Archive for the ‘20th century’ Category

Varo, Harmony (1956)

Friends and readers,

Hers is a story of three women artists who formed strong bonds of friendship in Mexico during World War Two and flourished afterwards: her art has women at the center of pictures, fairytale like, archetypal, sometimes charming and comic, telling psychoanalytic & occult & melancholy tales …

Of the women surreal artists of the 20th century, Remedios Varo stands out for drawing full-bodied complete women more frequently than any of the others (sometimes in groups!):

Varo, Embroidering Earth’s Mantle

She is further unusual because many of her pictures can be characterized as pretty and pleasant to look at. One can even apply the word charming to her pictures, a word not appropriate for most of 20th century surreal school:

Varo, A Paradise of Cats

She catches attention because her pictures have a strong fairy tale or archetypal element which would at first seem susceptible to today well-known and once common Jungian or Freudian symbolic analysis (and for those of her paintings where you can find an explanation, you discover that after having recourse to Joseph Campbell’s allegoresis in Hero with a Thousand Faces, this is what the critic is doing). She stands out because she seriously read mystic, magical, astronomical and alchemical treatises:

Varo, Creation with Astral Rays

Varo, Creation of Birds (1958)

Joanna Moorhead and Teresa Arq have come to the conclusion that also unlike most of the women surreal artists, together with Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), and the photographer and Hungarian artist, Kati Horna (1912-2000), her two close friends, Varo was able to escape the misogynistic grip of the male repertoire of images, because the three women formed such close bonds in Mexica after 1943, and supported, companioned, and inspirited one another to carry on (see Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna: Essays by Stefan van Raay and Nicola Johnson; Joanna Moorhead, Teresa Arq, Michelle Suderman, Antonio Rodriguez-Rivera. London: Ashgate: Pallant House Gallery, 2010). All three had unusually supportive spouses or partners (most of the surreal women artists took a very much secondary place to the surreal male artists they lived with or married); they found themselves with a group of male supportive friends. All married (defying the surreal idea that marriage must destroy a woman’s creativity), two had children (Carrington and Hora), and the three women spent hours together in their homes. They would spend time together talking (often of political issues), in the kitchen, reading, and then paint scenes reflecting their lives together, as in this semi-comic scene:

Varo, Vegetarian Vampires –they are eating watermelons, tomatoes, strawberries, with a rose on the table, pet chickens nearby

When you look to see how Remedios Varo’s pictures are understood, you find a variety of allegoresis all of which cohere or come together to form a single encompassing vision. In a fascinating article bringing together Varo’s pictures with the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Elizabeth Sanchez finds that after both made a journey down the Orinooko in Venezuela (separately, they did not know one another), both positive analogous stories of self-discovery, creativity, and spiritual rebirth. Sanchez organizes a number of Varo’s paintings to follow a heroine’s successful happy adventures into the unknown in realms of art; the quest makes the artist become one with the natural world. It must be admitted the imagery is fantastical:

Varo, Exploration of the Sources of Orinooko

Varo, Cosmic Energy (1956)

Dino Comisarenco Mirkin finds that the paintings trace a maturation process, telling stories of rupture, process, journeys, escapes, wondrous acceptance:

Varo, Outside the Tower (1960)

By contrast, Janet Kaplan explains Varo’s paintings in a feminist vein (which allies them more to the work of Kay Sage and Frida Kahlo): this one reminds me of Bemelman’s Madeline books

Varo, A Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst’s Office (1960)

This is said to be a reverse Rapunzel:

Here a woman is kept passive and is unnerved by a male head, with glaring eyes, he licks her neck

Varo, Unexpected Presence

Still, Kaplan finds on the whole a progressive journey with different moments of insight.

Varo, Spiral Transit (1962)


A photograph of Remedios Varo in Mexico (with a pet cat)

Maria de Los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Urango was born on 16 December 1908, in a small town in Girona, Spain. Her parents were middle class, educated, worked for liberal causes; her father, Rodrigo, worked as a hydraulic engineer, her mother a devout Catholic. Both influenced her but the father more: he encouraged her to read, to independent thinking, provided her with science and adventure books (including Edgar Allen Poe). His successful career (including working directly for the Spanish king) took the family to Cadiz and then Madrid. She studied for a BA in a college of arts and crafts and a Madrid Fine Arts Academy whose students included other later respected painters (and Kati Horna’s husband, Jose). She began to paint under the influence of modernist poets (Lorca) and surreal artists. She married a schoolmate, moved with him to Paris, but a year later returned to Barcelona on her own where she became a member of the artistic avant-gard. The Spanish civil war had begun, which changed her (and everyone else’s) life. Her brother, Luis, was killed.

Varo, The Souls of Mountains (1938)

She had fallen in love with the anti-Franco activist, Benjamin Peret, and the pair moved to France where they shared studios with others; she exhibited, collaborated, experimented. She went to the Louvre, other museums and began to read mystic treatises (occult, about Tarot cards), but the Nazis were closing in and Peret and Varo were both imprisoned, experienced traumatizing abuse, and somehow escaping, with the help of a New York rescue committee, managed to flee to Mexico.

I offer only an abbreviated general account (I list articles and books in the comments). There are numerous sites on the Net which recount the phases of her career (this from Spanish artists), some with more details. The central biography is Unexpected Journeys: The life and art of Remedios Varo by Janet Kaplan.. Surreal Friends is especially rich in citations of the books and artists’ work Varo studied,and of course are included many reproductions of Carrington and Horna’s work. All who have followed Varo’s life and work seem to be agreed that her art began to flourish when she moved to Mexico and formed her friendships with Carrington and Horna (see Guardian article). The patronage of Edward James, a rich Englishman who collected their works, and built a house in Mexico where they and other artists (not all surrealists) were welcomed. His close relationship was with Carrington and there are extant revealing letters.

The three women frequented meetings of the followers of German mystics Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff (who also influenced P.L. Travers, known today for her Mary Poppins stories, but also a poet). They were interested in the evolution of consciousness. The two painters read art history, and studied Renaissance artists, especially Paolo Ucello’s strange allegorical secular paintings. They followed his use of natural color. These two paintings show Varo combining some of the older surreal imagery with her new occult preoccupations:

Varo, Hibernation (1942)

Varo, Stealing the Essence (1955)

They were as a group outsiders, Europeans, both marginalized and privileged. One might say the three women had the best of all worlds: their apartness gave them time to be together, and to make art, and their experience of war made them hold together. Varo did however divorce Peret, and by 1948 married a comparatively wealthy man, Walter Gruen, who respected her work and encouraged her to paint. The personalities of the three special women friends were quite different (as is their art); Varo was known as “sharp as a knife, quick-witted, always ready to pick up on new ideas and trends. With Gruen by her side, she became the most ambitious of the three. When she died, apparently unexpectedly, of a heart attack in 1963 (in the same year Kati Horna’s husband died), Gruen dedicated part of his life to cataloguing her works (some 400) and administering a legacy she had inherited from her parents.


Varo, The Escape

All who write of Varo emphasize the studied, careful and academic vigor of her approach. Early on she had supported herself working for Bayer Laboratories this way. Doubtless some of this came from her training by her father. She would visualize her idea, make precise sketches, trace them onto a panel, and then proceed to use oils. She preferred a limited range of color, linked to the natural world: earth tones, “raw umber,” blues, a monochromatic palette. Joanna Moorhead suggests the viewer remember Leonardo da Vini’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet it seems to me that what engages us are the sudden splashes of playful orange, red, yellows, in starry landscapes much blurred, with these child-like machines:

Varo, Roulette (1955)

My favorite of her paintings combine the marvelous with a style evocative of literary history —

Varo, Troubadour

She does show a real melancholy or depression occasionally, a deep disquiet with the way she is living her life, what she is reading:

Varo, Alchemy: A Useless Science

Varo, [Self-]Encounter

At her best she is tender, shows kindness, and her images seem could be fit into Shakespeare’s later romances

Varo, The Flutist


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Eileen Agar (1899-1991), a photo of herself (summer 1935)

Remedios Varo (1908-63), The Flutist (1955)

Carrington: I painted for myself. I never believed that anyone would exhibit or buy my work

Dear friends and readers,

At long last I return to my project on women artists (see first series). I had reached the mid- to later 20th century for a second series. Dora Carrington (1893-1932, Constant Artist) was my choice for the transition from 19th to 20th and early to near mid-20th century.

As I read to look at and read about the art of the last great artist for this 2nd series, Remedios Varo, I discovered she developed her distinctive art in the context a large mid-century movement, about or for which (unfortunately commonly) only a few male names have survived in public consciousness and readily available documentary records: the surreal movement, the most notable artist Andre Breton. Varo is part of a later generation. It’s one which crucially influenced male (Pablo Picasso) and female (Frida Kahlo) alike. The pictures, often nightmarish, symbolic in ways deliberately hard to decipher, capturing the barbarism of the first and second world wars (as these suddenly encompassing global conflicts are called) in learned symbolic and enigmatic ways is not understood nor liked. Many of the women who were involved with men in the movement or on their own made art use torn-off bits of the Freudian sexist psychoanalysis rightly rejected by most feminists (of whatever type). These women often survived by becoming the mistresses of these men; the war broke the curve of many of their careers; too many became isolated, were the third mistress or wife of one of the males; a few killed themselves and their art was not exhibited. Later retrospective exhibits simply omit women except in photographs as attached to the men.

The reality is also that women artists beyond those connected to the surrealists were influenced by them and their use of grotesque, often ugly images, pieces of women’s bodies, heads, with hidden terror as a strong motif, come out of this mid-century movement. The idea is to reject the false Barbie doll body that is imposed on women as a norm in the art of Alice Neel (1900-84) (I don’t reprint these lest they attract the wrong kind of attention to my blog). Paula Rego (b. 1935) paints an discreet version of this kind of thing:

Paula Rego, The Maids (she has also painted Germaine Greer)

Kahlo, Neel, Rego and others want to mirror the assault women feel in their private lives from the public world. What has survived most widely of these women are the hard feminist exposes of Kahlo, photo journalism (once in a while very funny but mostly group and autobiographical photos), and faery tale fantasies:

Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Pastoral

Kati Horna (1912-2000): Couple with a dog

There are several books which as a whole or in part name these women and attempt to tell their lives and account for their art: I’ll be reviewing Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna in my blog on Varo,

and eventually Frances Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves (a history of women’s art which traces it through the most common type of picture by a woman, of herself — cheap, available, explanatory).

