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Archive for the ‘20th century’ Category


Kate Winslet as as Myrtle (Tillie) Dunnage sewing (The Dressmaker, written & directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)


Annie Starke as the young Joan Castlemain “helping” her professor husband, Joe, writer (The Wife, directed Bjorn Runge, script Jane Anderson, 2018)

Friends and readers,

Finally at the end of summer, four good women’s films. Two weeks ago The Bookshop and Puzzle, where in each a heroine seeks a new life, and now, The Dressmaker (based on a novel by Rosalie Ham) and The Wife (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer), where in each two heroines wrest back what they have lost. They were gripping because was kept happening next was unexpected as women broke through taboos to become or take back herself after a long endurance. I recommend going to The Wife and renting or streaming (or buying) The Dressmaker as strongly as I did seeing The Bookshop before it leaves the theaters. In order to convey why they are rivetingly or quirkily surprising as we move along, I tell the stories but it’s the acting out as each turn comes that will hold you.


Glenn Close as the aging Joan Castlemaine reading The Walnut, a novel attributed to her husband as fiction, but one she wrote about her life with him

The Guardian says Glenn Close delivers the best performance of her career. She does make the movie the emotionally affecting experience it is, but I can think of other movies I’ve seen her in where it was she who made them extraordinary (Alfred Nobbs, with John Malkovitch, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Paradise Road, the box office winner Fatal Attraction).

It’s done through flashbacks with two sets of actors: we begin in present time with Joe Castlemaine (the character somewhat based on Saul Bellows) played by Jonathan Pryce, winning the Nobel Prize, and the couple going with their son to Stockholm for the award ceremony. They seem to be joyous over this crowning recognition, but have an intensely strained relationship as a couple. Through irritants, and promptings of memories at her husband’s bad behavior He denigrates and treats with mild contempt the son’s, (Max Iron as David Castlemain) writing; he incessantly controls her eating, drinking, smoking, being by herself at all, when he is the one who is ill, taking pills to stay alive, and (as we see) promiscuous with young women wherever he can be. Joan’s mind moves back to how they met (Harry Lloyd as the young professor and Starke as student at Smith College), how he seduced her while he was married, and their first successes: she is working as a secretary at a firm seeking good authors and brings his (it seems) books in. The cyclical weaving is very much a woman’s structure and we gradually realize we are seeing and feeling everything out of her older mind.


On the plane Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone, biographer, approaches the Castlemains

The real story is also dragged out because the couple is stalked by Nathaniel a young man determined to write a truthful biography, to make a career out of exposing this celebrated author. He follows the Castlemains on the train, and begs for permission and is rejected, told to go away. He remains at the bar of the hotel they are staying at and when she escapes Joe for an afternoon she is lured into drinking and smoking with him, as we listen to him ask her to tell him the truth that she wrote the books, not Joe. Joe (we have seen) doesn’t even know central characters in the stories. Then when the son escapes, Bone insinuates himself into being a companion, telling the young man who then startled with this explanation for his bad memories, confirms Bone’s theory.


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

Unfolded before is a Laura Ingalls and Rose Wilder story: what began as the husband writing poor novels and the wife being taught (perhaps wrongly) that women’s novels are ignored, not read, will not sell, or if they do, not be respected. This is conveyed by Elizabeth McGovern as the embittered women writer:


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

It at first seems the writing turns into collaboration and then (since he does not know what makes a good book, is dishonest about himself, superficial) an acted out lie: she hides away from children and world writing the novels while he takes (less than adequate) care of the children, cooks, makes money as a teacher, and takes all the credit for the books. What we see at first grating is the way he thanks her for enabling him to find time to work, devoting and giving up herself to his art, his creativity. The incessant gratitude as a cover-up drives her wild; it’s about as much as she can endure on top of his continual domineering demanding (he wants sex when she doesn’t) condescending ways. She has to smile and smile at the phony admiration, the adulation he receives so ecstatically.


In the car alone her face frozen, the husband trying to make up to her

Lying is at the core of this woman’s life, lying as an enabling and silencing mode of being. The movie made me think about what Rose Wilder might have felt because her books were attributed to her mother. The situation was so different: Rose Wilder chose to re-write and then write her mother’s books to project an Ayn Rand reactionary vision, to cover up the abysmal poverty of her childhood in rural America, and she got away with this because her publishers did all they could (as much of the media at the time) to castigate FDR’s turning the US into a more decent society for all (the New Deal, now in its death throes), to tell the false myth that anything is possible in individualistic uncontrolled capitalism. Closer are the faculty wives who spend years next to their husbands in libraries taking notes, typing his manuscript, perhaps “helping” him collaborating, who knows writing for him, and then thanked in a concluding line of acknowledgements. We see at first hand what pain this can be for such a woman, especially if he is someone who has affairs with his students or other faculty.

But there is continual ambiguity, different valid angles. The situation was more complicated than merely a bad husband, all self-sacrificing wife. As the days wear on, and she finally explodes and says she has had enough and is leaving him, they quarrel fiercely and it emerges she was complicit; he is accurate when he charges her with having liked being hidden, having liked getting rid of the children, of being rich (which as a woman writer and without a professorship she would have been), of him caring for the children, cooking and doing everything they pretended that she did. We see the beautiful houses they had.


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

We have seen how complacent she can be, and again how fierce in anger. How pained. She weeps at the end hysterically because when he suddenly as a heart attack. She is so persuasive and strong at that moment, I found the falling snow in the window behind her a false overdone note. Yet in the last scene on the plane with her son she tells the biographer if he tells the story of who wrote the books she will sue him as malevolent, and then turns with a look in her eye we see she is at the same time at long last free. She turns to her son and promises to tell him the truth of her life and the books when they get home. Will she? She fingers a notebook. Will she begin to publish under her own? or carry on writing producing books she will say were unfinished and are now coming out posthumously. She was ferocious with the biographer on the plane.

It’s arguable though that The Wife is a conventional movie in comparison with The Dressmaker. At the time it was in the theaters while it garnered many awards, non-professional and many professional critics alike lambasted it as peculiar, not making sense, erratic, unbelievable, and yes improbable and meandering (the last two charges commonly hurled at women’s movies). And at first I was startled and felt an urge to turn it off: why should this super-successive costume designer return to a filthy impoverished shack of a home with her hateful aging sick mother, Molly Dunnage played brilliantly by Judy Davis (a persistently fine actress, ever in good movies, unrecognized because not iconic).


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

Why go to a small town picnic dressed for the Oscars? What could be the point? Well give it a chance and you begin to see and then are on her side, wanting to see her get revenge on what was done to her and to her mother.

It’s a strange film, bizarre: Tillie begins to gain power because these dowdy jealous women want her to dress them the way she dresses, and she begins to make money as she determinedly ignores or over-rides her mother’s protests and cleans the house, her mother, and sets up a daily decent routine of life for them. What women seem to want, what they dream of themselves looking like is when seen startlingly artificial and grotesque


The movie ends with an album of all the actresses in all the (a cornucopia) dresses made and worn over the film (costume design Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce)

What emerges, in jarringly odd scenes is a female gothic story. When Tillie was small, she was bullied cruelly by a Evan Pettyman’s (Shane Bourne) mean stupid son, Stewart, and she was accused of murdering him in retaliation. She was hounded out of town and her mother disgraced. What gradually emerges is Tillie is Everyman’s illegitimate daughter by Molly; that Pettyman’s present wife has spent her life drugged by this husband before and worse after the son died. In flashbacks we see how the child was ostracized and harassed and when the boy tried to smash her head, she stepped aside and he rammed his head into a brick wall. Another reason she has returned, is she does not know what happened and is determined to discover how the boy died. The town is exposed as bigoted, hypocritical and brutally indifferent to anything but each person’s own ego pleasure. Tillie had a young man who was liked her; grown up now, Liam Helmsorth as Teddy McSwiney slowly reveals he has a mentally retarded brother whom the town despises and mocks, a mother who (like Molly) is impoverished and they live apart, in a tin shack with him making what money they have as a mechanic.

Needless to predict, Tillie and Teddy fall in love and become lovers, Molly emerges from her shell to show she loves her daughter after all, or can love her. They sew together:

There are wonderfully comic moments where Molly calls herself a hag and her daughter a spinster in need of such a man:

The three go to the movies and make fun of what they see: there is an older movie shown which probably is meant as an allusion but I couldn’t make out which one it was.

