaly” that is new and inspiriting. You were not to be personally ambitious; that remained a no-no.

The chapter ends on the essential compromise S-C finds American women making: they actively pursued self-development and personal growth. You might say that’ll end them up in their room, a dependent daughter, and in fact there is where Emily Dickinson’s pattern fits in. The startling thing about the fourth chapter of this book is Emily Dickinson’s choices suddenly make sense as a kind of exaggerated version of what other spinster daughters/sisters/aunts chose when they could not find a vocation outside the house.

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

Chapters Four to Five: “When I get my freedom” & “I have reached the age for action”

What was avoided was ambitiousness and selfishness: if you were seen to be working for others as part of your vocation, you could get away with it. The problem then was how to support yourself. And in curious ways what emerges in chapters 4 and 5 is a kind of reverse picture of Vicinus. Each of the women start out with a burning vocation, one which evades masculine sovereignty (sounds like Austen, no”) and the way they end up doing this is they become part of religious institutions, institutions doing philanthropic work (which Vicinus talked of in settlement houses associations) and nursing groups (during war). American women asserted their independence first, undertook a calling in a quest for autonomy and self-actualization in something she believed in and ended up as a part of a group that in the UK formed itself from the upper classes first.

What then were the images that came to represent a woman’s freedom: wearing men’s dress or dress that looked very man-like, “throwing away shackles” (fetter’d was a synonym for marriage in the UK too) and one finds three themes: how can she achieve “economic security,” that “room of one’s own” (how this does resonate with all these US women) and “the opportunity to expand intellectual horizons.” I’m struck with this last as in the UK material anti-intellectualism and disdain for bluestockings kept this kind of desire silent; not in the US at the time.

She tells stories of individual women and quotes famous voices, speeches, attitudes. Susan B Anthony was firm on the need for “the higher dignity of the paid occupation.” Autonomy rests on someone’s ability to support oneself. Well women tried to re-define economic independence so as to make this more minimal.

Emily Howland’s story is moving; it’s not well known because she was not a writer. Basically she fought to have the right to spend her life working to better the lives of black Americans; and could not have done it (been allowed to leave home) without the support of a quaker community and aunt. It took until she was 31 to free herself.

Rachel Stearns attended a female academy in Wilbraham, Mass, wanted to prepare herself for teaching; an uncle would not give her a dime whose own wealth was the result of her mother making sacrifices for him when she was a child. It’s not clear if she managed to teach anyway. She wrote of what she had been deprived (basically an allowance form a male) what she wanted and of the bleakness of a life “friendless, pennyless,” of the utter loneliness” of a womans economic dependence. It was she who enabled her niece Emily to leave home and find herself. Now S-C doesn’t take this further as Vicinus would so we don’t know what sacrifices and difficulties Howland knew as she worked her way to success in NYC. Howland’s life as told by S-C is an idealistic one; she identified what she wanted to do and lived up to her own vision.

Alice Carey (not in Wikipedia) spent 14 years working very hard for very little for the poor in NYC: her health was never better, she was never more gratified or in a better frame of mind, though she inveighed on how little women and poets were paid for anything

Mary Reed’s is the story of a woman who could not afford to continue in the Philadelphia Female Medical College. S-C tells of women teaching themselves by borrowing every book in the library (reminding me of Ferrante’s Lila). So for some self-education becomes a life-long pursuit. It did therefore help that (according to S-C) intellectual development was respected (pp 78-79)

Cornelia Hancock was luckier but her luck will seem strange. She found herself and came alive and loved the life of a nurse in the civil war. As told by S-C conditions were horrific, medicine didn’t begin to have enough, or enough people, but Hancock would work 20 hours a day, sleep in terrible conditions, continually soaked, hardly getting enough to eat. When the war was over, she moved to South Carolina where she taught ex-slaves under the auspices of the freedman’s bureau – it’s a story of achieving personal autonomy, working for the socially marginalized despised and needy and becoming a “self-directed, self-actualized independent woman’ (pp. 97-99).

What is striking about these women and makes them so different from European ones and hard for me to enter into is a large portion of their strength came from a conversion experience. It is in S-C’s book almost an assumption that just about all US people were religious, or least these sorts of middling women who were the first to have respect and autonomy made it based on a dependence on their relationship with God. What emerges is a religious country – to me all the more striking in that S-C appears utterly unself-conscious about this (as Vicinus was about the intensely cloying semi- and full blown lesbian relationships she describes as important for networking for women I colleges and boarding schools).

Without telling the specifics, Helen Hunt who wrote of how she looked forward to a time when women would not be socialized in schools and elsewhere just to be wives (exchange sex and domestic labor for material support was the way she put it in 19th century American English), Mary Lyon, Mary Moody Emerson. Some women found a room of her own was not enough: she needed a separate establishment to get free time – Helen Hunt to practice medicine.

