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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013) when young

One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own, the spirit that is one’s own, one has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in another language — Raja Rao

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been on an on-and-off long bout of reading Jhabvala, short stories (especially East into Upper East), novels (The Householder, A Backward Glance and Heat and Dust) and screenplays (Shakespeare Wallah and Howards End), as well as about her (older books by Laurie Sucher and Jasmine Gooneratne, and recent by Rekha Jha, Rishi Pal Singh, Ramal Agarwal), not to omit the great pleasure of watching Merchant-Ivory films, most of whose screenplays are by Jhabvala. I would very much like to read and see more of these. Her oeuvre is enormous, and her latest critics generalize about phases, from the early books where it’s a question of “western” or English eyes and characters trying to assimilate into Indian culture, and basically being destroyed; to the middle books and stories where there is a romantic entry into Indian life from a spiritual or imaginative, a quiescent passive point of view, to the latest stories, where we see cross-cultural clashes and exploitation between western values and behaviors and traditional Indian. Older writers compared her to Jane Austen (and point to Jane Austen in Manhattan, a Merchant-Ivory film), Chekov, Thackeray, newer ones to other Indian and Anglo-Indian writers: Kamala Markandaya, Naipaul, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao — and E. M. Forster.

Her writings belong firmly in the colonialist and post-colonialist genres. She herself shows this migrancy – born of Jewish Polish parents who lived in Germany, numerous members of her family were killed in concentration camps, they moved to England where she got a degree in British literature, but then she married an Indian man and spent 25 years in India, last quarter of her life in America. I found myself very drawn to her autobiographical essay, “Myself in India,” where she tells the truth about the isolated existence she endured in India, the impoverishment of the people. It can be found in this collection:

For myself until two days ago when I led a class at OLLI at Mason in discussing her stories the best I could do was come up with generalizations. Jhabvala’s stories, novels, screenplays (original, not adaptations) are mostly set after 1947/48, Indian independence after the dissolution of the Raj. These are about Indian people trying to make it in a modern contemporary world – ambitious cool – whose roots though are in the traditional Indian culture. That’s the key – minds and bodies in two worlds. Jhabvala’s stories are also strongly feminist at times. Traditional cultures are very hard on women. Subtitle to some of them: Women amid snares and delusions. You might expect the women who emerge from these imprisonments (my view) to thrive far more, do better, and here in the US I’ve see it in students (but they are already living here with parents who brought them here), but in Jhabvala’s stories while many of her women thrive at first, are social successes, succeed at high management and political positions (often unofficial) eventually they self-destruct as the two did early in her famous Heat and Dust. The enemy of these women is internal (as Woolf said was the enemy of westernized women too – the angel in the house) – but it’s not angel that bothers these women. They find themselves in an exploitative, cynical and amoral world and retreat from it — to stasis, boredom, and illusion.


I think this is now the best book on Jhabvala — the older Sucher and Gooneratne are too western-oriented

Jhabvala is fascinated by the fake Guru, this manipulation on the part of supposed holy or tranquil or utterly unmaterialistic and spiritual people (I don’t have a better word) to draw to them the belief and trust of Indian people brought up in traditions seeking to experience some transcendent divine place, eternal, complete with notions of reincarnation, to release the soul into this divine (supernatural is my word) realm by various practices and rituals. Many of the Indian characters who don’t do well in Jhabvala and other Anglo-Indian writers (especially women also deprived of agency by law and custom) look for this non-individualistic realm and will pay money and support holy people they think put them in touch with these realms. Or they become a seer themselves. She also shows that westerners with a rational, pragmatic, scientific and materialistic set of assumptions can be equally taken in. It’s not such a funny comedy of delusions, because these patterns of behavior in her fictions are linked to what I’ll call masochistic patterns of behavior where people become dependent on one another (again especially women with a man in charge), some of these dependencies might seem bizarre, unmotivated, unexplained, gaining very little and giving up all. One explanation is Jhabvala is characterizing the social milieus of her stories, not probing individual psychologies – but some of this comes from this attempt to cross over – to get into this other culture while remaining in the modern one.

Her stories are epitomies or microcosms of the clashes between these world views. She looks around detachedly. Hers is an attempt at objectivity, yet so many of the stories are so sad. People are so betrayed, so hurt. Ironically several of the stories in East to Upper East present us with women as powerful people. Where they are held back it’s from marital customs found also in the patriarchal arrangements of the western world. The women who are most fulfilled are those who never marry, or if they do, end up (in effect) leading individualist lives based on their own agency.

I’m writing this brief survey blog posting tonight because of the class that went so well. I had dreaded it — three people who usually talk were not there (I knew they would not be), and I was not sure what to say about the particulars of the stories. I found their commentary and responses intelligent, sharp, with much understanding of the motives of Jhabvala’s driven ambitious characters. I’ll tell in brief concise form a little about the best stories we discussed from East into Upper East, “Independence,” “Progress and Development,” “A New Delhi Romance,” “Husband and Son,” and “Two Muses.” Sumitra, the heroine of the first, rose to heights of power, influence, and did some good in her time, but ends in angry despair. Her granddaughter wants to do a documentary about her life in order to record what was the truth of gov’t in India, but we see what kept the woman and the man she sustained afloat would never be acceptable in published forms. The four heroines and hero of “Progress and Development” begin life with high idealism; they will marry for love, have careers where they do good; they all end embittered and disillusioned, the male finding meaning in his family and children, only one of the women, Pushpa, a Mary Wollstonecraft kind of character sustaining the necessary illusions to keep going. The one who makes the best marriage as to status and the the apparent nature of her husband ends a suicide.

The last three are more domestic stories. “A New Delhi Romance” could be a story about two teenagers in the US, only it ends in an arranged marriage for the girl, selling herself to shore up her father’s scandalous fall from power and wealth. “Husband and Son” is about a woman whose society allows her no agency at all; she tries to find an outlook by becoming socially involved with a scoundrel dance teacher who when he seduces a young girl in the school is exposed for the fake he is; she ends caring for her profoundly depressed and ill husband who himself retreated from corrupt power. Last “The Two Muses,” the most autobiographical of the lot. The theme is here the distance between an artist’s life and his work, and how much an artist who is said to be creating masterpieces should be allowed to shirk his responsibility to others in real life; we watch a probably useless man being catered to by his wife, Lilo, who never reads a word he writes, and his mistress, Netta, who is responsible for his continued solvency and reputation.


I would like to read more of her autobiography and these stories are autobiographical

I feel I learned about the author in ways I just could not without live talk and give-and-take. At first Jhabvala is like this wall of guarded matter, but after a while if you persist and especially today I saw that they are in effect a real accurate commentary on the failure of Indian society to reform itself and provide meaningful modern and comfortable lives for most of its people. The politicians inhabit all the right roles, make liberal, well meaning comments, have wonderful luxurious times with one another on the tax money they get for salaries, but do nothing for infrastructure, land reform, re-distribution of income, general education. I found myself imagining Arundati Roy who won the Booker for her The God of Small Things written an invented language, half-way between a native idiolect and English –- as a candid and excellent journalist she writes for The Nation about India – very bitter at this recent turn of events with a religious bigoted dictator in charge. She would have no trouble recognizing what Jhabvala is realizing in words and exposing. As to moods, the stories can be felt as neutral or disillusioned ironic satires or melancholy bleak romances.

Next week we’ll spend a half hour on Mira Nair’s 2006 Namesake and Jumpha Lahiri’s 2003 novel of the same name.

I have put in a proposal to teach the following course in the spring at OLLI at Mason; I will do it at OLLI at AU too

Anglo-Indian Novels: the Raj, its Aftermath & diaspora

In this class we will read E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (Raj Quartet 1), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat & Dust, & a couple of short stories &/or essays by Jumpha Lahiri (from Interpreters of Maladies) & V.S Naipaul. We’ll explore a tradition of literature, colonialist and native cultural interactions; migrancy itself, gender faultlines, what we mean by our identity, belonging, castes. We’ll include in our discussions Anglo-Indian movies as a genre (e.g., Mira Nair movies, to wit, her Namesake out of Lahiri’s masterpiece), & specifically David Lean’s Passage to India, the BBC Jewel in the Crown (by Ken Taylor and Christopher Morahan), Merchant-Ivory’s Heat & Dust. We’ll take historical and contemporary perspectives on this rich material.


From David Lean’s 1984 A Passage to India

Ellen

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Dahlia Ravikovitch 1997 photograph (1936-2005)

A tweet I read tonight on twitter: “Tonight I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another” Eman Basher @sometimes Pooh.” This reminded me of what I was told of a cousin of my mother’s in WW2. She chose to accompany her 6 children into the gas chamber rather than let them die alone.

Dear readers and friends,

This is an unusual foremother poet blog for me: most of the time I do not choose a woman poet because of the immediate political relevancy of her work; here in this time of another slaughter of Palestinians, yet more destruction of the open air prison they are forced to endure existence in, and the apparent indifference of all those in charge of gov’ts with the power to stop this shameless horror, I put forward Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poetry where she as a native-born Israeli, Hebrew-speaking and writing, eloquently cried out against what the Israeli gov’t (and the people who voted it in) inflict on a people whose country they seized by war (1948, 1967). Unless otherwise noted all the poems are translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld:

In this poem Ravikovitch identifies as an Israeli woman watching as a young female Arab is about to be destroyed

Hovering at a low altitude

I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
emerges suddenly
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.

And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

This one makes explicit the aim of the Israeli gov’t and settler colonialist “ethnic cleansers”

Get out of Beirut

Take the knapsacks,
the clay jugs, the washtubs,
the Korans,
the battle fatigues,
the bravado, the broken soul,
and what’s left in the street, a little bread or meat,
and kids running around like chickens in the heat.
How many children do you have?
How many children did you have?
It’s hard to keep the children safe in times like these.
Not the way it used to be in the old country,
in the shade of the mosque, under the fig tree,
where you’d get the kids out of the house in the morning
and tuck them into bed at night.
Whatever’s not fragile, gather up in those sacks:
clothing, bedding, blankets, diapers,
some memento, perhaps,
a shiny artillery shell,
or a tool that has practical value,
and the babies with pus in their eyes
and the RPG kids.
We’d love to see you afloat in the water with no place to go
no port and no shore.
You won’t be welcome anywhere.
You’re human beings who were thrown out the door,
you’re people who don’t count anymore.
You’re human beings that nobody needs.
You’re a bunch of lice
crawling about
that pester and bite

If you are still reading, two more:

A Mother Walks Around

A mother walks around with a child dead in her belly.
This child hasn’t been born yet.
When his time is up the dead child will be born
head first, then trunk and buttocks
and he won’t wave his arms about or cry his first cry
and they won’t slap his bottom
won’t put drops in his eyes
won’t swaddle him
after washing the body.
He will not resemble a living child.
His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth
and she won’t be troubled about his future,
won’t worry how in the world to support him
and does she have enough milk
and does she have enough clothing
and how will she ever fit one more cradle into the room.
The child is a perfect izadil« already,
unmade ere he was ever made.
And he’ll have his own little grave at the edge of the cemetery
and a little memorial day
and there won’t be much to remember him by.
These are the chronicles of the child
who was killed in his mother’s belly
in the month of January, in the year 1988,
“under circumstances relating to state security.”