Wedding scenes, church, as the story is exposed, scenes of intense anger, scene where Pettyman hires another woman as a dressmaker to rival Tillie, only this dressmaker is nowhere as daring, bold, good a seamstress. But colluding and frightened people are exposed as knowing and hiding the truth, Pettyman’s wife awakened to the truth tries to cut his feet off (this reminded me of how Stella Gibbons’s mocked the gothic), and just as we think the evil people who hid everything will get their comeuppance and our trio (Teddy, Tillie and Molly) live happily ever after, Teddy too full of himself, slips down a man hole, gets caught in a vise and is killed. There is a moving funeral. This means his brother and mother can escape the town’s obloquy only by leaving. Molly determines to help her daughter and now dressed respectably, sets forth for help from those townspeople with hearts (they are some):

But in a tense tiring public scene, recalling or anticipating what happens to Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish assailing the witch power-center of the town in The Bookshop, Molly has a heart attack and dies before she can see justice begin to be done. So we have another funeral. The heart attack of the aging weakened person who sallies forth to help the heroine is not the only parallel with Fitzgerald’s tale as filmed by Coixet. In a final scene of rage, while the mostly indifferent town is caught up in another social public event, all of the women now dressed by Tillie, Tillie sets fire to the old cabin she and her mother had lived in, and takes a long red carpet and fills that with lighter fluid, hurling it out towards the town, where it slowly sets the central streets of the town on fire. The movie ends with Tillie re-dressed as the Parisian dressmaker she had become and leaving:

An important character in the drama is Australia itself. The film is made by an Australian film company and was filmed there. It’s filled with stunning shots of the bare and hard landscape, which the camera nonetheless seems to have a love affair with. We first see Tillie against this hard backdrop:

One of the good or remorseful characters, Hugo Weaver as Sergeant Farrat takes blame for Tillie as policeman, seen against the same landscape at another time of day:

A townspeople scene: they look up at Tillie and Mollie’s ruined home:

It is as deeply satisfying a film as one can hope to see, and it uses the power of a woman through one of her most characteristic skills: sewing. Moorhouse is unashamed to both caricature and celebrate high fashion and sexy dressing. It is also unsentimental in just the way of The Bookshop.

Two more women’s films not to miss, to revel in.

Ellen

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, scripted Peter Straughan, directed Peter Kosminsky)
Wolf Hall

It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow” — Cromwell to his son Gregory as they leave the princess Mary in her cold room at Hatfield, Mantel, Wolf Hall.

The past is not yet dead; it is not even dead — Wm Faulkner

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
September 19 to November 8
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & discuss Bring Up the Bodies. Our context will be non-fictionalized biographies of the Tudor/Stuart courts, the better historical romance fictions, and the immensely popular film adaptations of the Henry VIII Tudor matter in general, with the first two books of Mantel’s trilogy focusing on Thomas Cromwell, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl our particular examples. Our goal is to explore historical fiction, romance and film, and biography and history and ask why this particular era, its politics, its culture, its characters have appealed so strongly since the Tudor stories emerged in the 19th century.

Required Texts:

Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. ISBN 978-9-312-42998-0
(Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. Audio CD reading by Simon Slater. London: Macmillan Audio, Unabridged, 2009. Recommended if you have any trouble reading the book.)


Claire Foy as Queen Anne Boleyn

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Its material the Tudor Matter books & films.

Sept 19th: 1st week. Introduction: The Tudor Matter: History & biography, historical fiction & romance, Hilary Mantel. Linda Simon essay on Hilary Mantel’s life & works thus far (sent by attachment).

Sept 26th: 2nd week: Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2. Clips from Pt 1 of BBC WH. Serial drama. Early modern history: early modern women. For next week: Emily Nussbaum, a movie review comparing BBC Wolf Hall with HBO Casual Vacancy (Rowling)

Oct 3rd: 3rd week: Wolf Hall, Part 3; Clips from Pt 2 of BBC Wolf Hall. More on serial drama. Reading the text. For next week: Lettridge on a man for this season, and Mary Robertson on “the art of the possible” (sent by attachment).

Oct 10th: 4th week: Wolf Hall, Parts 3 & 4. Clips from pt 3 of WH; Bolt’s Thomas More, Mantel’s Thomas Cranmer; religion and politics.

Oct 17th: 5th week Wolf Hall, Part 5 & 6. Pt 4 of WH. Henry VIII and sexuality.

Oct 24th: 6th week Bring Up the Bodies, Part 1. Pts 5 & 6 of WH. Ghost stories. Beheading, treason trials. What happened?

Oct 31st: 7th week: Bring up the Bodies, Part 2. Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl. Clips from the two Other Boleyn Girl. The psychodramas.

Nov 7th: 8th, last week: The Tudor mattter elsewhere; a clip from A Man for All Seasons; the as yet unwritten final phase of Thomas Cromwell.


Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey

Supplementary Reading and Films:

A Man for All Seasons. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Robert Bolt. Featuring: Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt, Wendy Hiller, Susannah York. Columbia, 1966. Cinema release, adaptation of play.
Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons. 1960; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, in Two Tudor Lives, edd. Richard Sylvester & Davis P. Harding. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962.
Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
(Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. CD Audio reading by Susan Lyons. Recorded Books LLC, Unabridged, 2006)
Groot, Jerome de. Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. London: Routledge, 2009.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004/5
Mantel, Hilary. Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Henry Holt, 2012.
(Mantel, Hilary. Bring up the Bodies. Audio CD reading by Simon Vance. Macmillan Audio, Unabridged 2012.)
Mantel, Hilary. “Frocks and Shocks,” London Review of Books, a review of Julia Fox’s Jane Boleyn [a biography], 30:8 (April 2008):18-20.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir, Script: Phillipa Lowthorpe. Consult: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Jodhi May, Steven Mackintosh, Natasha McElhone, Jared Harris. BBC, 2003. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick. Script. Peter Morgan. Featuring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Eric Bana, David Morrisey. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Schofield, John. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. Stroud, Gloucester: History Press, 2008.
Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn. New York: Ballantine, 2011.
Wolf Hall. Dir. Peter Kominsky. Script: Peter Straughan. Featuring: Mark Rylance, Claire Foy, Jonathan Pryce, Damien Lewis. BBC, 2015. 6 Part Adaptation


Damien Lewis as Henry VIII

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


Kelly MacDonald her first visit to Robert, sees she can indulge in her secret passion, doing puzzles from among many many that at home she stashes away (2018, Puzzle)

Reading books & doing jigsaws — what’s not to like?

Dear friends and readers,

Among the kinds of blogs I’ve not been getting to recently, which I used to place here regularly — women artists, foremother poets, translation studies — and keep vowing to return to, is the summer woman’s film. I have more excuse for this last than mere lack of time and finding myself holding to a higher standard of sheer information: I’ve not seen any women’s films this summer until very recently, and then suddenly, two: Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s superb novella of the same name; and Puzzle, directed by Marc Turtletaub, scripted by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. My jump off point: I take the opposite view expressed by Neil Minow about Bookshop, which he thinks “never comes together,”, and Christy Lemire about Puzzle, which she finds “a lovely surprize.”

I think differently. These are from the once hallowed Roger Ebert site, which is not what it was when he was alive and its most frequent contributor. In both cases, the writers begin with a set of expectations: The Bookshop is supposed to be about books themselves, and is missing (so Minow thinks) critiques of books: why do we not hear how good Lolita is? or what the young girl clerk who so grates on Minow’s nerves, Christine (Honor Kneafsey) thinks of it or other books:


Florence and Christine reading together

On the other hand, Lemire was not expecting the wife of this utterly conventional family: garage mechanic husband, stay-at-home housewife to leave her husband. She does not even know how to operate a cell phone nor does she understand why one would want such a gadget, and has brought up two sons who expect her to serve them hand-and-foot:


Bubba Weiler as Ziggy, Austin Abrams as Gabe, David Denman as Louie (the sons and father) staring expectant at Agnes

Lemire is therefore just delighted that we are not stuck in this family-centered story, but move out from there to follow the wife’s adventures alone.

Perhaps Neil Minow should have read Fitzgerald’s book, for then he would have understood the source is a story about how power works in a community: it’s about how a woman who has been exercising control over central experiences of people in her town, Mrs Gamart (played by Patricia Clarkson) uses her connections, status, and subtle manipulative techniques fostered by the nature of the usually socially dysfunctional get-togethers (I say dysfunctional if you thought the purpose of getting together was to form friendships) to destroy another woman’s desire to find a function in life by using what money she has to sell books. I wrote an analysis of this book and others by Fitzgerald when Womenwriters@groups.io was having a group reading and discussion of Fitzgerald’s novels and Hermione Lee’s literary biography of her: Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop and Offshore; Charlotte Mew. It’s about how a widow without the least trace of malice (so Florence doesn’t recognize a determined hatred) and kind heart cannot preserve herself against hostile inexorable power. We watch Florence after years of solitude and withdrawal come out of her peaceful shell to invest in, create, and build up a thriving bookshop business, only to have it destroyed insidiously step-by-step by an elite woman who knows how to get a law passed to enable the local gov’t to take over the shop, how to pressure a banker, a solicitor, an unscrupulous BBC layabout to undermine and sabotage the shop to the point where Florence is left without any money or a place even to live.

