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Archive for the ‘costume drama’ Category


Mr Elton about to reveal Emma’s masterpiece of a drawing of Harriet overwhelmed by its frame (Emma 2020)


Our three heroines, Marianne, Heloise, Sophie making supper, tasting the wine, sewing garments (Portrait of a Lady On Fire, 2019)

What is curious about Wilde’s hollowing out of Austen’s Emma to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

By contrast, The Portrait of a lady on Fire is often a silent film, sparse dialogue, with meaning projected through strong silent acting in emblematic scenes

Friends and readers,

While these two prominent women-centered films made and written by women (Eleanor Catton, a Booker Prize winner wrote the screenplay for this Emma) would seem to have utterly disparate characteristic scenes, as seen in the above high caricature exaggeration of the scene from Austen’s book where Mr Elton displays Emma’s drawing of Harriet brought back from London, framed and the quiet group scene of three characters existing together cooperatively in a daily task, they are at core surprisingly alike. This has not been noticed because with the exception of Anibundel on Sanditon and Emma (whom I know, not from her review, but from personal knowledge, has read both books), every single review I’ve read shows not just no knowledge of the book, but seem to misremember details and distort the book’s overall feel. Mr Martin is not a widowed farmer, Austen’s book is not filled with frenzied activity (Sheila O’Malley); Austen’s book is not generally hilarious, Clueless not in mood at all like Austen’s book (Mark Kermode).

Kermode does begin with a passing comment, that Austen’s Emma is capable of “endlessly reinterpretable gender politics,” and it’s there that the two films criss-cross terrains. Quite the opposite to this new Emma‘s obsessive gaze at all its males’ breeches for signs of phallic strength, Emma is about women’s relationships with one another. The first third of the book has Emma (here Anya Taylor-Joy) obsessed with Harriet (Mia Goth), because she is bereft without Miss Taylor (Gemma Whelan) now removed down the street to the house and presumably arms of Mr Weston (Rupert Graves, sadly aged, into the harmless if ever so there male). It’s arguable the book is as lesbian as the screenplay and realization of Sciamma’s two heroines. Consider how in the book Emma has no desire to marry she says until near its end, and then it’s Mr Knightley’s companionship she would feel deprived of. But Miss Taylor is dismissed in the movie, and Emma and Harriet are treated as two women on the hunt for two males, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Robert Martin (Conor Swindells); only at two moments of intense feeling (from the second half of the film) do we see Emma and Harriet dwelling on one another — when finally Emma understands Harriet is now enamoured of Mr Knightley and Harriet grasps this is not acceptable by the woman who deprived her of Mr Martin. The second traces a slow growth of real relationship:

Both movies and stories have one young woman drawing the other and a great fuss made about the painting, but Emma takes this seriously only at the close of the movie where suddenly Emma appears to value the drawing because it is by her and of Harriet, and thus a commemoration of their friendship.


This is of Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) from Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma; but a real dwelling on this substory is found in all the heritage Emmas

By contrast, all the stills in Emma which capture two characters actually in a relationship with one another capture heterosexual passion, Emma with Mr Knightley or Frank Churchill:


Emma and Frank at Box Hill


Emma and Mr Knightley dancing

The reviews of both movies have been uniformly filled with praise, but when I looked at the Rotten Tomatoes comments and percentages, it seems to me those who went to see Emma were not as ecstatic over the costumes (in both films the characters are just beautifully dressed) as the reviewers, were vaguely disappointed at this Emma, and treated it as ho hum yet another Austen film come down the studio pipes (72% rated it favorably), while the audience who registered their views of Portrait were deeply satisfied, gratified, awakened to something new (92% loved it), unexpectedly, deeply pleasurable.

I suggest that the new Emma fails to capture the book repeatedly; in the first half to two-thirds of the film, everything is acted out through artificial gestures, symmetrical behavior, caricature, exaggerated quirky behavior designed to draw laughter. We are not allowed to take the characters at all seriously until the last third, when at the point of the appearance in the story of Mrs Elton (Tanya Reynolds as effective as caricature here as she was as real living woman in Outlander as Lady Isobel Dunsany — it’s curious how actors/actresses in seemingly minor roles in Outlander are being found in key roles in quality films) there is a turn into gushing romance, when (most unlike the book) Mr Knightley acts out a besotted male and Emma melts into throbbing passion.

A structural sign something is wrong is that Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) while introduced early on by her adoring aunt, Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), is not seen again until well past the mid-point of the film; most of the scenes in the book and previous films between Frank and Jane are cut; they are utterly forgotten its close. Emma’s rivalry with Jane comes out in the scene where Emma plays the piano in such a banal and awkward way, and Jane is the policed classical performer, but nowhere else. The actress’s power is glimpsed now and again but essentially thrown away:

However briefly (and this kind of clarity about him is sort of new) Frank Churchill is presented as a hard cad; but there is no time given for any camaraderie between Jane and Emma to be built as there is in most of the other Emma films.

Autumn de Wilde, fresh from her career as a fashion photographer, music video producer, and generally pop culture pleaser, just did not take Austen’s book seriously at any level, seems not to have thought about it and granted Austen only the desire to tell stories of conventional heterosexual people moving towards marriage. Thus the movie is amusing but ultimately a bore; she missed what was unusual and interesting and moving in the book. She perhaps overdevelops one of the most famous scenes in the book, but Emma insulting Miss Bates is not part of any insight into the vulnerability of all women. The scene between Mr Elton and Emma coming back from the Christmas party where Austen gives license for a #Metoo encounter (taken up by most of the movies) is here turned into a duel of who is the greater snob, Mr Elton when he sneers at Harriet (everyone has their level) or Emma when she puts on a condescending hauteur that prompts Mr Elton to become physically angry, bang hard on the carriage roof and jump out precipitiously. You’d think he was the person sexually assailed instead of vice versa.

What is curious about this hollowing out of Austen’s book to surface scenes until near the end is that the language the actors/actresses speak is strikingly a good deal of the time taken directly from the book. I have not seen this kind of thing since the 1970s and 80s in the BBC series of Austen’s film and Andrew Davies’s 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice. This viewer found real pleasure in hearing Austen’s own lines, and that they were chosen regularly over any modernization gave the film what gravitas, intelligence and inner grace it had.

Turning to Portrait of a Lady On Fire, the incidents told include Heloise’s sister’s suicide rather than be forced to marry and at the film’s end Heloise seen crying silently across a theater by Marianne; Marianne and Heloise helping Sophie to find an abortionist, comparisons with Eurydice (who might have been glad to escape Orpheus as Carol Duffy’s poem, “The Big O,” suggests), discussions of allowing oneself to be painted as draining the life out of the subject. When left alone, the three women move into egalitarian patterns. A truly perceptive review of the film by Muriel Zagha (for Times Literary Supplement, March 6, 2020, p 25, behind a paywall) brings out its allusions to 18th century women artists, its use of female gazes, its cool egalitarian spectatorship.


Marianne listening to Sophie

Marianne and Heloise confiding


Gazing out to the sea together, wrapped up

One of the most remarkable sequences shows the all-female household going to the beach at night at mid-summer to find the beach filled with women dancing, drinking, eating together, exchanging gossip and folk remedies.

Both films rely heavily on a musical score – use explosions of music to convey complex or comical or emotional commentary on what we are seeing. Emma moves from recognizable operatic music, to Christian hymns, to modern rock, with a probably deliberately sought jarring effect; Portrait of a Lady on Fire jumped to the next century with recognizable symphonies, piano music, arresting chanting (the women on the beach) and modern electronic music.


Mr Knightley and Emma fiercely yet comically quarreling when Emma bullyingly persuades Harriet to refuse Mr Martin


The landscape is made up of 18th century material objects

My quarrel with Wilde’s Emma is not to dismiss its laughter, which we are in need of just now. I have compared the unexamined nature of the material in this woman’s movie (as all the Austen movies ultimately are, no matter how a particular director tries to wrestle into male action sequences) with Sciamma’s sincerely-done contemporary re-imagining of the past to point to Wilde’s dismissal of a sisterhood movie whose 18th century setting could have been used as a reinforcement of themes (from or in the book) embodying women seeking liberty.


Here Heloise as daughter cannot free herself of her mother’s (Valeria Golino) command she marry a man she has never met

I can’t help but remember how this year’s Sanditon attempted a resolutely contemporary re-imagining of Austen’s fragment and failed to carry it off fully. Perhaps what is needed is a new sweeping away of (recent) hagiographical Janeite readings of Austen — as was done by D. W Harding and Marvin Mudrick in the 1940s and 60s respectively.

Ellen

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Esther Denham (Charlotte Spencer) and Lord Babbington (Mark Stanley) enthusiastically tie the knot (Sanditon Episode 8)


Mary Parker (Kate Ashcroft) and Charlotte’s adieu (Episode 8) — they had a real friendship

Mary: Despite everything, I do hope you don’t regret coming to Sanditon.
Charlotte: How could I? It’s been the greatest adventure of my life

Pleased and exasperated readers,

I follow on from my first blog-review of this series.

Since Esther and Lord Babbington do marry and we see them making love in bed, it’s not quite true that Episode 5 through 8 take us through a series of ratcheted up climaxes as the character zig first this way to no purpose.  There is a slender skein of satire and sensible human feeling spun through the second half, with again an attempt at showing us, the viewers, a joyous time in the natural and romantic worlds:

Episode 5 gives us yet another repeat of Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) defying Sidney (Theo James) and her governess, Mrs Griffiths (Elizabeth Berrington), with the help of Charlotte (Rose Williams) and a decoy novel, Mary Brunto’s Self Control, more crises over money, ending in all down to the beach for a rousing game of cricket, with Charlotte taking Tom Parker’s [Kris Marshall] place as he characteristically lets everyone down and then tries to cover up and lie, demanding the referee take back a decision


Tom Parker as sore loser demanding a re-decision (Episode 5)

(5)


With good-natured Charlotte taking over and ever compromising decent James Stringer (Leo Suter) accepting the injust recall (Episode 5)

Episode 6 is zag again as Georgiana flees to London, with Sidney and Charlotte hastening after (in hot pursuit? arguing all the way, he Sherlock, she Girl Friday); they rescue Georgiana in a wild high speed chase of coaches from a brothel where she was improbably captured by a unscrupulous man to whom Georgiana’s gambling suitor, Otis, (Jyuddah Jaymes) was in debt and to whom Otis seems to have sold Georgiana! After which all who count return to Sanditon (Otis is out), where again we have a repeat of near bankruptcy (the now utterly disillusioned embittered Mr Stringer still trying to get Tom to pay him and his men), staved off this time by Charlotte’s idea “let’s have a regatta!” to make money, with time out along the way for Babbington and Esther to take a water by a waterfall, and finally a ball so we can watch Sidney and Charlotte enacting falling in love through elegant dancing:


During the coach chase, Sidney swings his body from one coach to another (Episode 6)


Dancing falling in love — another extravaganza of a ball, the 2nd of the series (Episode 6)

Then Zag in the divagating circles of Episode 7 as we begin move into various water antics, while the subplot of the fierce competition between Edward Denham (Jack Fox) and Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky) over who will inherit Lady Denham’s (Anne Reid) wealth as she seems truly to be on the edge of death, becomes absurdly melodramatic: the two fuck on the floor, they frantically seek the will and bargain and burn it. All to no avail, as Lady Denham suddenly gets better, after which she is seen in her usual nagging way commanding Esther to please (and this time marry) Lord Babbington. I have been omitting various walks and drives on the beach for Esther and Babbington (among others), and Sidney and Charlotte’s growing friendship, suddenly cut off by the appearance of Mrs Eliza Campion, now widow, once engaged to Sidney and come to fetch him back …


One appealing scene has Arthur (Turlough Convery) once again being kind to (talking sensibly as no one else does) to Georgiana (Episode 7)


From the water race (Episode 7)

I will not attempt to follow the zigzagging of the great crises of Episode 8, which include yet another extravagant ball, interrupted by a vast fire destroying all Tom Parker’s buildings, the death of old Stringer (caught in said fire), Sidney rushing once again to London for money, only to return to say he got some in the one way left – he has engaged himself again to Eliza. Vic Sanborn’s blog covers this episode step-by-hurried step.


Sidney now adding to all his hero’s deeds, frantic fire-fighting (Episode 8)


Stringer looking up at the fire and realizing his father has died beyond one of the upper windows(8)


Charlotte facing going home, trying to accept that Sidney now cannot marry her

As to the content of the stories, the only thing I regret is the sense Tom has he’ll be all right. He does not deserve to be all right. As written it seems Charlotte may after all marry Mr Stringer, and he will be her reward as Esther’s is the Babbington as good husband material (she is rescued from the pit of incest and seething envy of Clara) and maybe Sidney will marry Eliza — all pragmatic. Diana Parker is for a moment desolate as all Arthur’s kindness to Georgiana begins in her mind to add up to love, until Arthur reassures her he has no desires for women (is homosexual) so will not marry Miss Lambe, but with his money go home with her, so the comic spinster too will now not be alone — as she feared.


Diana and Arthur: she to him: “Home’s best. You’re so right, Arthur!” —

I dislike happy endings unless I am made to believe in them. Most of the time Austen qualifies her happy ending by ironies and other astringent comments or a downright melancholy possibility in the future (as in Persuasion‘s final paragraph). Sentimentality such as in the scene between Tom and his wife, and then Sidney and Charlotte on the cliff grates on me by its untruthfulness. You might say I so long for joy that meretricious substitutes depress me. In life this ending seems to me just what might happen. I can hope that after all Charlotte marries Mr Stringer and., like Esther, learns to love her worthy kind consistent tender hard-working husband (Stringer can still take up the offer of an apprenticeship to an architect in London once he recovers from his grief over his father’s death).

I wouldn’t mind if there was another season, but would be very unhappy if Charlotte did not marry Stringer as I find Sidney has shown himself to be a volatile, difficult and often tyrannizing violent man. As I feel that at no point did the writers make me truly believe in Georgiana or Otis (they were not created as portraits of African people as they really might have been snatched from their environment, given little security, disdained for their race), I don’t know what I want for her. I’m glad Edward is ejected (poetic justice there). I would hope Clara comes back and is reconciled with her aunt (though who would want to live with such a harsh bully?), but if we are to be treated again to these seething melodramatic absurdities I’d just as soon skip her doing more handjobs.

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


This remains the best edition for the money — the editor is Margaret Drabble


This edition has a long full introduction (history, interpretation, text)

Again, the important questions to ask are, is this a good movie series? how does it relate to Austen’s Sanditon, its source (with or without continuations). To take the questions in reverse order: as opposed to the first four episodes (and perhaps some of what was planned) just about nothing from these 4 episodes comes from any Sanditon. All that could be taken was taken and now they are trying for further character development, changes and story matter. Much that is developed is melodramatic, cliched, and when written with some attempt at human truth, not given enough time for development. Continuity and smoothness of transition were ignored. The scenes between Sidney and Charlotte as they begin to try to get to know one another and seem to be much attracted needed much more time and words. Charlotte Spencer’s acting of Esther a difficult role was effective, and, given the number of swiftly juxtaposed scenes she was in, there was enough for the actress to convey a miserably abused young woman. Rose Williams’s Charlotte made sense and if more quiet time had been granted to Theo James as Sidney, not so much rapid switching back and forth, he might have conveyed a man whose masculinity and self-respect was threatened as he watches his family go broke. Tom suggests Sidney was jilted by Eliza; Sidney hints at remorse over his life in Antigua. But so little time was given for any development or nuanced dialogue.


Two of four shots of Charlotte walking along grieving … (Episode 8)

One sign of haste is the Deus ex machina of Lady Susan. She is suddenly there, is never explained.  Why should a high society woman, or (if she) a prince’s mistress take an interest in the obscure Charlotte and help her?


A shot from Chris Brindle’s Sanditon material


A dull fairy tale shot from this series

Perhaps the film-makers (writers, directors) didn’t trust their viewing audience for a moment not to be bored. Its dramaturgy reminded me of the new Poldark. I find the Outlander series vastly superior: why? they will sometimes spend (really) 10 minutes on a interlude; they give time to dialogues to develop and we get real thought from the characters. Not enough time or money was spent on the Sanditon sets: the buildings were uninteresting, shot from afar, with the same stills used over and over again. It was clear a minimum of what was suggestively needed inside was created; the best “sets” were the beaches and water.

It’s a shame since it did seem to me that the conception of the series suggested experimentation. Could they build another kind of Austen adaptation, one which took in contemporary attitudes towards family life, sex, money, and new film-making techniques and audience acceptance of lives not lived according to some narrow set of norms? They did not manage it because the series is not the careful work of art it needed to be – and I have seen many a Jane Austen adaptation have. There is a companion volume. It does not say much about the movie series. Why break a butterfly upon a wheel?

Ellen

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Susannah as Cordelia in Lear (a part often taken by James Quinn (1693-1766)


Susannah as Belvidera in Otway’s tragedy, Venice Preserved (Jaffier, the protagonist, played by Garrick)

For 14 consecutive nights Susannah drowned houses in tears, and stirred the very depths of men’s hearts, even her husband’s, who was so affected that he claimed and obtained the doubling of her salary, Doran, Annals of the English Stage (19th century work)

An eighteenth century actress. My first of the new style actresses blogs: I tell the story of her life in story-biography style. I had a lot more information to go on than for Adelaide Labille-Guiard, so this is also clearly about women’s position in the society and the specific conflicts of Susannah’s life and career. I chose her because she is nowadays spoken of denigratingly. The recent form of feminism which shapes studies of actresses is an aggressive capitalist one, and Susannah’s life under this lens does not draw empathy or admiration — as it should, and does from her biographer, Mary Nash (1977)

Friends and readers,

As Adelaide Labille-Guiard was my first choice for resuming my women artists blogs because her life is so little known, so Susannah Arne Cibber is my first choice for 18th century actresses because nowadays she is spoken of disparagingly as a woman dependent on men, a woman who submitted to men because too much attention has been paid to the marital and sexual arrangements that she was coerced into to survive, and then (in court) publicly humiliated for, and not enough to the strength and talents with which she began and developed her first successful career, and then, astonishingly, recuperated her life and work (in the Irish theater) to again become one of the most valued singers of her age and a deeply moving tragedian. In later years her partnership with Garrick was so firm and her insight into what an actress needed for control and respect that she worked to become a manager-partner with Garrick. She could not overcome the prejudice (in Garrick) against women, but she did, until an organic disease (in her stomach it’s said) overcame her, live a fulfilling splendid comfortable life. And again (as I have in many of these sketches from the beginning) found a good biography, Mary Nash’s The Provok’d Wife (Boston, Little Brown, 1977) and a couple of informative recent articles (by Helen Brooks).


Thomas Arne by Zoffany

There is an odd disconnect between her parentage and the musicianship both she and her brother became as masterly at. Her father and grandfather (who died in Marshalsea Prison) were upholsterers (artisans), her mother a midwife and devout Catholic. From parish registers we know that between 1710 and 1718 Anne and Thomas Arne baptised 8 infants: 5 of them died quickly; Susannah was the fourth child, born February 14, 1714, the second of three to survive. Probably because the father was ambitious, he was able to recognize genius-level talent in his son, Thomas, and Susannah. Thomas was first sent to Eton and then apprenticed as a clerk to a lawyer; he rebelled and one story tells of Thomas learning to play the violin in secret. He acquired a clavichord, a player, mastered the keyboard. They lived in the Convent Garden area, and slowly Arne began to become part of the companies playing; knew the people, wrote and worked with them on music, and then produced superb musical events with them.  Eventually he became one of the best and important composers of the era (1710-78), and among his friends, the equally talented, Henry Carey (1687-1743) and Johann Freidrich Lampe (1703-51, wrote scripts).

By contrast, the father had paid for singing lessons for Susannah for years — no need to spend money sending her to the right school to be taught to conform. She begins to sing professionally; one of her earliest professional roles was in Carey’s Amelia. She sang her brother’s music. In this early time she sang in Carey’s Rosamond (play by Addison) and her “expressive sweet contralto” won Handel over (whose Deborah she sang) and was a runaway success at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1733). Unfortunately, she caught the eye of Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley, an obnoxious bully, sexually abusive of any woman he became involved with (his exhausted wife, Jane Cibber, married 1725, had just died), and her father by now in bad debt, she was confronted, bullied by him driven into marrying this man known as a vicious brute. She had been revulsed by Cibber, tried to hold out with her mother on her side. She had an earnest, melancholy sensitive character. There were worse men about, marriage was a form of protection (literally and from a reputation for promiscuity for unmarried actresses), and of course the two Cibbers were enormously influential in the theater.

At first Susannah was as prodigal as Theo (quickly pregnant), fitting herself into what he wanted; I would put it she accepts training by her father-in-law who recognized her capabilities. In the crowded scheduled super-busy Drury Lane, Susannah lands a break-through role in tragedy (she was hemmed in partly because roles were understood as belonging to the actress who first realized and made a hit with it), her first such role, in Aaron Hill’s translation of Voltaire’s Zaire as Zara.  Hill fancied himself knowing in dramatic art, Thomas Arne wrote the music  Her very frailty after giving birth for the first time was part of what appealed. She began to rack up (as it were) tragic and grave parts: Andromache in Philips’s Distrest Mother, Indiana in Steele’s Conscious Lovers, Amanda in Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. Meanwhile Theo was taking these braggart coarse roles (Pistol). Those writing about her next step talk of how naive she was, how she never did anything without a man’s approbation, calling her a “priestess of sensibility.”

But what was she to do and what did she do? she broke or tried to break her marital relationship. With all his physical bullying, driving her to work when she was pregnant, she had apparently established during the second pregnancy she was not going to sleep with him (he reproaches for this seethingly), and she moves to put a stop to being put into roles where she’d be publicly mortified. She had loathed how he spoke of and presented her as a “laughable public property.” Most of all of his insisting she take the role of Polly in Beggar’s Opera, which brought down on her Catherine Clive’s vituperative wrath. She had gone to Fleetwood for support, but he refused; nonetheless, she resisted taking Polly, insisted from now on she would decide what roles she took and what not. He went into a “cyclonic rage” and broke down the door of her dressing room, took all cash, her whole wardrobe, all her jewels, and sold it all. Basically the law gave him the right to strip her naked and leave her broke, with no shelter.

Lady Arabella: I won’t come home till four tomorrow.
Lord Loverule: I’ll order the doors locked at twelve.
Lady Arabella: Then I won’t come home till tomorrow.
Lord Loverule Then you shall never come home again, Madam.
— Vanbrugh, The Journey to London

It’s at this point William Sloper, the country squire who would make a crucial difference for her quiet eventually and for the rest of her enters the story. When later Cibber went to court and accused her and Sloper of adultery, it was said that it was Cibber who openly demanded she go to bed with Sloper for a sum of money Cibber would collect. Certainly he let the man visit his house. But an equally probable trajectory tells of how she had met Sloper at the Cibber home in Wild Court, and taught her to play backgammon. They would sit apart talking companionably; their temperaments were compatible.  His wife admired her in Othello; she learned of his splendid house, West Woodhay. He brought needed food to the house, disbursed money to half-paid servants.  Cannot it not equally and more likely be she chose this sensitive man, especially since Cibber began to resent him (especially when in prison)? Between Susannah’s salary and Sloper’s gifts, Cibber was doing very well when out of prison, but he wanted Susannah to be discreet, but now when he tried to get her to take Clive’s role of Ophelia in Hamlet (Clive was clearly unsuited for this role), Susannah would not even attend rehearsals.

The story is complicated, and includes the two lovers taking a flat apart (Blue Cross Street, Leicester Fields), moving again (Kensington lodgings), Sloper’s wife separating herself from him, then Cibber writing her a long crazed letter (Nash, 117-22), which Nash describes as hysterical, a mad, sly letter, so groveling and so menacing, so rambling and so calculating,” where there is also an assume “iron grip” on Susannah. She was now pregnant by Sloper; they capitulate for a while to the appearance of a menage a trois, — before throwing him out. There is another series of letters by Cibber. They flee to hide, but Cibber finds them out, goes after them with hired thugs and guns, and tries to wrest her from Sloper. She is dragged out of the house, but the two will not be parted. It all ends in a humiliating court case where Susannah is utterly shamed.  Even if the judge wanted to sympathize with her, the law was clear that it was Cibber who was the abused person; she, the vile sinner. Cibber asked for 5000£; the jury awarded him 10£. Some did understand Theophilus Cibber was as “depraved and rapacious” as the roles he played (Nash, 151).


West Woodhay house

It is from this nadir, Susannah climbs a long way back. It took a long time and to my way of thinking we ought to admire and respect her wondrously. She was pregnant, utterly shattered from shame and spent two years as if she were “a runway slave,” so fearful was she (and Sloper) that Cibber would make good on new threats unless (say) Sloper paid all his new debts; he advertised his case all over again, but still she kept fleeing (now with a young baby girl around whom Sloper and Susannah would eventually build a family life). Cibber was “still under a recognizance not to threaten or molest” Susannah and so he went to court again. Again he had to win because all law and custom was on his side; he was awarded 500£ (not the 10,000£ he asked for) and apparently he could not go to court again. I drop Theo’s story now: he sold his preposterous missives to the booksellers. He did continue to harass and threaten her and Sloper whenever he could; he drowned in 1758 crossing over to Dublin.

The two lovers disappear (perhaps from the British Isles) and the next time she emerges, it’s November 1741 and she is “under the protection of,” working with and for James Quinn and Friedrich Handel in Dublin. Again as told this is “amazing:” what “can explain the willingness of this timid woman to leave her retirement with William Sloper … ” Maybe she was not so timid; maybe her acting career was a raison d’etre of life for her; she had not chosen to be an actress (though she clearly sang from the time she was young, opinion is divided on her sophistication), but once started, maybe she loved the power over an audience, the accomplishment, the acting out of these different identities, the interaction with other actors. She didn’t have to invent a story, she could take someone else’s and express herself as an actress and through song.


Susannah Cibber by Thomas Hudson

Several elements went into her recovery of herself and her career. First she had a happy good relationship with William Sloper who admired her partly because of her career. He had money, connections, influence. Her first, and now in the second longer, phase of her career she made friends, was liked, she worked hard and had real talent for acting and singing and she had learned well on the job. She had grasped from what happened in courts and her hidden life, she was not as much Theo’s “chattel” as she had thought, but she did remain socially elusive except for when she and Sloper were at home in his country estate. Now her life is made up of her many many acting roles — mostly poignant, grave, or tragic. Nash says her singing was “mediocre,” but she riveted audiences. Charles Burney said how effective she was in recitative; there was an “emotional projection of words;” she was an actress when she sang. Nash writes: “there was something inconsolable, something irremediably melancholy about Susanna Cibber.”  (She seems to have had an opposite character to Catherine Clive.) It was with Spranger Barry (another of her partners on stage) in Romeo and Juliet that the lovers are described as “heart-rending.” She would also take virtuous heroines: she was the sorely-tried Aspasia in Johnson’s Irene.

She formed a strong partnership with Garrick (“the least promiscuous, the most conventional of men”); she felt safe with him; they made an effective couple on stage where the chemistry was transparent. Their highly performative letters survive and it is here we see her attempting to persuade Garrick to let her be a partner in the theater management or patent. Eventually she was the winner in her “wars” with Clive; the public stayed with this disgraced woman. Everyone knows how much Garrick did to make and keep Shakespeare’s plays central to the English stage. She was paid altogether an enormous salary while still in good health.


David Garrick, by Thomas Gainsborough

But her last years were marred by her “chronic stomach disorder” which emaciated her towards the end. She had to give up her heavy schedule. She did long for social acceptance by upper class women, be they titled or of the bluestocking variety, and never had it — neither did most actresses of the era. Mrs Siddons was a remarkable exception; so too Frances Abingdon. She never belonged to any group of women, and we find her maintaining close relationships with her family members: her daughter, her sister-in-law, Cecilia Arne (whom her brother mistreated), Sloper’s sister, Margaret Lethieulllier, who defied convention by coming to stay for long visits to West Woodhay.  Sloper and she hoped for much for their son; he was enrolled in Westminster but he died in the first year away in school. They educated Molly lovingly (in manners, musical accomplishments, an educated taste); she married a well-born clergyman, a love match, and was accepted by his community, but she died young, age 46. Susannah probably hoped for something more from her relationship with Garrick, though hard to say what; when he retired from the stage, it was a blow for her — he had regarded stage as having “almost civic importance” and had transformed Drury Lane. James Quinn, one of her strong supporters, died just two weeks before her. She died January 30, 1766, age 51.  She was buried not in Westminster Abbey itself (like Garrick, Anne Oldfield), but in the North Cloister, a sort of anteroom. William Sloper died three years after the death of their daughter. I imagine him lonely after the death of Susannah and his two children by her.

The one final command performance Garrick did before the king his heroine was Susannah Cibber and since the king wanted to see a comedy (and Susannah’s strength was in serious parts), the choice became Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife. Nash says Susannah had a “passionate fondness” for this role: a young woman “wretchedly married to Sir John Brute, who not only neglects, but loathes and even physically assaults her.” She is “tenderly wooed by Constant,” a discreet, eloquent, patient and faithful lover, and if she is not yet Constant’s mistress when the play closes, the idea is waiting to be fulfilled off-stage. So Lady Brute does not die nor is she reconciled or resigned to her husband. She asks herself: “What did I vow? … I think I swore to be true to my husband. And he promised to be kind to me. But he hasn’t kept his word. Why, then, I’m absolved from mine” (Nash 313-15). I have read this play myself and find the scenes of the husband with his wife, implied mistress, and servants distressing. Susannah could and did play her part with “special animation” and “poignancy.”


Jonathan Slinger and Alexandria Gilbreath as the Brutes (RSC, 2019)

If Jane Austen never got to see either on the stage, she knew of them by their reputations, books, and read the plays they were in.

Ellen

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Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife (for the origin and my first adumbration of this perspective: What she said about Tudor queens)

I read history a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all … Catherine Morland, Northanger Abbey, I:14)

Friends and readers,

After all, for my first 2020 blog I have an innovative perspective on Jane Austen’s Juvenilia to share. For the coming JASNA to be held in St Louis, Missouri, in which the topic is to be Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, I sent in a proposal where I said I would demonstrate that in her The History of England, Jane Austen meant to burlesque the norms shaping the way “history, real solemn history” was written in her era, and to include and to defend not just infamous women, but forgotten and underappreciated ones. Her text goes beyond vindicating Mary Queen of Scots, and the Stuart kings and the English house of York, well beyond parodying Oliver Goldsmith’s popular history. She is a partisan defender of women, and places them in her text at every opportunity given, and ostentatiously refuses to make numinous figures out of powerful men.

This is a development from that proposal.


Mary Queen of Scots, contemporary portrait by Federico Zuccai or Alsonso Sanchez Coello


From 2018 Mary Queen of Scots (directed by Rosie Rourke); we see Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan as Mary and her ladies and David Rizzo: the most recent image

The effect of Austen’s attitude, tone, details, parody and insistent bringing in of women is to go beyond Tudor and Stuart history as it is usually found in books published in the 18th century: say Robertson’s and Hume’s histories of the Tudor and Stuart period, and what is found in Catherine Macaulay’s Whiggish history. I was going to quote from these works to show the way they are male-dominated, with a perspective that is top down and (ultimately) Big Man history even if the culture and social and economic life of the country is not ignored. This is a little book which should be included in the history of history writing by women.

The startling thing is how Austen surprises even the alert reader by how much she knows about obscurer women and men, and must herself have read in an alienated way, against the grain of her courses to get beyond common bogus distortions. The only cited date is a letter between Anne Boleyn and King Henry: that’s easy, it comes from Goldsmith. But one concise sentence referring to Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife, is packed with suggestion: “The King’s last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it” (Austen, Juvenilia, Cambridge ed P. Sabor, 181-82). Parr did not just passively luckily outlive the king; she had to actively thwart his attempt to arrest her when her intelligent writing and political and religious views threatened (as Anne Boleyn had done) to go beyond what he meant to do by taking over the Church of England. Yet where can she have learned that Parr actively rescued herself — she is not included in Shakespeare or the better known plays about Perkin Warbeck (by John Ford).


Portrait of Anne Boleyn (1507-London, 1536), Queen of England. Painting by unknown artist, oil on panel, ca 1533-1536


From 2003 The Other Boleyn Girl scripted by Philippa Lowthorpe: Jared Harris and Jodha May as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

There is an excellent book on Katherine Parr’s life, reading, writing, intelligence by Linda Porter: Katherine the Queen, which I would have used. Also other good biographies of Renaissance women, of which there are many. Yes it’s true that Austen could not have time-traveled and read this book; rather she has to have read with alertness all the comments, assertions and counter-assertions on Tudor women in the romances and various histories of the era. In her letters in her later years she writes of reading history aloud with Fanny and Cassandra; she would have read the kinds of sources that went into Sophia Lee’s The Recess and later Walter Scott’s The Abbot and Monastery. Austen makes fun of the historical informative impulse in Scott after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, but in this earlier work we see she went for the same kind of material we find referred to offhand by Charlotte Smith and Anne Radcliffe (in her 1794 A Journey Made in the Summer [Germany into Italy was planned). Radcliffe has read astonishingly in the annals of the places she visits. Scott did not write out of a vacuum. It interests me how avid a reader Austen was of Scott, obtaining each volume as it came out (including, she was in time for, The Antiquarian)


Early depiction of Elizabeth Tudor (I) attributed to William Scrots


Glenda Jackson as the young Elizabeth, just come to the throne (1971 BBC serial drama)

A second context for her depiction of women in this young woman’s parodic didactic text will be her letters where she explains why she takes the adamant tone she does when defending a woman. In a letter to Martha Lloyd she remains fiercely on the side of “Poor Woman,” Queen Caroline of Brunswick “because she is a woman & because I hate her husband. She admits Caroline’s flaws but resolves nevertheless “to think that she would have been respectable if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first … “

— I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales’s Letter,” Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband — but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself “attached & affectionate” to a Man whom she must detest — & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad. — I do not know what to do about it; — but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. —-(Austen’s Letters, ed LeFaye, 4th edition, 16 February 1813, 216-17).

I will argue the attitude of mind here, is one which pays attention to the original perpetrator of abuse, notices how harassment which claims love as its motive is a form of torment that inflicts misery on even unsympathetic women (Elizabeth I, 185-86). I counted no less than 18 women (Catherine, French wife of Henry V; Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; Joan of Arc; Edward IV’s bethrothed, Bona of Savoy [referred to, not named) and wife, Elizabeth Woodville, his mistress Jane Shore; Richard III’s wife, Anne (whom she denies was murdered by her husband); Henry VII’s wife, Elizabeth of York, his daughter Margaret who married the Scottish James V; five of Henry VIII’s six wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, Katherine Parr [not named referred to as “the king’s last wife”], Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scot, Anne of Denmark). Some are not named and our narrator frets then that she does not know the woman’s name.

Hers is a history with plenty of women in it. I intended to go over and use the marginalia to Austen’s copy of Goldsmith’s History of England, and the copious notes found in the Cambridge Juvenilia volume edited by Peter Sabor. Austen’s History of England is an exuberant but also richly intertextual work.


From excellent forgotten 1970 Shadow of the Tower (first episode by Rosemary Anne Sisson): James Maxwell as Henry VII and Norma West as Elizabeth of York (also a poet)

I would have used Thomas Penn’s The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England; here is a YouTube, 15 minutes of an hour long lecture by Penn on the “most notorious invader of England” (he whole available on Amazon Prime) because he had so little right to the throne: Henry Owen Tudor

Finally I proposed to have some fun showing how Austen’s extraordinarily alert iconoclastic stances (as when she treats historical characters in the same way she does fictional ones by showing how she anticipates some of the more interesting film history and adaptations of our own era. I was going to bring in my laptop and show clips from older and recent film history and adaptations of novels set in the Renaissance era.

But my proposal was rejected and so now I’ll not do any of this. What a shame! It is speculation, not evidence. Meant to stir the mind to see Austen in another light as well as her era. Also to be feminist. I could have read part of Elizabeth of York’s (1465-1503) “sestina,” one of the earliest poems in English by a woman (see one of my earliest foremother poet essays):

I pray to Venus

My heart is set upon a lusty pin;
I pray to Venus of good continuance,
For I rejoice the case that I am in,
Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,
Of all comfort having abundance;
This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin –
My heart is set upon a lusty pin

I pray to Venus of good continuance,
Since she has set me in the way of ease;
My hearty service with my attendance
So to continue it ever I may please;
Thus voiding from all penseful diease,
Now stand I whole far from all grievance –
I pray to Venus of good continuance,

For I rejoice the case that I am in,
My gladness is such that giveth me no pain,
And so to sorrow never shall I blynne,
My heart and I so set ’tis certain
We shall never slake, but ever new begin
For I rejoice the case that I am in,

Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,
That all my joy I set as aught of right,
To please as after my simple suffisance
To me the goodliest, most beauteous in sight;
A very lantern to all other light,
Most to my comfort on her remembrance–
Deliver’d from sorrow, annex’d to pleasance,

Of all comfort having abundance;
As when I think that goodlihead
Of that most feminine and meek countenance
Very mirror and star of womanhead;
Whose right good fame so large abroad doth spread,
Full glad for me to have recognisance –
Of all comfort having abundance.

This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin –
so that I am so far forth in the trace,
My joys be double where others are but thin,
For I am stably set in such a place
Where beauty ‘creaseth and ever willeth grace,
Which is full famous and born of noble kin–
This joy and I, I trust, shall never twin.

Note the puns.

The JASNA members would have loved this paper. I got the usual hypocrisy over how there were so many applicants and how they had to turn away so many excellent proposals for papers of merit. Papers are also chosen by who is giving the paper and what kinds of people the organizers want, who they are connected to, how they relate to Austen. My hunch is they hardly looked at it. If you tell me it is too learned, I will laugh at you. Much of it a stretch. And meant to be fun. But yes grounded in the era and Austen’s texts and those she liked to read.

Why do I not write it up and send it to Persuasions? the two organizers asked. Ah yes.  Right.  As they well know, because Persuasions prefers papers given at the conference. As my daughter, Izzy, said to me last year when we did not make some final cut to join 800+ at the JASNA in Williamsburg (even though we were quite early in registering online), what do we pay this yearly fee for? She belongs to two organizations, one professional, American Library and another which professes to be a combination of personal interest (fans) and scholars; in both cases your money guarantees you a space at the AGM. I suggested it was the periodical and newsletter.

Ellen

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Jo (Maya Hawke) and Amy (Kathryn Newton) dressing in opening scene in the 2017 Little Women (scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswill)

Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day … In front of them the sky now showed itself of a reddish-yellow, like a slice of some semilucent stone behind which a lamp burnt, while a fringe of black trees with distinct branches stood against the light, which was obscured in one direction by a hump of earth, in all other directions the land lying flat to the very verge of the sky. One of the swift and noiseless birds of the winter’s night seemed to follow them across the field, circling a few feet in front of them, disappearing and returning again and again — Virginia Woolf, Night and Day, Chapter 15)

Friends and readers a Winter Solstice/Christmas blog:

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We’ve got father and mother and each other,” said Beth contentedly, from her corner …. (Chapter 1)

Of course everyone remembers the opening line of Little Women, and (I hope) the opening sequence, where though the March girls are feeling they are among the deprived, are led by their ever vigilantly alert to the worst-misfortunes-of-others mother to go to a downright starving freezing family, sitting in rags in a hovel in the pitch dark, the mother having recently given birth to baby and give them their Christmas dinner (Chapter 2).

But did you know that Christmas is a recurring incident in Alcott’s famous book, like winter, brought back repeatedly, most of the time (as in Austen) as a way of creating realistic time, so fleetingly, and but crucially too (this very unlike Austen), dwelt on at length so as to provide vivid vignettes of camaraderie and carefully mitigated disaster, and sweet human togetherness.


Little Women — iconic scene of girls gathering round mother to be read too — here though it is a telegram (1970 BBC LW, Angela Downe as Jo, scripted Denis Constanduros)

When Mrs March receives a telegram from the civil war front urging her to come to her husband who is very ill, it is mid-November, and much of ensuing desperate, generous, and comic action occurs in the cold, dark and snowy winter, including Jo selling her long hair to get up money for the mother’s train fare. The father comes home as a “Christmas present,” and the first order of business is to sit down to “such a Christmas dinner” as anyone would revel in (“the fat turkey was a sight to behold … so was the plum pudding …”, and all sit down round the fire, drinking healths, telling stories, singing, “reminiscing,” foregoing the planned “sleigh ride” until another day (Chapters 15 on and off through 22)

I had remembered from more than one Little Women movie (I’ve seen at least 7) the putting on of a play around Christmas, as a separate time, but looking at my old book for adolescent girls (Grosset and Dunlap, illustrated by Louis Jambor) I find Jo’s writing of plays, acting and directing in an amateur theater are all part of the opening sequence. The play, as we all recall, is an “Operatic Tragedy,” the story of a stalking villain, Hugh, who hated Roderigo, loves Zara, with cabalistic outfits, comic gothicism in five fun acts (Chapter 2)


Laurie (Peter Lawford) gives Jo (Katharine Hepburn) some kittens for Christmas (1931, LW, George Cukor)

When Jo goes to New York to become a professional writer, the season is again November, and her first meeting with Mr Bhaer (she learns to call him Professor only much later) is during the Christmas week when she is feeling especially lonely, and so is he, and they agree for her to read to him “these pleasant little Marchen together,” while he teaches her German. They read Hans Christian Anderson together too, and unexpectedly to Jo (but not to us) her “big, muddy, battered-looking” “Christmas bundle” arrives, “so homey and refreshing” that “I sat down on the floor and read and looked and ate and laughed, and cried, in my usual way.” “The things” are “just what I wanted,” and “all the better for being made instead of bought,” which must exclude “the books father had marked.” Mr Bhaer gives her “a fine Shakespeare … one that he values much.” “Poor as he is,” he has made a present for every person in the house, servants and children too. Downstairs “they got up a masquerade;” Jo is at first not going to go, “having no dress … ” but “some old brocades” are remembered, a loan of “lace and feathers” takes place, and Jo goes as Mrs Malaprop in her mask.” This is all in a letter which ends very happily with Jo’s vow to “take more interest in other people than I used to” as Marmee has advised (Chapter 33).


Jo (Winona Ryder) and Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Bryne) pouring over manuscripts and drawings in their New York lodgings (1994 LW, scripted Robin Swicord, directed Gillian Armstrong)

I have here emphasized how the earlier part of the book are more didactic and more obviously aimed at adolescent girls. The later part (once called Good Wives) shows a change of focus to include young women, especially when the book turns to Jo’s career as a writer in her parents’ attic and life as a single unmarried daughter in the house. And in the text, Christmas drops out of sight, and Jo meets her beloved teacher once again not in winter, but years later in the mud and rain of spring.

Izzy and I intend to go to Greta Gerwig’s new Little Women, which begins with Jo in New York, trying to sell a manuscript. Laura, my other daughter, has already seen it and will be publishing her review for Elite Daily on Christmas Day. Despite a probably valiant attempt to update the book, and turn Little Women into wholly adolescent girl/adult book (see interview of Gerwig by Gabrielle Donnelly), Gertwig will not be able to lift the material too far from the original to stay true to its ethics. For her too (LW is my sixth of ten most influential books) this is a seminal book, one she can hardly remember not knowing, so often and so far back has she been reading it.


Meg (Emma Watson) Jo (Saoirse Ronan) Beth (Eliza Scanlan) and Amy (Florence Pugh) (2019, LW, Greta Gerwig et aliae)

I signed up for a course in Louisa May Alcott’s books, where we will read all Little Women (using the Norton Critical edition), her Hospital Sketches (Applewood) and a Long Fatal Love Chase (Dell). I’ve blogged on Anne Boyd Rioux’s Meg Jo Beth Amy: why Little Women still matters and on Louisa separately in Writing for Immortality.

So this is a looking forward to next year meditation too: I’m torn whether to buy the Norton (with its young girl picture) or the two Library of America volumes, edited by Elaine Showalter in paperback.

To conclude in the spirit of Alcott:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

— Mary Oliver

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

From Previous Years:

For Christmas in Jane Austen’s novels and letters, her 18th century perspective


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

For Christmas at Trenwith and Nampara: two occasions at length in the Poldark novels


Christmas at Trenwith, Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza, frightened, first visit, questioned by Caroline Blakiston as Aunt Agatha (Poldark, 2014, Season 1, Episode 4 — corresponding to the last quarter of Ross Poldark

Ellen

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Mary Wollstonecraft (1758-97)

“I don’t believe you realise how much the war has stung our generation. We have had the bottom of things knocked out completely, we have been sent reeling into the chaos and it seems to us that none of your standards are either fixed or necessarily good because in the end they resulted in the smash-up. We have to try to make a world for ourselves, based it as far as possible on love and awareness, mentally and bodily, because it seems to us that all the repressions and formulae, all the cutting off of part of our experience, which perhaps looked sensible and even right, in those calm years have not worked. Much has been taken from us,and we will stick like fury to what is left, and lay hold on life as it comes to us” — Naomi Mitchison’s War Diaries (1940-45, quoted in Elaine Showalter’s Inventing Herself, but I am reading this book late at night)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been blogging under this sign for nearly 20 years now, and have completed (or broken off from) several series of blogs, viz., most strikingly actresses, foremother poets, women artists. Not all of these series were about women in the imaginative arts, though; I’ve done several serial dramas from over a single season (Wolf Hall) (however defined) to several, some based on series of books (Poldark, Outlander), original dramas. I’ve shared papers and sessions from academic conferences I’ve been to. I’ve look at types of genres (historical fiction, biography). Individual authors and individual books. Individual movies. All Austen’s letters as organized and edited by Deirdre Le Faye, biographies of her close relatives, The Austen papers, and French contexts for reading Austen. One problem is I do forget to tag, and I do these on my other blog too (Ellen and Jim have a blog, two) so the sets are scattered. My longest ones (except for Austen’s letters) are over there, viz., The Pallisers. Tom Jones.


Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse (Joshua Reynolds)

Some of these were given up because I’d finished the thing I set out to do (all Austen’s letters), I was beyond my area of expertise (recent poetry) Some what with teaching, serious projects I’ve not been able to or make time to write a three part blog-essay more than once every two weeks, if that. I keep inventing things that take me into social groups, out of the house. I proposed to teach a two-part course at the Politics and Prose bookstore: 4 French women writers & eras, beginning with the poetic masterpiece by Stael, Corinne, ou l’Italie, for 3 sessions, then a break and consecutively 1 session each of George Sand’s Indiana, Marguerite Duras’s war memoir, La Guerre (occupied France from her vantage point), and then recent lesbian feeling novel about Marie Antoinette and her ladies, Farewell, My Queen by Chantal Thomas (exquisitely sensitive beautifully meditative book). I’d love to add Winter in Majorca (time spent by Sand with Chopin), but there was no go (no offer of position or classes to teach) for this non-famous person with no connections that counted. But I will still attend a few sessions on specific fine books (like Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy the first novel, Sarah Water’s Night Watch) there scattered across the spring.


Joanna Mary Boyce (died so young), The Heath Gatherer

That I’ve no idea how to sell myself or anything else much to the general public may be seen in my not having more than 176 subscribers and about half the number of followers. For individual blogs that land in some moment of popular notice, the numbers will go way up, but not from anything I’ve done. I trust, gentle reader, you and I and the other 175 enjoy or find some kind of profit from what I put here.

I’m contemplative and surveying this evening to push myself on to return to these series, especially the poets, actresses (I’ve written about singer-actresses, including Judy Garland), and painters (one scientific farmer, Beatrice Potter too).


Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds


Beatrice Potter squirrel from her children’s books

I felt some stirrings recently, today over a blog on an exhibition going on right now of women Pre-Raphaelite painters, Nick Holland’s blog on an unfinished deeply imaginatively, fantastical fragment by Charlotte Bronte (how could such a spirit be localized into the demands of the realistic novel?). This week I read (for the first time) Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, watched the poignant movie, and returned to these working class English women’s writing of the 1950s (Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, A Story of Two lives anyone?)


Vera Brittain (1893-1970)

As evidence of good continuing interest in women and the arts (of all kinds) I finally finished reading Elaine Showalter’s Inventing Herself: it’s a book made up of a series of portraits (some long and some sort in a group style) women who achieved as feminists in their writing and active lives. Beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft, taking us through Margaret Fuller, Olive Schreiner, Eleanor Marx, Charlotte Gilmore Perkins (daughter hated her), Elsie Clews Parsons (?! — yes an important later 19th century writer), early 20th century Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, Nora Zeale Thurston, Rebecca West and Vera Brittain, moving into the middle years, Mary MacCarthy and Hannah Arendt (more alike than you think), Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag (ditto), and then very recent, names I read as contemporaries, Nancy Miller, Adrienne Rich, Ann Douglas, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, taking us to Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton (a rousing defense) and Diana Spencer (died young spectacularly, Showalter unexpectedly sympathized). All of them had to live unconventional highly self-centered lives in order to be the writer or woman she became; demoralizing to see that before the early 20th century a woman had to be chaste to have any social capital; from the mid-20th a woman had to make herself sexually available, or seeming so to radical men to get anywhere. I was surprised at how many had become enthralled by or to a man, and this become a crucial determinant in the existence they led. There is no false idealization: Sontag was able to travel and write the books she did because she perpetually partnered with very rich people. Beauvoir’s claim she did not become a feminist until after 1947 (her trip to the US) disingenuous.

73 years old the end of this week, tiring, failing better than I used to, I shall go down with all flags flying.   I do everything together with others, except meet …

I cheer myself up by keeping watching the recent Durrells of Corfu, the dose, an episode every three nights (I love the music, scripts, cartoons, actors), backed up by midnight dream reading of Laurence Durrell’s island books. Perhaps my first new actress will be Barbara Flynn, aka Aunt Hermione — pitch perfect in this series. How I find her characteristic characters so appealing. To my eyes she is beautiful still.


From the Durrells of Corfu, you see Keeley Hawes as Louisa from the back

Ellen

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Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) threatening Offred (Elisabeth Moss): why so repulsive and terrifying

Sometimes (sadly) it seems Austen is the only writer among some of my favorites whom I’ve not gotten to. This fall I’ve been reading Margaret Atwood (oh yes again!), her Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, a supposed and part-sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale, but much more a reaction to (mostly against) the TV serial, which by now has turned into voyeuristic misogyny (what can we do to hurt women exquisitely painfully? show them hurting one another), mistaken by some for feminism (strength used for evil purposes, complicity and collusion mistaken for community, coercion for choice). I’ve reread her very first sinister comedy, The Edible Woman, which ends with the heroine avoiding the fate of marriage to a man who would devour (destroy) her; and am reading her most recent ghost-ridden desperate comedy, Stone Mattress, 9 tales (she says) of witches. I’m more than half-way through Laura Esquivel’s magical realism, Like Water for Chocolate, where the punishing of a few young and older women by a horrifically violent hateful faux matriarch, just startles me, especially since the daughters keep coming back for more. The movie (written by her, produced and directed by her husband) is soporific because it turns the material into an inane celebration.

A good essay on Rachel Cusk by Lucasta Miller (of all people) in Times Literary Supplement sent me back to her Aftermath, which I can see would make me bond with her, but lies unread for now on a TBR pile. She is castigated for telling hard truths about marriage, motherhood, and all their accompanying glorification rituals.

In all these cases I have taken extensive notes or gone to a class and taken down intelligent and insightful comments by others, or information, or felt hope, but none of it coherent enough for an essay-blog. I can report that unexpectedly the traumas inflicted on Esquivel’s heroine are parallel to, sometimes the same paradigms I find in Atwood. I should not be surprised as Atwood is as fantastical as Esquivel and both are writing serious l’ecriture-femme. Thus far my first experience of magical realism has shown me it exists to provide humor, wish-fulfillment, some form of kindness and beauty in worlds otherwise grim and impoverished; it grows out of pseudo-science. Atwood’s dystopia shows character reacting perversely to scientific knowledge; using it to control others. The central section of her Testaments provides us with a Ardua Hall, a community of women who (reminding me of Sarah Scott’s 18th century Millenium Hall) need not marry or have children: a happy escape for most you might think, not from control, manipulation and even suicide for the central matriarchs (Aunt Lydia, Becka). Characters left standing now include Offred/June’s two daughters, Hannah now named Agnes Jemima and Nicole (pseudonym Jade).


The most unexpected heroine is Beatrice, our heroine’s spinster sister-in-law who marries late in the book and her life

Among older books I’ve read the strange and powerful early indirectly autobiographical English-style novel by Oliphant, Days of My Life, her first three Carlingford fictions, “The Executor” (short story), The Rector (novella) and The Doctor’s Family (longer novella, which last I agree with Penelope Fitzgerald and Merryn Williams can stand with among the most remarkable and powerful of English novellas. I’m now into Agnes. All these concern women estranged from a husband, or single women supporting a whole family, or the experience of being widowed, when the man you were married to was (most of the time) a heavy, painful irritating burden who was anything but grateful to the woman so naive to have chosen him. In the one case where the man is a good man, the heroine coldly rejects him until near the end because he has participated in tricking her into a marriage she cannot escape and whose terms demand full obedience and the offering up of her body to him nightly. Oliphant’s heroines anticipate Cusk’s.

Again my notes are long and various; they are shoring up my idea that the anomaly (the woman living apart from men or at least responsible for herself) is not an anomaly and can show up far more starkly than stories of married women the painful inexorable predicaments patriarchy or a male hegemonic order inflicts on many women. Curiously in all the cases I’ve been reading widowhood is a liberation, and the woman who was a library waiting to happen emits books at a rapid rate for the rest of her days, from real women (Oliphant and Fitzgerald) to fictional ones (Atwood’s Constance in her “Alphinland” in Stone Mattress).


A curious figurine for Lady Halkett found on wikipedia

I was very disappointed in a study of English civil war spies, where I had read Anne Murray Halkett was to be a central figure: but while Nadine Akkermann in her Invisible Agents recognized in print what no one but me (as far as I can tell) that what silenced, thwarted and skewed all presentations of Halkett is that she lived outside marriage with the spy-mole (some would call him a traitor) Colonel Bampfield and on her own (by herself! in Edinburgh), this long period of her life is treated briefly and what is talked about at length are her superficial literally active machinations for a brief period as a spy herself (“colorful” spy story stuff) as if in these are found her primary source of strength and interest. It’s her sustaining her identity against all odds, her self true to her Scots and Cavalier connections and norms as well as her high intelligence and extraordinary ability with narrative that one reads her for.

For Austen in a (it turns out) misguided attempt to help keep a Janeites list alive and remain close to Austen in some way I have been close reading a series of essays in Persuasions 40 on Persuasion; my notes here are more coherent and shorter than those for all of the above; I had hoped for debates about the issues in the essays by others on this list, but it seemed those who are active were not interested in the arguments or points made by the essayist. But I am nowhere near the end of the volume (it’s huge if you count in what’s put on line) so I can hardly say for sure (though this is true of the printed 18) the volume is wholly fitted into an agenda where Austen is presented as optimistic, conservative leaning, didactic and conventional in outlook if spectacular in as an artist and intertextual super-genius (outed by these writers).


Best performance and most interesting character in Davies’s (et alia) Sanditon is Charlotte Spencer’s Esther Denham

I have been watching Andrew Davies’s Sanditon, and have read through Austen’s own fragment once again, but for me far more watching and re-watching of this jarring series and reading not only of the fragment, but about a few other of the important continuations (by Anna Lefroy, Chris Brindle) and insightful essays on the book (Janet Todd has one in her recent edition of Sanditon) are needed before I can say anything sensible, accurate, useful for anyone else. Austen’s is a work whose suggestiveness if truly written about would break apart the Persuasions monolithic agenda.


Catherine Despard, probably his legal wife, was the Creole daughter of a freed African woman who herself “owned” enslaved people; after he was hanged, she disappears from the historical record — perhaps went to Ireland in the hope his family might recognize or help her

That’s where I’ve been this month when it comes to women writers or the eighteenth century beyond reading a remarkable informative and insightful book on Edward Despard (Mike Jay’s The Unfortunate Colonel Despard), whose complicated and compromised life first as a military man and engineer for the powerful and rich and slave-owners, then as a elected reformer trying to build a working colony out of all the people in South & Latin American lands and waters (Nicaragua, Jamaica) Debbie Horsfield exploited but (I find) misrepresented in ways that support the establishment’s view of him as deluded — so that her fifth season of Poldark remains as anti-French revolution and muddled on English reformists as her fourth season where she at least had a coherent book (The Angry Tide): towards the end of the season (the last two episodes) she turned to the genre of action-adventure thriller.

I enjoy still the (to me) deeply touching persuasive romance of the love of Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser for her Jamie Mackenzie Fraser but I know this is based on a fantasy configuration of a an impossibly lucky morally and physically courageous well-educated female individual (using the few humane 1950s norms) finding validation (most improbably) and companionship, understanding from a protective tenderly loving analogously well-educated Highlander (using idealisms drawn from 18th century Highlander culture), both made supremely intelligent, loyal people of unusual integrity. I am pouring into them my dreams of what was my and Jim’s relationship over our lives. Gabaldon’s politics themselves are deeply retrograde, supportive of patriarchy

With a co-opted writers like these last two (I will be writing a blog on the Poldark‘s fifth season) supposedly on the side of “strong” women making central TV films, I begin to despair of any feminist movement in the popular media dramatizing on behalf of meaningful progress for women. I was using the word stunned to describe how I see the position of women today and how the better older and more recent feminist humane (not all feminists are humane) writers are misrepresented, castigated but be-prized (some of them), but I saw a better one used of herself by an FB friend: drained. She felt (and I also feel) drained.

Ellen

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