Catherine Beecher was a public intellectual (part of the upper classes and got into print) training women to be independent, how to run a business, that they should live together. Underlying was a desire for privacy and power in feminine guise – it was “disguised as a woman’s natural love for a home,” she just didn’t need to have a man or children in it. Anthony wrote a speech that resonates with me: “The Homes of Single Women.” I loved the lines where she talks about making rooms for yourself that reflect you, your doing, desires – women alone market (shop for food), house-keep, garden and cook for themselves and are a “true woman” after all. There is psychological truth to this according to Durkheim: men don’t make homes for themselves as “naturally.” (p 77)

Unexpectedly, almost weirdly I find that Claire Fraser in Drums of Autumn, without the religion takes up some of these roles as she asserts herself. She was a nurse in WW2 and in 18th century America she is a surgeon, helps with a school, goes out like Lady Bountiful to teach and help others, write letters and keeps a journal about her medical activities. The diaries are not filled with romance but religion. They keep diaries “to have a ventilator from the interior” to talk to (p 80). They seek self-knowledge.

I have a feeling Vicinus would say this is hopelessly idealized: I suggest the difference between the books is Vicinus is looking to explain how women can build power and why didn’t they in the early to mid-20th century. S-C is not looking to see how women can have power to alter their society

“The age for action” concentrates on that moment women finish school – we saw with Barbara Pym, I saw in Claire Tomalin and also Katherine Mansfield, once the girl is finished school, she is given no place or job in society she can be fulfilled by. Tomalin’s early years are marriage and 4 babies. Mansfield destructive free sex and a bohemian existence without enough money. Pym write novels no one wants.

So here S-C writes of individual women’s struggles form this point of view. They suffer badly from depression because they don’t want to marry and are given nothing else. Some do “make it” by turning to God – this reminds me of Renassance learned ladies in their closets. Other first submit to God and then somehow escape (Howland, Hancock, &cc but Stearns not)

The section on Emily Dickinson comes here and it’s among the best things I’ve read – she just is another more extreme and S-C quotes some poems by ED I had not read before.

I’m ceded, I’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I ’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a throne

Louisa may Alcott’s novel for women, Diana and Persis is about the process of artistic development as experienced by antebellum women. Persis goes to Paris, does study, take up her sculpture but in the end marries. Diana stays in Boston, works away at writing (who is this?), dedicates herself to this. If she never reaches what she aimed at, she has much satisfaction. Alcott (apparently) has in this novel a woman “extending control over her medium” and “expanding her vision.” But outside the studio, things are not so good. Compare this to Jewsbury’s Two Sisters, one goes on stage and self-destructs, the other marries someone who will not let her fulfill herself. Neither is allowed by the to practice self-fulfilling art. So there is an American paradigm quite different from the English.

S-C end this section with the comment that women could escape being a wife, widow, mother but not a daughter. The pose of the submissive daughter was “high emotional price to pay.” Dickinson ended up “the madwoman” of Amherst.

This book is about making the self, a private individual task which in some lucky cases the woman did branch out into public work – they are trying to find and test out new roles primarily from the home and through accepted roles. She comes back to how these single women had to deal with a “primary identity as a daughter.”

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


Remedio Varo

Chapter Six: A Daughter, an Immortal Being (a line from Dickinson I believe)

Cecilia Hancock’s reply: “If I had been unfortunate enough to marry some forlorn person and been obliged to stay in some disagreeable part of the country, you would not feel you could control me in coming home at your discretion. Now in that case it might be very humane to send for me. But I am pleasantly located with congenial friends and congenial employment and an independent home but am not allowed to stay in it in peace (p 108)

This chapter charts the struggles many women had freeing themselves from their parents: unless you were married you were not recognized as a fully self-governing adult. How hard it was to break away, not only disobeying the norm but girls were brought up to love the parents, especially to care for the mother. Women were seduced by the compliments to their gifts; they were told domestic life was crucial to their health as women; they loved those to whom they rendered service. (I guess I escaped more easily because the last was not true of me.) Sacrifice, acquiescence, duty, and the idea someone else owned you just about. Parents were conservative – most of these daughters wanted to do radical reform work. They came close to wishing themselves dead when they stayed. How the structure of home life made a vocational identity impossible or frustratingly difficult. Think of Austen with her desk by a creaking door; were it not for Cassandra would she have had any time.

Chapter Seven: “My earthy all:” Sisterhood and the search for autonomy

Now she again crosses the terrain of Vicinus when she talks of how sisters bonded, and went to female academies and the role of academies, associations, institutions in both freeing but also binding women. Women needed we see again and again female support, females with you, female encouragement – you could get this from a sister, but the relationship could also be fraught, and one odd central norm was that sisters were interchangeable. Remember how it was pretended Cassandra and Jane were interchangeable. Actually the Austens discovered this was not so; thus Cassandra far more often sent for than Jane.

Families were large, and siblings counted. The death or marriage of a sister was a turning point in others sister’s lives – brothers too.
Some did find you were better off with friends but it was more likely the sister would be loyal. Money came form families to sisters; they opened schools together, studied, She goes over the complicated relationship of Emily and Elizabeth Blackenwell, the first women physicians and how Elizabeth became the known one, how Emily was controlled by Elizabeth, differences in temperament. This is a very interesting story because they opened an infirmary in NYC, went back and forth to the UK, Emily was in the provinces; Elizabeth just gave them their titles. In the end Emily retired with another woman, Dr Elizabeth Cushnier because there she also had “Love and mutuality” to give meaning to her independence and autonomy”
Some sisters had a hard time when autonomy was thrust upon them. S-C does not despise this understandable result of such upbringings. The story here is of Harriot and Sarah Hunt

Remember too – S-C does not enough emphasize how this autonomy was presented as failure, despicable and the little sympathy for radical reform causes. So it was important for such a woman to have female friends, an association to belong to, a sister. You did want to belong to someone, to help and be helped and achieve and be recognized for this achievement by someone. I know myself how hard it is to do without the recognition.
Some of these pairs anticipate Elena Ferrante’s Lila and Lenu (My Brilliant Friend) — were Lila to have been given an equal education and not married off for money (by parents) for foolish version of prestige (by herself).

