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A autumn syllabus for reading Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset and Joanna Trollope’s sequels at OLLI at Mason: Barsetshire Then & Now

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Thursday afternoons, 2:15 to 3:40 pm,
F407: Two Trollopes: Anthony and Joanna: The Last Chronicle of Barset and The Rector’s Wife
8 sessions at Tallwood, T-3, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course:

We’ll read Anthony Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset, the last or 6th Barsetshire novel, one of his many masterpieces, once seen as his signature book. I’ve read with OLLI classes the first four; there is no need to read these, but we’ll discuss them to start with (the one just before is The Small House at Allington). His indirect descendent, Joanna Trollope, has recreated the central story or pair of characters, the Rev Josiah and Mary Crawley of the Last Chronicle in her Anna and Peter Bouverie in The Rector’s Wife in contemporary terms, which we’ll read and discuss in the last two weeks, together with her The Choir, a contemporary re-creation of the church politics and whole mise-en-scene of the Barsetshire series in general.

Required & Suggested Books:

Trollope, Anthony. The Last Chronicle of Barset, ed., introd, notes. Helen Small. NY: OxfordUP, 20011. Or
—————————————–——————————–, ed., introd, notes Sophie Gilmartin. NY: Penguin Classics, 2002. The Oxford edition is better because it has 2 appendices; one has Trollope’s Introduction to the Barsetshire, written after he finished; and the other very readable about church, class, religious politics in the era.
There is a readily available relatively inexpensive audio-recording of the novel read by Timothy West; an earlier one by Simon Vance. West’s more genial ironic voice is the one many people say they prefer.
Trollope, Joanna. The Rector’s Wife. 1991: rpt London: Bloomsbury, Black Swan book, 1997. Any edition of this book will do.
—————-. The Choir. NY: Random House, 1988. Any edition of this book will do too. We may not read this as a group, but I will discuss it.
There are also readily available relatively inexpensive audio-recordings of The Rector’s Wife and The Choir as single disk MP3s, read aloud by Nadia May for Audiobook.


Trollope’s own mapping of Barsetshire

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. You don’t have to follow the specific chapters as I’ve laid them out; I divide the books to help you read them, and so we can in class be more or less in the same section of the book. This part of the syllabus depends on our class discussions and we can adjust it. Please read ahead the first nine chapters.

Sept 22: 1st session: Introduction: Trollope’s life and career. The Barchester novels. LCB, Chs 10-19

Sept 29: 2nd: LCB, Chs 20-28
Oct 6: 3rd: LCB, Chs 29-39

Oct 13: 4th LCB, Chs 40-49
Oct 20: 5th: LCB, Chs 50-58
Oct 27: 6th: LCB, Chs 59-67
Nov 3: 7th: LCB, Chs 68-76
Nov 10: 8th: LCB, Chs 77-84. Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife, if you can, 3/4s of it, or the equivalent of Parts 1-3 of the film.
Nov 17: 9th: Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife and The Choir. Trollope and Barsetshire today.

Suggested supplementary reading & film adaptations aka the best life-writing, a marvelous handbook & remarkable serials:

Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography and Other Writings, ed, introd., notes Nicholas Shrimpton. NY: Oxford Classics, 2014
—————-. “A Walk in the Woods,” online on my website: http://www.jimandellen.org/trollope/nonfiction.WalkWood.html
Joanna Trollope: Her official website
Gerould, Winifred Gregory and James Thayer Gerould. A Guide to Trollope: An Index to the Characters and Places, and Digests of the Plots, in All of Trollope’s Works. 1948: rpt Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987 (a paperback)
The Rector’s Wife, 4 part 1994 British serial (Masterpiece Theatre, with Lindsay Duncan, Jonathan Coy); The Choir, 5 part 1996 British serial (also Masterpiece Theater, with Jane Ascher, James Fox) — the first available as a DVD to be rented at Netflix, the second listed but in fact hard to find in the US


Lindsay Duncan as Anna Bouverie, the Mary Crawford character, first seen trying to make money by translating German texts (Rector’s Wife)


Boys’ choir taught by organ-master Nicholas Farrell as Leo Beckford (The Choir)

Recommended outside reading and viewing:

Barchester Towers. Dir Giles Forster. Scripted Alan Plater. Perf. Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Geraldine McEwan, Susan Hampshire, Clive Swift, Janet Maw, Barbara Flynn, Angela Pleasance (among others). BBC 1983.
Bareham, Tony, ed. Trollope: The Barsetshire Novels: A Casebook. London: Macmillan Press, 1983.
Barnet, Victoria, “A review a The Rector’s Wife,” Christian Century, 112:2 (1995):60-63.
Doctor Thorne. Dir. Naill McCormick. Scripted Jerome Fellowes. Perf. Tom Hollander, Stephanie Martini, Ian McShane, Harry Richardson, Richard McCabe, Phoebe Nicholls, Rebecca Front, Edward Franklin, Janine Duvitsky (among others) ITV, 2015
Gates, Barbara. Victorian Suicide: Mad Crimes & Sad Histories. Princeton UP, 1998. Very readable.
Hennedy, Hugh L. Unity in Barsetshire. The Hague: Mouton, 1971. I recommend this readable, sensible and subtle book
Mill, John Stuart, The Subjection of Women. Broadview Press, 2000. Online at: https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/mill/john_stuart/m645s/
Rigby, Sarah. “Making Lemonade,” London Review of Books, 17:11 (8 June 1995): 31-32. A defense of Joanna Trollope’s novels.
Steinbach, Susie. Understanding The Victorians: Culture and Society in 19th century Britain. London: Routledge, 2012.
Robbins, Frank E. “Chronology and History in Trollope’s Barset and Parliamentary Novels,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 5:4 (March 1951):303-16.
Snow, C. P. Trollope: An Illustrated Biography NY: New Amsterdam Books, 1975. A fairly short well written biography, profuse with illustrations and a concise description of Trollope’s centrally appealing artistic techniques.
Vicinus, Martha. Independent women: Work and Community for Single Women, 1850-1930. Virago, 1985. See my summary and analysis: https://ellenandjim.wordpress.com/2019/01/11/martha-vicinuss-independent-women-work-community-for-single-women-1850-1930/


Arthur Arthur Frazer, “It’s Dogged as Does It” (early illustration for Last Chronicle of Barset)

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Headley Thorne — Elizabeth, Paddington Bear, and a Corgis (on the model of Phiz’s drawing of Mr Micawber in David Copperfield)

Dear Friends and readers,

I feel this blog should observe the passing of Queen Elizabeth. I’ve spent my life as a student and teacher and writing upon British literature. and Elizabeth Windsor stood for a group of values and norms imbricated across British art, books, music, craft. John Major, a high member of the board of the present Trollope Society issued an eloquent statement about her death, which I link in here: she devoted herself to the service of our nation and its well-being.

If I may, in simpler language, I’d put it Elizabeth II was an embodiment of duty. She obeyed and expressed moral norms, e.g., her speeches on the commonwealth were all for respect and equality (even if what was done was far from that). She can be taken to symbolize an era, including especially the time of World War Two, but she was also a modernizer. The coronation on TV started a tradition of TV and radio & other “ordinary person” appearances. She kept up a fairly busy schedule of public duties enabling worthy causes, and she did meet with PMs perhaps with more effect when she was younger (though what her political views were exactly on any particular issue I know not).

I find tears coming to my eyes when I see and listen to some of what is being said about her, or old tapes and photos. Among my first memories of a larger world was watching TV when I was about 7 and seeing on the TV the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. So she’s wrapped up in my life story. A friend, Diana Birchalls, another lover of Jane Austen tells me she too remembers as a very early memory watching the coronation on TV. She was a central media figure across many many countries and touched the lives of all those who participate in public life (as we all do, will we nill we) at some point.

I watched and very much enjoyed the Netflix series, The Crown, twice through, writing blogs faithfully On Seasons 1 & 2, Elizabeth and Philip, 1947-1955, and then Seasons 3 (1964-74) & 4 (1975-90), The Price of the Crown (1) and A Story of Charles and Diana (2).

While I preferred Claire Foy as Elizabeth to Olivia Coleman, now that over the last two days I’ve been seeing all sorts of photos of Elizabeth herself, I have to say she looks herself best. I like her smile here during her Silver Jubilee, smiling and listening to people lined up along a parade-way

Reading amid flowers (a photo opportunity):

And here she is with her dogs:

She’s not what people might think of when they want to imagine a feminist figure, but she was a women who held onto power for 70 years, wearing it gracefully, with gravitas, and intelligence and as much humanity as was allowed her and she understood.

I’ll end this brief tribute with an essay by Maya Jasanoff, professor of history at Harvard, who contextualizes Elizabeth’s life with what actually happened across the British empire (not so much within the states of English, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), that also needs to be remembered: Mourn the queen, not her empire [on colonialization].