The only person on Florence’s side is the reclusive Mr Brundish, who, unlike Florence, knows exactly what Mrs Gamart is doing, and attempts to stop her by confronting her:


Bill Nighy (brilliant as the nervous man with unusual tastes) demanding to Mrs Gamart that she leave Florence Green alone

Coixet’s film has flaws or difficulties. Much that happens in Fitzgerald’s book is not visible, and it is only after Florence sees the effect of Mrs Gamart’s undercover and underhanded endeavors in say the form of a letter, or a school inspector taking Christine away from the shop, or a court order about her window (with the offending Lolita in it) that she slowly realizes she is being strangled by an encircling malign octopus. A film cannot go on for hours and must be understandable so Coixet gives us dramatic (sometimes too melodramatic) scenes or visualizations that are not in the book. Nighy and Mortimer manage to keep their scenes to the awkward, piquantly and/or poignantly comic (they are directed to behave in stylized ways)


Far shot


Close up

But all too often the need for pace makes for a seeming “tear-jerker,” which the story isn’t. It’s paradoxically a story about courage; Florence shows remarkable strength, which is part of Fitzgerald’s point. All Florence’s courage avails her nothing. Commercialization also demands a happy ending, uplift, hope, so a scene is tacked on at the end of Christine having grown up and from her experience learnt to love books, to read, and open a successful bookshop. The real world of the novel has Christine pushed into forgetting about the shop and Florence ending quietly but in anguish standing with her one suitcase waiting for a bus to take her to another town. The worst change is Coixet has Christine set fire to the bookshop: Mrs Gamart’s excuse was she was going to open an art center in the old house. I asked a friend I was sitting next to, how that helped? or had any meaning except (exciting to witness?) arson, for Florence would lose all whether the building lasted or not. My friend who can grasp a coarser understanding said to many people this means that at least Mrs Gamart will not be able to get her hands on the building. That’s to miss the central idea: Mrs Gamart wanted control and power, not the building.

OTOH, to give the movie its due (and so often when one compares a book to its film adaptation, it’s an undermining process), a reader can come away from the book feeling a horrible witch-like woman malevolently destroyed another, a sort of misogynistic perspective (soap opera like). The movie makes sure we feel that Mrs Gamart could not have done what she did by emphasizing how all the various characters cooperated in the destruction of Florence. We see them at work while in the book we only gradually understand their treachery. The movie also brings back all the faces in juxtaposed stills just before we last see Florence carrying her suitcase to a ferry. Mrs Gamart could not have done it alone. In the movie even Christine’s mother participates in destroying Florence with less reason (the book brings in how Christine fails her 11-plus and how unjust the 11-plus system is).


Florence dreaming in one of the movies’ early cheerful scenes

The powerful fable hits us strongly in the gut because as with the book, Mr Brundish’s attempt to help Florence, the first time he has left his house in years, ends in his having a heart attack. He is that upset by Mrs Gamart’s performance of surprised innocence. And Coixet socks this loss of her one true friend to Florence as she adds Mr Gamart coming to the shop to lie to Florence to tell her that Mr Brundish had visited his wife to give her his support for an art center. Florence has no proof, and she becomes (at last) hysterical and screams “Get out,” and ejects the wicked old man forcibly.

There is a good movie about American black people making the rounds this summer called Get Out (which I advise my reader not to miss); also be sure and see So Sorry to Bother You.

By contrast, Puzzle is puzzling. It may be that I need to see the 2009 Rompecabezas from Argentinean writer/director Natalia Smirnoff (a woman) to grasp why for at least one-half of the film we are in time warp: Agnes is a Donna Reed character, dressing and acting like a woman of the 1950s. Why Lemire is not bothered by this unreality I don’t know.  It is improbable that in 2018 Agnes should be so obedient to her husband; it seems utterly in another era when we find that she and her husband are not determined both their sons should go to college, but that the notion of college is one that needs to be introduced. Agnes is also made into a bingo-playing priest-friendly church-going Catholic:

who hides her least unconventionality in dreamy vulnerable-heroine moods:

Agnes’s one outlet is to do puzzles, of which she has many secreted away for afternoon bouts. Now it is not improbable that she might answer an ad in the newspaper by someone asking for a partner to do puzzles with for a contest, but could this woman suddenly start to deceive her husband, lie all the time in all sorts of ways in order to gain free time to take the train into NYC and begin a partnership with a completely unknown Arab man. Irrfan Khan has been in so many brilliant Eurocentric films (Namesake, The Lunchbox), showing virtuosity (he is usually as in this film kind, attractive, reasoning but can be vicious as in Slumdog Millionaire) that he carries off the character as utterly non-threatening. I find him very attractive and have been told the actor is a type found in Indian films: the intellectual.

The insistence in the film on then bringing out how Agnes immediately resorts to lying rather than saying she is going to NYC to participate in puzzle contests, how her husband is utterly faithful to her and never distrusts her (he feels only she gives of herself to others and not him too much), and then is willing to sell his favorite summer house to please her to get money to do something in the career area for the sons, gives the game away.  Also the intense sympathy given the husband who we see as within all his capabilities as meaning well as possible and even forebearing for not beating her (that’s how it’s presented). He says he can’t do it because he’s just not like his father.

This is a film (like Ladybird [scroll down]) masquerading as a woman’s film or point of view when it is told from the male point of view. The review on IMDB asked if the story is not about selfishness (hers) and deceit. For in the second half, as she begins to enjoy life doing puzzles, enjoys being independent, and especially winning she does start an affair with Robert. It quickly emerges that he is lonely, having been left by his wife. All these hard-hearted wives, you see.


Look at the promotional shot above: is she not coyly flirting?

The looming climax comes when Agnes and Robert have won to the point they must go to Belgium to be part of the final contest. It’s then Agnes must tell her Louie, but we are led to believe that guilt stops her from being willing to go to Europe with Robert. She does not phone him when she is supposed to, she looks very reluctant.  We might think she won’t leave her sons, and is going make sure about half the money will be used to send Ziggy whom her husband had insisted work in his shop to college to become a cook. That is what Ziggy loves to do, and what his father regards as unmanly and therefore unacceptable. Some of the other half (we are to assume) will go to Gabe who wants to travel around the world or the US with a vegetarian girlfriend.

I say some because just as we assume she is going to stay with her long-suffering if dull husband, we see her waiting for a train to go somewhere. We then see an airport and think to ourselves she is after all joining the disappointed Robert. But no, she is going to Montreal. She has to keep aside some of the money for herself, no?

Now, Montreal? There is a dialogue early in the film where she expresses a desire to Ziggy to go to Montreal on her own. Why? we are not told. To do what? we are not told that. I happen to know Montreal is a little north from the borders of Canada and cold. The radical point is that she is not going to escape the husband by running to the arms of a lover. But we are not told what are her ambitions or why? the ending reminded me of Ibsen’s Doll House where it’s enough that Nora goes out of the house, slamming the door behind her. The problem is this is not 1879 and a satisfied sly smile on MacDonald’s face aboard a plane to Montreal is not enough.

I don’t want to condemn the film as it is filled with quiet nuanced scenes, and slowly builds to an interesting ending, but suggest those who are praising it are doing so as a contrast to the perpetual high violence, action-adventure fascistic point of view of so many movies nowadays. It’s a gentle film, intelligently done, slowly unwinding itself.  My favorite line:  when Louie finally asks Agnes, “Are you having an affair,” all she can say is she “thinks” she is (not sure which astounds Louie) because what she has been doing is puzzles with someone and yes they did have sex but she “didn’t like it very much.” Now those are a woman’s lines.

I thought of Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. Drabble turns to jigsaws to calm herself.

Are they a game? I think so: Drabble finds the earliest modern style puzzles are found in the Renaissance and first spread as a child’s game (think of the Alphabets in Austen’s Emma). Drabble suggests for the adult that you are working against the puzzle maker. You achieve something when all the pieces are in place.  I like to do puzzles and my method resembles Agnes’s: first she makes the frame and then she works on different portions of the picture. Of course the puzzle maker makes this second step hard and now you must follow the colors. For me since the competition is at a distance (I don’t go in for contests), it’s relaxed and I have aesthetic pleasure putting the puzzle together. It’s a rare game I enjoy.