Some of the relationships remind me of the women in The Secret Sisterhood in their misunderstanding, vexations, the kinds of interpretation S-C gives whats happening to triangular conflicts.

I also was reminded the groups of sisters/nieces in Deborah Cherry’s book about women painters in the 19th century – there were famous quartets, female painting families – so this is the inner life of those presented by Cherry. I don’t have time to record the individuals – none of them are well known literati; some a little known like Alice and Phoebe Carey. Louisa May Alcott did not have sisters following her vocation and professionalism.

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


Isabel Bishop (1902-88): Reading and Art

Chapter Eight: conflicts in the single life: heavy heart and heavy head. Now this chapter becomes harder: now we talk of the problem of earning a living.

It’s at this point the book turns dark – at heart what C-S suddenly admits is that the inner life of women of this era – in the US (and I think by extension Vicinus without her attention to private life as her focus shows this) the UK – women were made to feel their desire for independence was a social disease.

Read carefully with attention Trollope’s CYFH? Suggests Alice is erotically sexually deeply in love with John Grey (the TV series is a travesty of this and reverses it) and would have been very happy with him but that she was given foolish ideas by her lesbian cousin and evil male cousin, and rejected the deeply peaceful good life he was offering. He made it worse by his self-control and drive to dominance, But she has a disease it’s said more than once.

Meanwhile in the US the outward world was giving women for the first time through the industrial economy, need for schools, training, changes in family life to delay marriage to pursue self-development, accomplishments in careers outside the family
This chapter through story after story shows they were not paid anywhere near enough to earn a living when they followed these outward vocations. They could not be free, they could not afford space in dignity. Death or marriage of a sister or friend (who clubbed with them) could be devastating. Greater strain as they were also expected to do home tasks.

The chapter shows women breaking down under theses pressures: Sarah Pugh, Emily Parsons working in hospitals needed self respect from validation from others – and got it only from those they were literally working for. Women at home bored, frustrated. Women not married feared menopause as that put paid to any further marriage and yet they had not means of support – and they would be too old to work even for minimum pay.

So heroines earlier in the book are driven: Cecilia Hancock who say she hated organizational and institutional is driven to accept and conform
The problem with teaching was not enough money, no respect really and little adult companionship in the way it was organized. Women can’t relax; and they find satisfaction and peace only in hard work – Clara Barton became sick when not permitted to nurse; allowed to work ferociously for the Red Cross, which she built, she throve. Again and again women are rejected for professional positions they are as capable of the men at doing. – I am not naming the individual stories again – very bad psychic stress which they then were blamed for – as hysterical women. Had they married you see all would have been well busy with their babies and then family later on – all this hopelessly idealized.

Chapter Nine: “The Mind Will Give Way” assertion and limits of social tolerance

This chapter is unusual for telling one woman’s story at length Mary S. Gilpin: her four brothers and father lived good productive lives in professions and did well financially; she had the same assertive competitive, ambitious personality they did, but each time she opens a school or starts an institution, either not enough people bring children, or it’s underfunded or her assertive personality is complained of and either she is thrown out or her venture fails. At the end she actually spends years in an asylum (imprisoned by a brother in effect) and late in life retreats to near a Naïve American village spending her years reading and writing down her own thoughts –

This is where her book transects Vicinus: institutions of church, university, medicine, law, science so the extension of female autonomy that was going on as a threat and worked to keep women in low places – -and the rhetoric is conscious. Social tolerance very rigid – don’t act out your independent mindedness or disobey (sexual) propriety or you will be cast out, punished, ostracized, ignore

Chapter Ten: The great social disease – on women and independence. In this chapter we see society closing ranks at the same time as there is gradual growth of liberty, independence for women – in the US the land-grant colleges let women enter and several colleges (sister schools) are opened just for women: Vassar, Wellesley

This social disease – could end in insanity; women weren’t using their organs and so would sicken. Companionate marriage offered but that does not allow for equality – John Grey offers Alice Vavasour a companionate marriage where what he says goes. And women who did go out to work did not experience independence or expansion of autonomy because they did for a short while and only as filler or to bring in “extra money” (usually very low status jobs).

Three important women writers about this topic: Ida Tarbell, Alice Repplier,Anna Garlin Spencer. They tried to reshape these arguments – they defended spinsterhood, showed women were marrying later in the 19th century, argued for the period of work before marriage and during.
What happened in the 1890s with the coming of Freudian ideas and studies in sex is that spinsterhood is sexualized: such women are miserable because not having sex, twisted, torment others. Celibacy a social disease (not I realize why Frances Power Cobbe wants to show “celibacy’ such a good way to be in life because you are free to do good, to actuate things that need to be done. Doctors dominating women in childbirth, against abstinence (they won’t give you contraceptive either so you are compelled into pregnancy).