The Story of the Arab who died in the Fire

When the fire grabbed his body, it didn’t happen by degrees.
There was no burst of heat before,
or giant wave of smothering smoke
and the feeling of a spare room one wants to escape to.
The fire held him at once
—there are no metaphors for this—
it peeled off his clothes
cleaved to his flesh.
The skin nerves were the first to be touched.
The hair was consumed.
“God! They are burning!” he shouted.
And that is all he could do in self-defense.
The flesh was already burning between the shack’s boards
that fed the fire in the first stage.
There was already no consciousness in him.
The fire burning his flesh
numbed his sense of future
and the memories of his family
and he had no more ties to his childhood
and he didn’t ask for revenge, salvation,
or to see the dawn of the next day.
He just wanted to stop burning.
But his body supported the conflagration
and he was as if bound and fettered,
and of that too he did not think.
And he continued to burn by the power of his body
made of hair and wax and tendons.
And he burned a long time.
And from his throat inhuman voices issued
for many of his human functions had already ceased,
except for the pain the nerves transmitted
in electric impulses
to the pain center in the brain,
and that didn’t last longer than a day.
And it was good that his soul was freed that day
because he deserved to rest.
— Translated from the original Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut

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

To be accurate, Dahlia Ravikovitch’s oeuvre as a whole is not dominated by poems of protest on behalf of the Palestinian people or other groups the Israelis or their allies have decided to “take out.” While she appears to have been a peace activist, and sincere political humanist from the outset of her career, much of her earlier poetry is written in styles and imitation of Biblical and archaic verse; for a secular poet and independent woman (married twice, with her son born from a lover she did not marry), her allusions and content are (to me) jarringly from patriarchal sources: her mother had been a graduate of a religious teachers college who went on to train as a teacher of Jewish studies, and Dahlia herself became a a student immersed in Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish studies. She also wrote prototypical “women’s verse” at first (fantasy, presenting herself as overwhelmed by the world) and only gradually does feminist verse emerge. While courageously outspoken against all the forced evacuations, land and house confiscation, abuse of Arab women and children in ordinary discourse and the groups of people she demonstrated and worked with, her earlier targets were the abuse of language, power and powerlessness itself.

For myself I find her poetry direct, forceful, but, except for the personal autobiographical poems, curiously detached from modern reality until half way through her oeuvre. My feeling is it was over time that she became passionately horrified by what she saw the state she lived in did to non-Jews living on the land mass it controlled. It was as she grew older she grew angry at the norms many women obeyed. Perhaps it was after she lost custody of her son (1989, a great grief for her), that she began her moving poetry about mothers.

She was born in 1936, the daughter of a Russian born engineer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine via China. When she was six, her father was run over by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army; one of her early successful (and a characteristic) poems registers the trauma she felt when two years later her mother first told her that her father was dead:

On the Road at Night there stands the man

On the road at night there stands the man
Who once upon a time was my father
And I must go down to the place where he stands
Because I was his firstborn daughter.

Night after night he stands alone in his place
And I must go down and stand in that place.
And I wanted to ask him: Till when must I go.
And I knew as I asked: I must always go.

In the place where he stands, there is a trace of danger
Like the day he walked that road and a car ran him over.
And that’s how I knew him and marked him to remember:
This very man was once my father

The use of repetition, the simple stanzas, rhymes, monosyllables, and plain blunt sarcasm are central to her most memorable shorter lyrics and feminist poetry, as in

Clockwork Doll

I was a clockwork doll, but then
That night I turned left, right, round and around
And fell on my face, cracked on the ground,
And skillful hands tried to piece me together again.

Then once more I was a proper doll
And all my manner was demure and polite.
But I became damaged goods that night,
A fractured twig with only tendrils to prevent a fall.

And then I went invited to dance at the ball
But they cast me me with the writhing dogs and cats
Though all my steps were measured and true.

And my hair was golden, and my eyes were blue
And I had a dress printed in garden flower sprawl,
And a trim of cherries tacked to my straw hat.

She must have been a difficult (as the common adjective used) child from the first. Her mother took her and her siblings to live on a kibbutz after the father died, but at age 13 unable to cope with the collectivist conformist atmosphere of such a place, Dahlia left and moved from foster family to foster family. She was lucky to meet and be mentored by a literature teacher in high school Baruch Kurzweil who praised the way she blended archaic and contemporary modes; with high grades (a story of an intelligent reading girl) and the encouragement of Avraham Shlonsky, the leading poet of the pre-State Hebrew Moderna, and Leah Goldberg, a major woman poet of the time, her verse was published when she was 18; she went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was awarded a scholarship for Hebrew studies at Oxford.

For a woman whose work received so many prizes over the years, she did not do well (I am not surprised) in the academic or publishing marketplace when it comes to positions or jobs, and at the end of her life she was living in what is described as “a modest apartment in Tel Aviv, near the Mediterranean, barely ekeing out a living” as a journalist, TV & theater critic, high school teacher, writer of popular lyrics. She translated into Hebrew poems by Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Poe and others, as well as children’s classics, such as Mary Poppins. She is said to have suffered from severe depressions; when she was found dead in her apartment, it was at first assumed she killed herself.

Medically speaking it was determined she died of heart irregularities (“sudden death”) but surely her serious emotional breakdowns, lack of a secure family life, peripetatic lifestyle, several relationships, and underlying moods in her poetry (justifiable anger, bitterness, anguish and just strong passion for whatever she is feeling) and poverty (which she is said to have worried about) helped bring on a relatively early death. Not that she was spiritually alone or neglected; she collaborated with other poets, musicians, and respected public figures seeking peace, justice, and equality for all in Israel.

If the interested reader wants to know more, I list in the comments a couple of websites beyond 5 more blogs (by me), and a few reviews of Szobel’s book. For this blog I read Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (where most of the poems here come from) and A Poetics of Trauma by Ilana Szobel. I find Szobel’s psychoanalytic and close reading approach to Ravikovitch’s poetry to be illuminating, useful — she will help the reader appreciate Ravokovitch’s poetry in all its layering. See The Poetry Foundation, Jewish Women’s Archive, an obituary from The Guardian.

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


From a series by Martha Rosler: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

So here are a few of the poems I find most successful and appealing. This first one is said to have been a favorite with her; and is often reprinte

Dress of Fire (The Dress)

You know, she said, they made you
a dress of fire.
Remember how Jason’s wife burned in her dress?
It was Medea, she said, Medea did that to her.
You’ve got to be careful, she said,
they made you a dress that glows
like an ember, that burns like coals.

Are you going to wear it, she said, don’t wear it.
It’s not the wind whistling, it’s the poison
seeping in.
You’re not even a princess, what can you do to Medea?
Can’t you tell one sound from another, she said,
it’s not the wind whistling.

Remember, I told her, that time when I was six?
They shampooed my hair and I went out into the street.
The smell o shampoo trailed after me like a cloud.
Then I got sick from the wind and the rain.
I didn’t know a thing about reading Greek tragedies,
but the smell of the perfume spread
and I was very sick.
Now I can see it’s an unnatural perfume.

What will happen to you now, she said,
they made you a burning dress.
They made me a burning dress, I said. I know.
So why are you standing there, she said,
you’ve got to be careful.
You know what a burning dress is, don’t you?

I know, I said, but I don’t know
how to be careful.
The smell of that perfume confuses me.
I said to her, No one has to agree with me,
I don’t believe in Greek tragedies.

But the dress, she said, the dress is on fire.
What are you saying, I shouted,
what are you saying?
I’m not wearing a dress at all,
what’s burning is me.
— translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch

She can express sheer sensual delight and pleasure; here is sonnet using the same devices of repetition and simple words and natural imagery:

Delight

There did I know a delight beyond all delight,
And it came to pass upon the Sabbath day
As tree boughs reached for the sky with all their might.
Round and round like a river streamed the light,
And the wheel of the eye craved the sunwheel that day
Then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
The heads of the bushes blazed, insatiable bright
Sunlight striking the waves, igniting the spray.

It would swallow my head like a golden orange, that light.
Water lilies were gaping their yellow bright
Mouths to swallow the ripples and reeds in their way.
And indeed it came to pass on the Sabbath day
As tree boughs lusted for the sky with all their might,
And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.

There is a series of poems where she expresses raw feelings as a woman involved with men who don’t treat her that well and whom she herself accepts because there is nothing better to calm herself with. I’d reprint “Cinderella in the Kitchen” but it is long so here is a shorter one from this type or series:

At Her Own Pace

A woman is holding a small photo.
She is no longer in her prime.
Travels a lot. Airplane. Suitcase.
For months on end, she stays
with relatives of hers.
“At your pace I couldn’t,” she says.
An introverted woman,
gentle in her ways.
People give in to her. She gives in too.
She’s on the move again. Airplane. Suitcase.
Nothing was set in advance.
The phone rang. She was flooded with a joy
that could tear the heavens open. He’s a man who’s not hers
in the full sense of the word.
She walks from room to room alone. An endless calm.
In the innermost circle of her being, she’s torn to pieces.
On the outside she’s calm. Doesn’t really seek
to take possession.
A small passport photo in her hand.
He’s wearing a tie. A featureless face,
I would say. For her he’s really
the world entire.
Apart from that, outside the innermost circle
she’s calm and recoiling
at her own pace.

Her poems on mothering are intertwined with her protests against brutal war — she saw mothering in war zones:

The quieter intense lasting grief of loss (this also includes typical sarcasm):

What a Time She Had!

How did that story go?
As a rule she wouldn’t have remembered so quickly.
In that soil no vineyard would grow.
A citrus grove stood there,
sickly,
stunted.
The single walnut tree blooming there bore no fruit
as if some essential life-giving element
were lacking in that soil.
Hard green lemons.
A balding patch of lawn.
A great tranquillity.
On the western side, the hedge went wild
and there was a honeysucker, of course
(today we’d call it a sunbird)
-if he were still alive
he’d be twenty years old.
In the valley, the army was hunting down human beings.
Fire in the thicket.
Summer’s hellfire blazing as usual.
Evening mowing down shadows, merciless.

Now she is a mother: On the Attitude towards Children in Times of War

He who destroys thirty babies
it is as if he’d destroyed three hundred babies,
and toddlers too,
or even eight-and-a-half year olds;
in a year, God willing, they’d be soldiers
in the Palestine Liberation Army.

Benighted children,
at their age
they don’t even have a real world view.
And their future is shrouded, too:
refugee shacks, unwashed faces,
sewage flowing in the streets,
infected eyes,
a negative outlook on life.

And thus began the flight from city to village,
from village to burrows in the hills.
As when a man did flee from a lion,
as when he did flee from a bear,
as when he did flee from a cannon,
from an airplane, from our own troops.

He who destroys thirty babies,
it is as if he’d destroyed one thousand and thirty,
or one thousand and seventy,
thousand upon thousand.
And for that alone shall he find
no peace.

Author’s note: This is a variation on a poem by Natan Zach that deals [satirically] with the question of whether there were exaggerations in the number of children reported killed in the [1982] Lebanon War.
Lines 1-2, He who destroys: cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5: “He who destroys a single human soul. . . , it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.”
Lines 16-17, As when a man: Amos 5:19, about the danger of apocalyptic yearnings.

This is the concluding poem in the volume translated by Boch and Kronfeld:

The Fruit of the Land

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons.
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved antitank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we don’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the CO
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you track him down,
and if you seek him without success
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess

From Bloch and Kronfeld’s notes: “The Fruit of the Land” (Hebrew, zimrat ha-arets), zimra means singing; in biblical Hebrew it can also mean “produce, bounty”. Block and Kronfield capture the macho voice of the defense types we constantly hear in the media rhapsodizing about Israel’s superior firepower. But nowadays they wouldn’t acknowledge they have “more than enough” and would have answered the opening question – ” You asked if we’ve got enough cannons” – with a demand for more funds for the military. There is much allusion to the Bible.

Central to the poem is the reality that things do not have to be this way. Armaments ever worse do not have to be the fruit of the earth

I pull out separately this rare more cheerful poem: New Zealand is a colony which succeeded: not all countries founded by colonizer end in cruelty, brutality, hatred; we see in this poem her early Biblical allusions, her use of repetition, her personal voice, the irony and sarcasm, and a late turn to acceptance.

Two Isles Hath New Zealand

Africa’s not the place to go right now.
Plagues, famine — the human body can’t bear it.
Brutality. They flog human beings with bull-whips.
Asia — it would make your hair stand on end.
Trapped in the mountains, trapped in the swamps.
The human body can’t bear it,
There are limits to the life force, after all.

As for me,
He shall make me lie down in green pastures
in New Zealand.

Over there, sheep with soft wool,
the softest of wools,
graze in the meadow.
Truehearted folk herd their flocks,
on Sundays they pay a visit to church
dressed in sedate attire.

No point hiding it any longer:
We’re an experiment that went awry,
a plan that misfired,
tied up with too much murderousness.
Why should I care about this camp or that,
screaming till their throats are raw,
spitting fine hairs.
In any case, too much murderousness.
To Africa I’m not going
and not to Asia, either.
I’m not going any place.

In New Zealand
in green pastures, beside the still waters,
kindhearted folk
will share their bread with me.