For now I want to tell of Chadwick’s insightful astonishingly informative book. I say astonishingly because I came away with 24 names of working women artists. She included short biographies of many of them, and in her book tells of their lives and careers as she goes over their art. The book has many black-and-white images and groups of rich color reproductions.


Kay Sage (1898-1963), Le Passage (1956)

How relevant Deborah Cherry’s thesis that women don’t want to work in the genres invented by men, and when they do so successfully, they change the male genre wholl

The first two chapters tell the central story: Andre Breton and a group of like-minded European men took to Freudian theory and began to make art which visualized an unqualifiedly sexist and symbolic macho male point of view. Picasso belongs to this group. No matter how polite and soft-spoken, understated is Chadwick, she shows Breton and most of the male surrealist artists to be utterly exploitative of women, using them for sexual pleasure and painting them as symbols to feed their vanity and pride. When the women exhibited after the war, they were made fun of — then surrealism was seen as the product of hysteria. The war was as devastating to them as to most other artists in Europe — most of these people seem to have lived and worked in France and when the Nazis took over they fled.

Was anything gained by the women who joined onto these men, beyond temporary meal tickets and what good times and liberty from the stifling conventions of their family backgrounds, when they came from impoverished circumstances and become someone’s mistress lifted out of that. They found themselves in an artistic group where artistic ideals (however sexist) were promulgated; they escaped the invisible prison existence of marriage, babies, and servicing a husband and family; those of them who broke away from these men in order to make art gradually found themselves. Those who accepted these men’s attitudes, had known nothing else. So many came from well to do families or doing well, who would not send girl to formal education after rudiments. Their intellect not trained except by themselves. They did have the enjoyment of these love affairs. Here and there a child is born They found a world of art to belong to — bookstores, exhibits, musical concerts, pleasure outings, parties. What those who began to fulfill themselves as artists had to do though for most of them was break away from the husband who wanted them to serve him (and of course he could have other women if he wanted). Too many ended up impoverished, alone, killed themselves. We see a woman intimidated by a lemur (associated with the night); mirrors and doors suggest a fearful immediate future:

Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012), The Birthday — she was one of several woman artists who became for a while the partner of Max Ernst (a well-known admired surreal male artist)

Tanning is said to have liked reading Ann Radcliffe, Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Anderson; another women artist, Valentine Hugo uses an animal this way in her Dream o December 1929, it’s dream of unconscious talisman for women’s visionary powers.

The surreal male ideal visualizes a woman as an thereal child, or deeply sexual responsive (natch) vamp (with variations). A few manage to project a genuine self-image (not abstractions for world or parts of his body, one of sensibility rather than hallucination. Often they are picturing inward mental life, thoughts displaced and floating in a soup, pictures of much suffering; Wylie Sypher’s old thesis visual art of a period is a counterpart of its literature suggests the women painted the reality of their frightened or lonely consciousness of their body.

The third chapter on “women and sexuality” tells of individual women trying to find a “third way,” something to replace their roles as sex objects, wives, mothers, supporters (they made salaries) or sexually available compliant dreams. One problem I will have is I don’t want to reproduce pornography or anything which can attract the wrong attention so some of me images will seem tame. The pictures by surreal women artists in these chapters are depressive. Kahlo’s famous “women as a broken column” is typical. I take Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938) and Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) to have escaped this prison by using large political events affecting women as their context.

Kollwitz, Woman with her dead Child (1963)

“The Female Earth,” Chapter four, is the longest and where the art of these surreal women artists is centrally described and reprinted. Chadwick says women artists searched for correspondence between the natural world and the unconscious: women in the form of mythic figures like Melusine stand for all powerful nature as female — but provides no explanation for the endless deformed and witheringly sick looks of the figures; a coastline is hideous (is this the only way to escape the confines of conventional life?) Mysticism where we have objects that look like wombs in which an agony has occurred or some miserable woman surrounded by fearful objects, distortions of natural world. Lots of fur. I find I like the playful images best:

Meret Oppenheim (1913-85), Fur Lined Teacup

The artists used automatic painting (letting yourself go), and sounds like the use of drugs was involved, and then one peson prodded on another into drawing or writing words down. Liberating the imagery of the unconscious so they say is done by relying on hallucination and chance techniques –- images of sea, tendrils, smoke, blobs of all sorts, distorted stars – avoid hero’s journey, animal images, fish, people like mummies, ghosts, leafy forms, abstract lines, circles, half circles and ellipses, squares, patterns. Women caressing one another — perhaps lesbian imagery I don’t recognize – protecting their genitals. Women with long beaks, when they are fairy tale like they are a little better, not so wretched. Faces drowning, brutality has terrified them into death like images. When they are in color, they are better, Those that make sense show women miserable. The photographs show women at work. Sexual encounters as explosive, jagged, time after initial shock. Woman as tree – not mentioned by Chadwick as old motif; trees become women. Center of lunar and reproductive cycles. She does see the terror, misery, pain, blood and piercing in Frida Kahlo, deep personal loss, wounded figures, cracked bodies, women hanging upside down by their feet. Kahlo’s Roots is an ironic variation on her husband’s fertile earth. Sage depicts psychic aridity. They reject conventional identification of nurture with women. Agar photographs strange rock manifestations – neolithic rocks by the sea. Discordance images of contemporary holiday-ers and prehistoric nature so goes into Egyptian deserts Psychic desolation becomes political metaphor

Marie Cerminova Toyen (1902-80), Au Chateau la coste (1946)

Chadwick says the in the women’s art is a refusal to differentiate, to assign certain images and areas of painting a greater weight and clarity; that give disturbing effect; all in glowing detail and we feel we have missed the crucial key. Yes that’s it, when we look at the images unless we begin to see the pictures as frantically feminist, they make little sense. The art of Leonor Fini shows her working on tiny things, flowers, plants, insects, debris thrown up by sea, with careful detail. Things loved in childhood take on new sinister meaning. A sphinx by Leonor Fini (1907-96) poses question about women artists in natural and metaphoric process –- this is again an art of fantasy, magic, transformation; ceremonies are depicted, suggesting an ancient world, a system of rites define the passing of time and placate the gods; we have a muse of Construction, devoid of any explanatory symbolism or narrative content. Fini makes paintings of stygian darkness and primordial chaos, states of consciousness dominated by social interaction but “underneath” ruled by instinctual drive and animal need: she would not show women as submissive or subordinate to man; this is an intuitive world too, the sphinx awaits awakening of consciousness.

Leonor Fini, Ceremony — this is a famous one (it seems to me to be a “dark side” of Arthurian myth)

Chadwick’s last chapter is called “The hermetic tradition. n these pictures and this section she again reiterates the male views: women are seen as controlled by childlike vision and magical powers; and he absorbs her into his experience. An artist named Valentine Penrose (1898-1978) saw herself as benign witch. Women’s central role is again to inspire, as a concept, a sorceress with power in creative process. Chadwick reprints Ithell Coluqhoun’s (1906-88) statement that she is creating occult gothic novels borrows, using grail literature. Eileen Agar’s paintings have as titles Mysterious Vessel, Mask of the Night, The Muse Listening. They bought into occult studies like Robert Graves’s absurd The White Goddess (about a chthonic divinity that rules the world). Imagery comes from alchemy.

When they fled the Nazis to Mexico, and re-grouped, or went elsewhere we find fantastic imagery, and the art is gradually transformed to mirror women’s social lives together (Carrington) or inner world of creativity as manifested in newly conceived traditional figures (Varo). A vision of life as a journey, of voyages, stardust, silent. In Mexico, Leonora Carrington wrote a one act play with druidic characters from ancient Britain, imagery from celtic rituals. We see dislocations of space and scale, trying to tamp down bad dreams, insomnia, and also shared visions of women as creative out of natural imagery of everyday life cooking, eating. Kay Sage *1898-1963) who had been born into wealth in the US, returned, went into retreat, and when her husband died, killed herself. Others women were lost in parts of cosmopolitan cultures of what cities they could afford (magazines)


Dorothea Tanning, Guardian Angels (women need these for protection?) (1946)

In its conclusion the book became to me demoralizing. Chadwick persisted in appearing to respect the male way of inventing punitive and exploitative sexual imagery and many of the women were not able to make a substitute that was viable. They had to break away all together, turning to geology, animals (or their pictures don’t make sense because most are not as frank as Kahlo: the images we see are scary, ugly, hideous, if you get yourself to look at the stick figures you can see women being abused, women disconnected and images which reflect the barbarisms of WW2. Or they are of the natural and crockery (women’s things) world presented playfully now and again. All done indirectly and without words to explain. Chadwick is to be commended for her enormous patience, though her neutral presentation has the effect of endorsing misogynistic Freudianism. But this is the context for mid-20th century art: the visual equivalent of stream of consciousness.

Among the worst things at the book’s close are not just the women’s careers not getting anywhere for most pat, and the attitudes of Leonor Fini and Meret Oppenheim (1913-85). Both protested mightily against being put in a book on women artists. This is a prison, this is a ghetto, they say and the rest of it. But neither are not in the male books nor the exhibitions. Here again Kahlo and Varo transcend this: Kahlo refers herself to her real life; Varo holds herself apart: she uses women as instruments for creating life and beauty; she looks to create harmony, contemplative moods in which figures can function in positive ways we recognize.

Remedios Varo — this one reminds me of Bemelman’s famous Madeline pictures (a girl’s picture book)

Chadwick appears not to take the idea of a l’ecriture-femme seriously; she does not see that across the centuries women’s art focuses on the same kinds of imagery, uses similar cyclical structures, subjectivity, indirectness so she develops no firm alternative women’s aesthetic for the surreal movement.