So we see each time a new form of thought or change in social or economic structure comes, the patriarchal norms twist them to the subjection of women

So for a book that began with such hope and filled me with a sense of inspiration and goals for women that could be meant, C-S ends with a demonstration that women lost ground badly in the early part of the 20th century. There was a tremendous push-back against them not because so many more were independent and seeking not to marry but that they were for the first time ever _visibly_ so and more women than ever were self-supporting – because jobs had changed, because of WW1, after the suffragette movement. And the tragedy is that we can see that ceaseless propanganda and punitive norms worked, for as the decades from 1890 went on fewer women were marrying later, many marrying younger, despite the spread of contraception still having what we today would consider relatively large families.

All the vile talk and behavior in short worked: The sexualization of spinsterhood and the way Freud was used was an important factor. I’ll bring in last night I watched half-way through the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala film adaptation of The Bostonians and was horrified to see how this movie reinforced the sinister misogyny of the book so that Vanessa Redgrave playing Olive Chancellor is presented as a sick woman, her desire for independence a plot to dominate Varenna. Varenna herself is presented as a simpleton who is used by her unscrupulous father for his spiritual seances and they are presented as just as useless and corrupt in the sense of taking money for their cause. The more I watch some of these older Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala films the more disillusioned with them I become.

Especially striking is where S-C crosses the same terrain as Vicinus. I was shocked or startled at the positive representation of women’s friendships in boarding school when they crossed a line not only into homoeroticism and lesbianism but also creating dependencies and manipulative. Vicinus was for this because she argued (in effect) it is from such woman’s friendships and mentors and networks that power can be built

From the 1890s on and especially after Freud’s theories became popular women’s friendship were intensely stigmatized as deeply sick, as sexually perverted – all of them were now suspect.

S-C says that what had been a sense of “womanhood’ and pride in your sexuality as feminine and your network of women’s friendships was attacked and women had another bad loss of self-esteem. This was a bad blow

Women who nourished and supported other women were presented as deviant – So say in Trollope’s CYFH? Kate Vavasour’s love for Alice is not presented as lesbian but it’s hinted and she is presented as deviant and destructive, she betrays Alice – not to make her independent but to get her to break with John Grey and offer herself and her money body and soul to George.

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


Dame Laura Knight (1931): Good Night

In the Conclusion to the book S-C goes over what to me begins to become a bit suspicious – because I’ve seen these patterns of how women were once in charge (matriarchies – never was; in some cultures the fathers and brothers were in charge instead of the fathers and sons) or could go out in public (this never was) or public not separated off from private (never was) so now S-C would have us believe a period between 1780 and 1830 or so showed real progress for women partly based on new protestant beliefs, the loosening structure of society in the US, it’s lack of a tight social network so that an independent woman could find a praised niche. This is now described as destroyed by the new norms reinforcing subjection of women at the beginning of the 20th century.

Whether S-C is right or not, she also described the mechanisms by which most women were kept subject to their families throughout the 19th century, and she describes some of the ways of thinking and feeling that did help towards some liberation

That frontier and opening of educational institutions who needed teachers – pay was abysmal

What helps confirm women in singlehood or independence and not repeat the patters of a life of self-sacrifice to men and men’s children and family:

1) being ambitious, taught to want to offer service to a wider community.

2) Very important the desire to expand your intellect. This Vicinus talks about in two of her chapters: on boarding school and all women’s colleges. We can see why the persistence mockery and derision of learning as making a woman (horrors) a bluestocking so she obviously doesn’t want men or babies

3) a desire to explore, revere, cultivate the self

4) simply a desire to be free and independent – Alice Vavasour has this but no opportunity because the money left her is handled by her father and she is given nothing worthwhile to use it for – only George’s intensely selfish ruthless politicking

She quotes the religious language by which American women justified their pursuit of writing and communing or doing good work in a community – this kind of language was mostly not available in the UK – or elsewhere it seems – it gave courage because of the notion God was on your side. You are not going it alone

I’ve never much taken Hilary Clinton’s supposed piety seriously and when she includes this kind of thinking in her book I have felt she was hypocritical but it may be her tin ear and turgid style, and inability to sound sincere – and upper class identifications that grate on me

5) a family context which valued you as an individual and education, and sisters, mothers who supported you (rare) friendships with like minded women

S-C talks of some women who tried to set up utopian communities and the settlement movement. So again we are with Vicinus.

She thinks present feminism’s roots owe a lot to these early spinsters writing and women who did write in feminist ways for independence or revealing the deprivation and nightmares of their existences (like Fanny Kemble about enslaved black women on her husband’s rice plantations).

It’s a moving book which ends in the same place Vicinus does: a kind of bleak despair.

A few more to go before finally choosing individuals: Onto Anne Boyd Rioux’s Writing for Immortality is very good: a history and analysis of the culture of 18th century American and struggles of 4 to write and publish successfully in it: Alcott, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Elizabeth Stoddard and Constance Fennimore Woolson her choices. Showalter in her Jury of Her Peers, a rare history of American women writers from the eighteenth to the later 20th century, has sections on Stoddar, Phelps, and Woolson. Rebecca Traister: All the Single Ladies, which begins with how living independently has become a norm for women well into their thirties and yet if you want to cast suspicion on someone (Anita Hill) you ask her why she never married (frigid or a lesbian?), or if she did, why she never had children (selfish and lazy). Virginia Nicholson, Singled Out: a book on how millions of women lived out their lives after WW1 without getting married (a whole generation of young men wiped out), her other writings are on novels of the era about single women.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing another blog on Ferrante since my first so long ago on her Days of Abandonment, I fear I’m too late to join in on the controversy that exploded in 2016 about her supposed anonymity, but here goes — in brief.