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Al-shifa Hospital, 2014

Which other women have written powerful political verse, including directly about war successfully (whose work I know)? Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, Simone Weil, Alice Oswald. Who have pictured it? Martha Rosler. Novels and plays and memoirs: Ann Radcliffe (in her Summer Tour), Olivia Manning, Iris Origo, Lillian Hellman, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marta Hiller, Margaret Atwood, Adhaf Soueif

Ellen

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This she blotted carefully and laid aside [a real letter she has written expressing real emotions]. Then, taking up the folder containing Beneath the Visiting Moon [her latest novel], she pulled out her papers, re-read her last paragraph, and bent her head obediently to her daily tasks of fantasy and obfuscation (Brookner, Hotel du Lac, characterizing what her heroine does when she writes fiction)

Friends and readers,

For the last 8 to 10 weeks and sometime before I’ve been having a wonderful time reading four twentieth Century women’s political novels, to wit, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies, Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — as well as (just as much fun in some ways) books on these women authors and other books by them and reviews and essays, not to omit watching relevant movies. This blog is not on this material, as I have written about these books and some of the movies on this blog and elsewhere, but I want to assert how enjoyable such books are.

This is a period when women were beginning to achieve all sorts of rights by law and custom they had not had before, but were still much constrained by the social roles imposed on them by determined patriarchy. Not until the 1960s and 70s do women begin to take jobs in the professions after going to college, and only after that are they more widely recognized in such colleges and jobs. So a paradoxical or complicated situation is theirs.

The political slant has been as enjoyable as one I did several years ago of two 20th century women writing historical novels set in the long 18th century: Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover.

“What country? when she is a woman? (Woolf), women’s political novels differ from men’s; they’ve not been allowed (until very recently) to connect directly to the public world and state; have not joined wars for the usual canonized reasons; independence & self-esteem stirred but same ideology which undermines them returns. They question basic assumptions, about battle too. Naomi Mitchison’s worry that liberalism, belief in democracy, endlessly subject to internal dissent and attack from oligarchies, will dissolve if conservatives when they gain power yield to fascist ideas …

The teaching has gone over so well, or well enough, in these veins, I would like to continue, with intriguing switching of perspectives: Christa Wolff’s Cassandra and Four Essays, Eva Figes’s The Seven Ages [of Women]. I will teach these two next winter.  Also finally to branch out into other genres and non-Anglo texts (in translation) Marta Hillier’s Women in Berlin, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca, Storm Jameson’s Journey from the North.

There is just so much from so many women, so often unsung, neglected, marginalized, died young (Winifred Holtby, say South Riding) and still misrepresented (Virginia Woolf). Non-Eurocentric texts: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Backward Place, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreters of Maladies. I’ve gone on to a number of fine books on women’s 20th century novels/memoirs under the aegis of different themes, eras, genres –just wonderful.

I’ve also been reading about women’s publishing houses, a history of Virago by Catherine Riley, not only as for the first time publishing women’s books in large numbers and continually, but publishing books by women telling their history, of their literature, their point of view.

Not so wonderful though: today in the New York Times, an article by Ruth Franklin ostensibly about the withdrawing from public of a biography of Philip Roth: the biographer, a male, has been accused of sexual assault, but there is further context about Roth’s own behavior and his books. It’s by Ruth Franklin and her title gives you insight into what is her real topic: “What we lose when only men write about men.” She tells you, quite correctly, that is it much much easier to get a contract or access to archives if you are man wanting to write a biography; I’ll add to that it is also much much easier if your topic is a famous man. Famous male writers count.

But if you are a woman intent (let’s say) on writing a literary biography of woman writer boy do you have rough road ahead and your work may never reach fulfillment. And if it does, what characteristically happens to it? I’ll give one example, we are told Boswell is the father of (literary) biography, his book is on the famous Samuel Johnson. Then we are invited to fast forward to later 19th century biographies, all by men. Guess what? There is a great powerful biography inbetween: Elizabeth Gaskell on the Life of Charlotte Bronte. Arguably it’s better than Boswell’s. What has happened: it was attacked at the time as unwomanly (telling some truths about Bronte) and Gaskell was sued; nowadays it is attacked as unbalanced and (oh dear) unfair to Bronte’s tyrannical father (who, we are told, against all evidence to the contrary was no tyrant).

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Tonight I want to talk about two novellas by women of the mid-century which at the same time I happen to be reading with a group of people on FB, “The Way We Read Now.” One of them by an author whose novels I now realize I read very naively in the 1980s, Anita Brookner, and another by an author I knew I had not cared for particularly, Muriel Spark, and now by dint of reading with others, have been driven to decide why. As part of this group I to some extent contributed a posting on each chapter of the novel day-by-day, one after the other: it was through this that I feel I got inside Brookner’s guarded emotionalism in her self-defensive Hotel du Lac for the first time, and at least confronted the chilling derision in Spark’s depiction of a group of a few poignant but mostly desperate and petty or selfish and ruthless very aged and dying characters.

On Hotel du Lac: this is a book about women’s relationships with one another; it’s (to use a word no longer familiar) feminocentric. We see that often the individuals in this group neither like or trust one another, though they pretend otherwise and can feel sorry for one another. Edith Hope is a modern Bronte heroine. Make a spectrum with Austen on one side, and Bronte on the other, and there’s no question. She truly wants to be solitary (whatever she says), to lose herself in the treasures of mind (as Jane Eyre says at one point this means more than anything), and she dislikes plush, luxury as all in very bad taste.

Like Brookner herself, Edith prefers the lifelong single life – but unlike Brookner has not found an occupation where she can find a substitute set of ethics for herself. A quiet retreat. This makes me remember Vanessa Bell who lived an utterly unconventional life sexually and otherwise and remained a very private person. Edith’s pseudonym is Vanessa Wilde.


Anna Massey as Edith Hope and Desmond Elliot, as the needling sadistic (if on the surface ever so kind) Mr Neville (the 1986 film is beautiful to look at)

After reading a couple of essays on the book: Margaret Stetz on “Visual Life” connects Brookner’s novels to her art books: Brookner critiques society through the painter’s work & life: Watteau is an idyllic escape but profoundly melancholy. Geuze is salacious and tells uplifting anecdotes so as to sell. In Hotel du Lac we have perspectives on the writing life. There’s much more and while am no longer in my 30s and would probably not read another Brookner novel soon (I read it in a far more aware way), I took down my two art books and would love to find the time to read her sketches on Romanticism and Its Discontents.

Fisher-Wirth’s tragic vision made me think about these women — maybe I should take this too gross caricatured mother-daughter and think about mothers and daughters in Brookner’s other fiction, Edith Hope’s estrangement from her mother. Mother-daughter relationships are central to women’s fiction. Hotel du Lac (lack as well as lake) is a deeply despairing book — she reminds me of Wharton but also Ishiguro — except this book lacks tenderness and little tolerance for the philistinism Brookner pretends to in her interviews.

Last Stetz’s “Reluctant Feminist:’ Brookner’s public remarks are rebarbative, abrasive & misleading; that Brookner seems to regard some patterns in women as not constructed but innate. Stetz shows parallels between Brookner’s fiction and Woolf (Voyage out repeatedly, sometimes using Rachel/Helen). I liked the writing the woman artist core of the book. I wish Brookner had presented Edith’s fiction in some way but Brookner is/was herself too much on guard. Other lacks in the book include its inflexibility of POV —

I tried the Morahan/Foster movie, and it lost Edith’s inner life so was a hollowed out, shallow version of the book, excising especially especially the bitterness against men who play flattering games with deluded women and profoundly unfaithful to any vulnerable partner.

I should say how strong and picturesque her writing style. The sentences on each page quiet utterances of art.

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The moments when Spark’s book most interested me were the rare passages of literary allusion in which she seemed to be inviting the reader to compare her supposed realistic depiction of the very old and dying to more romantic feelingful texts. I’d say hers is not realistic because Spark chooses to deprive her characters of any beauty, fulfilled hope, anything charitable or redemptive — insisting on pettiness, cruelty (to the point she is not satisfied with destroying the life’s work on aging and death of one man in a fire, the fire must burn to death a cat and dog as well), to me it seemed the meaninglessness of life for all (though they don’t see this).

Early on we have a very mocking description of the fiction of the 50+ year old son of two characters (“I simply could not go on with it. A motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in an hotel with that communist librarian … ” – an allusion to Philip Larkin?), and very late a ridiculing description of his mother’s romantic seemingly soap opera fiction, so entangled you cannot keep track of individual characters or events; there is an allusion to Dylan Thomas who did not go gentle into that good night; several to Dowson who wrote fin-de-siecle sensual poetry, especially his poem supposed written by a man in love with a women but unfaithful while she is indifferent to him (this parallels one of the very elderly couples in the book). Very Verlaine, with echoing refrains and classical allusion (one line refrain: “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”).

It was Dowson who wrote the famous often quoted “Days of Wine and Roses:”

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Then near the close of the book allusions to last two stanzas of Byron’s Childe Harolde. They are really moving as Byron bids adieu to his book, to his dreams, to his poetry, to everything he has tried to suggest from his deep soul. If Spark means to say reflexively, see hasn’t my take been better? my answer is no. The central mystery of the novel is who is the neurotic man or supernatural or psychic spirit who has been pestering the characters with obsessive phone calls saying “remember you must die.” They are in no danger of forgetting. I was urged to see Spark as in a distanced way (ironic) trying to show us the lack of compassion in the treatment of the old. But to me the ironies were very unfunny: a very sick feeble man disinherited because it turns out his wife briefly had another husband first?

While reading the book, I happened to watch one of this year’s Oscar winner, The Father (see excellent review), with Anthony Hopkins as an very old man, and Oliva Coleman, his aging daughter who has recently been forced to bring him into her apartment as he has gone into senile dementia and much as she loves him, needs liberty to live a life fulfilling her own needs.

I thought to myself though maybe Spark would say it is absurdly sentimental because it presents the daughter as so concerned for her father, so deeply grieving at what is happening. But the people surrounding the man are not super-kind (especially a man who seems to be his daughter’s husband – it’s hard to tell since we are in the old man’s confused mind), and the story in front of us is how much a burden his daughter finds caring for him.


Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) takes “her girls” on a field trip (from the 1969 popular movie)

I thought one chapter from a book of essays on Twentieth Century Women Writers edited by Thomas Staley, excessively charitable:

William McBrien interprets (or explicates) Spark’s novels as manifesting “dandyism.” He links her to Max Beerbohm and says in her books “artifice” is “a spiritual strategy;” her writing is “macquillage” (make-up, cosmetics) “that may serve the spirit.” He quotes her saying “I believe events are providentially ordered,” and says that at the same time or maybe because of this she writes in a “insouciant” manner.

What troubles me about this is there is no discussion of the content in this general summary — he just asserts this as well as the idea that readers find her stories “engrossing.” (I didn’t; I admit I found the book very easy reading, no trouble to take in.) She gets away with what she does — what she swiftly and concisely piles on — because of her style — he uses the word “flippant and sophisticated’ for that — I’ll agree on flippant.

He then goes through quite a number of her novels where the characteristics found remind me of what is found in Memento Mori. In The Comforters a typewriter that clicks by itself with a voice that repeats the words the heroine utters. One critic, Peter Kemp, collected all her references to Job in her books and her statement in a Church of England Newspaper called “The Mystery of Job’s Suffering” where she shows (this is Kemp’s paraphrase) “how alone we are in life and how incomprehensible and inconsolable in human ways.”

At one point McBrien uses the phrase “Catholic Chic” of the fantasies in one of her books. There’s a mocking story about a convent and [The] Abbess, much “studied frivolity.” They include post-texts: one is called Robinson – a Robinson Crusoe story. He goes over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie slightly, focusing briefly on how the heroine is a fascist. There are mystery elements in many, connections to T.S. Eliot (in one novel “an Eliotic voice, revealing the Unreal City, and Waste Land archeology), to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Flannery O’Connor admired her work

One quotation by Stevie Smith I found apt “Muriel Spark has a real genius for being gruesome and hilarious in practical circumstances, gay in city graveyards, gothics in factories.” It may be that if you read a number of her books, put them together and brought forth some consistent vision – she has one autobiography as novel (Loitering with Intent) that might help — you could make a case for her as a serious novelist. That’s what Wm McBrien is suggesting.

For myself I still may try Loitering with Intent because I’m interested in life-writing. To me there is something chilling and heartless in this book.

It was probably a good thing for me to have read this book so I won’t go overboard in my praise of all 20th century women writers. My blog may seem more balanced (ironic joke alert).

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To conclude, as long time readers of this and my other blogs may know, I’ve long been working on a project “towards a book” (whether I ever write one or not doesn’t matter) where I study life-long single women writers (“Not an anomaly” is its working title); now I’m seeing a way to modify my argument which has been at once too broad and too narrow and one others might not find appealing in the way I do. Brookner was a life-long single woman living with her parents. Muriel Spark also spent much of her life alone; she had a long term relationship with a woman she denied was lesbian.


A brilliant art study by Brookner where she uses the painter’s life, sensibility and paintings to characterize aspects of 18th century culture


Occasionally praised and reissued (because her novels sell), this critique of the book’s inadequacies by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt makes sense to me after reading Memento Mori

Ellen

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For three days I could find no information on the Persephone Books’ move to Bath. But this fourth day I got a letter from a company representative to say yes, sadly, they are are moving. I had concluded that I fell for an April 1st fools day hoax. No such luck, they have been driven to the smaller city, away from Bloomsbury and the nearby British Library. I include my correspondence with them in the comments


Nicola Beauman (b. 1944) recently

“I like books that tell me how we lived,” says Persephone’s founder Nicola Beauman.“I’m very, very interested in the novel as social history.”

Dear friends and readers,

This is a shorter blog than I’ve been in the habit of writing, more in the nature of an item of news, followed by context suggesting the meaning of the news. I’ve been very frustrated since the YouTube of Nicola Beauman announcing the move of the Persephone bookshop located in Bloomsbury (Lamb’s Conduit Street, near the British Library), London to Bath, which I saw on twitter and was able to trace to a Carol Shields site on Facebook, is not movable — I cannot share it, nor can I link you to it, except as a tweet (on twitter — do click as of this morning the video is still there). I cannot even find the originating story in any of the major online newspapers I read. No wonder; there is no originating story there. The Video says nothing about moving; it is about why and how Beauman started Persephone books and that is is managing to survive during the pandemic though online sales and its reputation among a select loyal group of readers. I was correct to surmize that economics might driving the shop from its present location to this western spa city, only it was quietly announced in a newsletter that goes out to members of the Bookstore and potential customers who subscribe.

Why make this blog. Because the marginalized announcement together with the way the store is tactfully run, and the people are careful to control how it appears and is discussed — is indicative of the continued marginalization of women and their justified apprehension of the way they will be presented. And yet it has been since the beginning of the 20th century and the suffragettes’ presses, and until now, so crucially important that women have their own presses.  As I cannot be sure you will heat the YouTube yourself, I’ll tell you what she says below. I will “flesh out” some of the points she makes with my own experience.  Then add some information on other presses publishing women’s and feminist books.


A photograph from one of the corners of the bookshop

Nicola Beauman started the company in 1998 because she had long loved 20th century women’s books, and finding for decades that most publishers would publish very few books by women of them, especially if they were about mothers centrally, that at long last (like the little red hen) did it herself. She says what is unique to the 20th century is women are still strongly constrained by all sorts of inhibiting conventions and until the 1960s/70s could get good jobs or into professions, were not seen or active widely in public life in general the way they began to be as of the 1980s. Yet they were going to public school up to university, working “outside the home” (“out to work”) in large numbers before World War Two, had the right vote and many rights and liberties that men have. So knowledge, self-esteem, self-confidence were within their purview regularly.

The result is a peculiar angle on life. I have discovered in teaching 20th century political novels by women this term, I just love not only the books I’m teaching, but to read about and some of other 20th century women’s political books.

I’ve twice taught a course I called 19th Century Women of Letters, and once Historical Novels by Women, especially set in the 18th century and dealing with war. I moderate a small modest listserv on groups.io I call WomenWriters.

All other things being equal, I often prefer women’s prose texts and poetry to men’s. They are inwardly much richer by virtue of the aesthetics that often informs them. Why not plays? because until recently almost all stage plays were written from a male angle even when women got a chance to write and to be staged. Women have, it seems to me, broken into screenplays for movies much quicker than for plays — less money, less prestige.


The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme, a partial view of the cover — see excellent blog

my other Persephone books are Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, The Making of the Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Miss Pettigrow Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson, Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity, Beauman’s own The Other Elizabeth Taylor, a book of short stories, and a lovely catalogue.

I love that the covers of these books are grey. Virago had a policy of choosing for covers paintings or images by women, or the kind that a woman would not — not a woman as a come-hither-fuck-me sex object. They seem to have given that up and turned to more abstract designs (as has Oxford of late), as if the publishers fear that younger adults today will not be attracted to a picture that depicts the 19th or even 20th century — as too old-fashioned. Grey solves the problem I have had many a time: a book I long to read comes with a soft-core porn image of a woman on its cover.

I am now reading a very good translation of Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina by Richard Pever and Larissa Volokhonsy, in a deluxe Penguin edition. In order to be able to endure the physical object, I put over the image of a woman’s knee which suggested what was up her thigh, a still from Joe Wright’s film adaptation of the novel featuring Keira Knightley looking desperately calm. Sometimes I can’t find an image that fits, so I just have to cut the cover off — weakening and eventually ruining the book. Grey reminds me of the old sets of good book sold in the 1930s and 40s by Left Book Clubs with soft brown or beige covers, sometimes with soft gold or silver lettering.

Beauman says that Persephone has kept up their high standard of choice and their have been sales sufficient to stay in business, even during this pandemic. But they will have more budget to publish and do more of the things they like to. They miss the in-coming customers and occasional events (book launches, talks). IF they had to they could succeed in Bath & spread their wisdom, and splendour there. But after all, they do not. Mockers may find their presence absurd, but I don’t nor their shop.

The New York Times had a spread of pictures and story to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the press and bookshop: A Bookstore of One’s Own by Sarah Lyall. Over on Twitter, Elaine Showalter tweeted to my comment that I like the shop, love the imprint, prefer to read good books by women most of the time, that I’ve covered wonderful lists, and there “really should be a book about the great feminist presses;” I replied there is a fine book on Virago: Catherine Riley: The Virago Story: Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon. This retells the origins of the press, its struggles to stay true to its mission, good books by women, its morphing into divisions of larger publishers and its stubborn integrity until today, the specific women who have made it what it is. I own too many (cherish most) to enumerate. An essay on the authors favored who resemble Austen can be found in Janeites, ed. Deirdre Lynch: Katie Trumpener, The Virago Jane. But a full scale book would be enourmously helpful in understanding one important strand of feminism today: other presses born around the time of Virago were Spare Rib, Pandora (“Mothers of the Novel” were the older books), Feminist Press of NYC. Anyone coming to this blog who can think of others, please supply the title in the comments.

As for Beauman herself, I’ve read her superb (highly informative) A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel, 1914–39, Virago (London), 1983 (about early and mid-20th century women writers and their books); The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Persephone (London, England), 1993 (did you know Taylor was a communist? and had affairs — you wouldn’t realize this from the surface stories of her books unless you think about them a bit); and Morgan (on EM Forster as seen and realized through his imaginative writings). The first and third have meant a lot to me. I have been to the shop twice, once with a friend I’d never met face-to-face before, knew for years here on the Internet. We had coffee and some kind of cake.

Ellen

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IAlice (Keeley Hawes) and her daughter, Charlotte (Isabella Pappas) (Finding Alice, Episode 1).



1940a photograph of Japanese Americans being forced into internment camps; the basis of the film, Come See the Paradise

“Something had been done in the way of raising money by selling the property of convicted secessionists; and while I was there eight men were condemned to be shot for destroying railway bridges. ‘But will they be shot?” I asked of one of the officers. ‘Oh, yes. It will be done quietly and no one will know anything about it. We shall get used to that kind of thing presently’… It is surprising how quickly a people can reconcile themselves to altered circumstances, when the change comes upon them without the necessity of an expressed opinion of their own. Personal freedom has been considered as necessary to the American of the States as the air he breathes.” — Trollope on the civil War in North America


Portrait shot of one of several variants 1949-1957 TV versions of I Remember Mama


Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) looking up at Marianne and hearing her extravaganzas with patience (2009 BBC S&S, Andrew Davies)

Dear friends,

Tonight, I thought I’d bring together three movies which center on women or can be related to women and seem to me good and significant movies to watch relevant to us today. As an experiment, for fun, I’ve been watching the Austen movies (a subgenre, some 37 at this point) and end on a pattern others may not have noticed. As I’ve been doing, the blog will not be overlong.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been watching a 6 part ITV (British) serial story, Finding Alice. I was drawn to it because its central role, Alice, a woman at least in her later 30s, whose husband dies suddenly from a fall over a steep staircase, which he deliberately built without a bannister is played by Keeley Hawes, one of my favorite actresses. She used to garner central roles in costume dramas based on masterpiece books (Cynthia in Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters, as scripted by Andrew Davies); or moving series on remarkable books (Louisa Durrell in The Durrells). Now she is more often found in mystery thrillers which are just that little bit better (more intelligent) than the usual. So this series sounded like a return back to her more thoughtful rich programs. Perhaps the problem with the series is it is too rich, takes too much on, and does not resolve enough of what is presented. This Guardian review by Lucy Mangan is unfair (and shows itself to be a little stupid) by singling out Nigel Havers and Joanna Lumley as superior actors to all the others (I wondered if that had anything to do with their race and age); they are no better or worse at acting their roles, their roles no less or more jarring or uneven than the other characters: but she does outline the story, and I can vouch for many shining moments beyond the ones Mangan allows for.

The film plays variations on how difficult it is to accept the death of a beloved person; it projects different modes of grieving and bereavement. Rashan Stone as the man who is in charge of a hospital morgue and runs bereavement groups is superb in his role; he comforts Alice as well as himself exemplifying how someone else can deal with devastation (his daughter killed herself) and a wife whom he does not get along with (one of the variations on a daughter not able to adjust to a mother who is hostile to her). The hardest hit is Charlotte, Harry and Alice’s teenage daughter, upon whom much of Alice’s earliest antics fall — she insists on burying Harry in their garden turns out not to be such a bad idea after all. But she also wants to impregnate herself with the sperm Harry froze so that she could have another child by him — since she was (rightly) refusing at the time.


Alice in Episode 6, learning to stand alone

After the 6th episode was over and nothing much had been resolved, of several emerging conflicts, except importantly Alice had taken responsibility for all those things her partner Harry had supposedly been doing just fine, only he wasn’t. The story is the sudden death by falling down a steep staircase of the heroine’s partner. We learn pretty quickly both Alice & Harry have taken no thought for the possibility he might die — he has (it emerges by the last episode where we hear him speak his last words) regarded and treated her as a child. Been false in the way he appeared to love her. His bank account does not have her name on it, she has almost nothing in hers; he left this house he and she were supposed to be so proud to live in to his parents. His business dealings he does with women, one of whom turns out to be a semi-mistress — who may have bought (?) his sperm to impregnate her female partner with. The business is near bankruptcy. An illegitimate son appears who thinks he will inherit — but that is not accurate. If she never married Harry and so can’t automatically inherit whatever is left, how does an unrecognized bastard son inherit anything? Harry’s parents are hostile to her, want to sell the house out from under her to pay their inheritance taxes; her parents (Havers & Lumley) consist of a mean-mouthed bullying mother and a weak father who finally seems to leave his wife who openly cuckolds him in the last episode). Many episodes contain such a multitude of complex emotions one cannot begin to cover the ground so richly sown.

This review by Reece Goodall falls into the very trap I suggest the movie wants to preclude: the idea that people don’t let go a lot when they grieve; that they know to be tactful and to live in and within themselves. Anything else is not adult. Sure, in public, but not in private which is where these scenes delve. I grant at the third episode I began to feel this was an attempt to present ever-so-modern patterns of living and taste in a voyeuristically morbid vein, but then in the fourth an upswing begins where we see the point is to show us Alice slowly discovering she is an individual, what kind of person she is, what are her real tastes. I don’t think the only way you can assert your independence is to give other people who are trying to cheat you a hard time, but it is one of those things a woman living alone will have to deal with alone.

At its end you get a message telling you where you can contact counselors to help you through bereavement — quite seriously — the creators just did not know how to cope with what they are presenting to a wider popular audience so they become “constructive.” I see another season is planned (or was). I hope it comes back and becomes less unsteady, giving more time to each set of characters and incidents.

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Movie poster

Coherent and beautiful is the indie, Come See the Paradise, written and directed by Alan Parker. It opens with a mother in her early 30s walking with a young adolescent girl child. They are traveling by train to re-meet the father and husband whom they have not seen for years. The mother tells the girl the history she does not understand for her father was take away when she was around 4. This flashback movie then tells from the point of view of the Japanese woman who is attached equally to her family and American husband and is herself self-sufficient, upright.

Hers is the story of them as a young couple, American young man who was involved as a non-professional (non-degreed) lawyer in a union in the 1930s who falls in love with Japanese girl whose parents are about to marry her off to a much older man. In 1942, over 100,000 Americans were interned in prison camps in the USA. Well this extraordinary complete violation of human rights (it was against the law in many states for a white American to marry a Japanese person and they were not permitted to become citizens unless they were born here) hits hard on these lives that are slowly presented. We see the young couple try to persuade her parents; they cannot so they elope. Several years go by and Jack (Dennis Quaid) has involved himself again in striking; Lily (Tamlyn Naomi Tomita) disapproves, is frightened, and when he is taken away to be arrested, flees home to her family (whom she was very attached to). When he finally gets out of jail, he comes to find her and is slowly accepted into the family by all but the father. Then the war breaks out, the internment begins. Everything is very harsh; they have to give up all their property and live in a camp in crowded impoverished conditions. Eventually the young men are coerced into fighting for the USA or accept being sent back to Japan. Jack finds he cannot stay with them and spends most of the war as a soldier. He is finally recognized as a labor agitator and re-sent to jail. So the film is pro labor too — like his Japanese brother-in-law, Jack has a no-choice: go to jail or endure military service. The two stories intertwine and reinforce one another. There is a fine use of music; some of the scenes are very moving; the use of colors is careful and effective. I do not think think it at all exaggerated or exploitative or smug or over-angry. The Karamura family slowly changes; they learn to appreciate Jack; they hang together and they also make individual choices that bring out their characters and need for usefulness, joy, respect.


One of several parting scenes

Recently there has been an increase in violence towards Asian people. Incited by the truly evil man, Trump, to blame Asian people for the coronavirus, older atavistic prejudices have come forward.  This time it was a massacre of eight people, six Asian women, in Georgia by a young white very sullen-looking man. In his recent speech before this incident Biden mentioned the way Asian-Americans have been treated since the pandemic started and said this has got to STOP! Tonight he and the Congress are working on helping Asian-Americans and doing what they can to discourage this virulent racism. So this film’s story is not at all obsolete. There is a sneer (!) in wikipedia: the movie is called “oscar bait” and I dare say it won no prizes because of its strong Asian theme. It is a bit long because it wants to get us to the qualified happy ending — retreat for this intermarried family.

Here is Ebert’s excellent review (1991): how easily it seems our assumed liberties can be taken from us; Caryn James of the New York Times: when our people were victimized right here; Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat of Spirituality.


Mr Karamura accepting Jack who tells him that this family is his family, he loves them and they love him ….

I don’t know how or why Roosevelt could have allowed this — it is a blotch on his record, very bad. I know how he (in effect) threw Black people under the bus (what an inadequate metaphor) to keep the southern democrats with him. Also how social security did not include cleaning women and other lower end self-employed people — often Black people.

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

The political story of I remember Mama is told here It immediately belongs to the history of suppression of any socialistic feelings which came to a head in the early 1950s with the McCarthy hearings of the HUAC; long range it belongs to women’s studies: Gertrude Berg invented, wrote, starred in this development from an earlier genteel white stage play and made a resounding hit of it — despite studio feeling that Americans don’t want Jewish stories either. Berg had a very hard time getting the shows any sponsorship originally.

Then after the success, the show was forced off the air — in effect. The executives cared more about stamping out socialism than monetary success when it came to a Jewish ethnic show. I love Lucy wasn’t touched because it was seen as all-American (but for the unfortunate Cuban husband). The man playing the father, Philip Loeb, a professional stage actor was active in the labor movement; that was enough to get him was black-listed; the show never recovered from his departure and other changes insisted upon. It’s all lies that Americans would not tolerate a divorced person, a Jew or a person from NY on their TV shows. This shows how the channels and big media colluded absolutely with the wave and institution across the US in the fifties of anti-social democratic movements everywhere in every way. They wanted it to be that US people not tolerate Jewish people. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong does tell us that in life Gertrude Berg did not wear housedresses, but swathed herself in silk, furs and jewels.

I did not know this story. I do remember some of the earliest sit-coms, replaying on morning TV — there was one about a daughter and father with a matinee idol as the father (My Little Margie?); another about a secretary (Suzy?); of course I Love Lucy. A Jim Bakkus. Amos ‘n Andy was still playing at night in 1955/56 when we got our TV.

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


Elizabeth Garvie as Elizabeth (1979 BBC P&P, Fay Weldon)

So to conclude, once again watching all the Austen movies (I’ve watched more than these, see my blog with more recent Austen movies, viz., P&P and Zombies, Whit Stillman’s Love and Freindship, Sanditon, &c I own or can rent: in general, just about all Austen movies made for paying cinema are versions of Screwball comedies or high erotic romance, from the 1940s P&P, to McGrath’s 1996 candied Emma, Wright’s 2005 Lawrentian P&P, to Bride and Prejudice and the recent travesty 2019 Emma, not to omit the 1995 Clueless and P&P and Zombies. Just about all the serial TV Austen movies are centrally melodramatic, presenting Austen’s material as familial drama exceptions are the occasional gothic (Maggie Wadey’s 1987 NA) and but once only a genuine ironic but gentle satire, the 1972 Constanduros Emma (it falls down today on the visuals, the way the characters are dressed just won’t do). This is true of the three short 2007 films (MP, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey; Wadey, with a spectacular performance by Sally Hawkins, and Andrew Davies) and the 2009 Emma (Sandy Welch) and Sense and Sensibility (again Davies) Many have been made by women, and even in the cinema versions, one finds that women’s aesthetics predominate: the use of letters, a voice-over female narrator, a pretend diary. The Jane Austen Book Club belongs here.


Romola Garai as Emma practicing after the assembly (2009 BBC Emma, Sandy Welch)

For my part in general I vastly prefer the TV choice of genre, though neither captures Austen’s inimitable mix. Perhaps the closest that ever came to her were a few in the “golden years” of the pre-Thatcher BBC — the 1971 Sense and Sensibility (again Constanduros), the 1979 Pride and Prejudice (Fay Weldon) with its emphatic bringing out of Elizabeth’s inner sensibility and quiet wit and also the 1995 A&E Pride & Prejudice (Andrew Davies) taken as a whole. I am a real fan of Andrew Davies (there are a large number of blogs dedicated to films by him, and one of my published papers is on his two films from Trollope (HKHWR and TWWLN)


Wonderful passing time moment: Jane (Susannah Harker) and Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) walking and talking

That’s all from me around the ides of March.

Ellen

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A Bridge Party by Barbara Loftus (1995?)


From A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma), Nina Hoss, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Irm Hermann (German, Max Färberböck 2008)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Ten Mondays, 11:45 to 1:15 pm,
March 1 to May 3
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC, but conducted online via zoom

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: 20th Century Women’s Political Novels

We’ll travel across 20th century wars, politics, and social life in fiction and memoir: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), about an Anglo-Irish household during the 1920s civil wars; Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (1960), on the fascist take-over of Rumania in 1939; Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1975), her experience paranoic McCarthy era, 1950s USA; and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), African-American experiences of life in early to mid-century America. We’ll learn of the authors; the woman’s perspective on earlier and today’s era. There are numerous excellent films which connect directly to these books; I cite a number (below) that people may profit from by watching on their own: of these, two are film adaptations of our books:  1999 Deborah Warner’s adaptation, The Last September; 1987 the first two hours of Alan Plater & Cellan Jones BBC serial film adaptation of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy titled The Fortunes of War.

Required books (in the order we’ll read them):

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Anchor, 2000 978-0-386-72014-4.

Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City (the 1st & 2nd of the 3 novels called The Balkan Trilogy) available separately, but I have them in the more much more frequently printed The Balkan Trilogy. Penguin 1974. You get three for what you pay and the novels become more brilliant as they go on. The URL for this older print is 0-14-010996-X. The trilogy has been recently reprinted with the dual Title, The Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy, introd. by Rachel Cusk. Penguin, 2010. 978-1-59017331-1. Both printings have the same pagination for the text.

Lillian Hellman. Scoundrel Time, introd Garry Wills. Little, Brown 1976. This same edition is available reprinted in 2000. The old URL is 0-316-35294.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. Vintage, 1970. 978-0-307-27844-9.


Bowen’s Court, now pulled down

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

March 1 Introduction: A kind of novel, historical as well as political & about war; when written by women; 4 era. Using film. Contrasting memoirs & fantasy dystopias: Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (gang-rape); Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (nursing); Virginia Woolf, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison (polemicists, home front stories). Elizabeth Bowen’s life, oeuvre. Irish War of Independence and Civil War

March 8 Elizabeth Bowen’s life and writing. Bowen’s The Last September

March 15 The Last September. The Two Bowen films. Fascism, fascist take over of Romania.

March 22 Olivia Manning’s life, oeuvre. More on women’s writing about war. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

March 29 The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. Other women writers at war, at the end of the empire

April 5 1987 BBC Serial, The Fortunes of War Lillian Hellman, with something of Dashiell Hammett. Their careers.

April 12 Her memoirs, Scoundrel Time. Something of her plays. Movies available: Watch on the Rhine, The Little Foxes.

April 19 Julia? Black history in the US; Black authors; Toni Morrison’s life & career. The Bluest Eye.

April 26 The Bluest Eye. Her later novels & books. The African diaspora

May 3 The Pieces that I Am. Women’s 20th century historical & mystery/spy novels.


Guy and Harriet Pringle (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) with Prince Yakimov (Ronald Pickup) in the Pringle Flat (Fortunes of War, end episode)


From Julia, Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) going over Autumn Garden (1977)

Suggested Films:

The Heat of the Day. Dir Christopher Morahan. Script: Harold Pinter. Perf. Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York &c. 1989. Available as DVD to rent, buy from Amazon, and as a whole on YouTube.
The Last September. Dir. Deborah Warren. Script: John Banville. Perf. Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, David Tennant, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, &c. 1999. Available as DVD from Netflix or to buy on Amazon. Also found on YouTube in 10 minute segments.
The Little Foxes. Dr William Wyler. Script: Lillian Helmann. Perf. Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright &c MGM, 1941. Amazon prime. DVD to buy.
The Fortunes of War. Dir. John Cellan Jones. Script: Alan Plater. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennet, Rupert Graves &c. 1987. Right now available as a DVD Region 2 to buy and on YouTube in 7 segments.
Michael Collins. Dir. Script. Neil Jordan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts. 1996. Available on Amazon Prime, as a DVD on Netflix to rent and on Amazon as a DVD to buy. As a DVD it comes with a documentary by Melvyn Bragg, very much worth the watching.
Watch on the Rhine. Dir. Herman Shulmin. Script: Hellman and Hammett. Perf. Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Donald Woods &c 1943 Warner Bros. Amazon Prime and a DVD to buy.
Julia. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Hellman and Alvin Sergeant. Perf. Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robarts, Maximillian Schell, Meryl Strep &c 1977 20thC Fox. DVD to buy or to rent on Netflix. Also complete on YouTube
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf Benjamin Whitlow, Charles Gray, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden &c. BBC, 1981. DVD to rent from Netflix, available as (scarce) DVD.
The Pieces that I am. Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Saunders. Perf. Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Ophrah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Moseley &c 2019 Perfect Day Films. Amazon Prime, DVD on Netflix or to buy.


Lillian Hellman, 1947, Photograph by Irving Penn

Suggested Outside Reading:

Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics & Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford and Hellman. University of Va, 2001.
Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. NY: Knopft, 1950.
Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. NY: Simon and Shuster, 1978.
David, Deirdre. Olivia Manning: A Woman at War. Oxford UP, 2012.
Foster, R.F. Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London, Penguin, 1993.
Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: A Biography. NY: Knopft, 1977.
Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. NY: Random House, 1983.
Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vintage, 1999.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Lillian Hellman: A Difficult Woman. NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012
Lassner, Phyllis; British Women Writers of World War II. London: Palgrave, 1998; Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of Empire. NJ: Rutgers, 2004.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. State University of NY, 2004
Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. NY: Counterpoint, Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Patten, Eve. Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War. Cork UP, 2011.
Roymon, Tessa. The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Staley, Thomas. Twentieth Century Women Novelists. Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies, trans from German by Stephen Conway. 2 volumes. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987. A study of fascism.


A recent photo, from The Pieces That I am

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The cover of the audible edition of Memoire de fille

I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am
— Supertramp

‘One thing more,’she said. ‘I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in loving a person and saying so.’
It was not true. The shame of her surrender, her letter, her unrequited love would go on gnawing, burning, till the end of her life …
After all, it did not seem to hurt much: certainly not more than could be borne in secret, without a sign. It had all been experience,
and that was a salutary thing. You might write a book now, and make him one of the characters; or take up music seriously; or kill yourself
— Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer

Friends and readers,

As Annie Ernaux says she feels compelled to write, however dangerous and difficult to do, autofiction about shaming, and traumatic incidents in her that she thinks central to the kind of person she became, so do I find her texts irresistible. I wrote about her Les Annees (The Years) and other books some eight and a half years ago in a blog I called The Poetry of Girlhood; of self and body acceptance. I was reminded of her last August when I read a superb review of A Girl’s Story in “Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings”. I had not realized she’d published another auto-fiction; now, having it read it with a few other people, I want to draw attention to the new (in the sense of published about) matter she most bravely of all has put before the public.

Letter the First
From Isabel to Laura
How often, in answer to my repeated intreaties that you would give my Daughter a regular detail of the Misfortunes and Adventures of your Life, have you said, ‘No, my freind never will I comply with your request til I may be no longer in Danger of again experiencing such dreadful ones.’ Surely that time is now at hand. You are this Day 55. If a woman may ever be said to be in safety from the determined Perseverance of disagreable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers, surely it must be at such a time of Life. Isabel. — Love and Freindship, Jane Austen

She says she was prompted to write about this incident finally by reading Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer (first published 1957), 55 years after it occurred in 1958, when she was eighteen; she had tried before and some of the passages in this new memoir were written eleven years later, or 1969, but couldn’t go on with it. Now at last enough years have gone by so she can write down as accurately as memory will allow (and a few helps, like photos, some letters, the internet) what has lain not far from consciousness, in her mind, easily drawn up all these many years.

There is no girl’s behavior more misunderstood than promiscuity, especially when the girl persists in offering herself in the sexiest of clothes to boys and young men who treat her with scorn, and humiliate her, and in repeating this behavior when girls around her begin to know and ostracize and ridicule or accuse her of being a shocking tramp (that’s a 1950s Americanism — I am showing my age — for slut). Ernaux found herself falling into this pattern of behavior the summer she was 18 and sent away to a camp intended to help adolescents and young adults who were having problems adjusting to social life. What happens repeatedly is the girl is seen as “whorish” then or years later when she writes about it. Say at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, a woman who could tell such a tale of herself would present herself as guilty, sinful, and overcoming degradation; fast forward to after WW1, and Freudian influence, and she is understood at masochistic, asking for punishment because females are drawn to suffering (they like to be beat up). Mid to later 20th century, she would present herself as only partly compliant or raped (except the problem here is she came back to be raped again). Very recently, the explanation has gone further, oh of course she is enjoying it, but not because it’s a punishment, but because she revels in pro-active strong sex.

The wise girl of course never tells of this commonplace experience: where Ernaux perhaps differed is she seems to have let this kind of ugly reaction to her, the treatment, and her irrational submission to it go on all summer. A key factor is it began by her being ostracized for social awkwardness, the wrong clothes, a chunky body.

Gentle reader, I am here to tell you none of these statements explain the girl’s behavior, none get near her complex motivation nor acknowledges the cruelty and contradictory nature of this social experience. As with anorexia which most often begins (key factor) by the girl having been teased, humiliated, nagged for being overweight, the explanation lies in the point of origin, and the girl not knowing how to cope and then inventing a self-destructive coping mechanism, by which she hides from the world and herself what she is feeling, and either stays in the world (if she cannot bear to pay the price of the safety of self-isolation) or shuts herself off from it, sometimes for years. One technique for withdrawal that helps is anorexia, because then you cannot eat with others and that is the most common social act people do together. Ernaux became bulimic not long after the summer was over.

Her story belongs in Mary Pypher’s Reviving Ophelia, except unlike Pypher, she does not define herself or her society as sick. Pypher argues that present heterosexual norms are predatory towards the girl, rewarding and admiring the boy for triumphing over her body, and until recently despising the girl. Instead Ernaux gives us a startlingly frank moment-by-moment description of what she can remember herself as thinking and feeling.

Ernaux says (p. 55) she is telling the experience with such candor and detail because such descriptions commonly present such experiences falsely, in the form of an “imposture.” She is challenging the figures other writers make such girls. She is not what readers think she is, whatever that be. She is “deconstructing” such experiences, such spectacles.

One result is this is a very painful book to read — unless you simply dismiss her with the ready-made explanations given above, which are difficult to apply. Instead of withdrawing to protect herself what happens is she lets go. It’s as if she cannot stop herself. She is very clear that she is not enjoying herself –- she makes it explicit how much she is humiliated and how aware she is of this. One way she communicates this is she never allows the boy to fuck her and ejaculate in her. Or maybe not after the first time with the first young man. She says again and again she doesn’t let men into her vagina – they basically jerk themselves off over her thighs. She says how disgusting all this way. She says she was giving them mastery over her body so that they would not ostracize, reject her, all the while the act did not bind any of them to her (see p 59), so she had to do this again. The young woman all around her and the boys openly scorned her over and over too. They’d sing ribald songs to her. So she got nothing out of it – except this staying in social life because she didn’t know any other way to do it and no decent or kind person or authority figure stepped in to bring a stop to the lure of these repeated outrages of her by everyone.

Allow me to say I had experiences like these and took the option of flight, retreat. I became anorexic for five years (age sixteen), withdrew from society in effect, stayed home with my books, reading them –- didn’t have any girlfriends (I had tried confiding and discovered to my disbelief they rejected me and then to my horror told others what I had said!). I took the path that leads to social erasure and failure, with no growth in understanding through interaction with my peers.

These are coping mechanisms and so are Ernaux’s, though hers look so distorted from self-protection, and look so exaggeratedly eager (how she dresses especially) because society offers only maligning the person, or medicalizing her (talking of her as sick when it’s the society that has driven her this way). She didn’t want the first and never thought of the second. Sometimes these coping mechanisms — or frequently — are themselves forms of self-punishment. You can discern in bulimia the person who wants to stay in public and appear to eat with others, and then when alone frantically try to get rid of the food she has been taught to fear. Ernaux speaks sardonically or ironically but does not lash out at those who are hurting her. She repeats (very like Lehmann’s heroine) after the summer was over she was not ashamed, oh no, she had had experience and so triumphed. I see her as still not self-protective because she wants so badly to stay in the society.

In one of the many essays that have been written about Ernaux’s work,   this one by Chloë Taylor Merleau, Merleau asks (as if this needs heavy lifting explanations), why does Ernaux write about this kind of thing voluntarily still if it is (as she says also) so shaming. Merleau need only have read Edith Evans’s collection of commentary on acting Shakespeare’s women on the stage (most of the time until recently rehearsing with an almost all male crew), Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today: they say as these heroines they are making visible the emotional pain and damage human societies and communities inflict on women. What we are seeing is visible intense distress, anorexic, bulimic, promiscuous girls who are obviously scapegoated make visible the damage done everywhere on all women, the twisting and distortions.

I have another explanation: I believe that Ernaux is autistic level 1 (Aspergers Syndrome): this is why she was not able to understand the faces and bodies around her, could not imitate the unwritten codes, and until today does not realize she still is. I know a great deal about this disability and have learned over the past few years that in France, however wonderfully generous economically their health care system is, they do not accept and will not categorize and treat as a disability people on the autistic spectrum who have other kinds of strong capability and intelligence.

What makes her book so valuable is that women need to read it and when they do they find themselves and begin to think about their experiences as girls. All too often movies and novels present as a girl’s adolescence what are boys’ patterns of behavior. What girls are, what they do, is still stigmatized; the bases have changed, but there is no empathy or understanding by the mainstream media.

None of this fits into the usual narrative about what it means to grow up; you are to tell of how you made the most of your opportunities, and if any such sexual experiences happened, you are to get over it and accept what was (and of course then still is with men) in dignified silence. So it is as if these central experiences for girls — for they feed into marital and sexual choices all your life, into the way you may mother a daughter or son — never happened. But they did, do, and exert a strong influence on people’s older sexual & working lives.

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Her books

In the second half of the book (p. 85, summer over, September, her mother takes her to live in a convent school), we see the early reactions she has to her memories of what she was and did. She is determined not to opt out, not to retreat. So what does she do? she behaves as cruelly and badly as everyone else to new vulnerable types, in particular one male — she plies him with drink. This can serve to remind us the predatory culture we live in is as hurtful and harmful to many men as it is to women. She is determined to see what she did as triumph — especially with one young man she calls H. She “discovered parties, freedom, male bodies.” It is at this point she begins to look up what the internet can tell her today about this past she is trying to retrieve. Dread and desire mix together and she looks the young man up but tells the reader hardly anything about him.

The book makes reference now and again to the outer political world. In 1958 a right-wing coup took over Algeria, and the Gaullists came back into power in France. In 1969 there was a summer of rebellion by adult students against the conventions and authoritarian capitalism of French society. She mentions violence, terrorism, massacres (this could refer to the year 2014 when she is writing). She says the kinds of things she felt in the early 1960s after the last of her experiences were over, and would have like to have written are found in now unreadable novels or women’s magazines of the 1950s.

Yes I know those; I read them in the 1950s (I was born in 1946 so was 13 in 1959, just in time for Peyton Place). She thinks Colette or Sagan were better for girls to read. I’m not so sure. I am struck about how such magazines were found in France where she lived at the same time as they were found in NYC. I was reading just this sort of magazine at the same time as I read Austen for the first time (age 12-14).

In my view in the second half of her memoir, Ernaux is tremendously lucky. For whatever reason the camp refuses to have her back. We have seen from her relationship with H, she would have reacted in similar ways: promiscuous, dress sexy, be cruel to others. In her dream life (a la Jung’s theory) she feels was telling her she’d behaved like an imbecile with H, at the same time her conscious self wanted to go back to that camp and triumph as beautiful, brilliant, &c but one of her dreams offers her the first intimation she should make herself inaccessible — as a way to protect herself, surely.

She embarks on a campaign of self-transformation. My feeling — maybe readers would to like to comment — for better or worse many girls in their early teens do this. They find they do not look at all like those ads/norms they see in front of themselves — so they diet, go shopping, learn to use make-up, change their names &c She can’t bear to look at a photo of herself at this time – chunky, dowdy &c. She will get a driver’s license, learn to swim and dance to make up for what she recognizes are her lack of social skills. Beauvoir says girls are not born, they are made, the truth is they feminize themselves.

She is taking a philosophy course and the clarity of the writers and the demand she be clear enables her (it seems) to distinguish and repudiate what she was — so repudiating herself without really understanding why she did what she did or wants to go back. She does not know how to deal with the shame she feels – I feel very much for her

Then the anorexia takes over as dieting becomes more obsessive; then she wants to go out so she has to resort to throwing up (bulimia) — a vicious cycle where paradoxically all she can think about is food. She can’t figure out how to stop herself. Now how obscene is this throwing up. Again I feel very much for her. I never “practiced” bulimia but I was anorexic — for five years. And I know the experience never goes away ….

Doing so well at school no longer helps so much; she is called ugly names by other girls (the cruelty of girls to one another is important in this book). She at first does not go on to the higher form of education which would lead her to teach in higher schools but a lesser briefer one which leads to teaching younger children. Her father is presented as not wanting her to go higher than he did, and the mother disappointed. But she is thinking of herself as having had a woman’s experience; why sit at a desk scribbling away for long years to become a teacher in a higher school She idealizes teaching children to persuade herself.

Then the important books: The Second Sex by Beauvoir. It just woke her up. Gave her explanations. I thought the whole section on her reaction to it self-insightful. “To have received the key to understanding shame does not give one the power to erase it” (p 113) Of the other books she mentions I read Gone with the Wind (not in French) at age 12-13 obsessively for a while — and am interested to find that the heroine’s fate that remains with Ernaux is Melanie’s death in childbirth. Most people (women) reading this book talk incessantly of Scarlett as the heroine they identified with. For me both heroines were significant. In Suzanne Juhasz’s Romance of the Heart she has a long analysis of Gone with The Wind where she argues Rhett is a mother figure, and that often in girls’ and young women’s romance novels the hero who is tender, kind, loving, just about brother-like is a mother figure.

And then Ernaux switches to the school that will lead her to higher teaching — the “ecole normale superior” (sans accents & anglicized). It is the college type that Beauvoir went to — as did Sartre.

The last part of the memoir retells of her time in England as an au pair, with a friend R also an au pair. The family she gets an au pair job in is middle class so the job is not hard. She visits London, goes to bookstores and find French books, tourist sites. She is thrilled by self-service supermarkets. I do remember — very vague – when the first supermarkets of this type emerged in the middle 1950s in the Bronx where I lived. I was around 10. I found it hard to sympathize when this now spoilt pair of girls become petty shoplifters. I realize petty crimes like this are indulged by teenagers growing up and she is adhering to what seems to be the idea of this book: tell the truth about the way she was as a girl growing up. She is sticking to her “implacable memories.”

She is there at first and then the friend, R, joins her. She is using letters she wrote at the time to another friend, Marie-Claude. It is one of these intense friendships even though R comes from a higher milieu or caste. I am not sure she is correct in this since both of them seem to have no fear of what will happen if they get caught. No sense of R’s inner life, except that she is the one to get caught shop-lifting and there is a trial. She says her employer told her she was “marvelous” that one of them fooled the lawyers by looking like a heroine out of Bonjour Tristesse. She does not say what she concludes today but I take it the English authorities knew both girls were petty thieves and let them get off very easily. I wonder if the parents of these girls stepped in? Life, she says, she thought of as a game, an adventure. She is rather old to be so innocent, no? It was a shameful even if not as bad as getting pregnant (outside marriage).

This is to make a joke of what happened. She realizes this and a bit earlier says that she put down these illegal or daring activities as a continuation of what she did in camp. There is (to me) an interesting idea suddenly – that her whole life has been a sort of failure that can be traced back to this originating harrowing summer in camp at age 18. She was repeating that set of acts in another form.

She describes the way R looks – – “plain and joyless” — Ernaux presents herself as trying to be sexy, a la Brigitte Bardo. She says she was still bulimic at that point. Many years later (1971) she saw this friend from far in a spa park walking with husband and children — now wearing yellow summer dress, blue cardigan, and there is the middle class car.

Some of the most interesting passages in this second half of the book (and in the first half too) occur when she meditates over the photos she is looking at, and then goes onto the Internet to find a picture of the school she went the way it looks now, tries to locate some of the people. She looks the place up where her camp was – there is no trace of its “former vocation as an open-air sanitorium” — a kind of health camp. (How ironic.) It was for temperamental children. A post card from a friend doesn’t mention this. She can find a picture of an assemblage of buildings dating from different periods than the one she was there. She does not tell us where it is concretely. She does not tell the names of the people she got involved with except the friend she writes to.

The contrasts make vivid how we do not know what we will become and yet for the most part just about all the people she finds are living in expected patterns. More expected than those she’s experienced as a writer.

The diary peters off at this point. One of the central themes of the book is how hard it is to get back to the past. How our memories are not real, intermixed with what we have been told, and so all the sections are written as fragments of what comes into her mind purely as she thinks back to the past. What images especially. She also misremembers texts. She talks of this and the difficulties of her auto-fiction in this last part. She does insist, though, what makes this diary different from fictional narratives is the literal facts she is telling did occur.

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In her apartment/home today

She comes to no conclusions, more or less simply stops writing. What interests me most is her idea that what she did that summer age 18 has influenced her all her life and has led to her being a failure. In what sense I wonder? There is a lot of talk about her name: she was Annie Duchesne and now is no longer. Wrapped up in that birth name is an identity she is no longer.

I, too, sometimes attribute much that happened to me in later life to the coping mechanisms I developed after those couple of traumatic years 13-15 where I too experienced harrowing sexual ostracizing and shaming. My retreat into a private life with books became me. I understand the world from my own experience as much as anyone else, & feel for so many women whatever happened to them sexually in these crucial teen years and however they coped led to their lives as young and middle year adults. And yet how I have changed (if also remaining the same) since Jim died.

Maybe late in life another turn can come — when the children leave, if she’s succeeded in making money, being independent, found or ended up in a life she liked as I did with my husband, Jim, as a scholar-teacher. For me as long as I am able to be independently solvent, safety and peace lie in self-containment. It’s an ideal I don’t always achieve. I first recognized it at age 17 in Austen’s Elinor Dashwood.

Ellen

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Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane (BBC Strong Poison, 1987) — iconic


Viola in Twelfth Night (1970s) — early in her career, a quick poetic presence


As Brutus in Julius Caesar (2012) — more recently

In a context in which unmarried women were viewed as either innocent virgins, whores, or old maids, it was refreshing to play a Beatrice who is sometimes in-between. If she is a virgin, she is not innocent; and her love/hate for Benedick is a long-standing love/hate exclusively reserved for him, therefore she is no whore. Old maid she may be, but her self-professed scorn for the state of marriage and her one-off originality safeguard her from any pity. In my own life I had experience of this fragile state and had occasionally worn a similar masks (Harriet Walter, “Beatrice,” Brutus and Other Heroines)

Friends and readers,

Another of my actress blogs. I’m in the refreshing position of writing about an actress whose work I have long followed, love well, whose face as Harriet Vane I have used as my gravatar on my longest running blog (where I still sign Miss Sylvia Drake, from Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night) — almost all my actress blogs have been about 18th or 19th century British actresses (two exceptions). At the same time she is one of a number of British actresses since the profession began who writes well, about her art, about theater, and playing Shakespeare’s characters — it was such actresses, those who left interesting memoirs (as well as those who went into directing), who have been responsible for the rise in status serious actresses have enjoyed since the later 19th century.

I became aware of how special she was (that it was not just a subjective idiosyncrasy that made me aware of her presence wherever I saw her & would watch more attentively) when I came across her memoir of her time directing and acting in a company of actresses who were doing all female Shakespeare plays: Brutus and Other Heroines (Nick Hern, 2016), wherein she indeed played Brutus and Henry IV (Bolingbroke), not to omit earlier productions where she was Ophelia (early in her career), Helena and Imogen (she is especially proud of these, so more on this just below), Portia, Viola, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and even Cleopatra. Casting people is an art which does drive down to an archetype they can correspond to (or work against the grain): Michelle Dockery has been Hotspur’s wife, Kate; Keeley Hawes Elizabeth Plantagenet, widow and then wife of Edward IV; Sophie Okonedo, Margaret of Anjou and Cleopatra; Sally Hawkins, Duchess of Gloucester; Penny Downie, Gertrude; Lindsay Doran, Duchess of York, Sinead Cusack, Lady Macbeth (against type) and Judi Dench (defying this, so many).


In this volume she is with Juliet Stevenson the most insightful generally, with Fiona Shaw, the most self-aware (the editor and frequent commentator and voice is that of Faith Evans)

In reviews her performances are singled out, you can find her described individually when she has even a smaller role (nearly consistently in the better ones) — as conveying an intelligent presence, naturally witty, piquant, conveying when she wants a gravitas (and she can walk like a man as well as a Duchess), at times a light poetic presence (when younger), or yearning, recently in the contemporary Killing Eve (rave reviews) she has shown herself up to the hard edginess of a Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.


Dasha (BBC Killing Eve, 2020) — knowledge of the world making for an underlying melancholy

The trajectory of her career may be seen at wikipedia. She is the daughter of a respected actor, went to and succeeded at demanding academic schools, but preferred drama training to university, even though she had a hard time getting a place until the London Academy of Music and Art accepted her. She was a regular in the troupe with the Royal Shakespeare Company:


Ophelia with Jonathan Pryce as Hamlet (Royal Court Theatre production directed by Richard Eyre 1980)


As Beatrice, coming into her own, consulted in her costume

She was in theater in general for her first ten years, classic and good drama, continuing today; yielding to TV one-off dramas and serials by 1987 (one of her early roles the one I remember first, Harriet Vane — she favored detective heroines, mystery and spy drama even then).  She does what’s called quality drama in the TV serial type: she was powerful as Clementine Churchill burning her husband’s unwanted portrait up after his death:


Clementine Churchill (Netflix The Crown, 2014)

Then she became the present breaker-down of taboos (among other things, playing males); and in these last years, writing, directing and a patron of charities and encouraging young people to enter theater. I just love her appearances in documentaries where she will read exquisitely well deeply effective poetry (as in Simon Schama’s recent The Romantics and Us — along with Tobias Menzies). See her in a series of shots across her career in various roles in costume.

Sandra Richards in her important The Rise of the English Actress, makes Harriet one of her central portraits for recent (20th century) actresses (along with Emma Thompson, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson):

Harriet is one of those successful actresses who used her success to contest stereotyping (sometimes at the risk of being “unpopular on a set”); she also “gravitated towards plays and roles that treat issues on which [she] has strong feelings.” She chose political drama like John Berger and Nella Bielski’s A Question of Geography. A number of the roles she’s taken “question male prerogatives.” She was, early on, cast for one of the apparently most unpopular heroines in Shakespeare’s plays, Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well by Trevor Nunn, and she triumphed as a figure of integrity, deep sense of self and passion, partly thanks to Peggy Ashcroft there as Bertram’s mother, the Countess. She says that she must also in a role “still be identifiable as an ordinary person.” She did very much enjoy playing Harriet Vane, a match in unusual sexiness and intelligence for Edward Petheridge’s Lord Wimsey. In two of these stories, he may save her literally, but it is she who unpicks the case.

In my view she has a real penchant for the Psyche archetype at the core of the female detective story as it used be told.

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For me Harriet Walter’s writings on her art, how she works to act and what the plays mean are what makes her so special. She has helped to make me look differently at the plays and consider the actresses who dare inhabit Shakespeare’s women. She (and others in Clamorous Women) asks us to imagine what it’s like to be the only one or one of three actresses on a stage doing Shakespeare; of what it feels like when the director and adaptor (there is often an adaptor) are themselves unconscious misogynists, when they direct you with a lack of sympathy towards the character, re-arrange the scenes to make the character less sympathetic, imagine trying to complain! when what you want to do is change the director’s direction, see the character as a woman might.

I think especially in the cases of Helena of All’s Well that Ends Well and Imogen of Cymbeline — that until I read Walter’s comments, I had not realized how horribly both women are treated, especially Imogen who (like Desdemona) is threatened with honor-killing. I realize that in the case of the romance play, Shakespeare is in part following his atavistic and incoherent sources, but it is up to Walter (and her director and other actors) to makes sense of the character. Probably what is most entertaining and fascinating about her books is her analyses of all the characters she discusses (I can see how she would have done very well as an English lit major)– and she writes in the plainest of perceptive language.


Here she is with (as Posthumous) Nicholas Farrell, a superb actor who breaks all stereotypes of macho male, and would be impressive in projecting neuroticism and remorse

It seemed to me for both female characters, Walter’s choice was to imagine them personally courageous and sure of their integrity, and desiring their husband (as one might today desire some profession). Around such a conception she made sense of the roles. For my part I’m with Samuel Johnson and will never “reconcile my heart” to the callow selfish Bertram, but can accept that Helena could value him (and what a marvelous mother she’d get too!). The fairy tale and poetry of Cymbeline enables the reader/watcher to get further on one’s own, and draws us up over life’s irrational deep griefs. What Walter does is step-by-step tell herself (and now write down) what was her whole reaction and the details in it to the other characters’ demands on her. I felt I was rereading Shakespeare’s play from a wholly new angle, as well as how I might come on stage and who is there.

I was much helped by Fletcher’s Honour Killing in Shakespeare, indeed startled as much as I was years ago when I first read Charlotte Lennox’s 18th century Shakespeare Illustrated where Lennox said, why should Hermione rejoice when she’s lost 16 years of her life. Indeed, I had never thought of what was happening truly from the particular heroine’s POV. Who wants to spend 16 years in a dark room.

Honour-Killing in Shakespeare is not just how horrible is the behavior of all these males towards Hero (Much Ado About Nothing) but a reading of Hero’s lines which shows she is really attracted to Don Pedro, not keen on Claudio and who would be. A careful reading not only of the plays where the equivalent of honor-killing goes on, but the treatment of the women in the history plays (Henry VI had a number of complex fascinating women, an analysis of further story matter which suggests the paradigm in Shakespeare’s mind was not Eve but Susannah, falsely suspected, deceived, and ostracized by the males in her community is a core icon/myth for Shakespeare. Fletcher wants us to see that not only is Shakespeare not on the side of or indifferent to the misogyny of some of his material, but feminist himself (or proto-) in plays like As You Like It (Rosalind), Twelfth Night (Maria is as much an intelligent woman as Olivia is at least able to cope with her household when she puts her mind to it. What is supportive about this book is it close reads in the traditional readerly sense and then you can turn back to these actresses trying to cope with their parts (and other people coping with theirs and the whole theater/film crew). The book is so refreshing; even when you cringe or wince over plays like Titus Andronicus (the Philomel stories) you are asked to see what you are seeing as a woman might. I still am not sure that Shakespeare does not find Gertrude complicit (and cowardly, evasive) rather than drawn along, but the whole context of the world at that court is what you must account for.

True, there is nothing as clearly on the side of real women in the world of the early 16th century as in the tragedy of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (whom Harriet Walter has played). A moment of joy with her steward, now husband Antonio, and many hours (it feels like later) strangled for it by her brother.

I did find Walter’s reasoning over the treatment of Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew not persuasive — especially as I have read and seen Fletcher’s Jacobean The Tamer Tamed, where in fact the women are vindicated (I cannot recommend too strongly reading this play, in print, and seeing it if it should ever come near you — the RSC brought it to the Kennedy Center one year). It is also hard to make sense of Isabella in Measure for Measure, especially in context. Walter and other of the actresses are not beyond special pleading. To return to Clamorous Voices, I did find Sinead Cusack’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth as sensually in love with her husband, attached to him, making up for having no children left, and Juliet Stevenson’s ambivalent driving passion more gripping than the reasonable voices I’ve been following. But as each woman adds to a new way of reading Shakespeare, we can try to enable others to see with us when part of an audience, or teaching — or writing of one of his plays.

But I have digressed too far. This blog is a salute to Harriet Walter’s art as an actress so let me end here on her art as a comedienne: she steals the show, forever after filling the shoes (to use her word) of the bitingly hilariously selfish Fanny Dashwood in one of my favorite Austen films, the 1996 Sense and Sensibility (scripted by Emma Thompson):


“People live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them.”

Ellen

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Tina Blau with her Painting Wagon — and huge over-decorated hat (1911-12) — a photograph


Spring in the Prater (1879) — a painting (black-and-white reproduction)

Friends and readers,

I’ve put off writing this short blog on another later 19th into 20th century woman artist/painter long enough. I am not going to find any more material in English on her than I’ve already found. Tina Blau really is one of these superb painters who was been removed, erased, mischaracterized in the history of women painters and what usually accompanies images by her today. As opposed to most of the woman artists I’ve covered in this blog, she appears in not one of my several surveys and books of eras and narrower schools of women painters. Beyond marginalization as a woman, her pictures were simply replaced by others for decades in the 20th century because she was Jewish. Her paintings do not conform to the kind of gender shaping we find in most other women artists, nor does she make an emphatic impressionist place on walls — while it is true that most of the tiny figures in her landscapes are women, her interest is in large scale pictures of landscapes shaped by industry, agriculture, and cultural institutions. One is called Railroad Construction at Durnstein (1909). Here are two examples:


A Canal in Holland (click on all the images and most will become much larger and you will see their splendid beauty)


The Palace Garden of Prince Albert

Finally, after a bad experience when she submitted a beautiful large landscape to a central all women exhibit (her picture was rejected because it was too big, she was told, in an apparently discourteous offhand way), she refused to have her work exhibited with that of other women in all women venues — on the further grounds, that such shows will be denigrated, dismissed, marginalized by men, critics, academies. At the same time she was not included in some important exhibits coming out of movements (the Secessionists) because she was a woman.

Thus although every time she did exhibit or her pictures went on sale by an art dealer, they sold for a lot of money (including the rejected one), and quickly (making her and her husband comfortably well off), and though she co-founded an Art School for Women and Girls in Vienna in 1897, with Rose Mayreder (1858-1938), where she taught girls and women for many years; she has nevertheless escaped the radars of most feminist books and displays except for those specifically about turn-of-the-century Vienna. Like the Cornish Newnham schools of painting, and Edwardian plein-air schools, she knew of and mingled with the expressionist and polished French schools and colonies of artists (a famous artist there is Jules Bastien Lepage who influenced Eliza Adela Armstrong Forbes). This can be seen in this magnificent landscape:

And here:

Famously the Austrian emperor at the time liked and (presumably) bought her work, e.g.,


Spring in the Prater (1882)

So she was singled out among the many women (there were increasing numbers of women) in the art colonies of Central Europe. This is a fabulous reproduction of one by a colleague: Olga Wisinger-Florian: it shows that her work fits into and belongs with a milieu other women worked in at the time


Falling Leaves — we see the exquisite colors, precision, and (so common) the woman and child and small animal

Blau took a trip to the Netherlands in 1875 and her work became strongly influenced by the “old Dutch masters.”


A Sketch from Holland (one of many)


Kanal in Friesland (1908)

She was part of a later 19th century aspirational world of painters — made fun of in parodic illustrations of the French landscape obscured by so many umbrellas and parasols:  one in L’Illustration, November 24, 1849, Englished as “Study from Nature by a Merchant of Umbrellas and Parasols” (see Women’s Art Journal, Spring/summer 2020, p 34). The photograph of Blau is remarkable because of her use of a straw baby carriage and attached easel.

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I find the reds in this twilight beautiful


This is a landscape described as “by the artist’s studio”

Her life is told in a couple of articles I list in the comments, and more briefly (but accurately) at wikipedia. I’ll leave the interested reader to find these (or email me) or be content with wikipedia. Here I just call attention to her father being a doctor and encouraging her strongly in her vocation and then profession of painter. She therefore studied with excellent artists, traveled to Italy, and made a few important and good friends who championed her work, e.g., Rosa Mayreder, A. F. Seligmann, a colleague at their school of art for women and girls. She does seem to have been adverse to advertising her work (networking) and would not follow or talk up a fashion because it was fashionable. She married another professional painter in 1883, the time together appears to have been happy, he died but 8 years later. She was thus mostly a single woman having to make her way, support herself. She had a studio in a beautiful park area in Munich for many years, and several solo exhibits, plus exhibiting with others. Around 1910 she began to photograph, document and try to set the record straight (she has been repeatedly described as the pupil of E. J. Schindler, when they shared a studio for some time).

How to put into words what is most remarkable about her art. I love the exquisitely precise detail of all that she sees in a landscape — there’s a geometry to the canals, polders, dikes, windmills. She is admired (celebrated) for her abilities to capture light, the colors of clouds, and for her own use of vivid and subdued colors. I am drawn to the peaceful order of the buildings, roads, and the people walking and gathering in groups.


April Day in the Prater (1889)


This is called Into the Light on some sites

When I look at her paintings like these, I find myself trying to remember the music and words for the songs in Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George (“Finishing the Hat” and “Putting it Together” especially) about music, order, art, harmony.

Ellen

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John Opie (1761-1807)’s portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft, circa 1797

Let us recall that 5% of the modern artists in the Art section of the Metropolitan museum are women, but 85% of the nudes are female … (See protest at Tate museum)

Friends,

It seems that any remembrance of Mary Wollstonecraft since her tragic early death from childbirth is  destined  to do her a disservice, e.g., how William Godwin’s loving memoir of her full reality in life became the basis of centuries of castigating disdain and rejection. But Joan Smith is spot on to say of the perhaps well-meant monument to her by Maggi Hambling, placed in Newington Green, London, it is “exceptionally obtuse:” “she was vilified for having sex outside marriage, causing her enormous anguish. The decision to portray her in an ahistorical & heavily sexualised way feels like adding insult to injury.”

Here is an enlarged photo. Click on the image and it’ll fill your screen.

It looks like a super-gilded ornament for the hood of a super-expensive automobile. Why this tiny toy-like object on top of a distorted plinth? The silver puts me in mind of the second suitor for the hand of Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It could also be a trophy, it’s the right size and feel for an Oscar given out at extravaganzas. Woman as trophy.  An action figure.  Have we not yet moved beyond an idea that the way to present a woman as woman is a sexualized body? No idealization or remoteness here: closely presented nipples  on realistic breasts (of course high ones — hanging breasts have long been a no-no in men’s imaginary) — and thick pubic hair.

Mary Wollstonecraft herself would been mortified, felt deeply humiliated. At no point did she come out for anything like promiscuous behavior. She was badly hurt by a partner, Imlay’s sexual treachery towards her. She loved the domestic life with her baby daughter, Fanny. Pride, self-esteem, dignity, education were what she was after for women. Is that no consideration? I grant many women have been renamed since the 1970s but I am among those who feel uncomfortable at the re-naming of someone who in her life was Ann Kingsmill Finch, Countess of or Lady Winchilsea to Anne Finch (the “e” was added by Myra Reynolds; Ann’s signature shows she spelt her name “Ann”). This is to change their identity.

A silver toy does not reflect Wollstonecraft’s identity. It is regrettable that Wollstonecraft should be so misremembered or misconstrued. She could have at least been granted the accoutrements of her trade: we see these generals on horses, in their uniforms complete with guns and horses. So why not a desk, pens, bronze depictions of paper? There are appealing depictions of dozens of women writers in drawings, paintings: one of my favorites is a photograph of Edith Wharton.

How unfortunate there was a campaign, and the result something so unlike the above. Now we could say the absurdity of monuments and lack of a dignified vocabulary for women is exposed, but I suggest better to pull it down, replace it or say she does not need to be Peter Panned. To my mind the tradition of turning people into statues is immediately susceptible to unexamined admiration, mockery (in this case), and use in ideological promotions.

People have spoken of mythic statues of heroes (Michelangelo’s David) but the giant David is not a real person in recent history, not a specific woman who really lived. He’s a Biblical figure about whom we know nothing for real. Mary Wollstonecraft left letters, journals, and is admired and is important for what she wrote out of her inner life and published especially her feminist tract vindicating the rights of woman. Michelangelo’s statue is also thoroughly idealized.

The context for Wollstonecraft is that of a real woman seeking to be respected as an independent person and that includes decades and hundreds of years of the kind of hypocrisy underlying Kenneth Clarke’s famous book on nudes (I’m with Mary Beard in her program about the “nude”), of the valuing of women as sex objects for men to enjoy, have babies from, be nurses for them.

I have more than once presented a statue of Jane Austen by Adam Roud found today in by Nicholas Church in the Chawton House Library grounds.

For me her love of walking, the rich vivacity of her imagination, the strength of her body, an independence of mind are all caught up in this attempt at semi-realism

By way of contrast, I add to that a recent life-size statue of Virginia Woolf by Laury Dizengremel, which was having trouble finding a place, has now received thousands of pounds, a reaction of members of the public to the Wollstonecraft monstrosity.

Dare I suggest that Hambling made a naked silver representation of a woman because it would catch attention; Dizengremel’s subdued tasteful depiction of Woolf in reverie, contemplative, relaxed, smiling (the way she is sometimes seen in photographs) was getting nowhere.

Perhaps I should file this under perverse sexual politics.

Ellen

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