So as per women’s tradition, Kahlo also painted this China Still Life — filled with her woman’s version of surreal imagery: growths of vegetables:

and her is Varo’s Flowers (her pictures of Paradise of Cats is too well known)



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Carrie Fisher (1956-Dec 27th, 2016) and Debbie Reynolds (1932-Dec 28th, 2016)

I write about those days at a great distance – not only in terms of time. I cannot feel close to the young woman who went about with my name long ago … she is often strange to me, sometimes antipathetic, now and then, but for the self-conviction that stares at me from the printed page. There too I am at odds with her — Elizabeth Robins, suffragette-actress, who left an autobiography

I am the custodian of Princess Leia — Carrie Fisher off-the-cuff at a signing event

Friends and readers,

Not everyone coming here will recall that for a while I was writing a series of blogs on actresses, most of them 18th century, but my idea was to focus fairly on the profession of the actress, its history, and individuals. If Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher were not actresses, where are actresses to be found? I wrote about them on my Sylvia blog a few days after Carrie Fisher died of a massive heart attack, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the next day of deleterious heart event given the non-technical name, “broken-heart syndrome,” and stroke, in other words, intense grief at the loss of her daughter.

My daughters seemed to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. As a mother to daughters, I felt so touched over how the mother died, her grief too strong for her strained heart to sustain. Since then my (temporary) identification, interest in actresses, and curiosity has led to me to read about them, and feel empathy and much respect for both.

I didn’t realize the photo I found (and now prefaces this blog) came from Reynolds’s last appearance to pick up a much-merited reward for a life-time of performance from the Screen Actors Guild in January of 2015. Both American sweethearts at age 19 (that was Reynolds’s age when she famously starred in Singin’ in the Rain): there is something about their particular permutation of the white gene pool — the round face, wide-apart eyes, uplifted nose, blue eye, blonde hair — and the way they presented themselves that lent themselves to this. It was easy to find out this kind of thing and much about both their careers and Carrie Fisher’s writing over the next few days. No less than 5 articles in the Washington Post appeared the day after her death, one of them on the front page and continuing in the front section. There was an obituary in the New York Times.

But the way my younger daughter talked of her, I began to realize she was famous for her writing and what I’ll call her “solo performances” on select stages beyond her roles in the original two Star Wars films (1970s), it sequel (1983) and (very recently, much older) its prequel (2015). These made her, like her mother, before her an icon for a version of America’s sweetheart. After this she became a screenplay writer, wrote fictional versions of her life and relationship with her mother, most notably Postcards from the Edge, made into a film (which won awards that year) with Meryl Streep as Carrie, and Shirley MacLaine as Debbie: how’s that for four icons all at once? But important as these were, partly because she was so candid about her private life (sex and marriage), her depression and drug problems, perhaps the solo performances were the most striking reason for her following.

In the several histories of actresses and the rise of respectability of actresses (see my blog review of Sandra Richards’ The Rise of the English Actress), I concluded that central to the growth of respectability for actresses was the actress-autobiography (a sub-genre of autobiography one might say). The writing legitimized her, she was seen as a serious person; the earliest ones were in the 19th century, but some of these were also by women who also got up on the stage alone and did monologue, solo performances. Why is this important: in these they regularly broke out of the conventional roles they were pushed into in films and stage plays. We are familiar with this under cover of the stand-up comic: Joan Rivers did it with pizzazz, and electrified audiences by breaking tabooes in her talk about sex.

What Carrie (using just her first name as so many do) did was to tie these monologues openly to her life, and include in the monologue people she worked in the industry with (say George Lukacs, the first director of Star Wars). She’d do it unexpectedly and at awards ceremony where the person named and at moments bitterly satirized would be sitting. I noticed she’d quickly turn the talk into more compliment, and by the end seem to buy back into the values of the crowd, but everyone had heard the mordant take on the realities of the movie industry and women’s lives. Married briefly to the thoughtful song-writer and good musician, Paul Simon, with other disappointed love affairs (known) with a daughter too, Billie Lourd (a minor actress), Carrie evolved a character in public, much of it frankly her which girls in the later 20th century could identify with and find solace. She capped it off (so to speak) by dying relatively young.

Carrie at American Film Institute

I’m writing because I don’t see her “act” talked about in this way: we are told her quips (good one-liners) and ceaselessly it’s repeated how she openly talked of her “drug problem” and “bi-polar” (a cant word nowadays) state. It is still daring to present your sex life as she did openly (see my blog-review of Kristin Pullen’s Actresses and Whores.) She is presented as a Dorothy Parker manque: but Parker never acted, did monologues on stage, and her writing was much much stronger, far more consistent, genuinely reaching tragedy (the story, “Big Blonde”), and she was brilliant in verse. This is not to knock Carrie Fisher but say she broke out of stereotypes and was able to talk about what it is to be woman as an “actress” in front of audiences. As far as I can her other two novels were much weaker and her autobiographical books (3 of them) weaker yet: they are put-together anecdotes meant to make money and promote herself to get more opportunities for stage solos and participation in movies. She had a TV show, was in dozens of movies, three worth mentioning as serious (where real acting was called for).

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher — many years ago, when Carrie was still singing as part of her mother’s nightclub act

Carrie also from a very young age, worked with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, on stage. The mother was grooming her to become a singer and nightclub entertainer. In the film, Bright Lights (see right below), we hear Carrie sing twice and she’s very good — a hard yet mellow resonant register like Judy Garland’s. In the film too, one of Reynolds’s rare remarks about herself and her daughter is repeated twice: she is deeply disappointed Carrie did not go in for a career as a singer; Reynolds attributes this to the source (as Reynolds sees this) of her talent, her relationship with her father, Eddie Fisher.

Which brings me to the crucial background out of which Carrie’s career, character, personal fulfilment and crises came: Debbie is not so much Princess Leia’s mother as Carrie is the daughter of the woman Eddie Fisher deserted for that vamp, Elizabeth Taylor. Anyone alive in the later 1950s and 60s who doesn’t remember the extraordinary publicity Reynolds manipulated on her own behalf to make herself the ultimate victim probably never read a newspaper or watched the news or went to a movie. I admit there too I had a lot to learn over the past couple of days. As I thought the extent of Carrie Fisher’s significance was as this skewed icon — America’s sweetheart no longer the girl next door, but first some bizarre fantastic innocent girl who is made the victim of a sadist — remember the metallic outfit and a chain around her neck, and then a general. (To this in our fascist militarized culture are actresses reduced who want to be seen as strong miscalled feminism sometimes: they need to be as violent as American macho heroes at vital moments. Princess Leia strangles the fat [naturally] monster who is imprisoning her with the very chain holding her down.)

So I thought Debbie Reynolds had made a career out of enacting unexamined American ideals: the unsinkable Molly Brown. She was the all-American mother and wife in the honeymoon-like Bundle of Joy. After Fisher left her, she had married twice badly (I had read somewhere), both times seeking glamorous men with money, and both times the relationship ended badly. The second husband, millionaire businessman, Harry Karl, turned out to be an addictive gambler, who lied to and bankrupted Reynolds. The third a very wealthy real estate developer. From what is said in newspapers I had the impression of someone ambitious, determined, and capable: she re-made herself each time through working in nightclubs and more popular movies. Like Ginger Rogers, she was hired for her looks, not her skill as a dancer, and like Rogers, Reynolds made herself superb. For “Good morning” she is said to have endured bleeding feet (recalling Hans Christian Anderson’s poor mermaid). She sang songs one of which became as great a hit as any of Eddie Fisher’s: Tammy from Tammy and the Bachelor.

But as with her daughter, the popular perception of her is inadequate: though not as badly. She had a career on the stage (won a Tony), could really act, especially in comedies (she’d win Emmys for TV shows) and developed her own act and material. She too did solo performances, but here the resemblance ends. She stayed doll-like all her life, at the edges of her monologues making fun lightly here and there of American values, and in her later years referring to her daughter and herself, but never telling much, much less anything untoward. From what I read it seems that part of the conflicts between mother and daughter were precisely the mother pressuring her to be intensely conventional. She was the kind of actress most familiar since actresses were allowed to be respectable, only instead of enacting on-stage female stereotypes, she kept to them off-stage too. Not that I’d knock this: she was ultimately supremely successful from a financial standpoint, and in the film Bright Lights we can see that both Carrie and Todd are comfortable due to her efforts. Her act has become grotesque at moments, especially when with her body she tries to enact the old coquettery, the kind word is gallant.

Bright Lights, which, while I regret to say is a weak film, can end my portrait of these two apparently admired and well-known actresses because more is revealed there than was intended certainly by Reynolds, and perhaps by Fisher.
There is a good recap of the film by John Boone at Entertainment Tonight. I watched the film on HBO at the appointed time (both rare acts for me: I didn’t even know what channel HBO occupied) fully expecting to weep as I had felt emotional over the imagined relationship of a supportive mother-and-daughter. I also thought the new perspective or new context of their shared death would affect me and the material.

I remained dry-eyed throughout. Like Fisher’s solo performances, finally it was not that deeply revealing of Carrie Fisher, though the suggestions that were made by Carrie about her character and history were frank, believable, had an honesty not common: she was throughout presented as when all is said and done, the obedient daughter, taking every care of her mother, good-hearted, well-meaning, forgiving her bastard of a father at the end (“reaching out” it’s called). No hard truths beyond the citing of her “bipolar” problems — we learned how she has had to lose weight for the coming Star Wars roles. Nor was it admitted that Reynolds preferred to live the naive life, and pretend to not examine anything, unless called upon for some explanation of something really bothering her (like her daughter did not take up the career of a singer).

By contrast Joan Rivers’s bio-pic of herself, A Piece of Work, is multi-faceted, novelistic, and Rivers presented many unpleasant, suposedly unadmirable aspects of herself; she asked interesting questions about values underlying celebrity careers, showed us the cost of ambition itself, which was to end up alone, except for her loving daughter, Melissa Rivers, whose career she fostered. Rivers was glad she had re-vamped herself to display ideals of gorgeousness as long as she could. We also saw her kindness to the vulnerable, unlucky in small ways (she collected street people she knew for Thanksgiving), her real philanthropic activities, and good working relationships with those who helped her keep her career up. Nothing like this is in Bright Lights.