Nevertheless, I found Charles’s speech very beautiful and hope it augurs a future for the UK with a good king:

Ellen

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friends and readers,

For the last couple of weeks on and off I’ve been reading and considering Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope post-texts; to wit, Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility; The Rector’s Wife and The Choir, not to omit Joanna’s central contemporary fiction, thus far Other People’s Children. I’ve been surprised in how gripped I’ve been over these four books. While I have before on this blog written strongly praising this or that Austen sequel or film appropriation of a sequel (Jo Baker’s Longbourn, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, Cindy Jones’s My Jane Austen Summer: A Season in Mansfield Park, the film Julie Towhidi made from PD James’s Death Comes to Pemberley), I’ve never been quite so taken as I have by Joanna Trollope’s book. Trollope’s book is part of the reason I’ve been equally taken by the much more decided updated Schine book (I know I often like her book reviews for the NYRB.)

So I’ve been trying, you see, to think why people enjoy reading prequels, sequels, plain rewrites, or rewrites from a particular political POV of their favorite author, and how, also what precisely they find deeply appealing (or, contrariwise) deeply appalling. (Recall this summer I read and taught Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly a post-text to R. L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.) I truly loved Towhidi’s film, and have truly regarded as uneven semi-imbecilic complacent gush other sequels recently written and much praised, or older and still frequently cited (as Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister [Mary])


That Anna Maxwell Martin came closer to the way I like to imagine Elizabeth Bennet than any other actress helps account for my response to Death Comes to Pemberley, the movie

It’s obviously in the interplay between the originating book and this one that the pleasure, insight and compelling interest forward lies. We relive a favorite book from a modernized POV, we discover what happened to our beloved characters after the original author brought down the curtain, or we discover what they were like well before our favorite book began. One element, however, important, that explains why such wildly different reactions to the same or different sequels to the same book can occur is we (at least I) expect that the new author will be reading the original book in the spirit we have, that the new author share our POV on our favorite author or her books or life’s experiences or lead heroines. Once that is kept to or satisfied, it’s fascinating to see what a different genre shaping the same material can throw out (P&P as mystery thriller, or time-traveling tale, e.g, P&P as Lost in Austen, Persuasion as Lake House; the Austen matter as science fiction, Kathleen Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project)


This is also a time-traveling tale (very realistically imagined)

For me it’s probably important that my favorite among Austen’s six (more or less) finished mature fictions is Sense and Sensibility; that’s why I delighted in Trollope’s rewrite and Schine’s Three Weissmans (Margaret is omitted, the third main heroine is now the Mrs Dashwood figure). Also I find I compulsively read and become deeply engaged by Joanna Trollope’s contemporary fiction (e.g, Other People’s Children), about which she talks very insightfully in this video of hers, a contribution to the Literary Lockdown festival at Chawton House, done in the second year of the pandemic. Listen up:

She is a British variant on what Anne Tyler tries to provide American readers with (I loved Tyler’s Amateur Marriage, among others)

Tonight remembering my promise to keep these blogs reasonably sized, and because I’m tired over my day of exploring this topic across many Austen sequels (and the two Anthony Trollope’s, Rector’s Wife and The Choir) I will just cover Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. (Look for The Three Weissmanns and The JA Project in coming blogs.)

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What Joanna Trollope does marvelously well in her Sense and Sensibility rewrite is extrapolate out of the psychological analysis Austen suggests to offer us a contemporarily worded version; she is franker, more candid, more critical of those hurting the heroines as well as the heroines themselves. We come away more satisfied by the discourse surrounding the scenes, though (especially in the central sequence of Austen’s novel, from the time of Lucy inflicting knowledge of Edward’s engagement to Lucy upon Elinor, up to Marianne nearly bringing death upon herself in her humiliated grief) Austen has more bite, more acid, more visceral vividness, more sheer grief.

She read Austen’s book from the same angle and in the same light I do. For Joanna Trollope the central event of the book occurs when at the end of volume 1 Lucy forces on Elinor the knowledge of Lucy’s long term engagement to Elinor; I still remember how shaken I was reading Volume 2, Chapter 1, how searing I found Elinor’s agon and vigil. No one comes as close as Emma Thompson to capturing this emotional torture hidden. As in the old fable, like a wolf hugged to your chest, devouring your innards. Joanna Trollope has the revelation also as placed in last chapter of her Volume 1. Trollope takes equally seriously the humiliation of Marianne in a London public assembly — it occurs in a fashionable church wedding at the center of the book.

There is also more than a whiff of memory of some of scenes of the different film adaptations (she has watched many of them) and I can see the 2008 Andrew Davies’ cast in a number of the roles: it’s Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield’s voices and gestures and words she remembers; it’s Dominic Cooper’s crude cad for Willoughby; but she takes the elegant Robert Swann from the 1983 dark S&S by Alexander Baron for her Brandon). The lingering memories are from the exquisite beautiful photography of the Thompson/Ang movie. Mrs Jennings is tamed down (a loss there). Gemma Jones’s sense of bereftness in Mrs Dashwood remembered (1995 film).

For me an entrancing aspect of Joanna Trollope’s book is how closely she followed her original text; it’s as if she taxed herself literally to rewrite in 21st century terms. Keep as close as she could. So I made another outline of the type I have for Austen’s own books, not of a timeline this time, but of the parallels.

Trollope’s chapters much more of a consistent length, all longish, developed chapters; both novels divided into 3 volumes; these are consistent in length in Austen but not Trollope. In my old Penguin, Austen’s book is 323 pages; Trollope’s is 361.


Cooper as Willoughby and Morahan as Elinor in the confession scene, the angry paradigm adhered to (only softened from Austen’s austerity)

Volume I

First phase: Norland

Austen, Chapters 1-5 the time at Norland.

Trollope, Chapters 1 to the opening of 4: Trollope has Sir John Middleton come for a visit to invite them to Barton Park; she includes the beginning of the romance of Edward and Elinor; Chapter 2, Edward goes and comes back from Devonshire where he reports are affordable cottages (excuse is this is where he went to school); he is not on Facebook …

Second phase: Early phase of Barton Park and Cottage

Austen, Chapters 6-8 first experiences at Barton Park (meeting Mrs J, Brandon), Chapter 7: very brief, insipidity of Lady Middleton; Chapters 9-10 walk in rain where Willoughby rescues Marianne (car an Aston Martin) and then Willoughby’s first visit, romance begins quickly;
Austen, Chapters 11, 12, 13: offer of horse, are they engaged?, the broken off picnic and visit of Willoughby and Marianne to Allenham Chapter 14, dialogue on the merits of a cottage, Chapter 15 Willoughby suddenly must go; half way through 16 Edward arrives and stays until most of 18, into 19 when Elinor alone …

Trollope, Chapters 4-5 first experiences at Barton Park, meet same people (Brandon p 70). The treehouse from 1995 movie brought in. The walk in rain where Willoughby rescues Marianne (he rescues, comes to Barton cottage and leaves within a few minutes);
Trollope, Chapter 6 Elinor gets a job with Peter Austen firm; broken up picnic, rivalry of Willoughby (very nasty) and Brandon; time at Allingham where we learn later they did fuck in a bed there;
Trollope, Chapter 7 Marianne and Willoughby left alone, they return to find he’s gone, and no explanation just briefest of words; Marianne in tears but stubbornly says he is true; second half is Edward’s visit, thin, tired, in battered old Ford Sierra (p 141); he is gone early in Chapter 8, “no unhappier than usual.”


Gemma Jones as bereft Mrs Dashwood at Barton Cottage (1995 film)

Third phase – coming of Lucy and Nancy Steele, and proposal to go to London

Austen, Chapters 19-22: Coming of Palmers, then Lucy and Nancy Steele, then Lucy forcing confidences of engagement on Elinor (long almost 3 chapter sequence).

Trollope, Chapter 8 Among other things Elinor says Edward’s mother is his problem not mine and he’s got to stand up to her (a motif in the novels by Joanna Trollope I’ve read thus far: people have got to stand up to other people in order to survive); the Palmers and Steeles’s arrival, also ends on Lucy’s forcing confidences on Elinor.

Volume II

Austen, Chapters 23-25, p 117: Elinor’s vigil, dialogue with Lucy, enforced trip to London.
Trollope, Chapter 9, p 175: Elinor’s vigil, she caves into pressure to go to London.

Fourth phase: London

Austen, Chapters 26-29: Marianne seeking Willoughby; Brandon shows up; the climax at assembly; Willoughby’s letters …
Austen, Chapters 31-32: Aftermath, Brandon’s history of Willoughby and Eliza Williams; Chapter 33: John and Fanny Dashwood in town; Chapter 34 now Elinor supposedly humiliated by Mrs Ferrars over Miss Morton, but it’s Marianne who collapses (called “the important Tuesday to meet the formidable mother-in-law); Chapter 35 again Lucy visits, the encounter of the two rivals with Edward Chapeter 36: forced to spend time with Middleton’s and Dashwoods while Mrs Jennings tends to Charlotte and her new baby, they meet Robert; Lucy invited to stay with Fanny Dashwood.

[It does seem to me these central chapters of S&S are inexpressibly superior to the rewrite, and that the rewrite depends on our memory of these central chapters]

Trollope, Chapter 10 Much more interweaving between London and Barton Cottage before leaving London for Cleveland Park; London, Marianne with Mrs Jennings, Elinor visiting weekends begins and, in this chapter, the public humiliation of Marianne occurs at a wedding, it is caught on video and appears on YouTube, here it’s Tommy Palmer who rescues Marianne (imitating the 1983 movie where Brandon scoops her up);
Trollope, Chapter 11, p 207: Brandon offers modernized version of Eliza Williams and Willoughby’s betrayal of Brandon’s ward become a drug addict, John Dashwood’s urging Brandon on Elinor and ugly warning she cannot have Edward;
Trollope, Chapter 12, p 225: this includes brief return to Barton Cottage (as in 2008/9 film) and second climactic humiliation by Mrs Ferrars of Elinor with Lucy watching – ludicrous rivalry over children, Bill Brandon here (Bill as a name made me cringe; I much preferred Emma Thompson’s choice of Christopher);
Trollope, Chapter 13, p 251 – they are leaving London, destination Barton cottage, Fanny’s absurd invitation to the Steele sisters, Elinor resolves not to be victim any more – so at the end of Volume 2 we are at the same place in this new book as Austen’s.

Volume III

Austen, Chapter 37 (starts at 1 again), p 217, and we have Mrs Jennings running in breathless to report the debacle at the Dashwoods over Nancy telling Fanny that Lucy and Edward engaged, the child with red gum (or something else) and John Dashwood’s outrageously amoral response (which he thinks pious); Chapter 38: Elinor’s meeting with Nancy Steele at Kensington (the information about Edward used best by 1971 production; Chapter 39: Colonel’s offer of vicarage position to Edward and Lucy; 40-41 Dashwood’s astonishment, Edward’s despair and all ready to leave for Cleveland Park.

Trollope, Chapter 14, p 261: now it’s after birth of Palmer child, and Mrs Jennings’s to and fro, that Marianne learns of Edward’s engagement to Lucy and Elinor insists Marianne not humiliate Elinor further or harass Edward, insists Edward, however mad in this, doing the right thing –- against all his family’s hideous values. Elinor explicitly stands up for a different set of norms (which Austen does not); Marianne’s beginning her slow self-regenerating conversion to a better person;
Trollope, Chapter 15, p 273: Marianne and Elinor (& Margaret there so too Mrs Dashwood) – action back at Barton and also Exeter – Brandon and Elinor meet (she is now Ellie all the time, and a new take on Edward’s behavior: although on principle admirable, psychologically and sociologically deeply self-destructive, a form of madness understandable from his background and present circumstances (I did think of the 1971 Robin Ellis in his attic); Elinor tells Edward of job offer from Brandon.

Fifth phase: return to Devonshire in stages, denouement and quick coda

Austen, Chapters 42-43: The trek to Cleveland and Marianne’s semi-suicidal walk, deep illness, recovery; Chapter 44: Willoughby’s visit, confession, Elinor’s forgiveness (irritating, scene skipped in 1996 and finally made condemnatory in 2008); Chapter 45: mother’s arrival; Brandon begins ascendancy with mother; Chapters 46-47: home again, Marianne improving, Elinor reports Willoughby’s confession and we are to understand but Marianne now determines she was herself in the wrong when compared to Elinor (Imlac like); Brandon hanging about; Thomas’s tale of Edward’s marriage to Lucy;
Austen, Chapters 48-49: Elinor’s distress until Edward’s return; the renewal and engagement; 50: coping with Mrs Ferrars; Lucy wins out, as a coda too quickly put there Marianne we are told succumbs to Brandon.

Trollope, Chapter 16: Marianne still at Cleveland and catches bad cold, moves to pneumonia (possibly), but Elinor does not realize, only with her asthma takes turn to where she must be hospitalized in emergency room, in time to be saved – whole long sequence here; does recover, Bill goes for Mrs Dashwood; Chapter 17: another packed chapter with Elinor’s inward soliloquy, talk with mother, the news of Edward’s marriage, Marianne back, and then Edward shows up, unmarried to Lucy but eager for Elinor;
Trollope, Chapters 18-19: there are analogues for each move in the last chapters of S&S including John and Fanny’s despicable norms (made explicitly obnoxious), Mrs Ferrars’s despicable (made contemptible) consistency, the coming together through a walk of Marianne and Brandon, of talk and joy in Elinor and Edward (they take over tree house), but alas Trollope is much weaker than Austen’s; one factor is that Austen is much quicker at this ending because Trollope concerned to build up relationship between Brandon and Marianne, to bring Marianne back down to reality much more slowly; make more understandable what happened to Edward.

[Trollope’s Elinor only central presence from Volume II opening on but not quite the suffusion across and within the text of that Austen’s Elinor is.]

And yet at the end of the book, it is not Austen’s POV that lifts our hearts, and makes us feel the troubles we have been through with our heroines are endurable; it’s Trollope’s. For the style is finally her deft one; several attitudes of hers rather than Austen’s — her characters are far more intertwined with one another than most of Austen’s (except when it comes to a sister, close friend in suffering). Class injuries are at the core of Austen’s books, gender inequality (except for female bullies) Trollope’s.

I have been told the 6 writers chosen for this project of rewriting, modernizing Jane Austen’s novels were told to keep the new books “light” — I’m glad to report Joanna Trollope didn’t do this.


Ang Lee’s landscapes from 1995 felt remembered

Ellen

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Cassandra’s drawing of Jane Austen (I’m sure this is accurate)

When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal! …
— from Written at Winchester on Tuesday, the 15th July 1817

Friends and readers,

Mid-summer and the anniversary of Jane Austen’s death. The least I can do is return to Austen blogging: for this somber occasion, Vic Sanborn has written a new blog, and I can refer the reader back to one where I link Austen’s very last poem, offering a different take on Austen’s experience of life as shown us over her books, a tone different from Vic’s, but just as earnest in my sorrow that Austen died so young. I’ve just watched the new Netflix Persuasion, featuring, as I’m sure you are tired of hearing, Dakota Johnson as a re-made Anne Elliot (more on that and the current state of Jane Austen movies in the next blog).


Dakota Johnson (Anne Elliot) and Cosmo Jarvis (Wentworth, apparently a rock star) are the latest couple

And I’ve been perusing Persuasions, the JASNA journal No 43 (Summer 2022), and while most of the papers show the usual careful conventionality of approach to Austen (ever balanced, conservative in outlook, almost apolitical), and an underlying hagiography which undermines or shapes what is on offer, there is also the usual feast of information and insight if you care to study the whole issue. So for this blog I’ve singled out four essays I thought of immediate interest to us today: countering the dishonesty and complacency of the Austen world has been guilty of (me too).

The first part is a gathering of essays on the subject of Jane Austen and the arts, only the perspective isn’t that of the anthology I reviewed on this topic a while back:


Charles Austen, thought to have been painted around 1810, in the uniform of a captain

Credit where credit is due: the perspective is much more non-traditional: the authors go to places you might not expect and treat as serious art or politics what you might not think of as art or a document to be read politically (philosophically) in the first place. For example, draftsmanship training the Austen brothers had in the Naval Academy: what is left is treated as serious art. This perspective turns up stuff that is overlooked.

So first up I call attention to Devoney Looser’s essay, whose content is repeated more briefly in a recent Times Literary Supplement for July 8, 2022, “Heroics at Sea,” p 5.. Charles Austen has been presented as acting to “crush” slavery during his career as a captain aboard a British ship bound to capture any ship with enslaved people on it, free them, and punish the perpetrators. The “honest” truth (Looser is calling for honesty) is not quite what has been implied.

In 1826 the Aurora captured and boarded the Nuevo Campeador, and a brief paragraph was printed (and reprinted, went viral insofar as one could in 1826) to suggest that Charles Austen as captain was actively “crushing” the slave trade. The devil (as they say) is in the details. A group of lines indicate 250 people in chains, closely kept in filth and starvation. Someone threw a yam and it’s remarked how the enslaved people behaved over this like angry maddened dogs. Well who would throw a yam? It reminds me of how Trump throw a roll of toilet paper at an audience of Puerto Rican people after that first horrific hurricane during his regime. Then what happened to these people? papers of emancipation were handed out but what else. Looser’s research (based on that of others) finds that most of the time such enslaved people ended re-enslaved or in conditions nearly as bad as the one they were headed for — the mortality rate very high. Nothing whatever done for them. Tellingly the most interesting detail is how the captain was allowed to escape. He had some excuse of his dangerously ill wife — of course he must be allowed off the ship. Surprise, surprise. He never returned. Nor was there any attempt to capture and punish him legally for his crime. Captain Austen probably got his prize money when the ship was finally brought to port; Looser doesn’t mention this so I wouldn’t be so sure. The key to so many written documents about slavery or state-sponsored piracy at sea is how evasive the content usually is.

It is significant that Looser was able to be much clearer and more emphatic in the TLS than Persuasions.

The first essay in the volume, Julienne Gehrer’s “Martha Lloyd and the Culinary Arts at Chawton cottage, a long piece on Martha Lloyd’s cookery book teaches us a lot about the intense closeness of Martha Lloyd to Jane (and Cassandra Austen). Written with more “honesty” (I’ll call it) we read here much evidence of Jane and Martha’s close (lesbian dare I say) attachment, which I have written about elsewhere on this blog.

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A contemporary illustration of a stage production of High Life Below Stairs: a coachman, cook, and household servant all drunk refuse to open the doors of their quarters to their employers

Moving right along to the Miscellany: there are two items of note. One developing further Looser’s call for honesty on a farcical drama often misrepresented in effect; and the other breaking with a conventional conclusion about Miss Bates, but as in the manner of most of the Persuasion articles, doing it without disquieting us, and in a sense re-asserting a conventional value: how useful is social networking.

Lesley Peterson’s “Race and Redirection: Facing Up to Blackface” is absurdly prefaced by a black letter warning: This essay contains language and images that may be disturbing or harmful to some readers. It’s such thinking that leads to banning books and essays like this from schools. The usual over-interpretation frames the honest content. Peterson believes that Austen’s thin, short play, The Visit, owes a great deal to a popular farce by James Townley, High Life Below Stairs. There is a single simple allusion to the Townley play and the Austen family (this is what is interesting) acted High Life Below Stairs as amateurs at Steventon. Peterson’s whole outlook comes out of studies like Penny Gay’s and Paula Byrne’s which have Austen as knowing just about every play ever acted on the 18th century theater, with a phenomenal memory, and inspired to write her novels by details in many of them. The person wanting to write a book called Jane Austen and the Theater is certainly in good luck.

What is new here and so dreadfully distressing is Peterson actually read Townley’s play, and, unlike those who have written about it before (e.g., Byrne), brings out how two of the servants below stairs are black. Probably enslaved people because the white servants resent them for not having salaries. What’s more insult them. I hope I need not repeat the ugly stigmatizing of these black servants’ looks and clothes, and a humiliating ritual (presented as comic) they go through on stage. The story of the farce is about how two “masters” (employers) decide to infiltrate (like moles) below stairs in order to see if their servants are as lazy and over-fed as they surmise. Surprise, surprise, they are. As lazy and overfed. The sneers here are just shameless — the play’s content reminds me of people in my neighborhood who are home-owners talking of tenants as if tenants were an ontologically untrustworthy inferior species.

Full disclosure: I read the text in Garrick’s abridged version in a 5 volume 1805 collection of plays I once (every so luckily) picked up in a Chichester book shop (The British Drama, comprehending the best plays in the English language published by William Miller, Bond Street, printed by James Ballantyne, Edinburgh, 1804 — 2 volumes of comedies, 2 of tragedies, 1 of operettas and farces, with 3 prefaces telling the history of the genres). I confess I never read High Life Below Stairs until last night. I was content to read other people’s descriptions of it. So I am grateful to Peterson.

Peterson of course absolves Austen of all snobbery: she claims The Visit shows Austen would have been very alienated by the masters’ plot: alas, The Visit has a very different story (a very slender one). Basically we can’t say what Austen thought of the story matter of High Life, nor do we know if the Austens played the servants’ parts in blackface. For myself I venture to suppose they did not as it would have been great trouble to blacken two people’s faces and then clean the material off. An illustration from the era printed by Peterson suggests an actual black person (negroid) playing KIngsston, the male black servant. The female, Chloe, is given hardly any lines. OTOH, I remember Jane Austen in her letters referring to musical performers as hirelings. In fact because of the apparently necessary hagiography towards Austen, her essay only somewhat faces up to its content.


Of the at least six actresses playing Miss Bates, for me Sophie Thompkins was the most moving even if in he candied 1996 Miramax Emma: here she is at the moment of realizing Emma’s humiliating mockery of her (1996 Emma, scripted McGrath)

The last essay I have room to report on here (I am trying to keep these blogs shorter), is Diane Reynolds’s “‘I am not helpless:’ Miss Bates as the Hidden Queen of Highbury.” It makes it into the printed edition (there is a hierarchy here, and those essays online are paradoxically often by “lesser” people. Reynolds treats Miss Bates being treated with full respect, hardly any qualifications. That’s unusual. Amanda Vickery is one of the voices who does. Reynolds argues that Miss Bates’s “logorrhea” (Tony Tanner’s word and I cannot resist it for its force and felt accuracy) are in part a conscious put-up job, and cover-up.

I’ve written postings and blogs to argue Miss Bates knows about Frank and Jane’s engagement (how could she not?) and if you read this logorrhea in place (at the ball, at the alphabet game, when the piano comes, and especially towards the end when Jane has been physically sick from Frank’s punishing treatment and Mrs Elton’s unbearable needling and pressure), Miss Bate’s words & stance protect Jane – one stance comes to mind of so many – when Jane is seen to not be able to find her wrap. Frank comes over and so it’s a moment very like the one where Miss Bates declares she is not helpless. Arguably, says Diane, Jane Fairfax is “the novel’s true heroine.”

I loved her characterization of Emma “uphold[ing] a hierarchy,” “pour[ing] out her uncensored venom.” Yes she has a “horror” of “being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury who were calling on them forever” (we are to see that we see only a sliver of those who come and leave their cards or whatever).

By contrast to Emma, who is isolated except for those she choses to come under her domination (Harriet in the novel), Miss Bates is “continually in company” and we are told today and many believe that networking is power – to know a lot about neighbors and others is a kind of power.” Emma emerges as pathetic by your account. But I would qualify here that from what we see of Emma’s thoughts, just about everyone Emma meets she despises, she is bored by or can’t stand. It’s interesting whom Emma befriends, since she so little understands them. That suggests they are objects to her and she cares little about them (Harriet she drops with no problem, Frank too). Reynolds uses Rilke to justify her use of sub-textual matter (invisible) kept hidden, in the background and her reading against the grain.

The unconventionality here is the non-complacent depiction of Emma. The way some at JASNA talk of Emma has sickened me. Yet we must acknowledge Emma is super-rewarded at the lengthy end of the book – by contrast and similarity Jane Fairfax shows an inability to take too much company; she too loathes it but it of course susceptible to outrageous intrusive comments the way Emma is not. Myself I find a good deal of Jane Austen in both heroines. I also like the looking askance at the supposed deep understanding friendship of Austen and her niece Fanny Knight. In one of her letters to Fanny I feel Austen gives away she looks at Fanny as an amusing object for scrutinizing ironic study.

There is or could be a problem in claiming so much power for Miss Bates, except that Reynolds calls Emma a “magical” world and in that paragraph remind me of Trilling’s now old once well-known introduction to Emma where he declares it an idyllic or pastoral world where reality is sufficiently put aside so that we can laugh at or love these “imbecile” characters because in such an environment they don’t come to harm. What I mean to say is Miss Bates’s is what is nowadays called “soft power,” and soft power doesn’t go very far when you are ejected from your dwelling and have nowhere to live. Emma may mock, but Miss Bates, pace Mr Knightley’s justified worried sympathy (or maybe he is right), does not end up homeless because the marriage comes off. Highbury is not an Indian village and its financial customs and laws work very differently.

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

Honesty is the new aegis in some of this collection. But honesty about Jane Austen, given the constituents of her fan-clubs, and the need for academics to sustain a position at their US universities (not exactly over-funded or bastions of anything near economic liberalism in the mid-20th century sense), and sceptical, well-informed (on Martha Lloyd’s movements), candid and against the grain looks at the plays and novels involved can go only so far.

Ellen

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From a recent essay on Brooks by Doreen St Felix (New Yorker, 2018)

To Prisoners

I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.
Over
what wants to crumble you down, to sicken
you. I call for you
cultivation of strength to heal and enhance
in the non-cheering dark,
in the many many mornings-after;
in the chalk and choke.

Dear Friends and readers,

We cannot let Black History Month pass by on this blog without remembering, praising, attempting to characterize the wonderful poetic oeuvre of Gwendolyn Brooks.

What I want to say about her is I was all wrong, and the reason I want to start this way is to suggest to for many readers, and probably white especially, it’s possible the poems you have come across are from her earlier poetry more seemingly (and in truth) conventional in values and stereotypes than her middle and later periods. When it’s a case of one or two poems in an anthology or on a page of selections, inevitably you read her “the mother:” today it prompts anti-abortion religiously-rooted utterances, insisting on the centrality of motherhood to women, without any memory or awareness of how powerless women as mothers are in reality, and especially Black women whose sons and daughters can still be casually killed on the street with impunity. One comes across poems which, when read in isolation, seem to portray a picture of young colored girls sheltered from reality, seeking the most obvious treats, stereotypes which belong in a 1930s movie.

To me some of these early poems seem to accept the impoverished life inflicted on Black people. They are often written from a child’s point of view.

A song in the front yard (from her earlier period)

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

In later years she was sarcastic over her Anniad (still said to be modeled on Virgil’s Aeneid, when in form and imagery it’s surely Chaucerian and reminiscent of medieval European romances): in one interview I’ve come across she says she won the Pulitzer for it and Annie Allen because its learning was snobbery. She calls its allusive techniques (which surely she worked hard on) pompous; she says to her the Pulitzer is a pleasant salute.

Brooks evolved; when you’ve read her middle and last poems, in retrospect these earlier ones read quite differently — she is first of all writing “seriously the inner lives of young Black women: their hopes, dreams and aspirations;” depicting how they become part of a community (painfully); the “day-to-day struggle” within European forms, genres. In her interviews and some quotations from her scattered prose, I find that like many another brilliant person, she hated going to parties, and struggled to find her own voice, and people she was compatible with, to discover what would be a good time for her. She also fits into Annie Finch’s perspective and defense of the poetess tradition of white American women from the 19th through mid-20th century — rhymes, strong formal elements, strong sentiment.

So I’ll call the sonnet-like sequence called Womanhood middle period and invite the reader to read and listen to this vimeo

These poems on womanhood for Black women are not paid enough attention to. What is preferred are the shorter poems or those about Black man.
They are superb and present a continuum of Black manhood as experienced in the US. Read her Negro Hero: to suggest Dorie Miller: the man who lived and died, a reading of the poem. She can take on a male voice, and speaks for central Black young men in the 20th century.

Paul Robeson

That time
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

Malcolm X
———
for Dudley Randall

Original.
Hence ragged-round,
Hence rich-robust.

He had the hawk-man’s eyes.
We gasped. We saw the maleness.
The maleness raking out and making guttural the air
And pushing us to walls.

And in a soft and fundamental hour
A sorcery devout and vertical
Beguiled the world.

He opened us –
Who was a key.

Who was a man.

And also in rage:

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

In her last phases (last quarter of 20th century), she became a plain-spoken quietly angry, sarcastic poet, pithy, vivid, chronicler of African-American life using both its own development within literature, in the contemporary social roles chosen and inflicted, with an awareness of Black music (jazz) and visual art. I now find her a deeply moving urban poet, terse, epigrammatic, using free forms, speaking symbolically, allusively.

Read her Primer for Blacks.

To those of my Sisters who kept their Naturals
Never to look a hot comb in the teeth.

Then this late poem:

To an old Black woman, Homeless and Indistinct

1.
Your every day is a pilgrimage.
A blue hubbubb.
Your days are collected bacchanals of fear and self-troubling.

And your nights! your nights.
When you put you down in alley or cardboard or viaduct,
your lovers are rats, finding your secret places.

2.
When you rise in another morning,
you hit the street, your incessant enemy.

See? Here you are, in the so-busy world.
You walk. You walk.
You pass The People.
No. The People pass you.

Here’s a Rich Girl marching briskly to her charms.
She is suede and scarf and belting and perfume.
She sees you not, she sees you very well.
At Five in the afternoon, Miss Rich Girl will go home
to brooms and vacuum cleaner and carpeting,
two cats, two marble top tables, two telephones,
shiny green peppers, flowers in impudent vases,
visitors.
Before all that there’s the luncheon to be known.
Lasagna, lobster, salad, sandwiches
All day there’s coffee to be loved.
There are luxuries
of minor dissatisfaction, luxuries of Plan.

3.
That’s her story
You’re going to vanish, not necessarily nicely, fairly soon
Although essentially dignity itself a death
is not necessarily tidy, modest, or discreet.
When they find you
your legs may not be tidy nor aligned.
Your mouth may be all crooked or destroyed.

Black old woman, homeless, indistinct —
Your last and least adventure is Review.
Folks used to celebrate your birthday!
Folks used to say ‘She draws such handsome horses, cows
and houses.’
Folks used to say ‘That child is going far.’

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

Wikipedia includes an account of her life and awards: all I can do in brief space is highlight a few events. She was born in Kansas, and brought up in Chicago, which remained her home, and to its cultural worlds she belonged all her life (like August Wilson remained a Philadelphian). She began to read and write well at an early age; her earliest poetry (as a young girl was published in the Chicago Defender (Black newspaper founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott). She did not fit easily into high schools; one too white, one where she was ostracized as too Black for the place; finally she settled in an integrated school, Englewood. Sending her work out brought her to the attention to James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. She found a place with other Black writers in 1935 in WPA groups, e.g., Illinois Writers Project. In 1935 she went to Kennedy Key (?) College, joined the South Side Community Art Center; was married to Henry Blakeley Jr in 1939. From her you can slowly trace her ever-expanding circle of friend-writers and publications. A landmark was the 1945 A Street in Bronzville. Richard Wright wrote a commentary on her work. From this one we have

Kitchenette Building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

She was often the first African-American to receive this or that award. Her last years she is going to conferences, teaching at universities. She finally made public her own struggle for racial self-acceptance. She urged writers to create young Black protagonists who go counter to commercial  or best-selling tropes. In 1968 she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois.

She nurtured and mentored others; her very last volume was about children, poetry seemingly for them (they are bold, revealing for example, the problem of incest where males are encouraged to be aggressive and at the same time marginalized and poverty-stricken), Children Coming Home.

The standard biography seems to be by George Kent, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. The Library of Congress has brought out a slim volume of her poems edited and introduced by Elizabeth Alexander: The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks.


The Field of Angels memorial at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish between 1823 and 1863

Ellen

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Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) Ethiopian girl living in Beirut (Capernaum)


Madeline (Martine Chevalier) and Anne, her daughter (Lea Ducker) — (Deux of Two of US is not just about the love of two aging lesbians, but the daughter of one of them)


Heloise (Adèle Haenel), Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (it’s a three-way relationship at its height: wealthy young girl to be sold to a husband, painter, and pregnant maid)

Animals welcome
People tolerated …

Friends and readers,

I’ve just spent four weeks teaching a course where we read two marvelous books by women, Iris Origo’s War in the Val D’Orcia, an Italian war diary, 1943-44, and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Four Essays, and want to observe, commemorate, act out Wolf’s argument (proved) in her book that there is a real body of literature by women, separate from men, superior, filled with alternative values, following different genre paradigms, only permitted to thrive in Europe and her cultures since the 18th century and that in marginalized ways, but there and wonderful — deeply anti-war, anti-violence, filled with values of women, a caring, cooperative, preserving, loving ethic. What better day than V- or Valentine’s, better yet against Violence Day, especially when aimed at women. A day yesterday when much of the US in the evening sat down to watched a violent-intense game, interrupted by celebrity posturing, false pretenses at humane attitudes, and glittery commercials (the Superbowl).

Last night I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which I’ve written about already here), and the 6th episode (Home Truths) of the second season of All Creatures Great and Small (ditto), and the fifth episode of the fourth season (Savages) of Outlander, Her-stories (adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn)


Anne Madeley as Mrs Hall (housekeeper, and vet)


Helen (Rachel Shelton) and James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph)


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Adawehi

I delighted in my evening:

Home truths: shamelessly sentimental and ratcheting up lots of angst, yet nothing but good happens. Why? I’ve decided it’s a show with women in charge — for real. Mrs Herriot gives up James to Helen, Mrs Hall and the woman with the perpetually nearly mortal cows. Mrs Pumphrey is the local central goddess, and Tricky woo, her animal. A new woman came in, an aging gypsy who lives with stray dogs. Parallel to Mrs Pumphrey. I love it.

The men are the Savages: the crazed German settler who thinks the Native Americans are stealing “his water” so when his daughter-in-law and grandchild die of measles, he murders the beautiful healer of the tribe — they retaliate by murdering him and his wife and burning down his house. Claire had been there to help bring the baby into the world. The coming problem that most counts is measles. Jamie and Ian discover they can’t get settlers while the Governor and his tax collectors are taking all the profits from settlers and using it to live in luxury, and Murtagh is re-discovered. Very moving reunion with Jamie and Claire — keeping the estates, feeding animals. She functions as Mrs Hall.

The three women eat, walk, sleep, talk together; the two upper class ones go with their maid to help her abort an unwanted pregnancy among a group of local women meeting regularly to dance, talk, be together where they sit around a fire — here they are preparing food, drink, sewing ….

A brief preface or prologue to two fine women’s films: Capernaum and Two of Us, with some mention of Salaam Bombay and Caramel, ending on Isabelle Huppert as interviewer and Elif Batuman as essayist on women’s film art:

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

Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and Rahil’s baby, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole)

One of the courses I’m taking this winter at the same OLLI at Mason where I teach is one recent fine movies, and the first we saw Capernaum directed by Nadine Labarki. She has another remarkably memorable film I saw years ago, Caramel, the stories of five women whose lives intersect in a beauty parlor). She and two other women wrote the screenplay. It’s an indie, in Arabic, set in the slums of Beirut: the title refers to a place on the northern shore of the sea of Galilee and forms part of the Jesus Christ stories. The word also means chaos. It makes Mira Nair’s Saleem Bombay looks into the semi-lark it is: both center on a boy living on the streets of desperately poor area who is cut off from any kind of help from parents. Nair’s film ends in stasis: with the boy on the streets still, having stabbed to death a cruel pimp who preyed on a prostitute who is one of the boy’s friends, and took her small daughter from her.

People write of Capernaum as heart-breaking but most of their comments center on the boy (Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian). It’s done through flashbacks. The gimmick complained about is the boy is suing his parents for bringing him into the world. Basically the boy, Zain, exposes the cruel treatment his parents have meted out to him — real emotional, social and physical abuse too. In fact, Hilary Clinton proposed many protections for children, a couple of which aroused the ire of conservatives because she proposed to give children rights which in effect included complaining about parental abuse. I remember how she was attacked fiercely for her proposals on behalf of children. As eventually passed it was about adoption procedures and administration, whether she succeeded in making the child’s welfare count for real I don’t know

What is seriously relevant is the continual filming of dire poverty and the imprisoning of helpless (stateless) immigrants, refugees with no papers and how the need for papers is used by criminals and some lower base businessman to punish and demand huge sums from these people willing to buy forged documents. Astro, the film’s villain, is trying to take Rahil’s baby from her so he can sell the baby, and we discover at the film’s end he had no good parents and home for the baby, only a transitory prison. Labarki takes the viewer through the jails such people end up in and the conditions there — although this is Beirut, you could easily transfer this to the borders of the US. I find the supposed secondary character, a young single mother end up separated from her child as important as the boy, Zain — the fantasy of the movie is this boy takes real responsibility for the child. We also see how Zain’s sister, Sarah was sold to a man when she was 11 and dies of a pregnancy, how his mother is endlessly pregnant with no way to make any money to feed her family or send anyone to school. We se how desperate circumstances have led the boys’ parents to behave brutally to him and to one another, to in effect sell Zain’s sister, their daughter, Sarah, age 11, who dies in childbirth (too young for pregnancy).

It’s an important movie for our time — Biden is continuing many of Trump’s heartless and cruel policies at the borders — not the separation of families. There is no excuse for this. This movie does have a sudden upbeat happy ending (sort of). See it.

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

Then very much a Valentine’s Day film: Two of us, also on this film course’s list.


Nina (Barbara Sukowa) — much in love with Madeline, she has no family around her


Isabelle Huppert more recently (see her in the interviews just below)

Very touching. It’s about two lesbians who have grown old and one is nervous (Madeline), frightened of her two grown children (Anne and Frederick), never ever admitted how she loathed her bullying husband (who made a lot of money if her apartment is any measure). Nina lives across the hall and yes people outside them think they are just friends. But they are deep lovers and as the movie opens, Nina is pressuring Madeline to sell her apartment so they can move to Rome permanently, Rome where they have been so happy.

What happens: Mado has a stroke, and is parallel to a movie so long ago, The Single Man, for which Colin Firth was nominated for an Oscar where two homosexual men have deep true life and one dies (Matthew Goode) and the other (Firth) is closed out by the family. Goode leaves everything to Firth, an English teacher. Goode’s family know about the gay life style and enjoy spitefully excluding Firth and beating back the will. Firth comes near suicide, pulls back, just in time.

Here the women hid, and Nina has to break through a caregiver who loathes her as competition. There is much inexplicable imagery. As the film opens, Nina has a dream of herself as a child saving Madeline as a child. Black birds or crows come and go. Nina becomes violent and axes the daughter’s care to get the caregiver in trouble and fired. Gradually the daughter realizes there is something special here. When she first sees a photo of the two women together in Rome, she is revulsed, and puts her mother in a home where the mother is drugged into compliance. The caregiver and her son come and threaten Nina, and when she is out, destroy her things in her apartment insofar as they can and steal what money she has. My mother had a caregiver just like this desperate hard angry woman. Anne witnesses her mother try to come out of her stasis to reach Nina, and Nina try to run away with her. Anne thinks again, and chases her mother and her mother’s lover back to her mother’s apartment, where they are quietly dancing together. The movie ends with Anne banging frantically on the door, saying she didn’t understand.

There is hope. Anne has brought a kitten for her mother while the mother was with the caregiver. We see it in the hall and may hope Madeline’s money will be enough and they will be left alone again. Such movies do show up the ratcheted up cheer of All Creatures and Small – how much truer to life this. Real anxiety Real trouble. It’s about aging and loneliness. There are as fine reviews of this as The Lost Daughter.

And two thoughtful interviews conducted by Isabelle Huppert (a fine French actress. One with the director, this his first film. The other between Huppert and Sukowa: listen to two actresses talk shop It’s very unusual to talk candidly about the problem of enacting, emulating having sex in front of a camera.

Don’t throw your evening out to become an object sold by one company to another to sell awful products at enormous prices.

I conclude with an excellent essay-review by Elif Batuman of the film-oeuvre of Celine Sciamma. Batuman shows how Sciamma is seeking out and inventing a new grammar of cinema to express a feminist and feminine quest for an authentic existence as a woman experiencing a full life: Now You See Me. I quote from it on The Portrait of a Lady on Fire:

The “female gaze,” a term often invoked by and about Sciamma, is an analogue of the “male gaze,” popularized in the nineteen-seventies to describe the implied perspective of Hollywood movies—the way they encouraged a viewer to see women as desirable objects, often fragmented into legs, bosoms, and other nonautonomous morsels. For Sciamma, the female gaze operates on a cinematographic level, for example in the central sex scene in “Portrait.” Héloïse and Marianne are both in the frame, they seem unconcerned by their own nudity, the camera is stationary—not roving around their bodies—and there isn’t any editing. The goal is to share their intimacy—not to lurk around ogling it, or to collect varied perspectives on it.

Mira Nair (filming A Suitable Boy) and Celinne Sciamma

.

Ellen

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Il Figlia oscura as translated by Ann Goldstein (a rare pleasing cover for women)


Jessie Buckley as the young Leda Carusa in the film by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Friends and readers,

The writer (or writers) of the novels who uses the pseudonym Elena Ferrante has become a more complicated person (or two persons) and her books better or more widely appreciated since last I wrote about her and them. I’ve come to some conclusions about the people, the books, their translator, and the now at least five film adaptations made. I think it important to know the true author, context, and helps to have films meant to convey a book in trying to understand, and enjoy that book. I laid out the choices of author and stances we are presented with in the author controversy when I reviewed the first novel of The Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale). I’ve finished the Neapolitan Quartet, read and re-read a couple of the novellas, and then a couple of good books of criticism: The Ferrante Letters by five women authors, and In Search of Elena Ferrante by Karen Bojar as well as the obfuscating hostile statistical essays on the books as a scam by Domenico Starnone (Anita Raja’s husband, also a novelist).

What decided me the author, the person who wrote all the material in Italian is Anita Raja are her Italian translations of Christa Wolf, the famous brilliant German, whose novels and memoirs I’ve been reading over the past two to three months while reading chunks of Ferrante’s novels in the Italian.  First, Ann Goldstein is (to my mind) a misleading translator of Raja’s books: Goldstein (like many another recent commercial translator) has turned dense, difficult and ever so richly suggestive Italian prose (very long sentences) into the kind of modern simple-to-read lucid English publishers press translators of older and recent more difficult books to use. Literally it is hard to accuse Goldstein of inaccuracy, but as to the experience of these novels you are losing much that makes her one of the important women writers of the 21st century. I was chuffed when late in Bojar’s book she says how alike are the characters and a number of the plot-designs in the Neapolitan Quartet and Wolf’s Quest for Christa T; Raja’s Lila (Raffaelle Cerullo) is in type and meaning a recreation of Christa T. What’s more the Italian in both books is close in style, feel, sentence structure, and that indefinable thing called presence.

I also read Domenico Starnone’s Ties (Lacci) and, as Bojar claims, it reads like the male’s answer to Raja’s Days of Abandonment (see my review). I felt like I was meeting Nino, the cad-villain of the Neapolitan Quartet, whom both Lila and Lenu (Elena Greco) fall in love with, have babies by, who rises in life to high positions in academia, parliament (with a stint in jail that ultimately does him no harm). Here is this man who thinks so well of himself, and treats women so dismissively (whatever he might say of them when their lover). I could not compare style since the translator is Jhumpa Lahiri (who has left her husband and children and made herself over as a writer of Italian, living in Italy): Lahiri make a hard book, nothing like the flexible fluid style of Goldstein but as to outlook it is a contrast to Raja’s: Ties is a witty book, often sarcastic and ironic; it moves quickly and simply one story at a time; rearrangements of time are clarified; the author is guarded. All very unlike Raja. I am not at all convinced by the statistical studies’ walls of numbers; such studies when applied to Shakespeare have concluded 17-18 of his plays are collaborations, or not written by him at all. But I do think this “answer” to one of Raja’s books, and what I’ve read of his other books and life suggests he has had input: mostly his childhood in Naples, his male outlook. Neapolitan Quartet is so much more outward, and more in control, more mainstream, polished, less raw and openly vulnerable.

It’s my view that Ferrante ought to come out and protect her name and her work – the way George Eliot was forced to when a male claimed he had read it. Perhaps some of the denigration, the condescension, and sheer resentment would be controlled. She is in the unfortunate position of Anne Radcliffe, the later 18th century gothic writer who is today still ridiculed because she could not bear to acknowledge, much less answer her critics.

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Gaia Girace as Lila Carracci (nee Cerullo) in film by Staverio Costanza (among others, Elena Ferrante too)

To the last of The Neapolitan Quartet (Storia della bambina perduta) and Lost Daughter. The closeness in title is true to the content of the very long fourth book and the novella. All four of the novels (very mainstream with two central heroines who correspond to one another thematically) are one continued story (like Winston Graham’s Poldark books) and by the time we get to this fourth, there is so much to resolve, so many ongoing stories (see My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name [Storia della nuove cognome] and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Away [Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta], that I can’t begin to cover them here (see supersummary and the New York Times review ).  What I’d like to dwell on is the central event (though it comes about 2/3s of the way into the book) that determines the final outcome of Lila’s life: her daughter is kidnapped from her, probably murdered at the behest of the Solares. On “an ordinary Sunday” she and Enzo and Lenu and (for just that day) Pietro are cavorting outside, and they suddenly realize Tina has gone missing.

The disappearance of Tina ruins the rest of Lila’s life. She just never gets over it, partly because despite her many successes in business (making money selling, conquering digital techniques) and her finding a real man worthy of love, Enzo; despite all this, I say, in comparison to all Lenu or Elena achieved (the education, the book writing, the belonging to more upper class and therefore interesting, enlightened, enjoyable worlds), Lila has been defeated. She was turning to her children’s futures vicariously. Her son, after all by Stephano, Rino, is a deep disappointment to her: he could not escape his patriarchal brutal and anti-intellectual environment; and she poured her hope and dreams into Tina. At the same time that Lila gave birth (child by Enzo), so too Elena, truly pregnant by Nino (this cad they have both over-rated), has had a daughter, who comes to be called Imma (Elena’s mother’s name abbreviated). When Tina, Lila’s daughter is (presumably) kidnapped and killed, and enough time goes by that Lila realizes she will never have Tina back, Lila discards the business; and causes (by her angry behavior) her loving partnership with Enzo to break up.  There is only so much punishment Enzo can stand.  Lila estranges herself from everyone but what she finds in her computer and the library. It’s poignant to me how she turns back to the library (so have I, more than once), now to read and learn and write of Naples. Elena/Lenu does try to get Lila to produce a typescript that she, Elena, can edit and give to a publisher.  But Lila will or cannot conform enough.  How I felt for Lila.

Towards the end of Perduta Bambina, in another permutation of this mother-daughter paradigm, Elena finds herself caring for her mother in her mother’s old age, and forgiving her mother, her cruelty, denseness, jealousy of Elena (which but for Maestra Oliviero would have precluded Elena’s education ticket out of working class women’s lives).  We also see that part of the reason for Elena’s success as an author is her mother-in-law’s nurturing of her, a mother-as-mentor – a very ambivalent relationship.  Maestra Oliviero, the spinster elementary school teacher, is responsible for getting Elena’s parents to send her to junior high (this is a US term so I refer to its equivalent in Italy).  Prof Nadia Galiani encourages and introduces Elena to the right people; and lastly, Adele, Pietro’s mother mentors her and publishes Elena’s first novel.  In contrast, no one takes an interest in Lila once she is taken out of school at fifth grade (her father throws her out a window when she demands at age 10 to go); her mother, Nunzia means well but is very weak.  Nunzia dies off-stage.  This mother-daughter paradigm is central to all Ferrante’s work, while the friendship exploration remains almost unique to the four books, however thoroughly gone into — there are other women friends in these books, sister relationships.


Margherita Mazzucolena as Elena — when my daughter Izzy is in her usual skirts, with her glasses on she reminds me of this actress in this part and I am so proud of her

I found myself more than any of the other three identifying with Elena. This changed after I read Christa Wolf.  I finally after I had read Christa T: Christa T is Christa Wolf as open angry rebel, deeply alienated, hurt, striking out, and I can understand that and indirectly have acted that way myself (to the point of destruction of friendships), but the character who came closest to me is Elena. Consequently I got angry with her as I rarely do for characters. I could not understand how she could leave Pietro, a good man, supportive and economic support; yes he did not help her with her work, sabotaged it in part, with him she began to lead the dependent wife-life, but I felt that was forgivable as there was still room for her to go to a conference say, have a temporary liaison.


Jack Farthing (Warleggan in Poldark) as Gianni-Joe in Lost Daughter would also be perfect for Pietro in the Neapolitan Quartet

I found The Ferrante Letters so satisfying to read because all four authors (Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards) are open about this bonding; I had not come across this kind of talk about a woman’s book by women since reading Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern’s Speaking of Jane Austen. There is not only such a thing as l’ecriture-femme, one of its signs is the woman reader gets into sincere earnest dialogue with the characters and reflects on central issues of her life.


Audible set of the four from the BBC

The end of the fourth book brings us right back to the beginning of the first; we return to the two small girls and their dolls; either Lila or someone else leaves one of the original dolls (or a facsimile) in Elena’s post box, a sign that Lila has not been murdered but chosen finally to find peace in retreat (rather like Mary, Lady Mason, in Trollope’s Orley Farm, which I am now engrossed by). The second book, Nuove Cognome, opens with Elena shockingly and beyond retrieval, throwing Lila’s hard-fought for box of diaries in the Arno, whence her writing of these four books. She acknowledges or believes that all her fiction writing comes out of Lila’s ideas, first child’s book, talk. I think the fourth is aesthetically the sloppiest and overlong. It meanders and repeats itself. It stops and starts — my feeling is Starnone was too much in it, making it too “normalized” with Ferrante struggling for ambiguity, circularity. I know I need to re-read all four and will discover so much more prepared for and anticipating what is to come and see so much more than the first time through. I am prepared to buy a full subscription for HBOMax when the third season of My Brilliant Friend finally comes to US TV.

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Movie Poster


Olivia Coleman as Leda Carusa now 48 at the end of the film (one of the best reviews I’ve come across of book & film by Kayti Burt)

The Lost Daughter is not a satisfactory translation of the Italian title: much closer is The Depressed or Saddened Daughter and it refers as much to Leda and her relationship with her crude unsatisfactory inarticulate mother (it reads like a precis for Elena and her mother). Leda is also identifying far more strongly with Nina, the beautiful young woman on the beach with the spoilt daughter, Elena (the name keeps coming back), whose doll it is that Leda takes away and plays with, abuses, dresses all summer. Nina (played by Dakota Johnson in the film) is headed for a frustrated life with a dense bully of a violent husband, watched over and controlled by the sister-in-law, Rosalia (actress not listed), who is ecstatic at having become pregnant after many years of marriage; Nina is too mindless, and has not begun to break away from a lying culture, so one might say she is a lost daughter too.

The book opening:

Leda is having, or in the middle of a car accident, as the book opens. She is exhausted, wearied (her teaching job is like that of a US adjunct, she never achieved any high appointment as did her husband from whom she is separated) and needs a break. To the hospital come friends, her two daughters, Bianca and Marta and even her husband, Gianni, whom they live with, and who, she says, was a wonderful tender father when he had time to pay attention to his daughters. He won their love far more easily than she has. She remembers as she decides to go to the shore (an Ionian beach, probably middle class, and for privacy), her mother working on her (through fear) to stay safe by issuing threats of how she’s going to get drowned if she goes too close to the water. At the close of the book as the film she comes near to drowning herself.

One there she sees this huge clan of a family, Neapolitan, they are part of the clan she has escaped from. She recognizes they are enjoying themselves, but also that they are godawful in their manners and the whole thing a powder keg waiting to erupt. They push other families to give them more room; she refuses she’s not quite sure why. They become hostile to her and when she leaves someone throws a hard thistle at her back, leaving a painful wound (it is also a plant which, for the superstitious, carries ill-wishes). Soon after she has made a habit of this morning “rest” (she brings papers and books), Elena goes missing; Leda finds her because she remembers the hat that Elena is wearing, her mother’s. Bu the child carries on whining (I find myself using this word for once) and vexing everyone because her doll has gone missing.
We learn in a last sentence of a section, Leda put said doll in her bag. She tells herself she’ll bring it back to the beach tomorrow, put it out there and it’ll be taken as found but she cannot get herself to give up this doll.

We then get a weaving of present time adventures with many memories. Here the book is much more successful because Gyllenhaal will not use voice-over and fears offending conventional women in the audience who have given up their lives to their children and now perpetually lie to themselves to make it seem a far happier and fulfilling choice than it ever can be.

Some of these memories:

An academic truly upper class woman named Lucilla (Dagmara Domińczyk in the film) visits and can cater to Leda’s daughters and win them over because unlike Leda, Lucilla doesn’t have to cope with them 24/7. “The woman did her enormous harm” Leda thinks now. Her children start to hit her and at first she doesn’t respond, then says stop it, and then hits them lightly but repeatedly. They do prey on her. They want her to be their doll, and I’m astonished at her that she permits this. They are jealous of one another and nag at her. At one point she becomes so over-wrought as she tries do her work, she puts Marta outside the room and then somehow the glass shatters in the door. Child not hurt, but the text quivers with her intensity of trauma and upset, she feels herself in continual crisis. But the woman also knew how to network and had connections and sent one of Leda’s papers to a Professor Hardy and at a conference, he praised her highly, got the paper published (of course they went to bed together). She remembers the difficulty of using opportunities at the university to work towards being considered for positions – how hard that is. Tell me about it. I never knew how. She wanted to act out rage but nowhere to act it.

Present time:

One day she actually tells the older pregnant woman, Rosaria about abandoning her children for 3 years. The woman of course is shocked. She actually longs to confide in Nina because she (mistakenly I feel) bonds with Nina and thinks Nina could be someone she could confide it. How wrong she is she discovers at the film’s end when Nina stabs her with the hat pin she bought for Elena. The older handyman, Gianni (Lyle in the film, Ed Harris) has come to visit and they discuss wives and husbands and their children. He offers to cook a fish he has caught; he is a good cook. He stays at first (she thinks) so he can lie to his friends about having sex. They end up confiding in one another about their relationships with their children, he boasts about how good his has been despite his early separation from his wife. He sees the doll, recognizes it, but chooses not to tell. Leda talks of how her own mother would disappear once in a while and scold the harder when she returned (this is a memory in the book transposed into this dramatic scene). In both book and film Leda tries to watch a movie one night and is made fun of by the young men who ridicule the film (one I couldn’t recognize, a sentimental one Towards the end of the story there is a dancing sequence with Nina dancing with her boor of a husband after having spent the afternoon having sex with him, and Leda, first Giovanni and then Gino (the young man who wants to go to bed with Nina and for whom Leda is ready to give up her room). It’s strange that Leda should see herself as in competition with this woman or even reach out to her –- it is so useless. But such is life.

The book returns us to the beach for her last day; she is warned that as she has produced the doll and given it back, she should get away as now the Neapolitan family will feel they have a right to have a grudge against her. The film has the near car accident that occurred at the opening of the book occur now, together with a near or acted-out suicide (to spite her mother who so threatened her not to go near the shore). In both she rolls back, and the very ending has her calling her daughters (or they call her) and we see the intense relief she experiences when they say they were worried about her. She is cheered, gladdened, and finds strength to sit there and gather herself together emotionally once more to return home to her apartment, probably in Turin — where Elena ends up, nowadays a center for Northern writers. Either way as in life nothing is resolved though much experience inwardly and some outwardly has been traversed, considered, perhaps understood better.


Naples, Old Neighborhood in My Brilliant Friend


The two girls as children reading Little Women together (same film)

Ellen

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Hung Liu, The Year of the Rat (2021) – this is one of the last portraits she did and it is downstairs in the lobby to lure you upstairs

Friends, readers,

Another woman artist, this time a woman photographer and painter whose work I saw in the DC National Portrait Gallery a couple of weeks ago. The following video where a curator takes you through many of the paintings and photographs in the exhibit, you learn so much about Liu’s life story, the images she made in the different phases of her existence, and hear Hung Liu talking about what she is trying to achieve in general, and what were her aims and circumstances in each of the works she is led to talk about — that the usual blog I would do for a woman artist feels superfluous. Click and see and hear. Hung herself talks in the interview clips of the importance of remembering people, especially to the person who remembers and the one remembered.



This is called Father’s Day: it is Liu with her father — he was taken from the family when she was five, imprisoned, enslaved, treated harshly and strictly for 50 years at the time when she learned where he was, and visited him. He told her that after so many years of such barbaric treatment that he can no longer show emotion.

She was proud of her mother and her grandmother’s stoicism in the face of such hardships:

All the information you need otherwise is provided in the marvelous catalogue book of the exhibition (Portraits of Promised Lands), with three essays and many beautiful plates, which I recommend buying. To be honest, and iconoclastically I think you can have as deep an experience as felt in the galleries, maybe more deep reading this book as going to the gallery. The difference is the size of the images and you have to imagine the thick impasto you eyes register as you gaze.

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Here I just suggest emphases and perspectives, single out the most striking images.

She seems to have derived her passionate devotion to the deeply hurt by society and the vulnerable, and desire to give all her subjects quiet dignity, from the way her family was treated in her early life: her father’s fate (see above) was the result of his having fought in the army of Chiang Kai-shek; the family destroyed all the photographs and memorabilia of their lives they had lest any be interpreted against them. They didn’t flee, rather marginalized themselves, hid their individual identities, and only gradually as Hung’s gift emerged sent her quietly to the best schools and then art college in China available. She had herself to do two years farm work, and traveled, everywhere she saw thwarted and hurt people, she painted, and then later took photographs and painted these in her own distinctive way (the film will tell you of this) within terms of the imposed social realism of China. Like many others in such a situation, she learned much but felt constricted, that she was not fulfilling her art’s potential. They are not just downtrodden people, but people whose identity is at risk, like this one:


Summoning ghosts — the woman is beautiful but she resists us by turning to the side, she is dressing her hair and wearing that outfit to please another

She was both fortunate and her family maintained some good connections (her grandfather had been a scholar and botanist), and was able to travel to the US, go to an art college in California, and become part of the art worlds there. She became a resident artist at Capp Street Project in San Francisco in 1988; she eventually married a fellow art student, Jeff Kelley, who became her curator. She went onto graduate school, became a citizen, a Professor Emerita herself, had a child, a boy. In her earlier life she took many photographs as she traveled around China tracing the changes or just the events and behavior of people working out the cultural revolution. These photographs have to be experienced in the order they are placed in a narrative. In the US she resumed such travels down south (where both white and black, but mostly black lived hard lives), to places Asian people made communities in.

Here are some of these: she identifies with a plow-bough young man (black, living down south),


A plow-boy in the American south

A hopeful African-American woman — see the way she swings dangling feet or shoes


Dangling Feet

She talked with ex-Comfort Women in Korea:


This is from the cover for the book cited above (Promised Lands)

Here is a less well known portrait of comfort women:

There is also a portrait of an aged woman with bound feet, who cannot walk — very distressing in its ordinariness.

Much more hopeful: I love her monumental portraits of children, here are two young ones, the one helping the other to eat. I love the small pictures of small creatures, and how her linseed application visibly drips:

Here are two leaning against a wall:

She has a large portrait very beautiful of a black woman with flowers all around her.

She is famous for painting over or up, the photography of Dorothy Lange, whose perspective is coterminous with Liu’s. So here is Migrant Mother made somehow less grim by the coloration and a slight change in the woman’s expression or face and also making the pair further back in the picture space:

Her Dorothy Lange types are when original with her more poignant, as in this Father’s Arms:

Another too distressing to reprint, but found in Promised Lands is of a half-starved woman, with very narrow breasts, who has a baby clinging to one of her nipples. She is dressed in an undershirt with work shirt over, to her left a sad-faced child, a man who shades his face with a hat, another looking to the right as if far in the distance ….

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I was strongly taken by this exhibit and went back a second time; that’s when I bought the book, the first large art book I’ve bought since Jim died. Hers is a redemptive art. She is paying attention to people others usually only register as a number who needs to be checked off, as it were “visible,” finishing what work they were given: it does not matter if their participation is active or genuine. There are few landscapes alone. Such images were thought very self-indulgent in her early training: consequently they are the circumstances against or in which the person pictured must live or work in most of her images.

But she did a series called My Secret Freedom, which are curiously pastoral, very conventional except for the objects and houses she invents (look at the grey boat):

Individual objects painted in her more usual way, very large, turn up now and again: Blue slippers; a bed; a comfortable desk chair with pillow; a grey phone, titled Telephone January 20, 2012:

This wikipedia article is useful. There are short insightful essays on-line on individual images. We are told of her crucial contributions, given thoughtful descriptions of the art techniques she uses to make her memorable portraits; how she’s summoning and commemorating ghosts

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.

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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.

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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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