Not bothering to disguise a vicious attack on this author, Claudio Gatti made a strong case that she was Anita Raja, known publicly thus far for her sympathetic translations of Christa Wolf (which she has written about), and then proceeded to do all he could to characterize her as a liar, someone trying to attract attention, and insinuate her husband, the Neapolitan writer Domenico Starnone, may have “helped” write her novels (see Alexandra Schwartz of the New Yorker, “The Unmasking of Elena Ferrante”). Reviewers and critics, especially when women, defended her right to be anonymous ferociously (Jeannette Winterson}: it was an attack on her as a woman writer; others said they couldn’t care less who the writer is, and it made no difference to know accurately the life or about the character of an author insofar as this is possible. People became mystic over how the mystery added to the books deepened them. Some said the novels are nothing but chick-lit, or they are the usual tired sentimental stories about women as victims. Look at the covers; in a more nuanced ways, objections were made to the paradigm of the abject, half-mad vulnerable heroine (Days of Abandonment), the raw language and anger (Troubling Love), the repetition of a very few motifs over and over (it was suggested this is common with a certain kind of woman’s novel).

Other praised the books strongly, showed how deep and nuanced each of the texts, how the Neapolitan novels were only pretending to be large depictions of a social world: Ye a the same time a depiction of a violent still fascist corrupt order; all agree elusive, with Ferrante’s abiding interest the inner life of women (Lidija Haas, TLS: “Closet Conservative or Radical Feminist?” — no longer available to the public).


Anita Raja

When the dust settled, we were still left with the troubling reality that Ferrante’s Frantumaglia, which she presented as truly autobiographical, is from a concrete standpoint, knowingly untrue in places; recent contradictions where she seems to want to be recognized (an introduction to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where she said she was strongly influenced by Austen’s doppelganger and novels in general), and worse yet, continued repetition in respectable books that Ferrante’s texts could be written by her husband (Karen Bojaar who seems not to know that female friendship is a common topic for women writers).

I, for one, am glad to know who she is so as to throw light on her literary world, outlook, and also gladdened by her refusal to commercialize her life (I believe her as I notice many ordinary commentators do not), sell her books, alienation from the capitalist values of her society, value for privacy. Yet her attempts to shield herself and protest the norms and values of our violent patriarchal society have backfired; critics like James Wood read her all wrong because they want to de-gender her texts

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


Ann Goldstein who also translates Primo Levi

Now for her novels in translation and in the original Italian:

Put me in the camp of those who find true genius in her novels; who think she wrote them unaided by a husband, find in them the strengths of the best l’ecriture-femme (so she belongs to traditions of women’s texts, read Rebecca Falkoff), and am (alone may be) enchanted to think she translated Wolf’s great anti-war essays Cassandra, her autobiography, her touching historical fantasy set in the later 18th century, No Place on Earth into Italian. Yes they have some flaws: they are not intended to be Tolstoy-like depictions of society that finally neutral but the social order analysed and felt on the pulses of her heroines in the different stages of their lives.  I love reading Italian and have three of Ferrante’s books in the original Italian. I find Ann Goldstein’s to be good translations : she captures the elegance more than the raw but she gets enough there an has her own elusive tone too. When you think you are reading Primo Levi in the most recent English editions, you are reading Goldstein’s translated English.


La figlia Oscura

Since being so riveted by Days of Abandonment, I’ve read Troubling Love (a raw, bitter expose of the life of her mother, a woman continually beaten by her husband, taking revenge out on the daughter until the daughter escaped), The Lost Daughter aka La Filia oscura (quiet elegiac, a woman academic now divorced comes with her student papers to a beach after her daughters have chosen to stay with the father, fantasizes and steals a young girl’s doll) and The Beach at Night (a nightmare vision disguised as a child’s book), and some of the essays in Frantumaglia (brilliant political analysis of fascism in Italy, explications of her books and her stance for alienation).


The Beach at Night

A truly terrifying book. Masquerading as a children’s story, it is a kind of prose poem where a doll is left behind on a beach in favor of a kitten the child has been given a present of. The doll gets covered with sand, is treated badly by a Mean Beach Attendant, ends up laying next to a dead beetle with his feet up (shades of Kafka’s metamorphosis, is set on fire at one point, then doused with water, come near drowning. She is abandoned, deserted, motherless. I cannot imagine anyone giving this book to a child, European or not. I remember when by mistake (or not knowing) I bought the first Barbar book for Laura; she was traumatized by the sudden death of the mother elephant, shot wantonly and without warning by a hunter. It took hours for her to calm down. This is a distillation of Ferrante’s deeply powerful novellas before & her Quartet.

To conclude at where I am in my Ferrante reading just now:  at last after having listened to My Brilliant Friend as translated by Goldstein read aloud, and watched avidly a couple of times all eight episodes of the recent HBO film, I’ve read this first book of the quartet slowly — as lovingly as I once read Elsa Morante’s Historia so feel I am qualified to speak, though I’ve not much to say: it’s a novel centered on a doppelganger (like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility) where the tragic heroine is Lila (Raffaele, and her counterpart, the luckier (because sent to school and then allowed to find an identity where she can try to fulfill her gifts an individual), Lenu (Elena).