I’ve just cited some of what’s revealed. We also see that in the last couple of years Debbie Reynolds had become senile and very frail. It’s often said how they lived next door to one another for years, in semi-bohemian (but very luxurious) compound in Hollywood. We see Carrie taking her mother food; reminding her to eat; immediate memory loss is bad. Reynolds’s last appearances in nightclubs (where everyone in the audience is very old) required the help of many people (and a scooter); and the picking up of that last award was engineered by both Carrie and her son, Todd. For that last they got her dressed, got her to get into the car, up the stairs, onto the stage. Carrie was next to her mother because she needed to be. Carrie talked of how good a time they had had, but they were hardly there at all; upon receiving the award, the Carrie and her brother drove the mother safely home, and then had dinner, drinks, and good talk (and singing) with a couple of close friends.

So one reason Debbie wanted (as she said in her last words as recorded by her son) to “be with Carrie,” is cagey to the last, she knew without her daughter she could have no independence. The two women film-makers had given no sense of this, of what the woman was under the mask. I envied her the day she died because I too have experienced “broken heart syndrome:” about 5 months after Jim died, the faux heart-attack, but I recovered. I am now weak on the right side. I am not as strong in my need and determination as she. There is a real person beneath that mask — we could have seen it daily in her daughter and her relationship.


As Boone says, Eddie Fisher’s is the absent-presence, appearing in clips from his career, one of him interviewed later on TV saying he had not been a father “there” for his children, and one recent film of him near death looking terrible, hardly able to do more than agree with the aging daughter sitting near him and talking and making gestures of love. If both children knew much psychological distress and apparently opted out of full careers (having money enough from their steely finally successful mother), this was not just a function of being the children of an hard-working actress who demanded conformity of herself on stage and probably off. He disappeared, he deserted them and their mother too. It was traumatic. Again we are told Carrie had a voice, could have been a successful, belting out sorrowful songs; Todd sings for couple of minutes, showing he too inherited, in his case the light tenor that underlay Eddie Fisher’s voice. But as if they had been stung by an adder, they turned away — both at times to drugs to get through. His career was not destroyed until after Taylor left him for Richard Burton, another marriage, and his inability to adapt to the somewhat changed mores in the mainstream by the later 1960s. Which Debbie managed, just. He couldn’t act it seems.

The content was mostly the slightest of story-lines: the two women are preparing to go to collect Debbie’s last award; by the end they have achieved this feat, are home again, and Carrie belts out a song, partly to please her mother. Before their death it might have felt celebratory. Now it came across as nostalgia, melancholy. Along this is strung home-movies taken by Todd Fisher or Debbie. Todd, her son by Eddie Fisher, came in about half-way through, and we see his devotion to the mother too, and his candor. He too has had drug problems; he did not have near the career his sister has made; he was frank that the source of his core money is his mother’s legacy. Boone omitted the clips from the movie, Postcards from the Edge, as the relationship of its matter to Carrie and her mother was not gone into. One could see that Carrie Fisher was aware of how she when much younger enacted the worst grotesqueries of the hegemonic male culture as it imprints itself on women and that from around the 1990s she refused to do.

By the time my brief foray into this pair of women was done I was no longer sentimental over them, no more identifying than I did for Joan Rivers. Better than this I saw and see in them the difficulties of being an actress in the 21st century remain similar to those actresses had from the later 17th century. How they survived was similar. Where they suffered — from the relationships with men sexually that on the screen they had to control to draw audiences to them. I would not claim for Carrie Fisher anything like the original work and political vision behind the careers of say Helen Mirren, Harriet Walter, Emma Thompson (to cite familiar names) or the many women from the 19th through 20th century who wrote, worked as soloists, directed. But she belongs to their honorable group.

Carrie Fisher not far from her Princess Leia role: note how Debbie’s smile never changes

There is lurking in my findings an possible essay on the mother-daughter relationships in acting where both mother and daughter are fellow supportive players. I liked this joke in one of the many articles to have appeared: by Ann Hornaday:

If St Peter is waiting, one can’t hep but imagine him a bit intimidated by Fisher — coolly observing the scene and taking notes for mordant future reference — and Reynolds, adjusting her hair and makeup one last time before wowing him with a showstopper of an opening number.


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Carrington when young (photo)

The river Pang, Tidmarsh

I long for the wings of an owl that I mighty FLY — Carrington,1930, “after a frusrating domestic crisis that kept her from painting” (Hill)

I see my paints and think it is no use to me, for Lytton will not see it now (quoted by Noel Carrington)

Dear friends and readers,

I return to a final two essays in this second series calling attention to women artists after I had gone to one too many exhibits of groups of artists under this or that rubric where there were either none or a token or one or two women, often the same couple of pictures. I managed twelve from the Renaissance into the 21st century for the first series, and Carrington is the eleventh of a second fifteen. I’ve found in this second group many great and beautiful and meaningful pictures and other forms of visual art; but also that even the better known women are hardly famous outside a narrow selection of people or only known for their connection with a man or notorious life event; and their art afterwards underestimated. In many individual or personal fulfillment was thwarted by gender expectations, at least two died young from childbirth. Their self-esteem as artists was battered; nonetheless, they developed female-inflected genres, made art different from that of their male counterparts, and succeeded wonderfully well as artists. Carrington’s life and art fits these patterns.

In Carrington’s case what she is famous for gets in the way of people seeking out and appreciating her art. First, for her devotion to Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and suicide soon after he died because, she asserted, she could not imagine or endure life without him.

Carrington’s Lytton Strachey (1916) — one of her finest characteristic portraits and one of the finest by anyone of him — it’s a study of sensitive hands, of meditative reading

Then there’s the still widely-assumed belief that she self-flagellatingly destroyed or painted over many of her pictures, and indulged herself in non-save-able non-prestigious immanent arts (on house walls, for signboards, craft-y things, book marks, covers, and illustrations), so that hardly anything truly fine and great and permanent survives. Her intense reluctance (refusal) to have an exhibition of her art reinforces the idea her pictures were not good enough.

The Mill at Tidmarsh (Lytton and her first home together) — perhaps her most famous masterpiece

That she killed herself is out of doubt, but why is not so sure. Jane Hill’s reprinting of the ceaseless art-making Carrington did around Strachey in the last three chapters (phases) of Carrington’s life (in her The Art of Dora Carrington) to see to his every comfort argues a tender idolization (the above two black swans can be seen as standing in for herself and Strachey), but Carrington’s brother, Noel Carrington, (in his Carrington: Paintings, Drawings, and Decorations) makes a strong case for understanding that several factors beyond her adjustment to life through Strachey’s kindness and congenial intelligence led to her killing herself: she suffered a lifelong distress from her mother’s rejection of her, naturally vulnerable in relationships, sensitive, of a depressive temperament: she painted to make herself happy and her images show her reaching out for security, tranquility, stability.

An Artist’s Home and Garden

She did wipe out and destroy many of her works (sometimes because she lacked money for paper, sheer supply problem), but since she seems to have made art as continuously as she breathed, as it were constantly, no task too trivial she produced as large a corpus as many a major artist and a lot survives.


A giraffe scene Carrington created for the nursery door of Rosamund Lehmann’s children (John Lehmann her brother was a central editor at Hogarth Press — about which see below)

She would not allow exhibitions of her art (we glimpse a complex psychological disability), so her pieces did not begin the trail of circulation and discussion the way most artists become known, and given her inclusion (however marginally) in the elite English art and literary coteries of her era, much went into and remains in private hands. She did use unusual media:

Harmony: Labador Coast — made from painted tin foil on stained glass

You might say her marvelous letters are used against her as superior to her visual art instead of seen as another manifestation of her strong projection of her vividly perceptive experience of a self-chosen unconventional way of life that allowed her to create visual art continually.

David Garnett — her portraits done as a matter of course of whoever visits capture inner qualities through color, line, shadow

The drawings of herself are in the letters

In the last twenty years three excellent ground-breaking books have been written about her: Hill’s, Noel’s and Gretchen Gerzina’s biography, Carrington. These and an exhibition (at last) prompted superb essays, three of which reprint pictures and enter the heart of her vision. Them there is Carrington, the film, based on Christopher Hampton’s screenplay (a kind of outline of Carrington’s life out of Holroyd’s and Gerzina’s book), with its virtuoso actors uncannily capturing the inner life of some of the people around Carrington (Samuel West as Gerald Brenan, Rufus Sewell as Mark Gertler) and inimitably Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce as Carrington and Lytton:


A photo of Lytton reading to Carrington

It’s out of these I dared this blog. Genevieve Sanchis Morgan on Carrington’s art as “forms of masquerade” (Mosaic 31:4 [1998]) proves Carrington transferred her private life and most unspoken feelings, her transgressive attitudes (towards marriage, children, social performance as self-promotion, sexuality) into her pictures (landscapes especially and why she did not want to exhibit). She made for public consumption (as it were) the familiar images of herself as a devoted domestic servant and cook,

Cook and Cat

with her pets,

At Ham Spray

walking talking sitting by the side of Strachey,


Her innovative household art was her own real life giant dollhouse to hide in, and keep continually absorbed and busy in her private world shared with Lytton. She defflected her literary ambitions (and some satire) behind playful distractions (trompe d’oeil bookcase with titles that mocked contemporary and her associates’ books as well as Jane Austen), and found desperately needed loving reassurance in sexual partnerships with like-minded people. Gerald Brenan she loved, and returned his visits,going to Spain with Lytton and alone


She created great pictures there, continually protecting herself through these social performances. These come from her times in Spain:

A hill town in Andalusia

A Spanish woman, ink and silver foil on glass

Gillian Elinor’s essay on Carrington and Vanessa Bell (1879-1962) in Woman’s Art Journal (2016), as near contemporaries, working aesthetically and developing content in the same kinds of and actual domestic milieus (“Bloomsbury Painters” the title), argues their art is crucially like that of other women (tropes, themes, the relationship of their works to them and their lives)

Vanessa Bell, The Nursery

Carrington, Bedford Market (1911)

Carrington, A Footbathing Party — much like Bell’s

Jane Marcus (Women’s Review of Books, 12:1 [1994]) pays attention to Carrington’s loaded playful interiors and pictures an crockery as evoking a witty primitivism, working against mainstream (male) art to produce village-English delicate dreams and objects (recalling Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), as in this

Rouen Ware

Beanie Bags — the paired figures are typical of lesbian art


Self-portrait (1910)

Her life can be told in terms of phases of her art. The fourth child of a Liverpool merchant who had spent decades in India, to bring back an easy competence, he married a narrow-thinking rigid woman and for Carrington this meant much conflict over the years. She loved her father, was tormented by her mother. There are no portraits of her mother:

Her father (painted much later)

But her mother was artistic, valued art, and she and her siblings early on were encouraged to use their hands, and Dora (she later insisted on dropping this first name she regarded as too feminine, silly, like Dorcas, an archetypal shepherdess) learned to love to, spend hours drawing.