A rehearsal shot

In Puzzle Robert teaches Agnes to follow the colors first, only when the competition begins she reverts. She trusts to her own instincts and methods — so there is a feminist “feel.” Robert also tells Agnes he does puzzles to give shape and meaning to life but does not elaborate on this idea, and it does not make as much sense as Drabble’s explanation.

Gentle reader, both these movies are worth going to see — as well as Get Out and So Sorry to Bother You. You can escape the Trumpite poisoned environment we live in in the US today to learn about living in normally hard worlds.

Ellen

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Early recording of Garland before the studios got hold of her: “Bill” from Jerome Kerns’ Showboat

Easter for me as a child was her voice singing “Easter Parade:” in your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it ….


As Dorothy (Wizard of Oz, never re-done)

Friends,

I’ve written only a very few blogs about women musicians, singers, composers. I am not myself technically musically educated, and there is so little readily come by of higher calibre, where the art of the woman is taken seriously, centrally. Opera composers yes, the occasional prima donna. Judy Chicago placed at her 39 women dinner table, Ethel Smyth (who became Virginia Woolf’s friend and for a brief time lover).


Ethel Smyth – pianist

I’ve written of Edith Piaf on my Sylvia blog after going to a lecture with clips, and of Kaija Saariagho’s L’amour de lion after seeing the opera on HD screening.

So it’s more than time I wrote about one of the most famous of the 20th century, an extraordinary singer and performer: Judy Garland. On Wednesday night I went to a 2 and 1/2 hour lecture by Robert Wyatt, accompanied by remarkable podcasts, clips, tapes. The auditorium was full, and I was told what a treat and how excellent is Wyatt. I have gone to one of his presentations on Gilbert and Sullivan: his talk is banal and sometimes to me offensive because he causes (to me) inexplicable laughter in the audience. Some of what I write here is from the few notes I took, a good deal from my own response to all the music and clips he played, the rest found on the Net or from memory.


For me an iconic image

The argument of this blog is that women singers have had a sexual story imposed on them, which they have succumbed to — not hard to understand since in life many interviews include a demand for sex. To make their way in a career they must negotiate their way through the male patriarchy and often end up marrying (as protection and as a platform) a male producer or director at some point (in Garland’s case most famously Vincent Minelli). Judy Garland’s life and the kind of presence her most frequently-played songs resemble are those of Edith Piaf.

What these are stories about are women with an extraordinary gift that could make enormous money and be fulfilling to enact out; they felt they had to submit to soul-destroying false archetypes; to keep up the show self-destructed from within. Each needed more self-esteem to start with, more education, and a higher status; then each might have been able to build a stable environment based on their innate self (yes there is such an entity or presence in us), and turning away from worshipping the siren calls of admiration to do what they apparently couldn’t stand. To endure this they had to drink or drug themselves into a stupor. Now this life enabled them to leave the plethora of work we have from them. Given the US environment Garland’s achievement was to do so much good work and leave behind many kinds of records of it.

One contrast I can think of: Joan Rivers managed to fulfill her talent, stay far more than solvent and possess and care for her soul (and her daughter), be true to a decent set of values her satire at least suggested. But she had to buy into (so to speak) capitalist ideals of ambition, competition, and glamor. Which she did. These desires were part of her innate self. So she claims in her bio-pic film.

Frances Ethel Gumm, the third daughter of two Vaudevillians, Garland appeared on the stage at age 2. Like Piaf, her extraordinary gifts of voice in the range and depth of emotional expressiveness, was quickly recognized and by the time she was a young teenager MGM had seen someone whose gifts would attract large audiences, and the process had begun of working her to the limit of her strength and tolerance for artifical commercial popularity.

Wyatt asserted Garland had a domineering mother and never learned to read music — she relied on memorizing.  While he suggested that Garland was abused because from the age of nine she was fed with heavy prescription drugs, he did not say why. As her life went on, the only explanation offered was the implicit,: see how weak she was, how uncontrolled; for several of her husbands and/or lovers he said how the man had “protected” her. Nowhere did he speak of the long hours MGM demanded, the high pressure (he said only that she hated Buzby Berkeley) to perform in a certain way, the demand she lose weight, look and behave a certain way; and that as she got older, the reward was large amounts of money for MGM and a (perhaps) a (thin) pretense of adulation all around her. Breaking down in private of course.

From this early decade of her life and career Wyatt told of a drivingly ambitious mother (he exonerated the father), and showed some clips, played some podcasts of her earlier effective performances on stages across the US. Tapes exist and they are musically pleasing, expressive of genuine and gay feeling. Her body type was (reminding me of Marlene Dietrich in her first years) was considered ugly (read: socially unacceptable) so she was forced into dieting, cosmetics, exercise to make her conform to the fake ideal of Barbie-ness (we see in all the Trump women today).


With Mickey Rooney

Once her appearance and name were changed, and she entered into the world of the filmed musical, she began to make huge sums for MGM. The Wizard of Oz was her earliest signature hit. She paired with Mickey Rooney again and again. One song that became a signature number was “Get Happy:” I’m not sure that any of the mainstream recordings capture what is at the core of this one: black spirituals. Listen to Judy’s words about Judgment day, getting rid of your cares and troubles, the Lord is going to chase all your cares away. It’s all so peaceful on the other side. The overlay is white male slickness, a pretense of flippancy, the male suit and tipped hat feminized.

Her years of contract under MGM showed her to emerge as a feature star whose presence commanded listeners. The wikipedia article absolved MGM of her addiction habit, but the writer does not cite the tremendously challenging (in every way) schedule wrenched out of her, nor the phoniness of the numbers — nor that she was continually berated by Buzby Berkley — nor everything draining surrounding such a career based on wide success, petty vanity and power struggles within the smaller circles. I could see how she promoted Gene Kelly, supported Mickey Rooney: they were all contending with the nonsense de-sexualized myths the public wanted to believe in. When you watch the clips, they mostly seem so pastoral , as in the famous trolleycar song from Meet Me In St Louis: bang bang bang went the trolley (trolleys were destroyed by large corporations in order to make US people dependent on the car).

There were years of great success, widely popular pleasing film after film with the same names performing with her, her husband Minelli the director and then others. She worked with the most famous and best of popular singers, actors, musicians. Wyatt showed a clip of her with Fred Astaire. But she also began to not show up for filming sessions, disrupting a making of a film repeatedly. It was inevitable that the studio would fire her. Wyatt seemed to delight in emphasizing how many husbands and lovers she had until she began to deteriorate in health under her punishing schedule, drug and drinking freely over the course of her day and night performances (on stage, in life). When she left MGM, she went on to other studios, to work on the stage, to recording songs, and at the end on TV. At a high point she owned a beautiful home in Hollywood, during a come-back she lived in London. Wyatt seemed to like to repeat she was living out of suitcase.  Wyatt discussed her times of great misery in a nonchalant way, saying (for example) how she threw something at her children and “so that was the end of her motherhood.”

She had altogether three children, Liza Minelli, something of a look-alike, the only one able to become a similar admired singing actress . Lorna Lufts had but a brief career. Garland couldn’t manage the relationships she was expected to, and would break away through breakdowns, suicide attempts, discarding who she had to, but also forming for life bonds with similarly suffering stars (e.g., Frank Sinatra), musicians, producers.  I remember her when I was young on TV looking dreadful (very heavy, her face over made-up, her teeth glittering sickly) and then very thin; later at Carnegie Hall, having become an icon for gay men — they felt a kindred spirit.

My favorite songs (and the one easiest to find) are those where she reinforces the myths; she is inimitable expressing anguish.

Except for the initial presence of a mother, Garland’s life resembled Piaf’s — and both conform to the stereotype of the woman in need of a man. Judy’s best known songs enforce this, e.g., “You made me love you.”

She lived but 47 years but the enormous amount of songs and recorded dances, movies, stage performances, military shows suggest a life twice as long with work never ceasing (NYTimes obituary).

The wikipedia article has a long description of her singing worth reading:

Garland possessed the vocal range of a contralto.Her singing voice has been described as brassy, powerful, effortless and resonant, often demonstrating a tremulous, powerful vibrato. Although the octave range of her voice was comparatively limited, she was capable of alternating between female and male-sounding timbres at will with little effort. The Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Tony Farrell wrote that Garland possessed “a deep, velvety contralto voice that could turn on a dime to belt out the high notes” … From an early age, Garland had been billed as “the little girl with the leather lungs”, a designation the singer later admitted to having felt humiliated by because she would have much preferred to have been known to audiences as a “pretty” or “nice little girl”. Jessel recalled that, even at only 12 years-old, Garland’s singing voice resembled that of “a woman with a heart that had been hurt” … Garland stated that she always felt most safe and at home while performing onstage, regardless of the condition of her voice. Her musical talent has been commended by her peers; opera singer Maria Callas once said that Garland possessed “the most superb voice she had ever heard”, while singer and actor Bing Crosby said that “no other singer could be compared to her” when Garland was rested …

Garland was known for interacting with her audiences during live performances; a New York Times biographer wrote that Garland possessed “a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection … The biographer went on to write that Garland’s performance style resembled that of “a music hall performer in an era when music halls were obsolete”. Close friends of Garland’s have insisted that she never truly wanted to be movie star and would have much rather devoted her career entirely to singing and recording records … Michael Musto, a journalist for W magazine, wrote that in her film roles Garland “could project decency, vulnerability, and spunk like no other star, and she wrapped it up with a tremulously beautiful vocal delivery that could melt even the most hardened troll”

Her TV show provides a cornucopia of greatness and evidence of remarkable stamina; she was on for a couple of years; here she is with Liza as Two Lost Souls:

For quite a long time in the 1970s I had a long-playing album of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Jim loved it too and I would play and replay it at night. Now looking at it and the other citations from Wyatt, I see a major writer was a man blackballed as socialist: Harold Arlen. I did love “I’m gona love you, come rain or come shine.

One last: Her life in pictures in her last performance, Copenhagan, 1969: “Over the rainbow:”

It’s possible there will be a biographical film with Renee Zellweger playing the role. There is a fine American Masters PBS program.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire
— R.L. Stevenson, “I will make you brooches”

Ellen

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Three Guineas

“The worst betrayal of intelligence is finding justification for the world as it is.” — Jean Guehenno

Friends,

Last term (spring), and this term (summer) I am again teaching about Virginia Woolf, and we are reading her mid- and later books, Flush; A biography; Orlando: A Biography; Three Guineas and Between the Acts (unusual historical fiction, shall we call it?). I’ve written about the first two separately; tonight I want to go on to the exhilarating and astonishing candor of Three Guineas. What I love and find exhilarating is Woolf’s words (if they were followed) would constitute a direct threat to so many values and norms thrown at us all the time, from society joining (don’t you want to identify with a group?), to ambition and competition as central to our mode of being, and to our incessant prize culture with its ribbons and awards (money) as central to why we want to achieve and how we measure our achievement.

What can I offer for thought tonight better than a (I hope) suggestive outline of this book? A poignantly still crucially needed book. Nothing more relevant tonight. I now understand Reagan’s term of benign neglect. Trump and his regime do not benignly neglect people. It’s an aggressive campaign to criminalize, imprison, impoverish, punish all those who don’t submit — new laws everywhere and now they’ll purge voters. Tax the poor, let the corporations reign and isolate us. I wish people would stop saying Trump’s picture is as if we were in a banana republic; this is as if this were a nazi state — his picture is that, this is, this is US because enough of a majority supports and is for all that is happening. I did the Three Guineas finally because each time he bombs people, the newspapers rally round him and his regime. And this week the imitation becomes more complete: Nazis told people as they entered the death-prison camps here is soap and you will take a shower; we rip their children from their hands and tell them they are going to have a bath, and then we put these children in cages and will not let reporters in to see what is happening to these children.

Three Guineas consists of three essays or letter-chapters. In all three Woolf is answering someone or more than one person. In the first, she says she has been asked by a high-ranking gentleman to join a society to prevent war. Is not this astonishing? that she should be asked to join a society to prevent war? as she writes on, we see the problem is she is not asked to figure out who is responsible for war — for to prevent something, do you not need first to discover who is going to do it? and then to stop the people, do you need not to discover why they do it? Nor is the society examined? In the second, she has received a letter begging for money to support a girls’ college – and to join them. If she doesn’t have money, any left-over object in her house, she doesn’t need would be appreciated for their bazaar. She could become one of them that way. She is stunned: Why is it that a woman’s college has so little money as to beg for cast-offs? In the third, she decides to speak to a third woman who would like her to join a society on her (this woman’s) lack of money, and professional women and discovers that the problem is the way women make money (when they do make it) to sell their brains and advocate causes and beliefs that stifle them and lead to war.

So there you have it. I have read Three Guineas numerous times. Each time I have read this book I think to myself it is one of the most important essays of the 20th century and along with Primo Levi’s If this be man, and The Truce, ought to be required reading for every adult alive who can read. I used to assign it every time I was given the second half of British literature to teach. Sometimes along with Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and a couple of essays on the Spanish civil war he published elsewhere. But it hit me anew because since Trump won I have been inundated with requests to join groups, told how wonderful the society and members are, and begged to send money – not to prevent war but to stop Trump, to renew democracy and the idea is sending a check, joining this group will be doing something useful or a very good thing. I will be a member of them, and then I read an advertisement telling me of all the good the group does.

A guinea has never existed as a separate coin. It was the name of a gold coin worth one pound and one shilling. Stopped circulating as of 1813, but elite shops kept expressing the amount of an item in guineas. Medical consultation fees were often expressed in guineas. You paid actually pounds and shillings but this was how it was expressed. So it’s an allusion. The working title of these essays was Answer to Correspondents

I can give only the gist of each letter-essay. In the case of the second and third I cannot follow the lines of argument as they are too circuitous in order to be suggestive and allow for further extrapolation. I also have not cited or described most of the individuals she uses as examples and quotes from. If you want to know this level of detail, read the book. If readers ask for some, I’ll come back with select quotations tomorrow night.

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


Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia

She begins: she has waited three years since receiving her first letter. Why? The person she must write to is a professional man high in a learned prestigious career with much power. How can she talk to him since her and his life have been so different, and why is this? For a start: Arthur’s Education Fund. Arthur and all her brothers, father, any son have been given the best and most expensive education the family can afford and the girl taught nothing but to be a wife to a husband, chaste so that she will be sure to bear only his children. He has lived out in public and she has been kept at home. What can she possibly say that he would understand?

But by 1938 the question has become so important. All around her, around him war is beginning, being fought, and i the newspapers fierce propaganda to support it. She must speak. She holds out some photos of recently dead bodies and destroyed houses. (Probably from Spain. One of the immediate promptings of this book is the killing of her nephew Julian Bell in the Spanish Civil War where a fascist take-over of Spain was being allowed, funded by the surrounding capitalist states.)

She says looking at these: there is nothing worse or more destructive of all people hold dear. Yes the very wealthy might make huge sums but they couldn’t do it without the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people; not just those who fight, but those who acquiesce, those who support the activity. Why do people go to war? A subsidiary question for Woolf is how the subordination of women is central to this way of life — because wars fought so often become central to a way of life, always there, on the edge, waiting to be indulged in.

So why do they do it? It would be laughably simple if one did not know the results. Men are incessantly honored for it: it’s presented as a profession (soldier), a source of happiness and manliness – yes manliness. It’s better to be kill than be killed. They get to wear great uniforms, everyone bows down in parades. Lots of ribbons. They are continually trained in fiercely competitive games, modes of learning, aggressive professions, adversarial behavior.

An immense amount of money is spent on these colleges, these professions, these awards. (I’d compare these colleges Woolf describes in the UK to the immense amount of money spent in and on elite colleges in the US –- with no money in the society for the rest of to go to much less funded colleges). Right away when you go to these colleges you are confronted with hierarchy, this is prestigious and that is not. Join this one and you make the right connections. Exclusion is central to privilege.

Woolf asks if anyone asks, What kind of a human being do you want to produce? All the many things that can be taught cheaply should be taught cheaply. No barriers. And everyone including women taught how to be independent, how to earn your own living so as to not have to obey someone else’s interests, to be able to think and act independently. What are truly useful and good results for all.

Women are of course excluded. Why? Because everything a woman is taught is in service of preserving her body for a man, making it look appealing to a man. Women who wanted to go to war were escaping that loathed private house, its hypocrisies, cruelties, its immorality, its inanity ….

She goes over the dress code, the advertisements everywhere.

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


Isobel Bishop, Reading Together (1935)

Second letter: here we have this college and it needs money so badly the women don’t even have enough cast off clothes for a bazaar. This letter harks back to A Room of One’s Own 1929 which originated in a lecture Woolf was asked to give to Newnham college in October 1928. Julia Briggs suggests that Woolf had in mind Pernel Strachey who was a principal at Newnham: in the earlier essay we see how poor the meals, how inadequate the library and how the women are excluded from male libraries which contain all the serious research material.

Whitaker’s Almanac is called in evidence to show how little money women make; ludicrously less. They are not paid at all for all their work in the home, and to say they share their husband’s salary is absurd because we find their husband’s salary after minimal needs (rent, food) goes on all his luxuries, male sports, male cigars.

She says some pointed questions: women have the vote and yet they have not changed the terms of their existence. Why is this? why have they made so few gains after the initial ones of being permitted to own property, permitted to keep their salaries, allowed to have custody of their children, allowed to obtain a divorce (if they can pay for it) on more grounds than he came near to destroying you by beating you and was egregiously adulterous. They have failed she says because men have continued to withhold positions in universities, positions in the professions, posiitions in parliament, and through these means refused to pay them an equal wage, to promote them. Frightened and jealous of them. The way a higher job is gotten is still through influence and patronage.

To jump ahead again it is in the third letter she talks of how males – especially fathers do all they can to forbid their daughters from making money, to teach them making money is beneath them. She calls it “the infantile fixation.” She does not always define her terms. This second letter is a far more concrete practical, overtly angrier. Everything is done to teach them to want marriage and children first and only, to infantilize, not to teach them to thrive in the larger public world. In this chapter she shows that (ironically) what women have been taught is chastity, poverty, derision (of themselves), and freedom from unreal loyalties. What country when you are a woman? on the analogy of, What father when you are a slave? Freedom from unreal loyalties: one of these is the delusions of nationalism.

How is this connected to war? They cannot work against the norms of war until they can put pressure on men. They can only do that if they are equal in independence and respect, if they do jobs that are held to be so useful they are paid for to make sure they are done well.

In both letters a primary source of documents are biographies and she cites these. She finds that for most men still money-making takes over their lives and there’s no time for any thought, any protest. She finds there are hardly any professional women in the sense of holding positions of power and making money. She finds that when women do campaign for change that will improve their lives, by the time the reform is turned into law, it is set up to protect men, not women.

So since sex is so central it is no coincidence one of the earliest campaigns (beyond stopping alcoholism among men as it makes them violent and trying to secure the vote) is Josephine Butler’s campaign on behalf of prostitutes: the contagious diseases act was set up to protect men and not women and did not stop trafficking in female children. She was not able to get them to stop imprisoning women, condemning them to hard labor if they would not submit (a recent anti-abortion bill in Virginia included a requirement that demand a doctor violate a woman’s body if she sought an abortion). So Butler turns to work for public housing, and ceaselessly to abolish prostitution, to make it illegal.

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


Primo Levi’s If this be man

This letter contains some of my most favorite passages. In this one in talking of what is written and published, she says before you judge it you must think of how much in that piece of writing is there for (p 115) “the money motive, the power motive, the advertisement motive, the publicity motive and the vanity motive” – let alone all the other more a particular ones depending on the local politics of those involved in the topic. I remember reading a review of a friend’s biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer where I was struck by how much of this review was pretense and performance, and what the reviewer cared about was how she appeared to what she took to be the hostile audience to the book –- she was writing for her own career first, her position in the organization second, fame third, showing off fourth (the style) and only after that did the quality of the book and its content concern her and she shaped what she had to say in terms of the first four goals.

She reverts to opening request from a different angle: how can professional women help to preventing war. You must not sell your brain. Margaret Oliphant is brought in as a representative of a finely gifted woman who sold her brain for money. Right now in 1938 Arthur’s education fund has been spent, war is imminent and that means that education has failed, professional women have failed — they have not even made much money.

Now she says women must have different weapons than men. They must take into consideration they have lived and continue to live differently. This is imposed on them but it is part of what they must candidly look upon. So what can they learn from their own history? How can they resist being pulled into that male procession of fancy costumes and ribbons? They must in their minds constitute themselves a society of outsiders. They have been excluded and oppressed, now they must remember what they perceived themselves for real and act on that. Here she shows how the private world of the house and women is inseparably connected with the public one; tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.


Vanessa Bell, Leonard Woolf

Who will listen to us? what are we writing? what reading? This is where she brings in the how the money, advertisement, publicity, vanity, power motives permeates what people write. How most people don’t try to divest themselves of these motives. (This is why she and Leonard opened Hogarth Press so there might be a press apart from this mainstream — a word Woolf doesn’t use.) She had earlier pointed out how newspapers are so influential by what they leave out (that’s in chapter 2) and now shows what they put in is often rotten with distortion and self-interest. So who is in charge of the newspapers, and the institutions these newspapers support, which usually support them.

And again she makes the connection between all the dead bodies and the destroyed houses in previous wars and what we find in public writing. What are the real purposes of the various societies that produce this writing too. And they want her to send them money? Are they kidding?

There is a suggestion that in lieu of the celebratory parades let’s show the condition these men come back in. One can do small things. Increasing beauty in landscape, in places not intended to advertise a public company or body of people. She talks about the value of obscurity (as she does in Orlando). Let’s dispense with all those distinctions, these ribbons, refuse to knit socks for war.

And so she comes to the end of her work and goes for the core. At the heart of the desire for war is fear, and a male desire to control all others, all women and those men you can make into docile workers. The major support for this fear, for chaining people up in strictly controlled heterosexual marriage is found in the male priesthood (religion). And she is back to the sexual taboos central to controlling women and powerless men’s behavior. In this section she brings in Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her father (Flush is not just a jeux d’esprit); how Patrick Bronte did what he could to stop Charlotte marrying, to control her for himself. It is telling which women she does cite — whose life or work or character meant most to her.

The only way to escape is to have a room of your own and income to support yourself adequately. Tonight in my house I watched Gosford Park for an umpteenth time: it is a form of cheer to see the world’s order so caught up in this ironic melancholy formula, the brilliant acting, the wonderful singing of Jeremy Northam of Ivor Novello’s songs. The land of might-have-been:

It’s not that the Republicans have taken over; it’s that the values we follow enable them. Our lives as presently lived do not have to be this way.

Ellen

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Vanessa Bell, the artist, the theme this time a woman drawing

Dear friends,

Some more thoughts on women as autobiographers and biographers. I’ve been reading yet another autobiographical novel by a woman, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. It’s another that conforms to the characteristics of women biographers and autobiographers as outlined by Suzanne Raitt and Gale Bell Chevigny. Again one must collapse distinctions between autobiography and biography and fiction and non-fiction. This brings us back to Max Saunders’ Self-Impression with its argument that in our century the central genre has been “autobiografiction.” In Stauffer’s book on the Art of Biography in the 18th century he suggests that autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Anyway the history of all three forms cannot be understood apart from one another. without the history of the other.

Jigsaw is centered on Bedford’s fractured relationship with her mother and what she is doing is restoring their lives together, imagining them as more one unit than they were because so often her mother was absent from her. The mother was with a lover, with her husband (Bedford’s father), leaves to live with another lover. From afar the mother tries to dictate or show interest in her daughter’s schooling, reading, what worlds she belongs to, but the effort is largely imaginary. The mother’s first loyalty is to the man she is living with, dependent upon.

How many absent mothers do we find in women’s novels. This paradigm is usually explained as allowing the daughter-heroine liberty but from this new perspective it is a mirror of how daughters experience their mothers in a patriarchal society

Then yesterday and today I read two essays that felt very old because they were printed in pre-Internet days and are not on-line. The first, Patricia Meyer Spacks’s “Reflecting Women,” in a 1974 Yale Review (Vol 63, pp 26-42) offers yet more analogous marvelous insights into women’s life-writing and fiction which anticipate and indeed say more graphically, less abstractly what Raitt, Chivegny and others on women’s life writing from the Renaissance to today put forth as a new findings. Demoralizingly I thought to myself what I’ve read other unearthers of a women’s tradition in this or that art:  how can make progress made when each generation has to re-fight the same battle. Yes women were great artists and here are their names and history. Yes this is the genres they paint or write in and the latest critics proceed to re-invent what was said before and has been forgotten because what was published was so rare and then it was forgotten — like this one by Spacks.

Spacks is more penetrating and ranges across classes and eras and conditions in ways none of those I’ve read recently do. She discusses the rich society woman, Hester Thrale Piozzi’s continuing re-telling of her life story in most of Piozzi’s writing and compares what is found there to the deprivation and racial punishments known by the young African-American woman, Anne Moody in Coming of Age in Mississippi; and yet more appalling for what was done to her, Mattie Griffith’s Autobiography of a Female Slave (first published 1857; first published in an affordable paperback in 1974). In one scene Mattie is tied to a post, stripped naked and whipped and violated sexually, then laughed at and denigrated and then compared to an non-human animal. I wonder she did not become deranged or kill herself. Emily Kugler on Mary Prince’s autobiography rejoices that she has found Mary Prince as an almost unique autobiography by an enslaved woman in the US; Kugler has not heard of Griffith it seems. Spacks moves to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (17th century writer during the civil war in the UK). I never forgot the pathos of the final paragraphs of the Duchess’s brief autobiography where she says she writes for “my own sake, not theirs” (others) so it does not matter that her readers assume what she writes does not matter, and has only written so she will not be mistaken in history as another of the Duke’s wives now that she has written his biography. to Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa to Ellen Willis’s Up from Radicalism: A Feminist Journal (1969).  Ellis fears her arguments with her partner and his disapproval of the ways she lives will lead to their parting: she needs the comfort of his presence, his money. In later years well after Spacks wrote, Ellis married her partner to have his access to good health care when Willis developed and then died of cancer.

Spacks uncovers that the underlying perspective of all these is that of women who are dependents. Hester Piozzi Thrale was forced to marry Thrale, a man much older than she, vulgar, cold, a bully, by her mother who proceeded to dominate Hester for decades during which Hester was continually impregnated by this man. Thrale bought attention and respect by her salons filled with prestigious people; that was one of Samuel Johnson’s functions at Streatham. What view can a woman have of herself who is a bondswoman, whether to other women, a selfish domineering mother, or a man however professional and rich. Hester’s salons were to entertain him and pass the time. I remembered that when Hester married Piozzi, Johnson cursed her and she was utterly ostracized by her daughters, friends, family; deserted by Frances Burney for whom Hester had done so much (as she did for Johnson): that’s why she went to Italy. I have had to give up on writing my half of a Woolf-Johnson paper partly because I knew what I now have to say about Johnson will be so utterly out of kilter with my partner would and will pay as well as everyone in that volume. It’s conceived as demonstration of Johnson’s modernity. Modernity? A feminist avante la lettre is what is partly implied no matter how qualified the assertion

Mattie Griffiths escapes because her white mistress left her a legacy and her freedom. She still had to flee to realize it (with money hidden away), and went to live in Massachusetts where she taught “African children.” She then wrote her autobiography using the style, language, tropes of European tradition. Her book is written in a stilted style so as to gain respect, an identity and tell of the intolerable conditions under which she had lived. She is safe by assimilating herself in a book. Spacks compares her to the 20th century Brazilian prostitute, Carolina Maria de Jesus who lived in one of the unimaginable slums of that land, writing on scraps of paper picked up in the street, using for money what the father of one of her three children gives her for serving him sexually when he visits. She loathes him, is disgusted by herself because she is a woman. Like many another woman at the bottom she lives in fear of arrest. Readers Digest rejected her manuscript. Arrest, illness and then death is the fate of a major character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th century protest industrial novel, Mary Barton: for vagrancy, she is given 3 months hard labor, and then ejected with nothing on offer to help her. What matter if this is nominally fiction.

Women become mirrors of their men; they avoid reality by fantasizing in print, in their writing, says Spacks. They write not only to create an identity (that I have known since reading Paula Backscheider and Margaret Anne Doody on women’s poetry) but to assert themselves at all. They justify themselves by claiming exactitude in truth. They are safer because their bodies are not immediately involved; yet they don’t have to claim anything for themselves beyond the recognition of the literary effectiveness. No political action need be taken. Sexuality is a trap. Men look at sexuality as a challenge, the woman is a pleasure to acquire as a subordinary part of their lives.  For women it becomes an agent of her defeat (as she has children and begins to live apart from the larger social world). I used to write in the interstices of time when my children were young. The classic mode is that of translation or the sharp perceptive observer, both of which I did.

Do I dominate my own experience by writing about it? I know I don’t. My rational for this tonight is to make sure that Spacks’s essay is not forgotten. But I am creating an identity as a (I hope) respected writer, scholar, teacher, blogger online.


Isak Dinesen’s hard-won house in Africa

Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s “Dependents: The Trials of Success” is a companion essay to Spacks. It caught my eye as next (pp 43-59) and because in my last Sylvia II blog I wrote of false imposed definitions of success. This is a remarkable analytical essay, much longer than Spacks, which I cannot do justice to. Rorty begins by saying the US nation began with an assertion of independence based on war. Autonomy and power are what we focus on; self-respect comes through self-reliance. Of course we know independence is a myth for anyone; as a criteria it’s a killer for women who are automatically failures when they don’t define their lives by themselves. As an ideal it makes women resent men and men resent the dependence of women on them. Mobility is demanded — individual assertiveness comes first. The arts of self-expression cannot be valued. In trouble and need where can people turn? They hide their families; put children into schools that socialize according to to these norms, and women become even more beside the point, functioning as “consumers.” But productivity is the mark of worth.

When she comes to women married to professional men who are intellectuals, she moves into details close to my own experience and heart. She says to create you need to be in a world working with like-minded others, in a special environment where intellectual work is a full-time job. Juggling very differrent other demands makes for half-hearted half-time scholarship, perhaps competent. Slowly the “shadow of self-contempt” moves in. She thinks this is not a specifically female problem, but the problem of a “harried and torn person.”

An interesting side question is her idea that only when people work together do we come to know one another’s strengths and virtues and she thinks it’s taking on responsibility that offers fulfillment far more than any leaning on love. Mutual reliance among equals, and now her essay turns desperate as she returns to US values of domination which results in one group of people giving up so much (and it’s not natural) for another. We are back to the bondsman and master. It’s in this light Rorty questions the reality of “liberty,” “satisfaction,” “success;” the last is experienced as trial, ordeal in a juggernaut of power. There is thus a high cost or price paid for what is called “progress.”

She then goes on to say we must revise our conceptions of human worth, respect a whole range of talents, temperaments, redefine our grounds for mutual esteem. We need to get back to shared social planning for all. Utopian? She ends with recent travels where she became convinced the conditions of women in different countries are too different for any general solution that is gender-based. General solutions across cultures are economic and ideological. She thinks the “mechanisms” of “social vindictiveness” against “social explorers” in the US are paradoxically stronger than ever. Do not let yourself be unprotected against the rage the whole system engenders and then what you need to do undermines any social transformation.

I have gone a long way it would seem from women as autobiographers and biographers. But the content of what women write about has brought me here.

From “Biography from Seventy-Four” by Patricia Fargnoli

She is not who she was.
Last week, she dreamt
she could still run.
She ran and ran a long way.
She sleeps uneasily now,
waking and turning,
waking and turning.
If she could be anywhere
she’d be on the windjammer
sailing to Martinique,
the one she remembers
that comes back in dreams,
the sea dark blue and rolling,
that paradise, green mountain
and white sand in the distance …
Grace: what is given
without being asked,
what makes one able to rise.
The last time she felt joy
so long ago she can’t remember.
She is afraid
of thunder that comes too close,
war and the threat of war.
She tries to protect herself
from the wind of no good …. (from Winter)

Ellen

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The Great Picture by Jan Van Belcamp: it takes three panels to suggest Clifford’s outer life

We should ourselves be sorry to think that posterity should judge us by a patchwork of our letters, preserved by chance, independent of their context, written perhaps in a fit of despondency or irritation, divorced, above all, from the myriad little strands which colour and compose our individual existence, and which in their multiplicity, their variety and their triviality, are vivid to ourselves alone, uncommunicable even to those nearest to us, sharing our daily life … Still, within our limitations it is necessary to arrive at some conclusion, certain facts do emerge … Vita Sackville-West, Introduction, Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (1923)

The knowledge that his arrow pointed to that impossible mark [‘a duplication of an image in the mind’] was Boswell’s source of confidence. Other biographers might forestall his book, but that they could rival it he never, in his most sombre moments, conceived. Those others did not know that biography is impossible … Geoffrey Scott, in the Malahide Papers, as quoted by Iris Origo, in “Biography: True and False” (1984)

Friends,

This is me again working out evolving thoughts about biography and the relationship of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as modernist biographers. I’ve gone on to consider Maurois’s Aspects of Biography and define Woolf’s Flush as a canonical modernist biography. I’ve been reading Iris Origo’s short biographies and her essay on biography as well as Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles as two true sources for Woolf’s Orlando. And I’ve spent two to three weeks teaching Woolf’s Orlando.

One of the characteristics those who first wrote and theorized about biography after 1910 (the year when, we will remember, the world changed) as such, described the history of the genre, its development between the early modern period and 19th century, and then outlined and defined the type they were writing as “modern” all come to when they discuss the genre is its impossibility. It is impossible to write a text that truly accurately tells the life of an individual. It’s arguable that the way modernist biographies were written in the wake of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide, and longer examples of the same sort of thing (it’s not true that modernist biographies are always concise) like Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and self-reflexive experiments, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, were attempts to overcome the considerable complicated obstacles in the way.


Two chapters are inserted fragments of an autobiographical memoir by Sackville-West about her sexually free marriage, her lesbianism and love of her husband, whom she nonetheless exploited hard

Most of the time this continual reassertion is dismissed because the plain reality is that these writers and others (colleagues, friends, rivals, people privileged by living knowledge of the subject) went on trying to achieve such impossible feats in words, sometimes accompanied by pictures, anyway. My feeling is this blithe sliding over is also done because at the same time it has proved also impossible to persuade the countless readers of fat popular biographies (“great men,” lurid women) to stop looking at the text they are devouring as a compilation of facts from unquestionable documents that add up to what is seen as an existence telling to know about. The “common reader” so strongly yearned after by Samuel Johnson and then supposedly targeted by Virginia Woolf also will not accept frank fictionalization in their intake of biography, and are on the record (on the Internet and elsewhere) as regarding another modernist tenet (admission) that the greatest biographies are autobiographies in disguise as a convenient way to dismiss a book that contains a perspective or whatever information they might not want to consider seriously.

It will be part of my iconoclastic argument that the value of examining Johnson and Woolf’s biographical art in alignment from a modernist point of view is that both worked hard in pursuit of their repeated self-appointed or commissioned biographical tasks conceived in the most high-minded way, all the while coming up against their own bedrock accurate perception that what they aimed to do was highly problematic, if not quite impossible. It is important to see where they failed in order to recognize where they succeeded, not just to do justice to to under-recognized because not well-known or long texts, but to grasp in what biography inheres. I want to write up first how they understood the biographical process, its aims and its problems, which they never solved. My belief now after reading so much (including Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale) is that someone’s biography is a product in the mind of the reader and writer after a process of induced identification and empathy: this process requires several texts taken together.

How about that? a biography and autobiography does not end where the text ends at all? I have to return to Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in Fictional Woods, which was so essential for my chapter on Trollope’s Autobiography in my Trollope on the ‘Net.


Taking it down form its shelf

With this kind of outlook or basis, one can then move into biographical texts by them that have attained the status of masterpiece biographies, Johnson’s Life of Savage and Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography. These two texts have seemed to do the essential required core of biography, convey a complex living presence, mind and body, in the context of, or emerging from a historically accurate portrait of their society as these people experienced it. I admit to loving the Roger Fry after having read some of Fry’s writing and Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry as an artist and art critic, connoisseur, museum person, curator. Woolf also wrote biographical fantasies one of which post-modern attitudes would include a legitimately biographical: Orlando: A Biography. It’s a woman’s time-traveling fantasy perhaps inspired by the idea behind a tiny girls’ book by Vita Sack-ville West (A Note of Explanation). I’m not sure how I feel about Orlando. At some level I even dislike it, it’s too frivolous for me, at times silly, and deeply elitist. How should a biography be written? is some form of verisimilitude necessary? I think so, so Orlando doesn’t make the cut at all. In some of Johnson’s unfair Lives of the English Poets he allows the political perspective of the whole set or his own personal distaste for a kind of personality or literary style or stance to lead him into fictional biography, the most obvious his life of John Milton — where Johnson gets away with what he writes by using verisimilitude with a seemingly practiced novelistic art.

All these texts stand up to scrutiny only in the context of more recent biographical, autobiographical, critical and even fictional texts on and by the subject — they are printed with long notes and annotations. In the case of Johnson’s Life of Savage, I am convinced after reading Tracy Clarke that like Boswell, concluded Savage was at first simply lying and then became a self-deluded impostor. Johnson’s text is also egregiously misogynistic towards Anne Brett (who appears as Lady Easy, a bullied woman in Cibber’s The Careless Husband). Johnson captures the pity of this gifted man never being given a real chance to enter the aristocracy or gentry he was so determined to belong to; his strangeness in some ways, the angry, the mysteries, that he was thrown away. But what was he? Tracy comes much closer to capturing the real man. Woolf’s Fry cannot pass muster without Diane Gillespie’s long introduction and annotations (two thirds again as long as the book). It should be considered a literary biography, the kind I can hope to write about Winston Graham. Orlando just won’t do (I shall write on it separately next week): it’s a time traveling wish-fulfillment fantasy, telling of the life of a woman writer seeking an identity in society. For Johnson’s Thomas Gray two modernist concise biographies: one by Edmund Gosse and the other David Cecil can function as touchstones on what’s lacking in Johnson: they are both so much superior, as is Frances Mayhew Rippy’s Matthew Prior (an unassuming Twayne book).

Which are or what kinds of other biographical texts constitute Johnson and Woolf’s problematic attempts and successes? Thus far from my reading Johnson’s Lives of Dryden, Pope, Thomson and Collins, and Virginia Woolf’s short biographical essays about obscure and unknown women (one of Geraldine [Jewsbury] and Jane [Carlyle] is superior to Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights, gathered in the Common Reader, others in other collections (especially Memoirs of a Novelist) and still more in the Collected Essays. In all these the needed background, the panoply of other texts are the paradoxically long biographies of the treated literary figures which fail to address central cruxes of these lives which Johnson and Woolf do.

Flush: A Biography is a wholly successful modernist biography if we take what Woolf says in her two essays on biography seriously. (Another would then qualify: Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, a fictionalized life of Marie de Gournay from the point of view of her maid. A fictionalized biography.) So is Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen more insightful than Josephine Ross’s.

I’ve also been questioning the assumed great worth of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, thinking about how good John Wain is, how original and questioning Nokes, and the respect I once gave to WJBates’s book. About 2/3s the way through the listening to Bernard Mayes reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I’ve tired of it. Johnson is there all right, but I have realized I have been mis-remembering, elevating him, forgetting how he regards women as instruments for men to make children with, yes an obsessive Christian; Boswell further skews the portrait by his constant justifications, idealizing, omitting Johnson’s sex life (very troubled), misrepresenting Mrs Thrale. Every once in a while a letter by Johnson brings his deeply humane character through, his comments his sensitive morality towards everyone (an off-the-cuff argument showing how slavery can never ever be justified in human arrangement, a deep violation). Johnson nails precisely that something is deeply wrong with a society where the homeless and sick are simply ignored — with the leaders he says, as they must act first. But I’ve stopped listening (gone on to Gabaldon’s Outlander 3: Voyager, read by Davina Porter). I probably much prefer Johnson straight than Johnson through Boswell.

I ought to decide which of the several still respected biographies of Woolf stands up: Julia Brigg’s Inner Life, Phyllis Rose’s Women of Letters, Hermione Lee’s old fashioned huge tome, whose aims are nonetheless those of modernist biography. I admit I need to read through the first two.

Not everyone fails; indeed my favorite form of reading is the literary biography and many masterpieces exist in the genre. This summer I read one: Claire Haman’s Charlotte Bronte, and Iris Origo made a career as a writer because she wrote great biographies and diary-journals. One of the great books for me of the later 20th century is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: The confessions of a Romantic Biographer, which I taught three times in a class called Advanced Writing on the Humanities.

And I still believe that the key to understanding any one’s art is to understand their lives and that means reading the life-writing coming from and attached to the subject in all its forms. Wrong-headed biographies if they are intelligent and written out of sincerity and original thought are important in understanding writers too, e.g., David Nokes on Johnson and Austen.

This is where I’m at tonight on this project. I think I had better give this one up for a while. Put it away. And come back to it in May when the heavy teaching and most courses end. My thesis as far as I can manage is the value of studying these two writers seen as modern biographers is in what they teach us about biography in their successes and their failures, brilliant insights and misapprehensions and along the way about the people they create or misapprehend.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader, and invite any commentary on what you think of biography as a form or any of the texts I’ve cited. These have been thoughts I pushed out of myself with difficulty and then added to late at night and then early in the morning before dawn.


Isabel Coddrington (1874-1943), Evening 1925

Next up: blogs on Woolf’s Orlando and then (if I can only discipline myself once more to it) women artists.

Ellen

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