As I read I recognized analogous events and experiences and thoughts and feelings to those I experienced as a girl-child growing up in the working class southeast Bronx and then Richmond Hill High School in Queens (both NYC). While at first I was turned off by Lila’s temptation to get back at the world through malice, wild anger, spite, withdrawal, even revenge on her friend, gradually I recognized the source for all this as the source I had known that turned me into an isolated teenager. Lenu too I recognized myself in. I had — as have so many girls — even read Little Women over and over and recently discovered so did other girls who now women I count as among my friends. So I became deeply invested in the book.


L’amica geniale (Italian title emphasizes the girls’ deep congeniality)

The awfulness of Lenu’s mother, the successful attempts of her teacher to rescue her, the experiences of the girls in the streets dominated by sexually and socially anxious-domineering males, what parties and schools are like, but above and especially the girls’ responses to one another amid all this take us through the childhood and young puberty of a girl. The sexual experiences Lenu has on the beach with Donato Sarratore, the older man who takes advantage of her after her luxurious and intellectually awakening summer at Ischia (she reads much of the time, learns not to be ashamed of her body, to swim too, falls in love with the intellectual Nino) re-taught me about my own. The climax of the book is a fireworks display on a roof after a dance where the each of the personalities and values of the different characters are exposed as they take a turn into young adulthood.

Since the common cover of My Brilliant Friend is now this stereotypical bridal gown and wedding party seen from the back, let me emphasize this: at its close the book mounts an uncompromising attack on everything having to do with a wedding, every hypocrisy, and how its meaning far from giving a girl access to a new wonderful life, cuts her off utterly from herself, and can be the first step in a life-long imprisonment.

Ferrante’s book is about how social life attempts to destroy, or repress or distort the best that was in one young woman innately and distorts the life of another) or she truly doesn’t mean us to care about these other characters as she, like Lila, silently cannot stand their norms and values.

A couple of incidents where I felt so moved and the film adaptation tried to capture. Unexpectedly (to Lenu), Lila wants Maestra Oliviero to come to her wedding. From the point of view of Lenu and probably everyone in the world Lila has done nothing to catch the woman teacher’s attention, compel her liking or respect, yet how badly she wants her to come. When she comes to the door, although Lenu has given us enough to feel Oliviero does remember Lila (because she says she dislikes her) she is very cruel, says you are not “Cerullo” I don’t know you, don’t want to come.

I identified and understood wholly how Lila could be crushed. In my life analogous incident have happened to me where in my mind I so admired someone for their intellect or position in a school and thought (naively) they valued me and was taught that no, unless you obey the world’s rules and do something to make yourself valued the world gives prizes too, you maybe insulted, cut off. I had some hard lessons in high school this way. Lenu is right to say Oliviero is “a mean old lady,” but we are given to know she would be miserable at such a wedding too. Lila might not see this.

I don’t know what a “speech master” is at an Italian wedding but guess it is a important function of announcing the people who speak. (These speeches are more than half phony and I wish the custom had not grown up recently.) Stefano, Lila’s bethrothed insists it shall be the chief crook of the neighborhood, the Solaro father, Silvio. At that Lila also breaks off the wedding altogether after all that has been done. Only Lenu can get her to change her mind, “seduce” her is how Lenu puts it. So she is acting as a Satan — the argument that persuades or seems to is they must not judge their generation by the older people, and Stefano is different. But from the dialogue we see Lila is sensing she is making the worst mistake she can. Stefano she says loves her “only when I don’t put real money at risk.” That’s important — money comes first. Lenu says she is able to rebel momentarily as she did in school as the authority of a religious teacher, but she caved, and what would happen to Lila if she returned to “the pale ponytailed Lila, with the narrowed eyes of a bird of prey, in her tattered dress.” She is admired by all now in her Jackie Kennedy icon look with dark glasses. During the (tellingly) long but boring ceremony Lenu knows her mother thinks Lila is doing infinitely better because at 16 she owns a flat, has this refrigerator and so on.


Lenu and Nino (walking together in school)

Everyone so overdressed, the only person not is Nino (who we are to have identified as the one true partner for Lenu apart from Pasquale who, fool in this wya, preferred Lila for her looks not her mind). But is he true to himself either dressed in such dishevelment? He comes so his mother overdressed can come; somehow she is slightly disgraced because her husband is blamed for the profoundly distressed Melina. Lila’s parents look well for the first time Lenu ever saw: the father’s Randolph Scott face (so many connotations there) and the mother all in blue. Note she kept away from most of the fraught conflicts. But one she invites: inward. She asks if her essay has been published, but discovers it was not included. Like Lila, she is a girl, comes from the wrong family or school, so it will take a lot more than the school certificate to gain a place in a community she might hope to fulfill part of herself in.

In that dress as Lenu dresses Lila she feels Lila is “the body of a dead woman.” what are they going to all this trouble for: so at night the young man can ram his penis into this 16 year old and perhaps ruin her beauty with a pregnancy.