Noel her brother — much later

After High School, there was her period at Slade where she made life-long girlfriends, with one of whom, Constance Lane, she completed a cycle of of three large frescos “on the library wall of Brownlow Hall” (Hill 23). She began to paint strongly colorist and cubist-like bucolic landscapes and scenes, won a scholarship, and came under the influence of Roger Fry and Mark Gertler (not just his art but as a sexual partner). Finding she could not live in a repressive Victorian-style home (only visit) and have a career and mature adult life, she moved and tried to support herself in London. This period is filled with marvelous small line portraits, comic cartoons

Very Stevie Smith like

and the earliest of the bucolic snow and tree landscapes with their high wide great bowl top areas.

Hills in Snow at Hurst Tarrant (Hampshire), 1915

This is the time of her immersion in the Omega Workshops (1914-16): playful woodcut art, and riots of color and decorations of ordinary everyday things, which while they didn’t sell to the larger public, are the foundation for the way Carrington would later cover every inch of Ham Spray, her and Lytton’s second home. She didn’t do well at Lady Ottoline Garsington Manor (“I am out of favor now! completely!”), but met others who (if not as much, like Lytton) were important to her: Augustus John’s household (whom she turned to as easy companions); individual people whose character struck her favorably:

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920
E.M. Forster

Like Vanessa Bell, Carrington took to engravings and book illustrations


Lytton she first met in 1916 at Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Asheham House — and to fast forward their Hogarth Press provided another place for her woodcuts small animal drawings, and remunerative work for Ralph Patridge, the first of her lovers whom she married to keep him near Lytton (and please Lytton). By 1917, she and Lytton were making a home for themselves at Tidmarsh, and by 1918 he achieved his first of several commercial successes, Eminent Victorians.

Tidmarsh Mills, the meadows

The story of her life becomes a story with Lytton triangular sexual and working relationships with a series of men, and travel (to the continent, around England) and perpetual art-making (from pictures to bookcases, fake and real). Hampton’s movie dramatizes the pain Carrington knew when she felt she had to force herself to act out different selves, and when she felt Lytton did not reciprocate her loving care, efforts catering to his every whim, only to see him distance himself, become at times remote. At the same time her correspondence with Strachey, and especially over her decision to marry Partridge are among the most genuine openly confiding trusting letters I’ve read. They understood and supported one another in many other areas beyond the reading of books and living the larger routines of life. The pressure from the different worlds Carrington found herself in was also offset by the art-making: she repeatedly creates idyllic peaceful and playful beauty in personally felt landscapes (with funereal images)


and stuffing and covering every available inch of her literal surroundings, over and over:

A fireplace tile design

Birds above a cornucopia of flowers

She made signs; this half of a Circus horses reminds me of Watteau’s famous shop sign of people examining pictures in an art shop:

This is severe in its way: the horses are still and in a row

In her later years she allowed herself to be used by a rough sportsman type, Beakus Penrose (played by Jeremny Northam in the movie): she did love to sail with him (she writes of her “Shelley craving to sail & leave these quiet rural scenes for Greek islands), as witnessed by her remarkable tinsel on glass picture, the deliberately child-like Bon Voyage (1929):


She became pregnant by Penrose, a (to her) deeply distressing because repulsive condition (she never adjusted to her female body), and Lytton stepped in to find and pay for an abortion. Her end is well-known: Strachey developed pancreatic cancer, and died, and within three months, despite many friends’ efforts to prevent this, Carrington shot herself through her mouth with a gun on a Friday, March 11, 1932. She meant it.


Tulips in a Staffordshire Jug (1921) – she painted many flower still lifes

That Carrington’s gender was female played a central role in her difficult life, withdrawals, and long neglect. John Rothstein in the introduction to Noel Carrington’s book says rightly that Carrington’s “remoteness from he impulses which moved” most of her contemporaries (ambition for money, high rank, fame, fashionable luxury, admiration from the admired) set her apart (13). Carrington herself also said of participating in contemporary schools of artists to Gertler over post-impressionism that “this ‘culture’ and group system is partly the reason for the awful paintings produced” (35).

But what her mother couldn’t bear (perhaps where her overt troubled life started) was Carrington was not conventionally beautiful. When Carrington is hiding her pictures, or dressing like a boy, she is hiding her body. Gertler wanted her to give up her painting and devote herself wholly to him as his wife. She resisted this fiercely, but could only find a stable life with the daily rhythms and calm expectations that she needed for creation of her art on Lytton’s income.

In talking of a career, she repeated Frye’s warning early on about how hard it was going to be to practice great art as a woman. How she will be regarded by others. She wrote Gerald Brenan about “how difficult it was to be a ‘female creator'”

the few that did become artists, I think you will admit were never married or had children. Emily Bronte & her sisters, Jane Austen, Sappho. Lady Hester Stanhope. Queen Elizabeth and even lesser people like the French female artists Berthe Morissot [who did have a daughter], Le Brun [ditto], Julie de Lespinasse & Dudeffand [? is this a reference to George Sand whose legal name was Dudevant or Madame du Deffand?] … If when I am 38, I am not an artist, & think it is no good my persevering with my painting, I might have a child …

Spanish Boy (1924) — in her two portraits of adolescent boys she captures their vulnerability

This is an important statement if we realize that she was also much influenced by painters no one else was, for example (according to Hill), the Renaissance painter, Joachim Patinir:

The Hermit

Patinir’s Flight from Egypt does recall Carrington’s landscapes:


Carrington’s candid utterances to Brenan about being a woman (“You know I always hated being a woman” [Elinor 31]) are so sad because she never was not an artist, always alive to the art of others, in groups or as individuals. She did hate being pregnant (and thus perhaps deprived herself of a raison d’etre once Lytton was diagnosed with inoperable cancer). When she painted Lady Strachey (Lytton’s mother) it’s said she caught the inner strong woman, but she also masculinized her, made her monumental in doctor’s robes:


Of her depiction of a group of young girls marshalled by two female teachers, one a nun on a beach to play (On the Sands at Dawlish Warren), Carrington wrote: it was “a study of the misery of authorized fun” (110). She escaped the world’s invisible prisons but at great cost

Annie Stiles — her servant whom Carrington depended upon and painted, and drew frequently — she describes herself as with two servants eating or by the fire when Lytton is gone away


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From Enchanted Cornwall — Cornish beach — to them this recalls Andrew Davies’s 2009 Sense and Sensibility

Dear friends and readers,

Since tomorrow I’m going to try to travel to Cornwall where I will spend a week with a beloved friend, I thought I’d orient myself by reading an overview of the place, and found myself again reading DuMaurier’s Enchanted Cornwall and Vanishing Cornwall. Though I’ve long loved a number of her books (basically the historical romances with female narrators, Rebecca, her biographies, life-writing, travel writing) my yearning to see Cornwall does not come from them, as what drew me were the atypical romance stories; it comes from the Poldark novels where the life experience, landscape, kinds of employment offered, society of Cornwall is central. Thus (with little trouble) I’ve picked photos from DuMaurier’s book which relate directly to the Poldark world:


I remember Demelza frolicking on such a beach with her lover, Hugh Armitage (The Four Swans)

19677-78 Poldark: Part 8, Episode 8: Demelza (Angharad Rees) and Armitage (Brian Stirner) cavorting along the beach —

and DuMaurier tells a tale of haunted vicar living a desolate life after he alienated the few parishioners he had in Warleggan church:

WarlegganChurch — From Vanishing Cornwall — Warleggan church

I’ve read all sorts of books on Cornwall since my love of these Poldark novels began, from mining to Philip Marsden’s archeaological reveries, Rising Ground, Ella Westland: Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, to Wilkie Collin’s ode to solitude and deep past in his Rambles beyond Railways); to smuggling, politics beginning in Elizabethan times, poetry (its authors include Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells), to women artists (Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, Dame Laura Knight), corrupt politics in this patronage-run Duchy. If I were to go back to count in the books on Arthur and the legends surrounding his figure, and literature, I have conquered whole shelves. Bryychan Carey’s website will lead you to much from a modern abolitionist left point of view, plainly set out. So much from one corner of a country.

A photograph my friend took today, near Truro

DuMaurier’s lyrical prose carries so much information so lightly, one is in danger of not realizing how much is there. There is a film adaptation of Vanishing Cornwall (half an hour); it accompanies the movie, Daphne with Geraldine Somerville and Janet McTeer as the leading lovers) developed from her letters, memoirs, and Margaret Forster’s biography. Her stance is less subjective than Graham’s, legend, myth, than Graham does in his Poldark’s Cornwall, which dwells on his life, his career, the place of Cornwall in his fiction right now. Appropriate to Graham’s fiction so concerned with law, justice, in his travel book, we have a photo of Launceston jail gate today:


The DuMaurier’s may be regarded as instances of l’ecriture-femme too: in Enchanted whole parts of her novels emerge from this or that landscape memory as well as the sea. I had forgotten how many of her novels are situated there, from the one I think her finest, The King’s General (set in the later 17th century, the heroine in a wheelchair almost from the beginning) to the later one, Outlander takes off from, Hungry Hill. Her historical novels are historical romances: at core they are gothic, erotic fantasies. Vanishing is circular in structure, at the core her retelling of legend is minimized so she can do justice to the geography, archaeaological history, various industry. There is a paragraph on the coming of pilchards every spring which owes a lot to Graham’s lyrical miracle in the third book of Ross Poldark (there used to be a podcast on-line from the BBC, now wiped away, alas). Legend blends into history; history becomes poetical writing. She is not much on politics, dwelling on the upper classes as they’d like to be seen (mostly the later 17th into later 18th century and again the 20th).

For now here a piece from Vanishing Ground read aloud, evocative.

As qualifiers:

A poem by Betjeman: Cornish Cliffs

Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blow-hole booming like a gun-

The seagulls plane and circle out of sight
Below this thirsty, thrift-encrusted height,
The veined sea-campion buds burst into white

And gorse turns tawny orange, seen beside
Pale drifts of primroses cascading wide
To where the slate falls sheer into the tide.

More than in gardened Surrey, nature spills
A wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills
Over these long-defended Cornish hills.

A gun-emplacement of the latest war
Looks older than the hill fort built before
Saxon or Norman headed for the shore.

And in the shadowless, unclouded glare
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sea-line meets the wash of air.

Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling
Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring
On sunny shallows, green and whispering.

The wideness which the lark-song gives the sky
Shrinks at the clang of sea-birds sailing by
Whose notes are tuned to days when seas are high.

From today’s calm, the lane’s enclosing green
Leads inland to a usual Cornish scene-
Slate cottages with sycamore between,

Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles
With, as the everlasting ocean rolls,
Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.

Laura Knight paints the contemporary world’s hopes.

Laura Knight’s rendition of a China Clay Pit (a detail, painting from early in the 20th century)


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Angelica Kauffman, A Turkish Lady Reclining, Gazing at a Miniature (1773)

Friends and readers,

Further to my coming blogs on women artists and while studying and reading about Angelica Kauffman and Anna Dorothea Therbusch (1721-82), last night I read Linda Nochlin’s famous (oft-referred to) essay, “Why have there been no great women artists?” (reprinted in her Women, Art and Power and Other Essays). I was surprised and disappointed to find she dismissed the idea of l’ecriture-femme as non-existent. She couldn’t discern this because her categories were so broad and general, and she named women as if we could understand the texture, content, nuance, context, so much part of any particular works’ true quality by just citing the artist’s name.

How is Kauffman’s Turkish Lady Reclining different from male orientalism of the 18th century: it’s not salacious, not overtly sensual, rather it’s contemplative, meditative, an imaginary space outside male control (an “inner orient” Nochlin herself called this in another essay), liberating because meant for women to identify with, the female gaze, for female patrons

Nochlin also seemed to agree there have been no great women artists! There is no female Michelangelo, says she (quite seriously). Well no but Artemisia Gentileschi just as good — yes I do, and better in some way. Why is not Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes a great woman artist, as great and better than many of the men so lauded: I can’t stand Gaugin; Van Gogh is repetitive.

Her argument is the very idea of the Great Artist is suspect. She likens this to God-worship, fetishing. (Jim thought this way when he used to say individual works might be great but that most artists have uneven oeuvres and it’s silly to elevate people so.) But then she goes on to excuse the lack of great women artists: We look at, say, wealthy or at all powerful aristocrats, we find hardly a great artist: a person’s circumstances, class, ethnicity, whole grounding nearly (not quite) predicts whether or no he (or she) will make, promote, or write about great art. Gender is clearly another category, and she has a section on how women are taught from birth to sacrifice themselves to others, and from a young age taught and placed in situations which sap, undermine, make impossible aspiration to sustain such an achievement over time. Then though she goes on to lament the lack of truly great women artists, with her example the self-deprecation of Rosa Bonheur (1822-99), how she tried to dress like a man, how she undermined her own extensive studies of animal anatomy.

Rosa Bonheur, Sheep [reclining] by the Sea (1865), commissioned by the empress of France, Eugene, from Bonheur’s travels through the Scottish highlands — not at all the seemingly usual stampede-like picture, nor sentimentalized into people-like domesticity

But (contradictorily) she has suggested the whole idea is teleological in the first place. Which is it? The concept is absurd or women artists haven’t got a chance? Along the way she also argues that individual books on individual women or studies get women nowhere. Nowhere if their aim is to procure the respect of a majority of men whose aesthetic sensibilities are different from women’s.

At the core of this essay is Nochlin’s desire for the admiration of male critics, to have women’s art included in male-controlled, run, financed exhibitions. She wants that women should be admired because she’s a woman. And by whom? well men or women and on men’s terms because she is too impatient to uncover alternatives and assert this are as good or superior, and if ignored, carry on regardless.


Susan Herbert, a female urchin grinning (remember Angharad Rees as Demelza when Ross Poldark rides off with her at the fair and he offers her a job as a servant …)

The sentence that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century ran something like this perhaps: ‘The grandeur of their works was an argument with them, not to stop short, but to proceed. They could have no higher excitement or satisfaction than in the exercise of their art and endless generations of truth and beauty. Success prompts to exertion; and habit facilitates success.’ That is a man’s sentence; behind it one can see Johnson, Gibbon and the rest. It was a sentence that was unsuited for a woman’s use. Charlotte Brontë, with all her splendid gift for prose, stumbled and fell with that clumsy weapon in her hands. George Eliot committed atrocities with it that beggar description. Jane Austen looked at it and laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it. Thus, with less genius for writing than Charlotte Brontë, she got infinitely more said. Indeed, since freedom and fullness of expression are of the essence of the art, such a lack of tradition, such a scarcity and inadequacy of tools, must have told enormously upon the writing of women. Moreover, a book is not made of sentences laid end to end, but of sentences built, if an image helps, into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses. There is no reason to think that the form of the epic or of the poetic play suit a woman any more than the sentence suits her. But all the older forms of literature were hardened and set by the time she became a writer. The novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands another reason, perhaps, why she wrote novels. Yet who shall say that even now ‘the novel’ (I give it inverted commas to mark my sense of the words’ inadequacy), who shall say that even this most pliable of all forms is rightly shaped for her use? No doubt we shall find her knocking that into shape for herself when she has the free use of her limbs; and providing some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her. — Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


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penelope fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald in her later years as an author

Florence is uncertain whether she should buy “the Old House” and turn it into a bookshop: “The uncertainty probably kept her awake. She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much … She had a kind heart, though that is not of much use when it comes to the matter of self-preservation” (p. 1, 1st paragraph The Bookshop)

“che mena il vento, e che batte la pioggia, e che s’incontran con si aspre lingue”: tell me, those the dense marsh holds, or those/driven before the wind, or those on whom/rains falls and those who clash with such angry tongues (epigraph to Offshore, Dante’s Inferno, Canto 11, trans. Allan Mandelbaum)

Dear friends and readers,

Another year — and you may expect on this blog, more reveries, essays, reviews, poetry and art by and about women; on and by 18th century people and the “long” era, and of course occasionally on, by and related to Jane Austen. I begin tonight with yet another woman writer who it’s been claimed has an art, life, whatever the seller can think of “like” Jane Austen’s. And like for some of these writers, aspects of Penelope Fitzgerald’s life and art recall Austen’s and this inheres in more than their both writing in a tradition of l’ecriture-femme traceable back to the later 17th century in France as embodied and booked by Marie-Madeleine de Lafayette and her La Princesse de Cleves.

You see a few of us have declared our “winter read” on and for Women Writers through the Ages at Yahoo will be books by and about Penelope Fitzgerald and there appear to be four people participating. And thus far I’ve read Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop and Offshore, am thoroughly into Hermione Lee’s life, and have begun Fitzgerald’s literary biography, Charlotte Mew and Her Friends. I hope to finish Lee, and after Mew, Human Voices (on her years at the BBC), At Freddie’s (on the theater world and children), and at least go on to The Blue Flower. I am thinking of her biography of Burne-Jones and/or another of her later historical novels.

A fine literary biography

Some parallels with Austen: Like Austen Fitzgerald came from a heavily clerical and fringe genteel families, and her books closely reflect aspects of her life. Her second book is about her father’s family The Knox Family. They were an intelligent and unusual group of people. For the two below, Fitzgerald worked in a bookshop in a small town; during a long nadir she lived with her husband, then an alcoholic, and their children on a boat. She lived a very hard life during that and later times in council estate housing. I’ve only gotten into the middle phase of Fitzgerald’s life.

Fitzgerald can be accused of writing narrowly English books until near the end, when she turned to historical novels, and these are strongly Eurocentric. We think Austen transcends but not everyone does and there is an argument if anything her fourth and last published novels in her lifetime (so what she meant us to have) is yet narrower. She was terribly worried she was repeating herself and not exciting enough (yes she was and that was why the librarian replied the way he did) so she branched out to the navy, went back to her gothic and then madly doing a draft tried for a commercial spa. She did not think of herself as transcending and so whatever we may think yes Fitzgerald begins this way. She writes about what she knows: family, a Pre-Raphaelite, even Charlotte Mew; the BBC whom she worked for during and just after the war hired fringe upper class people who until Mrs Thatcher axed their act and made them make money and ratings a central criteria. Penelope wrote for Punch too: so scripts, all sort of reviews, short pieces for women readers often or from a woman’s point of view too. One on a librarian’s day. This was immensely formative experience: she was taught to be intense and concise at the same time.

Fitzgerald is not writing to the male pattern of the bildingsroman. The first person to write this as a recognized form is Goethe and it is a plot-line whose central purpose is the career trajectory or the success one. The character at its heart is really conceived of as moving in a line ahead, not cyclic. Fitzgerald’s heroines are seen in one phase of their existence, and they embody traditional virtues: they follow in fact The Psychology of Women as outlined by Lynn Brown and Carol Gilligan. Generosity, gift-giving (as Deborah Cherry has it) go deeply against the values of our competitive society and our heroines are taken down because they stick with these values. (Nabokov in his lectures, one of them on Mansfield Park, mocked the “traditional” heroine, her virtue was utterly hypocritical.) A too great generosity of spirit moves them and they are dismissed from their jobs. They don’t lie, honesty which doesn’t help. The surface of her books is witty, controlled and quiet, she imitates diurnal life.


The Bookshop (click for plot summary)

This storm in a teacup developed, nevertheless, in the souls [of those involved], as violent passions as those excited by the greatest concerns? — Julian Fellows, quoted in Lee’s Penelope Fitzerald

At first the book reminded me of Patricia Dunker’s Miss Webster and Cheriff, and seemed an unusually darkly suggestive descendant of the English middling milieu novel with the self-deprecatory and eminently morally sound Mrs Miniver (as described sympathetically by Alison Light in her Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars), but as I went on the book gradually became the tale of a slow relentless shattering of our heroine, Florence Green. Now that is not like Austen, but what is like her is the surface apparent cheer, the keeping to wry ironies most of the time, the prosaic reasonableness of what seems to be so ordinarily happening, under near which desperate plangent suffering is gradually induced.

Though Mrs Green refers to a dead husband, she appears to have no other family, no children and no close friends. She doesn’t even have a dog or cat. The same holds true of Dunker – the woman exists in a kind of vacuum immediately around her. I suggest this freedom (so to speak) and implicit aloneness is important to the text. She has been left a small amount of money and is determined to borrow more in order to start a business she understands, respects and thinks she can make a go of to support herself: a bookshop. The book opens with her talking to a loan agent in a bank to secure a loan. She has worked in a bookshop before. Unknown to her, there is a woman who is the center of elite town life, to whose house only the respectable of the community are invited, who can call on all sorts of middle level officials to back any obstacle she can think of to stop anyone else from erecting another cultural center: Mrs Gamart. First Mrs Gamart tries to stop Florence by inviting Florence to a party where Mrs Gamart suggests to Florence she should not try acquire a leasehold on the “Old House” and a nearby store-house garage Florence wants to use as an office (the backstore) because she, Mrs Gamart wants to turn these into an art center.

Part of the book’s strength is its accurate re-creation of the 1950s in the UK, a particular point in time when people still could open bookshops with a little amount of money, when TV was limited, when much of the old “county” society carried on. The BBC offers jobs for all sorts of people. Milo North who works for the BCC and his partner for some non-profit agency determined to do good, lives with his partner outside marriage and appeared ever so grateful to Florence for accepting this since he otherwise has to keep this relationship hidden. He will become one of Mrs Gamart’s agents. A Mr Brundish writes her to tell her that no one has tried to open a bookstore since his grandfather’s bookstore failed just after the arrival of an instalment of Dombey and Son (a novel about relentlessness and business).

But Florence is so hopeful. She loves books. She lingers over a Life of Queen Mary (comically middle-brow this allusion) and sets her books up in hierarchies which mimick the outside world:

    New books came in sets of eighteen, wrapped in thin brown paper. As she sorted them out, they fell into their own social hierarchy. The heavy luxurious country-house books, the books about Suffolk churches, the memoirs of statesmen in several volumes, took the place that was theirs by right of birth in the front window. Others, indispensable, but not aristocratic, would occupy the middle shelves. That was the place for the Books of the Car — from Austin to Wolseley — technical works on pebble-polishing, sailing, pony clubs, wild flowers and birds, local maps and guide books. Among these the popular war reminiscences, in jackets of khaki and blood-red, faced each other as rivals with bristling hostility. Back in the shadows went the Stickers, largely philosophy and poetry, which she had little hope of ever seeing the last of. The Stayers — dictionaries, reference books and so forth — would go straight to the back, with the Bibles and reward books which, it was hoped, Mrs Traill of the Primary would present to successful pupils. Last of all came the crates of Miiller’s shabby remainders. A few were even second-hand. Although she had been trained never to look inside the books while at work, she opened one or two of them — old Everyman editions in faded olive boards stamped with gold. There was the elaborate endpaper which she had puzzled over when she was a little girl. A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. After some hesitation, she put it between Religion and Home Medicine.
    The right-hand wall she kept for paperbacks. At 1s. 6d. each, cheerfully coloured, brightly democratic, they crowded the shelves in well-disciplined ranks. They would have a rapid turnover and she had to approve of them; yet she could remember a world where only foreigners had been content to have their books bound in paper. The Everymans, in their shabby dignity, seemed to confront them with a look of reproach.
    In the backhouse kitchen, since there was absolutely no room for them in the shop itself, were two deep drawers set apart for the Books of the Books – the Ledger, Repeat Orders, Purchases, Sales Returns, Petty Cash. Still blank, with untouched double columns, these unloved books menaced the silent commonwealth on the shelves next door.

OldBookshopMadrid (Large)
Photograph of an old bookshop in Madrid, circa 1950s

What’s terrifying is how Mrs Gamart works invisibly against our good woman and through agents. I have had experiences like this where a chairman of a college department maneuvered to try to fire and then when she could not, give me terrible teaching schedules, and cut back my number of sections. Florence resists the inroads at every turn. No she will not turn her store however temporarily into an art exhibit. But here and there she yields to circumstances which Mrs Gamart uses against her. She hires a daughter of a numerous family, Christine, to be her clerk because she knows the family needs the money and she will find Christine useful, compliant and yes inexpensive. Lawyers show up with citations of infractions against town regulations. Florence is served with a writ because she is breaking the law by the number of hours the girl works. This is said to take time from Christine’s studies.

There is even a poltergeist (who like Mrs Gamart) recognizes no bounds, no rules, will stop at nothing:

    The hostile force, pushing against her push, came and went, always a little ahead of her, with the shrewdness of the insane. The quivering door waited for her to try again. From inside the backhouse came a burst of tapping. It did not sound like one thing hitting another, more like a series of tiny explosions. Then, as she leaned against her door, trying to recover her breath, it suddenly collapsed violently, swinging to and fro, like a hand clapping a comic spectacle, as she fell inwards on to the brick floor on her knees.
    Everyone in Score Lane must have seen her pitch head foremost into her own kitchen. But stronger than the embarrassment, fear and pain was the sense of injustice. The rapper was a familiar of the bathroom and the upstairs passage. In the backhouse she had never heard or seen any signs of malignancy. There are unspoken agreements even with the metaphysical, and the rapper had overstepped them. Her will-power, which she felt as indignation, rose to meet the injury. The Unseen, as the girls had always called it at Muller’s [her ex-bookshop, could mind its own business, no better than the Seen. Neither of them wou prevent her from opening a bookshop (p. 35).

It delivers a night of terror through ever increasing knocks and raps that put me in mind of Robert Wise’s The Haunting

There are several climaxes: one is the remarkable scene where Florence is made to feel electrifying fault because Christine does not do well on her ElevenPlus: the day the selection of children for Grammar school or Technical modern depending on how each did on a test called the Elevan Plus and administered to children at the age of 11.

The page in the novel which describes the day the envelopes are given out in Christine’s classroom was so powerful I was startled.  All the children in the class sit together and some get a long-letter horizontal white envelope (you are going to a grammar school and there will be prepared for a university place) and some get a long beige one rather like receiving a contract for work (you are going to a technical modern). The sense of inexorable placing of the child forever in a place where there will be opportunity for fulfillment, for advancement and just high respect as opposed to a place where the child is cut off from these things for not being intelligent enough is felt in the class like some lightning bolt. In the novel the girl’s mother bitterly tells Florence that Christine will never have an opportunity to meet the right kind of man who would give her a middling to upper class life. It’s over for her. Wee know that Christine herself has said she doesn’t like to read and doesn’t read what she doesn’t have to; Christine denies that she could have gotten a high grade. It’s not our heroine’s fault but it hurts and makes her feel bad; worse Mrs Gamant how goes after her through the authorities as having abused a child. As before the case falls to the ground.

It’s a quietly feminist book even if the great spider enemy is a woman. In order to attract customers looking for the latest popular “high” best-seller, she orders in many copies of Nabokov’s Lolita. One of the book’s strengths is its inimitable evocation of the 1950s in England, small town life on the East Coast. Lolita is a brilliant choice in this respect: it’s Playboy‘s answer to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Rebecca Solnit is a rare woman’s voice with the courage to say she is deeply pained as she reads about Lolita and her mother’s destruction and resists allowing a man to speak for her (and ironically?). She shows it’s a cruel pornographic book disguised through having an ironic narrator — or supposedly ironic narrator. Solnit argues those who read it that was have taken on the patriarchal point of view. “Men explain Lolita to me” by Rebecca Solnit. Fitzgerald is showing us the true destroyer of women’s lives in the gendered circumstances Florence cannot escape. In women’s book there is often a woman who is powerful and hurts the heroine.  And who the author loathes. It’s that women enact the patriarchal script and as Gilligan says nothing hurts or enrages women more – especially since female friendship can  mean so much.

It seems that gradually the good custom that Florence was building dissipates away and she can’t figure out why. She learns that Mrs Gamart has managed to set up an alternative bookshop and Christine gone to work in that. Milo North has become a mole as he takes Christine’s place, treacherously supposedly clerking for Florence but actually an informer, when Florence is gone he sits outside the shop on a chair. The banker who lent Florence the money originally and whom she now cannot pay comes to hint she should give over. Florence lives in that bookshop. She has tried to keep up the store-room garage but finds it is rotting away much more quickly than it should. She is told she should not fix it because Parliament has passed a law which has a subsection which will allow the community to take her bookshop from her for the arts.

Finally, an aging ill decent male,one with respect and self-esteem and thus position, what’s more, someone who knows how the world works, Mr Brundish comes to visit Mrs Gamart. He tells her to leave Florence and her bookshop alone. For a moment, Mrs Gamart tries scoffing, what has she to do with this? Florence disobeyed child protective laws, she is not responsible for laws in Parliament intended to provide buildings for the arts. He breaks that down immediately (her son was responsible for the subsection) and then she falls silent. He leaves and alas drops dead. The result Mrs Gamart’s husband, a General who first tries to win over Florence by asking her pity: he is he tells her one of the world’s “Walking Wounded.” Maybe. Is that why he obeys Mrs Garmart? This General puts it about that Mr Brundish came to praise Mrs Gamart. It’s over for Florence. Her shop is to be pulled down. She tries to get money for her stock and it emerges it’s worthless or no one will give her anything. A final blow is to discover the treachery of Milo. She is last seen in a bus station. This is Cathy Come Home stuff: Cathy’s children are taken from her at a bus station.

The Bookshop is pure heroine’s text, Florence Green is our center, and much about the book reminds me of other books of this type by women: a kind of desperate courage in the face of the world’s bullies and terrors. . Among the things shown is how a person can be entrepreneurial, do everything one is told to do, ambitious within constraints, socially appropriate, and keep at this — and utterly fail. And yet the tone is not lugubrious, you are not whipped about in the way Dickens will do, nothing maudlin. She just sits and cries we are told. The sky shines still.

Offshore (see wikipedia for a concise account)

She plunges you (the verb is apt as this is a watery world) into the world of fringe people living on boats, most of them very precariously, though there are a couple more well-heeled ones who are fancying a bohemhian kind of life for a time.

As novel opens there is a meeting because Willis one of the boat owners, Willis, is trying to sell his boat and lying about its condition. Is that acceptable?, Richard, a man who owns the best boat among them, Lord Jim (beautifully named). wants to know. We move to learn quickly about each of the boatowners family but within a few pages we are at our heroine’s boat, Grace: Nenna separated from her husband, Edward, and lives there with her two daughters, Tilda and Martha, very young, 8 and 6, not being sent to school and the school authorities have sent Father Watosn, to find out why, and demand she start sending them. Of course the threat is they will be removed. Richard’s wife, Laura, is jealous of him with every woman. People are named after their boats so one person called his boat Maurice. Nice of him so it’s easy to remember him too. We learn Willis is an old man without a pension; that Maurice receives stolen goods and has other shady businesses with shady people visiting his boat from time to time.

So we are again with a powerless person, a woman, not much money, this one with the burden of two daughters, and she is menaced by powerful authorities indifferent to her and truth to tell her daughters, and surrounded by vying people some of them in desperate straits.

The book seems to me to be vague in time. It’s set in the 1960s, the year 1965 has not yet come but I feel she is mirroring the 1970s. This book also fits in with one of the messages of the extraordinary Cathy Come Home. You can see it only by buying it: there is no YouTube, it’s not on Netflix. Anyone who claims the 1960s or 70s were an easy era to live through, that the gov’t and English society were suddenly truly socialist needs to watch Cathy Comes Home (or Up the Junction). Or ask someone. The film shows the punitive nature of the underlying norms which have come out of cover and now are no longer being ameliorated for people the way the Labor gov’t of the 1940s and again 60s tried. Richard Hoggart’s famous book outlining and extolling the pro-social communal nature of the working class is heavily fantasy — as he attacks those undermining such people most readers are reluctant to admit this.

Fitzgerald also shows how cheap things were. How you could get along on very little. How no one was rent racking; how food was around; people lived on a cash basis and did not have to plan ahead, have credits and the like. So this is a mirror of the era after The Bookshop and we see human beings are being devastated just as surely.

There are no chapter numbers,and the book moves much more quickly than The Bookshop; you might say it sinks quickly. Nenna’s two little girls gather junk on the shore and manage to get an antique store to give them money for it — out of pity. Nenna is waiting for her husband to return, but she (and we even more) have no faith in this. Meanwhile Richard uses his connections to try to sell Willis’s boat. He fails with an agent, but two people come to see it and the boat collapses under its leaks. He is left swimming for his life.

Desperate and lonely, Nenna goes to where her husband is renting a room from some obnoxious conventional people. They respect neither husband or wife. Edward can’t get a job, it’s not easy for him, and they try to have it out. But they don’t manage at all. They begin quarrelling bitterly about side issues — the main one is where should they live? Then they are at an impasse. He will not live on a boat, and she will not live in this room. She leaves without her purse and only realizes this as she begins to get lost in the streets. This is the kind of book I literally dialogue with. So as I read, I felt a bite, and responded to myself, ah ha, I wouldn’t do that. So I would have gone back to get the money and my purse. I would have forced myself. Come to that I would have the two children and gone to live him in that goddamn room. So there’s where she and I differ. She is wrong not to return for the money but maybe she is brave to stick it out in the boat, which she bought with some money she got that was hers.

There is an assault, sexual transgression, a quiet murder, and possibly a drowning

I now realize the night Nenna before this catastrophe and after Nenna visited Edward and saw how useless was the relationship, and was so insulted when he told her “you’re not a woman” (why this should have set her off so is not clear except maybe that all she’s experiencing could only be experienced by a woman), she and Richard made love in Lord Jim. So Richard’s wife was rightly jealous of Nenna at least.

Meanwhile Richard has returned to the Maurice because he is worried about Willis — to see if he can find help with the Dreadnought. One of the shady men is there and fractures Richard’s skull with some kind of iron instrument to hand — he is in a rage over money — common enough kind of rage. As in The Bookshop no good deed goes unpunished once again. Richard ends in hospital and his wife (we learn) sells his boat.

In the end the children come back with a relative, Heinrich, who is a visitor and it seems that Nenna is going to allow herself to be bullied by Louise, another relative get off the boat and return the children to the hideous school where they will taught stupid conventional values (it’s a nun’s school of some sort where teaching is through threats of humiliation). While she is gone to see Louise, this relative (or somewhere else, she still has no money, no cards, no identity), Edward comes to the boat! he is very drunk and gets drunker with Maurice. I began to fear they would drown, but no they sort of get their act together and sail off a bit — or possibly they drown.

The pain of these scenes is intense. Again I became personally anxious. I wanted to be sure and know that Nenna’s children would drowned. What kept me frightened as I read was my fear they’d drown. They are very young, she is so troubled she cannot get herself to send them to school. There they will learn their life is skewed and wrong and they haven’t got the right clothes. But she has no energy to watch them. I said I would have returned for my purse, and also that I would probably have given in early on and just given up the idea of the boat. One reason for that is I’d be perpetually worried about my children’s safety. For me safety was always a first consideration in bringing up my daughters.

It does end sadly — or tragically. It ends in life’s mess, nothing is truly resolved, nothing changes a lot and yet a lot changes. Now Richard’s Lord Jim will be sold; he is badly wounded in his skull and who knows what will happen in that hospital. He will be under his wife’s management from now on and is lost to the boat people.

End of book. I suppose it’s an increase of maturity for her not to pull the curtain down at the moment of complete nadir despair as she does in The Bookshop but take us on to another turn in her heroine and her children’s lives. I am relieved to think she is getting off the dangerous, wet, uncomfortable boat but not for the choice she is driven to take or the drunken husband who did return to give her her purse but seems to haae thrown it overboard — that’s not clear. Maybe it’s still on deck. Willis will carry on because Maurice decides to stay with the boat life (we are not surprised by this)

OldBatterseaBridge (Large)
Whistler, Old Battersea Bridge

Hermione Lee is brilliant on this book. Her comments on the motif of failure in the novel. She treats the book asa poetry of water — these three paragraphs made me think of Bachelard’s Reveries about Reveries (in one of his books):

Tilda has a comprehensive knowledge of all river-craft, tide times, flag markings and boat signals. Martha worries that “with so much specialised knowledge” she would be qualified for “nothing much except licence.” But Martha also believes that “everything you learn a pilot’s And Tilda’s knowledge is useful to the reader, as well as funny, as it provvides one kind of language, a detailed, technical one, for the boats and river, the novel’s dominant characters. The language of painting is used,too. Tilda and the marine artist Willis visit the Tate (a disrereputable pair closely watched by the gallery attendant) to look at the Thames paintings by Whistler and Turner. Tilda criticises them for inaccuracies but Willis puts her right: “Whistler was a very good painter … There’s Old Battersea Bridge. That was the old wooden bridge. Painted on a grey ground you see, . to save himself trouble. Tide on the turn, lighter taking advantage the ebb.”

Fitzgerald daringly infiltrates a whole paragraph of Whistler’s famous 1885 lecture “Ten O’Clock” into Nenna’s mind. The prosecutor in her head asks her if she knows Whistler’s description of the time “when evening must clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city:’ ahngs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us.” There are other kinds of grand language sounding through this plain-spoken, low-key novel. A curate visits the barge to complain about the girls’ irregular attendance at their convent school. (“Ma, it’s the kindly old priest,” bellows Tilda.) This allows in a solemn biblical note: “You’ve decided to make your dwelling place upon the face of the waters,” he says. All through, the sound of he water, the changing tides, the light, the smell, the air, the wind, the feel of living on the Thames, is invoked with a mysterious, melancholy eloquence. One of notes to herself in the manuscript of Offshore sums up the mood she wantedd to invoke: “Slack tide, calm, knocking sound on boatside, peace, it doesn’t matter when & how sordidly you live, happiness.”The magical moment of the changing tide is conjured up, when “the Tham es had turned towards the sea,” and the moment as night falls when “the darkness seems to rise from the river to make it one with the sky.” We hear the groaning of the old boats as they stir and long “to put out once again into mid-stream.” Maurice and Nenna think of the Thames, in a an echo of Eliot’s Four Quartets (“I think that the river / Is a strong brown god —sullen, untamed and intractable”) as “a powerful god, bearded with the white foam of detergents, calling home the twenty-seven lost rivers of London, sighing as the night declined.” This is a pagan god. The river’s edge is where Virgil’s ghosts “held out their arms in longing for the further shore.”

A death wish is here. The passage reminds me in its lyricism of Woolf’s prose, The Voyage Out, The Years.

I’ve read popular kinds of accounts of Offshore and heard people discuss it. It’s an easy read, won a famous prize so they go for it. They never fail to say of this book the characters are eccentrics. I’ve a local friend who remembered it as about a “weird’ or “odd” set of people. That is to profoundly misread: the very point of the book is these are ordinary people in desperate straits. In NYC we had areas of the Hudson River where one saw people like this living in boat communities, some better off and okay but many not. And the book is a cracked mirror of Penelope’s life with her husband and children on a boat while he was an alcoholic.


I’ve just started this book and so will treat it briefly in this way: I wrote a foremother blog on Charlotte Mew and offer one of her powerful poems:

The Farmer’s Bride

Three Summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe — but more’s to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day.
Her smile went out, and ’twasn’t a woman —
More like a little, frightened fay.
One night, in the Fall, she runned away.
“Out ‘mong the sheep, her be,” they said,
‘Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wasn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before our lanterns. To Church-Town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched home at last
And turned the key upon her, fast.
She does the work about the house
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk stay away.
“Not near, not near!” her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.
Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?
The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low gray sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas-time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house than we!
She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh, my God! — the down,
The soft young down of her; the brown,
The brown of her — her eyes, her hair, her hair!
— Charlotte Mew

Great pity for a young woman shattered or who was disabled and remains so.

One of Fitzgerald’s novels is called The Beginning of Spring


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