A deeper incident which does not appear to crush Lila at the time is that these shoes she and her brother made so lovingly are not sellable – no one will buy them. They are dream shoes of young children wishing to have upper class stigmata on their clothes. No one in the neighborhood has the money; outside the neighborhood they make uncomfortable and they will not buy them. Stefano won Lila because he put all this money into the shop and now we see ahead that Rino who seems to be all important for real in Lila’s life will be a failure. Note that he was allowed to beat her

What will become of me, says Lila to Lenu. The answer is you will be destroyed — we see that in the opening chapters of the book where in older age she is vanishing in an attempt to escape a no-good son.

This is an extraordinary women’s book; it’s not recognized for what it is because it’s not explicit in the way Christa Wolff’s are — which books Ferrante translated.

Diane Reynolds wrote to WomenWriters@groups.io about this ending as follows:

The tragedy is that Lila has no other real options but to marry this awful man. The way the teacher rejects her reinforces that. Lenu does act the role of Satan—but what else is there for her friend? What Ferrante makes so relentlessly clear is that Lila would have been destroyed to if she had returned to the self in the tattered dress. The neighborhood/neighbors would have destroyed her. This is great literature because Ferrante shows us step by step that Lila is doomed—as doomed as Oedipus. It’s deeply poignant too. The friendship is remarkable—the one thing Lila has that is pure or as pure as anything can be in that world. I was so moved by the scene—which I did not take as sexual at all—when Lila has Lenu bathe her. She wants her friend as witness to what she was bodily before she is destroyed—she knows she is going to be destroyed by the marriage as much as any soldier going into a doomed battle. And yet the shock is that it happens faster than she imagined—at the wedding

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

She has been involved in the film adaptation and it helps as an interpreter of her 4 novels: I’ll begin with Episode 2 (I won’t go through them all): The Money — and high brutal violence at the core of this world. Done in a muted black-and-white, it is in color but they are so muted. To give the impression of heat, chalk, lack of any beauty anywhere …. No trees, nothing to soften, make any beauty, or refreshment for the eyes.

I took the title to refer to how money is controlling much of the behavior we see. While the teacher feels that Lila’s family can afford just as surely (or just as little) to send her on to middle school as Lenu’s parents do, the money while an excuse is real. These people are poverty-stricken and the wretchedness of their existence comes from money, lack of it. The whole milieu reminds me of the southeast Bronx, where I grew up, circa 1950, only the patriarchy is so much more overt, fierce, the women more desperate and/or angry and taking out their misery on those they can prey upon or feel envy for: Lenu’s mother is awful and I for one am glad this portrait was not softened. In the book it explains some of Ferrante’s early deeply disquieted and troubled books: Troubled Love, the Lost Child. I wonder what was Ferrante’s relationship with her mother (and now her daughters – but that’s these other books and later in this series, the second). Lila’s mother is guilty but she is herself in accord with her husband, except when he throws the Lila out of the window.

What I like is it is a portrait of two girlhoods shared. Not like that movie this summer which gave a boyhood acted out by a girl with a mother there for disguise. Girls do let one boss another and Lila is the dominating one. she says let’s throw the dolls down the basement, now let’s see Achille, and then hide the money. I feared they would lose it and would not have give in to Llla then. The buying of Little Women is an allusions: girls’ book! we are told about girls growing up. I went back to the book and yes it’s Little Women all right: in the movie the Italian is back-translated into Alcott’s English. I have a copy of Little Women in Italian which I picked when in Italy in 1994 with Jim and my daughters — on a stall. It must be a popular book — well circulated. I was touched at how they read and reread — that’s what I did.

I would not have given in to Lila to walk to the sea – -I might not be a dominating girl in a relationship but I won’t be dominated. Still the whole sequence gave us a breath of fresh air, Suddenly the movie opened up. The houses are sets, and now we were on location somewhere. Alas Lila was trying to hurt Lena: she knew they couldn’t get there and hoped to get the girl in trouble. She succeeded. So spite. She is trying to one up Lenu so write a story, the blue Fairy. I feel for her because she does never have a chance to get out of this rotten culture. School here is seen as a central lifeline to a better world.

The episode was coherent, held together by the girls’ inner world together and their trajectory — and it began and ended on Achille, killed at the end, perhaps by a woman.

Yes high brutal violence is at the core of this society. And money. When the group finally is old enough to walk in Naples, they find they are outsiders, with not enough money to buy a meal in a restaurant.

For further episodes see comments: 3, Metamorphosis; 5, The Island; 7, The Engaged Ones.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Vivian Maier from the archive and film by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel (review by Manohla Dargis: “Nanny as Sybil”)


Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo in Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (review by Richard Brody: “There’s a voice left out”)


Sally Mann: What Remains, a film directed by Steven Candor, reviewed by Ginia Bellafonte)

Finding Vivian Maier, a complex film about a complex woman surrounded by complex people. As in the film, Kedi, on cats in Istanbul, the portraits by interview of those Vivian lived with as remarkable as the couple-of-hours portrait and Vivien. Another great poet of the camera (Dorothea Lange, and Annie Leibovitz the two I wrote of earlier this winter season). I allude to Cleo in Roma whose voice is also unheard for the most part; I bring in Sally Mann, about whom at OLLI at Mason this winter we also saw a film about; I used an Emily Dickinson poem as suggestive explanation …..

Friends and readers,

This was a season for nannies, from the meretricious new Mary Poppins, to the (however silent) heroicizing of Cleo (the film has now won the Bafta for Best Picture), and at OLLI at Mason, John Maloof’s slow emerging portrait of Vivian Maier, a brilliant street photographer, amateur in the best sense: she took pictures as a vocation, as a quest to record the actual world around her, seemingly against being ignored. In life “we” may not have paid any serious attention or respect to her, but she paid alert attention, respected unsentimentally us. I’ve blogged twice on Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, about a course I’m taking in films about women photographers: the first on Dorothea Lange; the second, Annie Leibovitz. Last week was Sally Mann, and this Vivian Maier.

It is so hard to tell original fine sincerely-meant authentic art & a film about it from the exploitative (which I think Mann’s photos of her children may be, carefully, it seems, posed like Diane Arbus to arrest our attention, shock, voyeuristic); and from the well-meaning compassionate and true to memory and actual experience (Roma) film.  If the criteria is selflessness, impersonal and distancing, so varied and yet intimately observed, Maier’s photographs pass the test. Just look at some of them on Malouf’s website. I was by turns riveted, bemused, fascinated, put off (some are too Diane Arbus),


A common type by Maier: the older hard over-dressed rich woman walking in the streets: here our eye is made to look at the unfortunate mink whom her camera makes look so alert, alive, sad …

touched,


Young black man looking up with a sort of uncertain hope, Central Park

fascinated by the enormous unexpected variety of images. Like Dorothea Lange’s of a terrified horse, this one of young African American riding a horse down a New York City Avenue under a raised subway is a revelation, though quite what of I can’t say:

There are photos capturing tragic existences: a black man who is a beggar on the street and has no legs. Vivian can capture the self-satisfied arrogance, or hardness of a face, someone all body or all clothes whom we grasp is all carapace. The ridiculous. She was liberal in her politics. Asked by someone what or who she was, she said “a sort of spy.”


I’ve walked in just this square in Central Park (which I so love) many times, including during snow

Her story is now well-known: the film is set up as a sleuthing expedition so there are ironies along the way: the professor who invites us to read his Ph.D. dissertation which he suggests proves his point that Maier had a faked French accent is followed much later by Malouf finding that Maier was born in a small village on February 21, 1926, in France, traveling there, meeting what’s left of her family, photos of her and her mother. At first we feel for the exploited nanny who is low paid and over-worked but gradually it emerges her employers were long-suffering and generous too: they gave her enormous space for her hobby, one made friends with her, another let her be part of the family. She worked briefly for Phil Donahue. Then we learn that she could be mean and cruel to the children under her care, and probably had had some traumatic experience in her teens, perhaps from a man.


But here with her charges she reminds me of my aunt and my cousins (and me) circa the Bronx, 1950s

She sought out pain — as when she insisted on photographing animals about to be killed to be made into meat or clothes (sheep).


Avert your eyes


She still has pride and dignity intact

She was utterly silently gregarious, and at the same time solitary. Someone says she dressed like one would expect a working class women in the Soviet Union, 1950; I think she looks more like someone from a lower middle class village in France. She would have been in dire distress late in life but that two people whom she was nanny for supported her.

There needs some explanation for her insistence on utter privacy, her never trying to publish her photos that she takes obsessively and ceaselessly that they are the point of her existence. I know how hard it is to publish, how hard to interest people, negotiate, how they judge you immediately as to class, rank, self-esteem. But she never put herself forward in any way at all.

She died before Maloof found and sought out and put together her corpus; she left only a few precious written documents; so it’s just us, the gov’t and church records, and 100,000 photographs.


The pity for the child afraid and the child neglected is palable

There are just so many sites on the Net of her photos, and I’ve casually counted what looks like 6 excellent books. I am (as usual) late, this time four years: the film was produced and received its nominations awards in 2019.

The New York Times critic of the film is too hard on Maloof as a salesman. It is true that Maloof is now making a living from his find, but he worked long and hard — though my guess is he had money inherited or given to him at some point during the years of sheer gathering (including looking everywhere and anywhere, from flea market to garage, finally to those she worked for one of whom had kept the material in a huge container), archiving, scanning. Maloof began on line with a blog, then twitter. He couldn’t get museums to take an interest for years, and even now after some hugely successful exhibits, he has not found a permanent home for Maier’s legacy. I spoke of Roma on my Sylvia II blog, and don’t want this blog on Maier to go on beyond what’s necessary to alert someone who may not have heard of Maier.

I’m ceded, I’ve stopped being theirs;
The name they dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church,
Is finished using now,
And they can put it with my dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools
I’ve finished threading too.

Baptized before without the choice,
But this time consciously, of grace
Unto supremest name,
Called to my full, the crescent dropped,
Existence’s whole arc filled up
With one small diadem.

My second rank, too small the first,
Crowned, crowing on my father’s breast,
A half unconscious queen;
But this time, adequate, erect,
With will to choose or to reject,
And I choose—just a crown
— Emily Dickinson, refusing to accept the identity imposed on her, choosing another; what did Vivian move around the world for?

I also ask the serious question of photography, when is it art, if always, what kind are Mann and Liebovitz’s work. Lange I think is beyond question a great poet of images and after looking at Malouf’s site I trust you’ll agree that Maier is an authentic sincere heartfelt and ironic poet too. I don’t want to be hard on Mann: read her site and you discover, one of her sons killed himself.


A rare color photo

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »