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Watteau, The Serenade

Day 8/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. (For Day 7/10, Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale). When I was around 17 or 18 years old, I was in a used bookstore in Manhattan called the Argosy. It was on 59th Street, near the corner of Lexington Avenue. How I got there I don’t know but someone must’ve told me about it — it seemed to be about 5 floors high with very old elevators (the kind that had gates that seemed near to falling on you), and each floor was filled with bookcases of dusty books, many very old and decidedly uninviting, some falling apart.

It was there I first came across Fanny Burney, in a one volume and in a three volume edition of her letters (brown, falling apart) and I have told that story in the Burney newsletter: “On First Encountering Fanny Burney D’Arblay.”  But it was what was nearby that riveted me truly: a single volume edition in French of the letters of Julie de Lespinasse, nearby a 3 volume edition in French of the letters of Madame Du Deffand. I opened them up and started to read and found them irresistible. I no longer have those books but I do have the Elibron facsimile of a 2 volume edition of Lespinasse and a 2 volume edition of the letters of DuDeffand edited by Chantal Thomas.

In the volume by Lespinasse I read she was frantically and abjectly in love with a M. Guilbert and wrote him desperate letters where she poured out her thoughts and feelings in the most eloquent language I had ever come across. In the course of telling the tortures of her soul, she talked freely about all sorts of things, writing dramatic scenes, commenting on books, on plays she’s gone, people she knows, but always she comes back to the main point, she loves him, she cannot do without him, why does he not write her, why does he not visit her, not even respond to her. It was a form of madness.


An engraving said to represent Madame du Deffand

Madame du Deffand was very different: acid melancholy, caustic wit, the most bitter and truthful comments about life, funny, she wrote mostly to a man I had never heard of before: Horace Walpole whom she was very fond of, but also Voltaire (I had heard of him) and people with strange (to me) titles, particularly one man, Heinault to whom she confided the secrets of her life. I’m sure I understood less than half of what I read but what I did read struck deep chords. At early point I understood she was blind. Well many years later I have read much about Lespinasse, niece to Deffand, and Benedetta Craveri’s Madame du Deffand and her world, and Chantal Thomas. I read these before I read the unabridged Clarissa.


Engraving representation of Julie

I took all these volumes home (including the Burney) in a big brown shopping bag, and since then have read even many later 18th century women’s letters and memoirs and novels, English and French. I typed and put two novels by two other women of this era (Sophie Cottin, Isabelle de Montolieu) on my website, and edited Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde for Valancourt Press. Jane Austen read some of these women (Stael, Genlis, for a start).


On the vast first floor

The Argosy still exists but is no longer many floors with ancient elevators; it’s one big floor with a basement and you buy many of its books through catalogues. Below is the Argosy from the outside ….

This coming fall I propose to read with a class at OLLI a paperback edition in English of Madame Roland’s autobiography and letters. I am very fond of a biography of her by Francoise Kermina, which is more insightful than the ones in English and also a Elibron facsimilar of a 19th century study of her by Charles Dauban which includes selection of letters by her to her friend and separate sketches of her relationships with different equally interesting people..


Alfonso Simonetti, Ancor Non Torna, illustration for 19th century Italian translation of Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest

I put Ann Radcliffe here too, anong these women: my love for her novels, and the one travel book comes out of how the tone of her mind is coterminous with the tone of these other women’s minds of the later 18th century. I know I love the gothic which increases what her books mean to me, but basically her Mysteries of Udolpho is such another as Stael’s Corinne, ou l’Italie, and Madame de Chastenay translated Radcliffe’s great book into French and left a 3 volume memoir of her own.


Watteau, Iris (detail inside much wider vaster mural)

Ellen

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Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh 1939 in Gone with the Wind

Diary

Friends,

Day 5/10 of books that influenced me (growing up lasts a long time), that had a discernible impact.

Again for me this is problematic. Between the ages of 13 and 15 I read and reread four books to the point I knew many scenes by heart and can today still conjure them up vividly in my mind. Undeniably (surely we are to to be truthful, or What are we doing in such an exercise?), the first up in time (I was 12) was Gone with The Wind. It came into our house as a book-of-the-month club special for my mother, and I sat down and began to read. I was so entranced (with a four column page) read it so much and so often that the copy fell into pieces. The cover illustration was a collage of scenes from the GWTW books (hence not like the one I find) but my copy was a reprint of the first edition, the ample book behind this older cover:


Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover

The problem is that even then I knew it was a racist book and I am today deeply ashamed of myself that I ignored this. (Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover.) It was wrong and racist behavior on my part as the book has functioned perniciously in US culture. Still I am not embarrassed in front of GWTW. I have seen this reaction when I used to assign to students to read a book from childhood and the young adult was embarrassed to realize what the book he or she so loved was. I regretted when that happened. My father tried to read The Secret Garden to me when I was 10 and had to give it up so mortified was he to see the agenda of Burnett’s book. These books answered to what we were then

I was Scarlett in my earliest readings. GWTW led to my reading a helluva of lot of Walter Scott in my earlier teens.  In later years I have decided the heroine of GWTW is Melanie. I shall never forget her standing at the top of the ruined stairs of Tara with a rifle, having killed the marauding soldier, and now determined to lug the corpse to the field to bury it. When Ashley comes home, Scarlett’s wild desire to run to him, and Will saying, “he’s her husband.” I’ve expanded the heroes to include Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes and Will Benteen.  I remember so many scenes from GWTW; they formed a backdrop of women’s key emotional moments in my mind. Scarlett in her mother’s green velvet curtains trying to charm money out of the imprisoned Rhett.

It’s women’s historical romance first and foremost.

I’ve never given up this type of book and some are leftist and liberal. My most recent wallowing has been in the distressingly pro-violence Outlander (the first three books) and the brilliant voyeuristic film adaptation: I find irresistible the central love relationship of Jamie and Claire, and I bond with Claire in book and film. I find irresistible still her fierce adherence to Jamie, I bond with her in book and film.


Claire and Jamie starting out together …

People disappear all the time.
Young girls run away from home.
Children stray from their parents and are never seen again.
Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station.
Most are found eventually.
Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Usually.
Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years

I know the Poldark novels by Winston Graham belong to this genre so my study of the Poldark novels began here when I started to read Ross Poldark after watching a few of the episodes of the 1970s serial drama. It’s deeply humane in its politics.


My first copy of Ross Poldark, the 1970s reprint of the 1951 cut version, published in anticipation of the 1975 serial drama starring Robin Ellis

There were three other authors I read & reread around the same time, getting to know by heart key scenes: the second chronologically was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I recently reread it once again and am convinced it is a poetic masterpiece of l’ecriture-femme, one of the great novels for women and one of the world’s great novels in all languages. Who can forget countless passages like this: “I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay.” Contra mundi.


This is the copy of Jane Eyre I now own

At the time I was not alive to the crucial differences in language between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne DuMaurier’s RebeccaRebecca was another “extra” from my mother’s subscription to the US Book-of-the-Month Club. Like Bronte, like GWTW, DuMaurier’s books satisfied a need in me that recent Booker Prize women’s romance (Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac, A. S. Byatt, Possession) also satisfy. Bronte and DuMaurier explicitly make visible a woman’s vision using techniques found in l’ecriture-femme, but there were only 5 Bronte novels that I could read (JE, Villette, Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights) so DuMaurier functioned as yet more of the same: My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Branwell Bronte and above all King’s General. Last summer I reveled with a group of people in a class I taught at OLLI at Mason in reading together King’s General (17th century civil war, crippled heroine) and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. However vastly more perceptive about the nature of reality, Volcano Lover is still of this genre. All versions of the same kind of underlying deep gratification of soul.

I had found my copy of Jane Eyre in a local drugstore for 40¢; I went back a few weeks later, and found imprinted in the same cheap way Austen’s Mansfield Park. Another 40¢ and home I went to read and reread MP. My fourth and nowadays favorite book of all these. When I got to the end and heard the moral of struggle and endure, I turned back to the first page and read the novel over again. I’ve never stopped reading it. It has never been far out of my mind, always at the edge of consciousness to be called up. I’ve never forgotten the cover of this MP: white, with 18th century type stage characters, and the blurb telling me this is a “rollicking comedy.” In my naivete I couldn’t understand why this blurb so false was there. But no matter I was Fanny, and this was a somber strong book.


The colors dark and distorted this is nonetheless the second copy of MP I owned

Since then I’ve seen all the film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park available.


Fanny and Edmund growing up at MP (1983 Ken Taylor BBC)

With GWTW, Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park I began my love affair with women’s great books, historical romance, and historical fiction. I’ve never stopped reading these and nowadays want only to write about them. And for me they include the great classics (in 19th & early 20th century beyond DuMaurier, English Anne Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Virginia Woolf, Rosamund Lehmann, Margaret Drabble).


Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre (Sandy Welch’s JA, 2006)

Ellen

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Isak Dinesen’s hard-won house in Africa

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

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

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

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

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

From “Biography from Seventy-Four” by Patricia Fargnoli

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

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred, and Martha (cannot find actress’s name)

Friends and readers,

I’m over a week late in writing about the finale to this year’s film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9), but I want to offer some closure and a comparison with Atwood’s novel’s close.

This was another intensely grim and cruel episode: every human feeling that is natural and loving is thwarted; all the people living under this regime who are said to be powerful are seething with frustration; there seems to be no kindness anywhere until near the end of the hour when Moira-Ruby reaches Canada, and when Nick seems to enable Offred to at least leave the dead souls (man and wife) now at the core of the Waterford home. The only natural people are Nick, the Martha (who tells the story of her son’s death during the war they lost, for whom she grieves still).

As in the first episodes, the film-makers are past masters at coming up with the most terrorizing kinds of moods — Offred is to be punished with the other women — she showed she had power in the previous episode when she had to be turned to to persuade Offwarren not to throw her baby over the bridge: she is viciously hurt with that electric prod; she is taken and something seared in her ear; then Mrs Waterford is beating the hell out of her for the adultery she has endured in the Commander’s bed — Mrs Waterford has found her dress, and then dares to challenge her husband, which gets her nowwhere (as he answers to God, so she answers to him, a rephrase of Milton’s famous: he for God, she for God in him). What saves Offred momentarily is she is found to be pregnant and that overcomes all he transgressions (no, I will not use the verb “trumps” as it is now peculiarly ruined, sour) — except Mrs Waterford tells the commander it’s not his. That this does grate on him is seen when he questions Offred and elicits from her the misinformation of course the child is his. In fact, we have good reason to believe it’s Nick’s, and without sufficient explanation it is Nick who somehow engineers her escape from this home at the end of the episode into a shut truck which may be taking her into worse darkness or into the “light” (liberty)


Nick’s response when he realizes that Offred is pregnant and it is probably his

Offred now entitled to a good breakfast, but after witnessing the above scene of natural affection between Nick (glad of the pregnancy — this idea of children, sentimental behavior to them is not challenged by the series) and Offred takes her and cruelly shows her Hanna from afar without letting Hanna get close. Offred is locked in a car with strong windows and she cannot reach her child sitting on a school’s steps. Offed goes mad with frustration. Mrs Waterford re-enters the car and threatens to kill Hanna if this baby that Offred is carrying does not survive. Or she Mrs Waterford does not somehow become its mother. In a review I did some years ago of a study of the function of discarded children, nowadays abortions, dead babies, child-abandonment or murder, I discovered that such events are often at the core of searing novels (from Christina Stead’s The Man who loved Children to Winston Graham’s Marnie, an image not mentioned much in all that has been written about Hitchcock’s film) Offred, terrified because she cannot control nature (guarantee her pregnancy will go to term), tells Mr Wwaterford about his wife’s threats; he refuses to believe her. Meanwhile the man whom Offwarren had had to service and exposed as seducing he is humiliated and the egregious hypocrisy of a council leads them to use science – one of these hideous operations to which our society subjects people — to cut the man’s arm off. This “operation” is classic gothic (used in Branagh’s Frankenstein): one of the motifs of gothic is exposing science as inhumane, cruel, used for perversion. I have reason to know tonight egregious operations are performed in dentistry too.

Late that night Offred tries to visit Nick and he seems not to be there His house is shrouded in darkness, — or he’s not coming out in the night. Tired, she returns to her room and opens the package that Jezebel had delivered to her, and discovers it is brim full of hundreds of notes telling the dire stories of the different handmaid’s. We watch her reading these with a kind of joy, and then carefully stowing them away. Near the close of the episode they are rescued as evidence by one of the hand-maid’s.

Woven into the episode (across it, like a tapestry) Ruby-Moira’s escape to Ontario. We see her toil across snow and ice, avoid shots, and finally arrive at a bleak garage like room where she is taken in. Switch to a hospital like place where she has been fed, redressed, is asked if she has any family, and when she says no, is provided with a family from Offred (her husband Luke) and then (wonderful to an American) given insurance cards; welcomed warmly, given warm close and looks about her to see pictures of other invented families on the boards of the hospital corridor. Humanity conquers biology.


Luke in corridor in Canada

The final perversion in Gilead is the handmaid’s are led into a circle to stone someone to death and discover the person is Offwarren, subject to such brutality and from their hands for endangering her baby. First one brave handmaid refuses this outrage and a guard beats her ferociously, but then Offred steps forward into the circle, and drops her tone on the ground, “sorry Aunt Lydia,” and all follow suit, one by one. Lydia seems to feel here is a battle she should yield on (however temporarily). So she gives in, but says ominously “there will be consequences.” The girls return home as a group in triumph, each off to “her” home.

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) confronts Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) over cradle

These are seen at the ending as Offred remembers a happy moment with Luke after she is first pregnant with Hanna or has given birth (marveling over the child’s hands). This contrasts with a scene between the Waterfords where she and he attempt to reach one another humanly, to make love, but are intensely stiff, and seemingly fail emotionally. They must first admit and resolve their new perverted emotional lives, hers one of extreme resentment, frustration and probably self-blame, his still obtuse hypocrisy and reveling in power.

Then the ambiguous ending: as before Offred is woken in the middle of the night, pulled out of bed, dressed but as she comes down the stairs, she finds that both Mr and Mrs Waterford are desperately protesting and cast aside. There is Nick telling her to get into the truck, and she is locked in, the truck driven away. The camera focuses on he inside and for reasons that do not seem reasonable she is filled with hope and triumph (yet says she does not know what is ahead). The episode is called “Night.” Many of the episodes are filmed as if in night’s darkness. The 1999 film has Offred escaping with Nick and he daughter to a landscape of refuges, now pregant, rather like Julie Christie at the close of Heat and Dust finds peace in a refuge center high on a mountain where she comes to give birth. I am not eager to watch next season unless Atwood herself writes the script — I fear that the hard satire at the center which came from Atwood’s extraordinary book would not be kept up.

Atwood’s book’s ending is utterly different from both films: it is a piece of astonishing sleight-of-hand utterly skeptical of all we have read – not we did not experience it, but that we are led to see it as a manuscript from a time a century or so ago whose truthfulness we cannot check. Atwood times travels for her close. We are at a conference where the male professors are discussing a manuscript from another time and place. So fast forward to the future and the past looks very different, not so searing as here we are today, presumably safe and sound. This coda is a satire on academics, and their pretenses at humanity. The patriarchy reasserts itself too. The story in the book is more persuasively real than either film because psychologically credible throughout with the characters having inner complexities, especially Offred in her relationship with Mr Waterford (though this tends to excuse him, it even handedly shows sympathy for males caught up in patriarchy).

Here’s a personal take: the vision of this society is of imprisonment. Inside Gilead all are in prisons, prisons made of mind-sets, prisons dependent on punishment, prisons of hypocrisy, prisons of power. Supposedly competition is eliminated for some greater good, but the greater good is for the very few and is itself hedged by ideas that natural pleasures are sins.

We are in prisons or what we’ve built from our pasts; my neighbor-friend told me once when I was first friendly with her, that she felt when her husband died, her past had been wiped out, it was as if it didn’t exist. She was talking of personal memories, and the reality that they were diplomats and moved around the world so she first took root again in DC — luckily for she had a good job at the German institute, a private educational place serving the public (like so many in the US part private) teaching foreign languages to people going to and coming from abroad (then English), but much of her life is the product of her past. I’ve tried hard for 3 years to create a new existence for myself but find I cannot escape my past and to make something new and new relationships, create a new self at 70 well nigh impossible. My beautiful house, the books — if I move and reject them, then I have nothing. Both parents dead, no siblings, a couple of cousins and aunt who lives far away. As we age, we are prisoners of time and our bodies and these a product often of years of interaction, some considered and more free, others subject and subjected. The series is about enforcing pregnancy and regimenting the body. Power in it is based on paining bodies. Others are imprisoned in other ways — social life’s customs and patterns deeply fixed, regiments. Even the weather here — now ceaselessly hot — keeps people in who are not at the beach or taking trips.


Samira Wiley who plays Moira-Ruby — off hours, out of character

Atwood is showing the imprisonment rituals and ways of life are perverse in our world by her exaggerations of our world in her Gilead. At the time there were other female dystopias about wars between the sexes (one by Suzie McKee Charnas) where the women win or they lose. There is no gain for real from it. Interesting all the non-Gilead pasts in the min-series are of a hard brash difficult commercialized world where happiness is snatched at home from tiny nuclear groups attached to one another. It’s not really a Nazi or fascist vision, but simply capitalist and militarist in all the buildings and appurtenances we see. Food is associated with women who are cooks both in the past, outside and in Gilead; it is women who give birth but the outcome of this process intensely controlled.


Atwood herself in an authorized photo

Of course Margaret Atwood is a foremother and present-day poet of great achievement and stature. From her rich poetic writing, here is the appropriate (for Handmaid’s Tale)

Werewolf Movies

Men who imagine themselves covered with fur and sprouting
fangs, why do they do that? Padding among wet
moonstruck treetrunks crouched on all fours, sniffing
the mulch of sodden leaves, or knuckling
their brambly way, arms dangling like outsized
pajamas, hair all over them, noses and lips
sucked back into their faces, nothing left of their kindly
smiles but yellow eyes and a muzzle. This gives them
pleasure, they think they’d be
more animal. Could then freely growl, and tackle
women carrying groceries, opening
their doors with keys. Freedom would be
bared ankles, the din of tearing: rubber, cloth,
whatever. Getting down to basics. Peel, they say
to strippers, meaning: take off the skin.
A guzzle of flesh
dogfood, ears in the bowl. But
no animal does that: couple and kill,
or kill first: rip up its egg, its future.
No animal eats its mate’s throat, except
spiders and certain insects, when it’s the protein
male who’s gobbled. Why do they have this dream then?
Dress-ups for boys, some last escape
from having to be lawyers? Or a
rebellion against the mute
resistance of objects: reproach of the
pillowcase big with pillow, the tea-
cosy swollen with its warm
pot, not soft as it looks but hard
as it feels, round tummies of saved string in the top
drawer tethering them down. What joy, to smash the
tyranny of the doorknob, sink your teeth
into the inert defiant eiderdown with matching
spring-print queensized sheets and listen to her
scream. Surrender.

Ellen

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Photograph of DuMaurier at her desk

Dear friends and readers,

I’m relieved to be able to report that at least among a group of 50+ year olds (some 25 or more) Daphne DuMaurier’s fiction is not obsolete. Someone could say in reply, well, of course not, the production of film adaptations of her books has far from ceased. Two recent very well-done film adaptations, Jamaica Inn (2014, scripted by Emma Frost), a three part mini-series, featured Jessica Findley Brown (she of Downton Abbey fame), as Mary Yellan, with corresponding middle-range box office fine actors in the others, and My Cousin Rachel (this summer 2017, scripted by Roger Michell who’s done several Austen films), featured Rachel Weisz as Rachel dressed very like Olivia de Haviland in the famous Hitchcock film, and no less than Simon Russell Beale as the lawyer. Both were closely faithful to the original book –most unlike most previous film adaptations of DuMaurier. Very recently The Scapegoat has been filmed with Matthew Rhys as the hero who wants to take over another character’s identity. Nonetheless, a film is not a book, and a film may lend itself to a popular film genre and be re-made because it’s so well-known. Does the book itself still speak to readers?


Jessica Findlay Brown as he masculine Mary Yellan (Jamaica Inn, 2014)

Yes on The King’s General, from my own re-reading (decades after the first time when I was in my teens) and from the class discussion where several class members produced much subtler thorough analyses of the characters than I had, saw few flaws (transcending stereotypes), understood the underlying perspective of the book: much of the book dramatizes war as women experience it, battles, sieges, deaths, crippling, and especially the use of starvation (still very much with us) as a toolr from woman’s point of view. DuMaurier herself had just gone through a war (WW2– Cornwall was bombed) this in Menabilly, the mansion she lived in for decades as a renter, renovated, and was finally kicked out of, famous today as Manderley from Rebecca. The one element in the long sequence of chapters of the seige and sacking of Menabilly (7-19) omitted is rape (admittedly a central part of civilian women’s experience in war zones but one not admitted to in any of incriminating detail until World War Two. DuMaurier bases what she depicts after the seige of Menabilly (Honor Harris’s flight to another family mansion in Cornwall, Radford, and then another, Mothercombe on the book’s shaping insight that war for women does not end with any truce. Why not? People have died, and one person gone can change all, everyone left imitating themselves; people maimed, crippled for life, whole households destroyed and how do you bring back land, re-furnish a house. A woman who has been gang raped or coopted into concubine doesn’t forget, her memories don’t go away,see Marta Hilliers’ Women in Berlin, for which she was ferociously attacked for exposing war gang-rape and concubinage: we are supposed to swallow that, not shame ourselves (why are victims the shamed) and of course not the great warriors.

The 17th century in Europe provides us with our first documented replacement of men with women, women who themselves could write, so we stories of sieges from women from the English civil war era (see Lady Brilliana Harley in Eva Figes’s Seven Ages of Women); the closest non-fiction I could compare these to is Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-44 (extraordinary book); in fiction of course Gone with the Wind (siege of Atlantic, sacking of Tara).

We also see it’s a conscious decision to allow the countryside to be ravaged, ransacked in an attempt to win a war: winning the war, killing, is more important than what happens to those living in its countryside. And we see whichever side wins, the people lose.

The book is remembered (when it is) for its crippled heroine, but what emerged from our talk is how disability is a theme throughout the book: from the way Richard Grenville’s possibly homosexual son is abused from a young age for his lack of aggressive masculinity to the point he is abject and cannot defend himself (it’s not your disability that kills you but society’s response to it), to the maiming and destroying of valuable characters one by one as the battles are told.

The idea of the course I’m reading and teaching this book in is to show the contrast between historical fiction after say 1980 and before 1960: as the story goes, in the early part of the 20th century historical fiction had reached an all-time level of scorn. It has been regarded in the 19th century as the highest form of fiction, requiring serious research, about serious political issues and a tremendous imaginative input: Walter Scott was respected; George Eliot’s Romola set in the Renaissance; the most admired of Thackeray’s books was not Vanity Fair, but Henry Esmond set in the civil wars in Scotland in the later 17th century. In early 20th century until near WW 2 and just after still historical fiction was seen as bodice rippers for silly women and boys’ adventures stories for men who wanted to fancy themselves manly heroes. This way of looking at them is not gone from us and historical fiction and romance are still written in this mode sufficiently to be mocked. What are seen as women’s novels and women’s films are particularly susceptible to mockery.

Hard to pinpoint when this changed and the process was slow. I’d say a new form of historical fiction – or a return to higher norms, ideals, serious history begins just after WW2. Mostly people wanted to write about the war and found masquerade made this easier. The “jump” – changeover – begins to gather steam and many books in the 1970s: I’d date for convenience with Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, written between 1965 and 75, and called at the time of finishing “a landmark of post-war fiction. He won a Booker Prize for its coda, Staying On (which I’ll teach in another course on Booker Prize books this fall at the OLLI at AU). In short, the books got longer, they were seriously researched, they were political , and by the 1990s deeply anti-colonialist – the Raj Quartet occurs during the breakup of the British Raj and its complicated politics, ethnic identities, fierce hatreds leading into and out of World War Two. It’s very accurate if you can accept the Anglo- perspective. Salmond Rushdi could not.

It’s important to stress there is no hard and fast difference between the two eras, especially that there is a lot of romancing in the current books. All of them intersect the past with the present, realism with fantasy; it’s a matter of emphasis I suppose – Sontag gives her book, The Volcano Lover, the subtitle: a romance. The difference is an attitude of mind towards how your novel is going to function socially and historically. But what we discovered is while King’s General is not post-colonial, nor does it mean to undermine our Enlightenment ideals, it is seriously researched, accurate and implicitly political. Specifically DuMaurier is a Tory, and she sides with the Royalists against the oppression of the Parliamentarians after (in the book) Cornwall is taken by Parliament and the Protectorate confiscates property and attempts to impose its notion of a moral order (which included by the way secular marriage ceremonies, allowed for liberty of the press, decent trade agreements, better tax system).


Menabilly in the landscape

Within that slant, she really recreates the civil war as it played out from place to place in Cornwall. And many of the individuals in the Rashleigh family, Cornish gentry, and our hero and heroine are based on archives (albeit some of them in the Menabilly attic). DuMaurier cared about Cornwall. Cornwall was a place where the royalists made a last stand against the Parliamentarians – they had the sea at their backs, and they were with great difficulty slowly defeated. It was a royalist stronghold, rotten borough later on. At the end of the war when she wrote KG, she had already been living in Menabilly (Fowey, Cornwall) for some 8 years and even though just a renter had begun to renovate. The ancient house and grounds burnt into her soul. World War Two was coming to end and it seems the owner was seriously ill and perhaps dying; if he died, there was no guarantee his heir will renew the lease. He didn’t die, and the first of several such crises was over. But almost losing it, made her aware of the house. It was indeed sacked to the nth degree during the civil war; the family members, most of them (not sure about Honor Harris) said to be there in the novel were there. It was a linchpin house the way these huge houses were politically. She did serious research into the family and their papers – she found the Rashleighs were not as keen to be memorialized as she had thought. The various family members who is married to who, the names of the children, where they are, and how they end up are accurate in outline and to some extent their characters.


Godolphin House, Cornwall (one of the ancient ruins)

There was an Honor Harris, a Harris family (Honor’s oldest sister, Mary, did become the second wife of the oldest Rashleigh male, Jonathan. Honor left a memoir, and that’s the basis of this 1st person narrative, melancholy and somber in tone as it begins where the book ends, 1653, close to Honor and her brother, Robin’s deaths (they are living on charity), and her character (highly educated as she had the time to become so). The crippling by a hunting accident (Honor falls from a height to stones below) is DuMaurier’s addition. DuMaurier says of the crippling in a letter that she saw a wooden wheelchair from the 17th century once and it stayed in her mind and that she identified with this heroine – as with Mary Yellan. “Honor Harris beame an extension of the author, my persona in the past.” She had felt powerless as a woman in the war.


Early wheelchair — 17th-18th century

The outlines of Richard Grenville fit the portrait of the real man who did take money and supplies from Parliament telling them he would fight for them in Cornwall and then returned immediately the royal side. He was so violent to his wife Mary Howard left him; there were two lawsuits, one from her and another with her kinsman, the Earl of Suffolk. He did escape from prison and go to Germany for 6 years. A lot of the detail about the battles is accurate. He behaved very badly, enacting ruthless aggressive sociopathic behavior (like Trump no concern for other lives), hanging some men unfairly, even carelessly, extorting money, using war contributions for himself. He would not obey Royalist commanders; he was imprisoned more than once. St Michael’s Mount. Spent time in Launceston, and when released went to Italy. Excepted from Pardon in 1648, he found his way to Charles II. He accused Hyde deeds he knew that Hyde did not do. He wrote an account of the period war and it was published and used by DuMaurier, a vindication of himself. Hyde as Clarendon incorporated Grenville’s history straight into his own. As in the book, Grenville died a fugitive, disliked, looked upon as not worth trust (because he would not keep his word) in 1658, and buried in Ghent.

In her Enchanted Cornwall DuMaurier remarks there are no Grenville around now (there are Rashleighs) and while one man did write a vindication of him, there was no one around to become indignant in 1946. You think they wouldn’t? Think again. As with Max de Winter and a number of DuMaurier’s villain heroes, she meant us to be appalled by his behavior. Grenville descends from Jem Merlyn in Jamaica Inn: his cruel streak is visited on his illegitimate son in the book of whom he is fond: the Parliament king Joe Grenville where they know the execution will be seen by as many characters as possible.

It is also a gothic romance. It was in 1824 when some alterations were made to the house, the Rashleigh at the time he found in a redundant buttress skeleton in clothes of cavalier in civil war clothes, a stool, a trencher – a secret roo This incident, merely read about, was part of what drove her to write King’s General. Grotesque freakishness (which we see in Richard’s son Dick, rather like Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge) – these are typical of the gothic.

The same patterns emerge across DuMaurier’s books too. I’ll mention just two: in King’s General another mean domineering, near murderous female –- it’s Richard’s twisted sister, Gartred, who partly causes Honor’s accident. Readers have assumed that DuMaurier identifies only with the abject heroine, but from what she says we find she identifies with these rebellious angry types too; maybe in irritation at her readership, he almost sneers at the second Mrs De Winter whose name we are never told. She was conservative politically – common among the more popular romance and historical fiction writers (Winston Graham an exception to this rule – very progressive if you’ve been watching the mini-series or have read the books). Like other women before WW2 she will say she has two people in her, a loving wife and mother, and then this rebellious masculine self, hidden, giving power to her creativity.


Cornwall’s slate cliffs and hills (from Claude Berry’s Portrait of Cornwall)

And the centrality of Cornwall: many of her books are set there, and she writes two super ones on Cornwall: Enchanted and Vanishing. It is a periphery, a place outside the central boundaries. To the Lighthouse — PD James has a tale set in Cornwall which uses a lighthouse too. Later in life she was almost wholly in Cornwall, fought to protect it from tourist ravages; she was forced of Menabilly but lived no far away in Kilmarth. She maintained her privacy as far as she could but would break it with autobiographical memoirs which she is said to have regretted.

She was bisexual, probably more strongly lesbian and the two great loves of her life were Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday. She also had a loving companionship with Christopher Puxley during the war which had to be brought to a close when DuMaurier’s husband returned. Forster says in her letters she shows herself to be homophobic and her children did and do what they can to squash the true story of her sexual life — told by Margaret Forster. I doubt they liked the movie, Daphne, based on the biography. The DuMaurier family are angry at Margaret Forster and today deny she ever knew their mother.


Geraldine Somerville as Daphne (2007)

The family has been gifted. Her grandfather was a Victorian illustrator, George DuMaurier, who late in life wrote two best selling novels: Trilby with its mysterious “oriental” character, Svengali was one of them. Her father Gerald DuMaurier was a prominent actor-manager in London, brilliant man about whom she wrote a wonderful biography. She met interesting people from her earliest years; a privileged existence; her parents connections got her publication early. Her sister, Angela also wrote, another sister, Jeanne painted. Family had journalists, her mother an actress, Muriel Beaumont. She’s described as uncomfortable, unhappy in the social whirl of London; she married a man she was not quite compatible with, but a good match, Frederick Browning and after WW 2 she was Lady Browning: he was himself a sensitive intelligent type (became attached to Philip Duke of Edinburgh and we may see him enacted in The Crown if it takes us back to World War Two, and forward to the 1960s, which I expected it will). DuMaurier was not a nice person – if you read about her behavior to her servants she could be deplorable, exploitative, especially of a governess who however was very loyal to her. She presents herself and others say she was distanced from her 3 children, Tessa, Flavio, Christian (Kit). If so, their later life shows them fiercely loyal to her, writing memoirs, nurturing her reputation.

Later in life she was almost wholly in Cornwall, fought to protect it from tourist ravages; she was forced out of Menabilly but lived not far away in Kilmarth. Her husband spent his last years at Menabilly too; he died in 1965. She maintained her privacy as far as she could but would break it with autobiographical memoirs which she is said to have regretted; she characterized herself as suicidal, sympathetic with why people have this impulse. She lived until 1989.

To conclude (as I don’t want the blog to be too long), when I looked at the Mason database for scholarly articles on DuMaurier, I found not a single one. On some of the Hitchcock movies made from her book, yes. Even Winston Graham (the Poldark author) and Diana Gabaldon (DuMaurier’s closet modern granddaughter, only Gabaldon is much less transgressive and subversive, disquieting) have a few scholarly articles. So when I began by rejoicing that for some readers (and probably some of those who persist in going to the DuMaurier films) is not dated, not obsolete, it’s true that with the exception of a few feminist critics (Nina Auerbach, Avril Horner, Sue Zlosnick), biographers and her children (and cousin) who wrote memoirs and edited DuMaurier’s letters and memoir, DuMaurier is still dismissed.

Ellen

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johnadeyreptonformrshenryleighbathhousebyadlestrop
Bath House, for Mrs James Henry Leigh by John Adey (1755-1860, Humphry Repton’s son)

“Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. There is the parsonage: a tidy–looking house, and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people. Those are almshouses, built by some of the family. To the right is the steward’s house; he is a very respectable man. Now we are coming to the lodge–gates; but we have nearly a mile through the park still. It is not ugly, you see, at this end; there is some fine timber, but the situation of the house is dreadful. We go down hill to it for half a mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill–looking place if it had a better approach — Mansfield Park, Chapter 9

“… the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest-trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again to make the worth of Lyme understood — ” Persuasion, Chapter 11

Dear friends and readers,

I thought before going on to notes from my last conference this fall, “EC/ASECS: The Strange and Familiar,” I would devote a working blog to my project and thinking about “Ekphrastic patterns in Jane Austen.” After all this is supposed a blog focusing on Jane Austen.

For the past month, I’ve been slowly making my way through Austen’s famous six novels alongside many studies of the picturesque in landscaping, about landscape architects in her era and their debates, on how literary people, gardeners, historians have approached the mode (especially different when it comes to the use of enclosures to take the land from the propertyless and vulnerable), and how writers about Austen in particular place her and her novels in these debates. One might expect her outlook to change because the worlds of her books have different emphases, and since her stance towards life changed over the years: from (generalizing) a mildly rebellious, personally acid (as a woman) point of view to seriously politically grave and questioning, to acceptance, ever with irony, mockery of the very gothic mode she had loved, to late melancholy over what she wished she had known, and a new valuation of the sheerly aesthetic.

Yet I find broadly across the thirty years of writing life (1787-1816/7) a sameness, a steady holdfast to a point of view. This may be voiced as a strong adherence to judging what is presented as aesthetically pleasing or true by its usefulness. How far is what is created useful for those who live in or near it — use includes how much comfort and pleasure an individual can have from art, which seems to depend how far it works with the natural world (or against it, destroys the natural world), at what cost does this use come, and she counts as cost not only the removal of people and destruction or neglect of their livelihoods (especially in Mansfield Park and Emma), but how far it erases history or the past which she sees as giving meaning to the present through group memory and identity. She excoriates those who seek only status through their purchases and efforts, shaping what emerges from this motive as hypocritical at least as regards joy in all the aspects of the natural world, and disrespectful of animals, plants, whatever has been built. There’s nothing she despises more than someone who professes to love something because it’s fashionable — as say the gussied-up cottage. She has little use for celebrities: partly she is too snobbish and proud to chase after someone whose work so many profess to admire but in fact understand little of. To appreciate any art, no matter what it is, from drawing, to singing and playing an instrument, to curating (as it were) an estate, you must do it diligently and caring how it will turn out for its own sake, not for the reward you might personally get.

john_linnellgravelpitskensington1812
John Linnell (1792-1882), Gravel Pits in Kensington (1812)

This is what I found to be true of the implied author’s attitudes and to account for the treatment of pictorialism wherever it be found in her works. I began with the idea that she found very funny viewers, readers who approach art and judge it insofar as it literally imitates what happens in life: walking in the autumn or death of the year, sitting in a garden in the cool fall, working in a kitchen, aboard a boat — these three are the subject of aesthetic conversations, however brief, in, respectively Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. Now I see she partly wants to take aboard critiques from characters who never forget the practical realities of life, so remain unable to engage with improbable conventions of design, typical scene drawing, and what’s left out and/or assumed. The aesthetically naive or obtuse reaction has something direct to tell us about what is the relationship of what is seen to person seeing. I originally saw in the gap between artistic convention in a medium and what it’s representing in real life as allowing for enjoyment in contemplating how the convention is just a convention and we could presumably choose another. So we are free in art. Now I’m seeing the importance of going outside convention, our own enjoyment of whatever it is, to understand ourselves better. Then we can do justice to others who may not be able to respond imaginatively on a sophisticated level but have other valuable traits.

john_cromemouseholdheath
John Crome (1768-1821), A Heath

This is a very serious or moral way of putting this matter but I think in what seems to be the beginning of an era of indifference to the needs of others, to previous understood relationships, to truth anything less is a further betrayal.
I found myself so strengthened by Austen as I went along (as I have been before) this time because in contrast our world outside is seeing remorseless attacks on the natural world, most people inhabiting the earth, worship of pretension, competition for rank and accumulation of money at whatever cost to others and group loyalty (never mind what to). A different version of these latter probably dominated the world-centers and made the later 18th century world the suffering-drenched place it was, but there were at the time groups of reformists, revolutionaries who were (to use FDR’s formulation) for a much better deal for all, even including animals.

georgemorland
George Morland (1763-1804), The Artist’s Cat Drinking

I’m going to hold back on working this thought pattern out in close reading of appropriate places in Austen’s books for my paper, and here just briefly survey one old-fashioned book published surprisingly recently (1996) for the way Austen is treated as knitted to and writing for her family.  Matey belongs to those who read Austen’s books as non-critical of her era, to some extent unexamined creations (staying away from “politics”), belonging to a closed small world of what I’d call rentier elites. I thoroughly disagree with most of this; I think Austen’s outlook to be so much larger than this, and critical of her world and family too, but Batey understands what is provable by close reading and relevant documents (which recent published critics seem not to). Matey’s book is good because Matey uses the particulars of Austen’s family’s lives and their neighborhood (and its inhabitants), their properties and how they treated them wisely.  She looks at how authors that Austen is known to have read or from her novels probably knew and how their topics and attitudes are treated in Austen’s books. Her documented sources  are books Austen quotes, alludes to, or are unmistakably part of her text). She researched about these common sensically and with discrimination, ever thinking of what is Austen’s tone as Batey decides whether this or that text or garden place or drawing could be meant to be part of Austen’s discourse.

background
Contemporary illustration: Box Hill

Each of the chapters is attached either to a period of Austen’s life or one or a group of her texts; they all have beautifully appropriate reproductions of picturesque landscapes; they all pick up on some aspect of debates on the picturesque in the era, often closely attached to, coming out of the particular Austen texts (but not always). “The Background” (1) tells of Austen’s family’s life briefly, how they lived in picturesque landscapes, how Edward the third brother was adopted by a rich couple who gifted him with immense wealth in the form of two country mansions and wide lands with all the patronage, rents, and power and education that came with that. The Austen family is presented as highly intelligent, wanting few personal relationships outside themselves (unless it be for promotion) and their gentry world. Austen wrote for her family is Batey’s assumption. We learn how Austen grew up inside “The Familiar Rural Scene” (2), loved Cowper, band egan her first long novel as epistolary narrative .  Batey dwells on Austen’s love of Cowper and how his poetry educated her into the kind of writing she did. Cowper is much quoted, how Marianne is passionate over his verse, Fanny has imbibed it in the deepest recesses of feeling and memory.

selbournetoday
Selbourne today —

Batey swerves slightly in “Agonies of Sensibility” (3): as she is herself politically deeply conservative, she makes fun (unexpectedly given how she’s presented Austen thus far) of the writers and the texts she says influenced Austen profoundly: Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther (where, I suggest, the hero kills himself as much because he has to live in a sycophantic court as any love affair he has), Charlotte Smith’s deeply depressed poetry and more desperate novels (highly critical of the social and political arrangements of the day): as with Cowper, Batey quotes at length and Smith’s poetry does justice to itself. Batey shows how the family paper, The Loiterer mocks “Rousseau’s half-baked” (her words) ideas. She goes over the juvenilia she can link directly to the family members: “Henry and Eliza” where she uses names and places of people close by:

nunehamcortneyhenryeliza
Lady Harcourt’s flower garden in Nuneham Courtenay (based on precepts in Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise)

The same paradoxical pull-back shapes her “The Gothic Imagination” (4):  Batey talks of “the whine” of this material: the graveyard poets, the grand tour, Ossian, Blake. Batey does not take seriously any of this as deriving from contemporary anguish; her perspective is that of the aesthete (very 1950s American); she discuss the sublime from Burke apolitically, the lucky landowners, and even (or perhaps especially because ever sceptical). Samuel Johnson is hauled for his sceptical assessments (no sign of his Journey to the Western Islands). So Batey’s outlook on Northanger Abbey is it is about this “craze” which Austen saw through. Nonetheless, she quotes tastefully, and you can come away from this chapter with a much richer terrain and Austen text than Batey herself allows for. And she combines, so Smith’s Emmeline now comes in. She quotes from the effective presence of the abbey, the Tilney’s conversations on the picturesque and history, Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest as found in Austen’s text (amply quoted with illustrations appropriate).

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Thomas Jones (1742-1803), The Bard

Batey has not heard of feminism but she does know these are women’s texts and includes a reproduction of an landscape by a woman I’d never seen before but alas tells nothing of the artist, not even her first name:

ladyleightonwatercolorplasnewddlangollenbaeyjalandscape
Lady Leighton, a watercolor of the gothic seat at Plas Newyd where the ladies of Langollen (a famous lesbian couple) read Ossian together (it was said).

I must start to condense. “Enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque” (5) and “The Beautiful Grounds at Pemberley” (6) contain a valuable discussion of Gilpin, who he was, how he came to wander all over England and write books on landscape and accompany them with evocative illustrations. She goes over the flaws in these (they are semi-fake, omitting all that is unpleasant, like exhausted hard-working human beings, and “eyesores” like mines), his theoretical works, of course the mockery of him (Batey is big on this). She does tell how Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price exposed the way these landscapes avoided showing how exploitative of the people and landscape products (for use) these enclosures and picturesque-makers were, but does not apply this to Austen: rather she quotes Marianne either engaged with the sublimely or critical of hypocritical cant. For the Sense and Sensibility discussion (where Batey stays on the surface again) she includes many lovely black-and-white and grey illustrations of real landscapes (ruins that real, i.e., crumbling buildings), tourist sites (Netley Abbey to which Austen’s family came). The productions for Pemberley are gorgeously colored: a Turner, a Joseph Wright of Derby, photographs of vast green hills. For Pride and Prejudice Batey simply dwells on the visit to Pemberley saying how unusually detailed it is, without asking why. She does notice Darcy has left much of the original placement of streams in place, and invites gentlemen to fish there; but how is it that every window has a gorgeous view from it, how did this come about, were these specifics originally related to some discussion (in a previous longer P&P) of how Darcy made the landscape never crosses her mind.

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Batey thinks Ilam Circuit walk gives us a sense of what was to be seen outside Pemberley windows

No matter how much was “lopp’d and chopp’d” says Batey, we have all in place that we need.

Batey approves of the chapters on Mansfield Park, “A Mere Nothing Before Repton (7)” and Emma, “The Responsible Landlord” (8), because there is so much serious criticism of the picturesque which Batey finds herself able to enter into in the first (land should be useful, should honor history, the church). She has a fine thorough discussion of Stoneleigh Abbey which Mrs Austen’s cousin tried to take over when its owners died so took his aunt and her daughter with him, possession being nine points of the law: the letters are quoted and they feel like a source for Northanger Abbey. Repton’s work for the Austens as well as generally is done far more justice to than Mr Rushworth ever understands.

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Stoneleigh Abbey before (Batey includes an “after” too: all the animals, the gardening work are removed as unsightly)

Batey believes Mr Knightley is modeled on Austen’s wealthy brother, Edward, who did work his own land, who valued his cows, who was conscientious — within limits: she does not bring out how later in life Edward was among those who refused to pay for a share of improvements of roads as he himself would not profit from it (we can’t do that, must not share). She does not seem to realize the earlier portrait of John Dashwood is also Edward nor that Edmund (whom she also identifies with Edward) is more than a little dense. But yes Mr Knightley is our ideal steward of land, working hard to make sure all can get something from nature (though, let me add, some do get more than others as the pigs in Animal Farm said was only right), and has not bowed to fashion, kept his trees, his house in a low sheltered place, has not spent enormously for “an approach.”

It comes as no surprise that Batey’s last chapter, “The Romantic Tide” (9), does not concentrate on Persuasion or Sanditon. These do not fit into her idealization of wealthy mansions, landscapes of and from power (I’d call them) . The aesthetic debates of MP and Emma set in a larger social context do not reach her radar. Thus that the Elliots have lost their house as Austen’s sixth longer book begins, the money basis of the economy, of war (Wentworth’s business like William Price’s is when called for killing and grabbing the property of others) and increasingly transient nature of existence for the fringe gentry are not topics here. We begin in Upper Cross but move to dress and harps in Mansfield Park (Regency costume enables Batey to bring in Fanny Knight and Austen’s times together in London). The furor over cottages orne probably represents an association from Mary Musgrove’s house, but the details are now all taken from the satire on Robert Ferrars’s despising of large buildings, worship of cottages and hiring Bonomi (without further context) in Sense and Sensibility. Sanditon‘s seaside gives way to “the insufferable Mrs Elton’s” lack of a real abode, her origins in trade in Bristol, and Lydia Bennet’s vulgarity. Batey’s text turns snobbish itself.

Where originality comes in again is not the sublimity of the sea, but in how the Austens enjoyed themselves in summer after summer of Austen’s last few years on the coast, “undeterred by threats of invasion.” Batey thinks the source place for Sanditon Bognor, which made a great deal of money for its entrepreneur, something what we have of the fragment suggests Mr Parker will not do. Anna Lefroy’s apt continuation has him going broke but for brother Sidney, a hero only heard of in the extant text. Jane Austen, we are told, disapproved of challenges to the traditional way of life, was against exploiting sickness and hypochondriacs like the Parker sisters. Batey seems to forget Austen was herself dying but includes the idea she “had little time for the socialistic propaganda of William Godwin”! In Sanditon Austen is harsh towards Burns and (we know from her letters) was strongly enamored of Crabbe — he has a hard look at nature and the rural landscape. A Fanny Price, name and character type, the story of a couple separated as imprudent with no retrieval are found in Crabbe. However, as Batey acknowledges in her book’s last few paragraphs, in Persuasion Austen revels in Charmouth, Pinny, Lyme.

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William Turner, watercolor of Lyme Regis seen from Charmouth — Austen stayed there in 1803 and 180 and Anne Elliot discusses romantic poetry with Captain Benwick there

Batey’s is a useful book if you don’t look in it for any perception of why Austen was compelled to write and the full complicated nature of her texts. If it seems to be, it is not much different from Janine Barchas’s comparable History, Location and Celebrity, recent, respected: Barchas’s book is not filled with matters of fact in Austen, but in other books (of genealogy), in Barchas’s case buildings Austen never mentions (interesting if lurid), in amoral people not connected to her except by chance of first or last names (of which Austen does not have much variety). A “proof” can hinge on a number: Thorpe and Catherine have driven seven miles to one place, well seven miles in another there is this other gothic place, and Barchas has her subject matter. Both give us historical context, and between the two, Barchas remains speculative, a matter of adding one speculation to the next, and then crowding them around a text that never mentions them; Batey has the merit of writing about texts and movements Austen discussed, alludes to, quotes from, places we know for sure she visited, lived in. Both have good bibliographical references and you can use them as little encyclopedias.

Ellen

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Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Cow Parsley and Bluebells

AH, hills beloved!—where once, a happy child,
Your beechen shades, “your turf, your flowers, among,”
I wove your bluebells into garlands wild,
And woke your echoes with my artless song.
Ah! hills beloved!—your turf, your flowers, remain;
But can they peace to this sad breast restore,
For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,
And teach a broken heart to throb no more?
And you, Aruna! in the vale below,
As to the sea your limpid waves you bear,
Can you one kind Lethean cup bestow,
To drink a long oblivion to my care?
Ah no!—when all, e’en hope’s last ray is gone,
There ’s no oblivion but in death alone!
— Smith, Sonnet to the South Downs

The galley slave may sing when he is unchained, but it would be uncommon equanimity which could induce him to do so when he is actually bound to his oar — Walter Scott on Charlotte Smith

Dear friends and readers,

Considering the condition of women in the 18th century, the way law rendered wives powerless, it is remarkable how few depictions of wife abuse survive; even fewer stress the consequences for children. When not blaming the wife, they are stilted, observe decorum, refuse to convey the distress of the woman:

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When I reviewed Mary Trouille’s remarkably thorough (and therefore important) Wife Abuse in Mid-Eighteenth-Century France for the Intelligencer, I discovered how few texts apart from court cases written up, give any idea of the nature and prevalence of wife abuse (which is emotional, mental and social as well as physical) literally over the centuries. This relatively graphic (yet caricatured) illustration to a text by Retif de la Bretonne may be accounted for because probably he or his daughter, Agnes wrote a rare candid account of the degrading treatment, including the sexual experience, in Ingenue Saxancour, ou La Femme Separee.

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Ingenue Saxancour is a painful book to read today because Agnes’s husband forced her to do disgusting things. I find it literally terrifying because the people around her seeing her having been beaten, hysterical, nonetheless insisted she return to this man, even tried to trick her into returning to him — as I discovered was Smith’s case many years after she has left her husband, Benjamin, when she was already crippled; it was insisted she come to Egremont’s house and there she found Smith with others where the aim was as to pressure her to accede to his wishes (or live with him again?). I had not realized the importance of Retif’s subtitle until I read Smith’s letters: The Separated Wife. In fact, Retif’s text is told from the wife’s point of view after Agnes separated herself from her husband, not just to justify herself, but to point out how her lack of access to any money controlled her behavior, kept her with him; the book is powerful argument on behalf of divorce and secure settlement (we’d call it alimony).

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French caption underneath: He even sold their bed!

Smith’s case is precisely parallel; instead of framing her as an anticipation of the characters in Dickens’ Bleak House, we should frame her as a wife who separated herself from her husband, and who had no right or access to money (even money she earned) unless he would allow her to be given any or give money himself to her or their children (when they pleased him). That these two women separated themselves from abusive men is central to their later abjection. The society punished women hard who dared to do that.

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Charlotte Smith in the early 1990s

The story of Charlotte Smith’s immiseration, her writing to live (literally from hand to mouth in later years), and her abusive husband has been told by numerous Smith scholars and biographers. Having just read all 800+ pages of Judith Stanton’s heroic achievement, The Collected Letters of Charlotte Smith (the letters were scattered in all sorts of places), I’ve realized that with a few honorable exceptions (e.g., Susan Wolfson, “Charlotte Smith: ‘To Live Only to Write & Write Only to Live,’ HUntington Library Quarterly, 70:4 [2007]:633-59; Antje Blank’s biography in the on-line Literary Encyclopedia, 23 June 2003), the emphasis on the source of her misery is mistakenly put on the 4 decade-long court case. It’s put that because her father-in-law drew up his will without legal advice, and attempted to bypass Benjamin, who was his oldest son, and leave the property to her children. Charlotte Smith, it’s implied was therefore unable to obtain enough money to live with minimal gentility and comfort, without constantly literally running out of money. She was subject to dunning and harassment, could not for lack of money educate her sons and place them in appropriate gentlemanly occupations or provide dowries for her daughters. The (understandable) literary focus of most essays is on what Smith’s ambivalent attitudes towards her desperate writing for monthly sums to live on (and especially the publication of novels and prose works) her circumstances does to the quality and content of her work.

When the biography is paid adequate attention to (and it’s central as she kept saying, much to the disapproval of her contemporaries), biographers and scholarly critics focus on rounds of cross-suing and new litigants, generational law, properties coming in the market, to be sold, and (Smith was right here) corrupt lawyers and officials withholding documents needed to secure and receive actual money. Or they tell the crux in terms that do not convey what is meant (Stuart Curran, Introduction, The Poems, xxi: “the principal function of women within [a male preserve] can only be to suffer the consequences over which they have no control”). The story is skewed to the point that at least two critics argue that Smith herself is blamed for persistently trying to get money due her French son-in-law after the death of her daughter: we are told this exacerbated the aristocratic lord, Egremont and those “on her side,” because the marriage was not approved of in the first place by anyone.

This is to highlight a twig in the presence of a towering tree.

The tree is Benjamin Smith. He could not have operated the way he did without supporting ground all around him: these are the laws and customs that made Smith utterly subject to his will. The law and custom (which accepted his behavior towards her) allowed him to refuse to sign to allow her to collect her jointure or the interest that accumulated, decreeing himself (in the first years) she could have 70£ a year and in the later years nothing regularly at all or at all. She had failed to obtain a legal separation from him when she left him in 1787 because she knew he would never sign a document to that effect. Like Agnes, and many other women in the 18th through 19th centuries, if she wanted to leave him, she had to do it without money. Over the years various interim settlements are proposed, where he is to get (a relatively large) sum and she much less, and sums allotted to the children, and he always refuses because it’s not large enough. He wants more. When Egremont and others at first acting on her behalf seem to be about to act despite his refusal to sign, he threatens to sue, and he has the law on his side and would probably win. Everyone seems to fear him and they all respect his right to sue, uphold it.

It is important to note that he continues to be welcome at Lord Egremont’s table as a congenial enough companion. Unfortunately only some of his letters are included in Stanton’s edition; the reader sees how he knew how to make himself plausible, and crucially all how those with power to help Smith are men (some agents distrustful of Smith as an underling, a subject person who they assume is extravagant), and they naturally uphold the laws and customs and gradually grow irritated at her pro-active ceaseless attempts to (as she saw this) obtain justice, equity, and respect as well as money she could count on regularly. They refuse to justify themselves when they concede large sums to him, and won’t even let her access the interest on her children’s legacies for her or them. They think they don’t need to. The patron who she was so grateful to during the time of her writing The Old Manor House, William Hayley, wrote a treatise called “the old maid” which sufficiently delineates misogynistic attitudes that make his later rejection in character.

Charlotte Smith’s life was continually a ruin or near ruin because she had married an abusive man and left him and with the consent of the society around them he maintained full power over her and her money.

It’s true the bulk or early part of her letters manifests this emphasis on legal minutiae (especially to Egremont’s agents) because not until much later when she grows ill, more impoverished, desperate, does she begin to talk openly to these men (seemingly to the reader uselessly and obsessively but understandably) of how her husband hates her, wishes her dead, and is trying to drive her to death. Only in the later letters to a woman friend, does this emphasis on the legalities fall away. After all she is not trying to persuade her friend to act legally on her behalf. To Sarah Rose, she describes (only briefly) scenes of violence when he came to her house and terrified her and made her fear for her life and those of her younger children. Even then she is embarrassed, only alluding to how one day she was breast-feeding one of the children with the others around her, and he was able to terrify them all because of what she was in the act of doing. She just suggests how he would and could break in, violently take her money away and destroy what he pleased. We don’t begin to know what she had experienced except through the poetry. Curran presents her poetry as starting the romantic movement and as strongly feminist; through the letters we see how autobiographical many are as well:

The Female Exile. Written at Brighthemlstone in November 1792.

November’S chill blast on the rough beach is howling,
The surge breaks afar, and then foams to the shore,
Dark clouds o’er the sea gather heavy and scowling,
And the white cliffs re-echo the wild wintry roar.

Beneath that chalk rock, a fair stranger reclining,
Has found on damp sea-weed a cold lonely seat;
Her eyes fill’d with tears, and her heart with repining,
She starts at the billows that burst at her feet.

There, day after day, with an anxious heart heaving,
She watches the waves where they mingle with air;
For the sail which, alas! all her fond hopes deceiving,
May bring only tidings to add to her care.

Loose stream to wild winds those fair flowing tresses,
Once woven with garlands of gay summer flowers;
Her dress unregarded, bespeaks her distresses,
And beauty is blighted by grief’s heavy hours.

Her innocent children, unconscious of sorrow,
To seek the gloss’d shell, or the crimson weed stray;
Amused with the present, they heed not to-morrow,
Nor think of the storm that is gathering to-day.

The gilt, fairy ship, with its ribbon sail spreading,
They launch on the salt pool the tide left behind;
Ah! victims–for whom their sad mother is dreading
The multiplied miseries that wait on mankind!

To fair fortune born, she beholds them with anguish,
Now wanderers with her on a once hostile soil,
Perhaps doom’d for life in chill penury to languish,
Or abject dependence, or soul-crushing toil.

But the sea-boat, her hopes and her terrors renewing,
O’er the dim grey horizon now faintly appears;
She flies to the quay, dreading tidings of ruin,
All breathless with haste, half expiring with fears.

Poor mourner!–I would that my fortune had left me
The means to alleviate the woes I deplore;
But like thine my hard fate has of affluence bereft me,
I can warm the cold heart of the wretched no more!

She is hindered from stating her own case by the same deep custom and shame that prevents women today from telling. Unhappily that shame is not yet gone from our society and is part of the reason scholars are reluctant to pinpoint and discuss how the realities of male abuse were responsible for what happened to Smith and her children. Nonetheless, she offers enough to persuade that he behaves the way he does (refuses to sign, refuses to let her have any money but the most minimal) because he wants to punish her hard and see her die. She attributes his reasoning to his preference for his second common-law wife, menage a trois with the wife’s daughter, and that daughter’s (?) baby. She says he tells her she is in the way.

Underneath a scarcely controlled patina of politeness he manifests a continual seething tone towards her. What he hates is how she has exposed him in public, or, as he puts it, humiliates him. He hates her for telling what he does and what he is. He wouldn’t mind in the least doing what he has, but he loathes anyone knowing. He refers to how she portrays him in her profligate money-squandering violent and arrogant heroes. He was not alone in deeply resenting this exposure: beyond those lawyers she was alluding to, fellow writers castigated (Anna Steward) or distanced themselves. Mary Hays was a rare open supporter. It brings to mind this later 17th century painful picture:

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I found it linked to an on-line site about battered women

It was and is so much more convenient for everyone if the hurting person will stay silent. He also detests her for her high intelligence, reading of books (he sneers at her poetry and at her teaching her children to value poetry) and above all her assuming her rank is higher than his. He loves to sneer at her brother and all her childhood memories of a gentry upbringing (Stanton, pp 325-326n2).

In general his character as it emerges from this book fits that of other abusers. She sometimes looks at him as deranged and so describes him. That causes people to doubt her because when they read his letters we meet a normal man. The experience of abuse from the woman’s point of view is to be yoked to an egoistic, ruthless sociopath. But it is a mistake to take such man as crazy.  Such people are not. They are rational people, knowing what power they are given and what they are allowed to do and take advantage, most of the time hiding what they know others will fear and or abhor them for.

Part of why Benjamin specifically hated Charlotte may make some sympathize with him — her snobbery and unbreakable (in the end she is not broken) self-esteem from her rank, her intelligence and her understanding she has achieved literary greatness in her poetry. She is as proud as the often maligned Clarissa Harlowe (a fictional character but a good example of what can be resented in women). She roused in him all his latent injuries of class — as Richardson’s Clarissa rouses in Lovelace his latent insecurities. In a society where status and gentry manners and education mattered he was left out, nouveau, relatively uncouth. By the time we meet her she does despise his whole idle self-indulgent way of life. (I would too.) She cares for her novels and their reputation. He knows this. She is concerned to make sure there are no errors, and they are packaged highly respectably. He suffers too, he is in debt and desperate for money himself, a much more primal affair and he died ill in a debtor’s prison. she lives in fear of bailiff’s and before, during and after the time she is literally homeless, she fears she will be arrested.

When I think of what her life could have been, much that is marvelous in the novels, eloquent passages of enlightened thought, e.g, real description of what prison was like (in Marchmont, where she also quotes Madame Roland’s Memoir), of what he caused her life to be like, the disproportion of punishment is stunning. She made a mistake when she was too young to realize she should have refused a marriage to a young man she didn’t know at all. At first she was extravagant with him. She says it did not take long for her to wake up to her desolation and frustration — and fate of submission and endless pregnancy living in a tradesman’s milieu. She had done nothing wrong. She followed her society’s demands when she allowed him continual access to her body as long as she lived with him. The money she made on her great poetry was used by him after she negotiated to free him from prison (thus incurring more debts). She obeyed him by following him to France where he took a mistress, and where she almost died giving birth because (as we’d put it) the medical services in rural France were bad. The only way she could free her mind, and herself from physical abuse and emotional exploitation, was to get out. He let her out but not with any means to live, indeed with a determination to get back at her for leaving him publicly.

His male pride before his society is central. Had he let her out, and allowed her her jointure, and left her alone, she would have walked away. But she might not have written the offending novels and many prefaces.

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18th century print illustration: an old manor house

We are overlooking an important book that belongs to the history of wife abuse and how laws and customs were set up to deprive women of any independence, any control over or real means to protect their body. Wolfson remarks that Stanton’s edition, especially with its subtitled chapter headings,

1765-83: The Horrors of the Abyss
1784-90: To Live Only to Write & Write only to Live
1791-92: Hope Long Delay’d
1793: A New Course of Suffering
1794: A State of Anxiety
1795: Overwhelmed With Sorrow
1796: A Wanderer Upon Earth
1797: A Necessitous Author
1798-1800: Lord Egremonts Extraordinary Kindness [ironic]
1801: Domestic Miseries
1802: Perry Duns & Continual Want
1803: An Houseless Beggar
1804: The Best of the Bunch [ironic]
1805-1806: A Prison & A Grave
Epilogue: Nothing But the Wind

constitutes a fifteenth volume, another central story in the complete edition of Smith’s works published by Pickering and Chatto. But it is not fiction. Not even gothic — for there is nothing supernatural here. Nothing unexpected if you know anything about life. What is unusual is the candour with which she details what happens to her. As a biographer in principle Samuel Johnson should have approved.

I grant that if one wanted to make a popular book out of her letters, it would be a hard sell. Smith’s continual need of money and her fight to obtain it is repetitive (as eating and paying the rent and laundry, and getting coals in for heat, and keeping your furniture in good condition and from creditors is repetitive). During the early part of the book when she is still writing novels, she is endlessly using her booksellers as a kind of bank, drawing money from them before she is due the sums. Her tones are most often weary, indignant, exasperated, half-controlled as she endlessly re-reasons her case, attempts to negotiate with booksellers she knows are making a good profit on her books and sometimes pretending not to. She becomes bitter, she recriminates, she repeats Benjamin Smith’s and Egremont’s insults (“a diabolical liar,” Smith said); she is tenacious over the same details; and finally she turns vehement. She and her husband fight over their children: he spitefully seems to favor the youngest daughter and it grates on her when they resemble him or when they seem to side with him (especially after he has refused to help them or her with access to money). There is tedium, but on the whole this book is letters is the most devastating, fascinating and at moments deeply compelling book I’ve read in a long time.

Charlotte Smith’s is a tragic story of an admirable woman who achieved much against all odds, but at the price of comfort and joys she yearns for: the story of a woman whose heart was broken but instead of going to pieces, she holds on to try for what life she can for herself and her children. If not urbanely gallant, she is eager to reach people. Perhaps most poignant is that she never meets face-to-face the few people who befriend her in her later years. The death of Henrietta O’Neill, deeply compatible, whom she did see in physical space, was a great loss to her.

From the elegy Smith wrote:

Like the poor ghost the night I seek;
Its hollow winds repeat my sighs;
The cold dews mingle on my cheek
With tears that wander from mine eyes …

While each sad month, as slow it past,
Brought some new sorrow to deplore;
Some grief more poignant than the last,
But thou canst calm those griefs no more ….

Wit, that no sufferigns could impair,
Was thine, and thine those mental powers
Of force to chase the fiends that tear
From Fancy’s hands her budding flowers.

O’er what, my angel friend, thou wert,
Dejected Memory loves to mourn;
Regretting still that tender heart,
Now withering in a distant urn ….
— written September 1794, about a year after her friend’s death

Sarah Rose’s reluctance to visit is attributed to how Smith’s having left her husband is regarded as scandalous. Some live far away: the Rev Joseph Cooper Walker, an Irish antiquarian. Others have busy lives and not much money or time to travel to her: she writes Mary Hays when Hays writes for permission to tell Smith’s biography and uses the opportunity to ask Hays to tell Eliza Fenwick (author of Secresy) she admires her books.

It’s hard to say what is the most affecting incident. There are so many in life. Smith saw as her greatest loss the death of her beloved deeply congenial daughter, Anna Augusta (from a combination of consumption, pregnancy, and hardship), but she is as distressed over the death of her son, Charles, basically from the bad state of health he was in after he had to have a leg amputated from battle. Charles’s death was astonishingly (to us) compounded because creditors seemed to have succeed in preventing his body from being buried for a time. She writes of the military profession open to her sons: “I have had enough & too much of the trade of blood” (Stanton 649); looks at war as a series of irrational horrors, and is aware that her sons are making money when they go out to the empire by preying on other people more helpless than they. Thus she found herself in conflict with her oldest son, William, who was willing to compromise much more and insisted on taking Harriet, her youngest daughter back to India with him to the marriage market there. In the event, she became very ill, and was sent back to cost Smith much agony and money keeping her alive. William had been sending £100 at regular intervals. He stopped all payments and left her destitute. She had wanted to send her sons to university. It kills her to see her daughter Lucy, repeating aspects of her own experience in an ill-advised marriage, three children and poverty, violence from her husband before she is widowed, and then dependency. It is probable (and fortunate) that the death of George, her youngest son occurred so close to her own, that she died not knowing he had predeceased her.

It also killed her to have to sell her library. Letter after letter has her considering to sell her cherished 1000 volumes of French and English books; when after long holding out, she does, she gets very little. She says her one resource that makes her life individually worth living is gone since she lives where she can meet no people like herself (thinking literary people). She misses conversation. She has no money for coals, little for food (she mentions her loyal servants’ suffering), and writes on against the pain of rheumatism in her hands and because (as she says in the character of Marchmont in one of her books), when one writes “out of duty” on serious matters, it elevates the spirits, takes one out of oneself to another realm. She did not write just for money, or even recognition.

Elegiac-Sonnets-and-Other-Poems
Her poems are available read aloud by ordinary people (Librivox) for free

Her achievements, pleasures, what she took pride in. To return to her children. More than a few times, she admits they are a burden to her, one she longs to divest herself of. She could live much more cheaply, spend her time as she might wish (reading, writing). She dreams of a cottage in Switzerland on her own (if she could get her hands on her jointure). But they are also everything to her, her life’s blood goes into them. She would have and does in her letters regard her sons Nicholas Hankey and Lionel (her second and third son to have survived childhood) with strong pride in their successes and attitudes towards their function in dire post-colonial environments. In her last years they sends her regular remittances as William once did. Lionel rose to high office in the West Indies but continued to find tyranny abhorrent, executed an emancipation of slaves against great opposition. He had a long useful career and died at age 65. Nicholaa’s career in India ended in 1813 when he was dismissed for using armed forces against native Indians; he achieved high excellence in Persian, participated in treaty arrangements and was known for his “hospitality and humanity.” The reader watches the few social and real life pleasures of Charlotte’s last years come out of Nicholas’s relationship with a native woman: she took care of three of his children, and took especial delight in a grand-daughter, Lucenza, for whose education (it’s no exaggeration to say) she wrote her Conversations, Introducing Poetry … for the use of children and young persons (1804).

Although not emphasized in the letters, she had a close good relationship with her oldest daughter, Charlotte Mary, who was her amanuensis, remained single and wanted to write her mother’s life; Charlotte lived apart on the interest she received; she was probably saving her mother money and protecting her private space. She never married. Smith writes of Charlotte’s interests, Charlotte’s life, how she is being cheated of opportunities and daily comforts because money rightfully hers (as Smith sees this) is withheld. Her relationship with her sister, Catherine Dorset is problematic: Catherine was conventional; there was tough litigation between Catherine’s husband and Smith over the legacy; only towards the end of the letters when Smith is mortally ill (she cannot walk for the pain of her uterine cancer) does the love and faithful support of the one sister for the other become somewhat apparent. Early on Smith has the friendship of Georgiana Spenser, Duchess of Devonshire to count on; the Duchess acts practically on her behalf, but the duchess has her own problems and her health gave out before Smith’s did.

Smith should not be taken at her literal word when it comes to her novels. She cares intensely about her novels as a group and mentions them individually now and again. At least twice years after its publication, she asks if a second edition of Ethelinde is called for. She puts some heart’s blood into its story of a deeply unhappy marriage, sympathy with a husband who longs to commit adultery. She needs her library or access to someone else’s to write them. She speaks in Marchmont of the repressive measures instituted by Pitt’s reign of “alarmists” against “seditious novels” and is aware of how phrases in such are closely monitored to see (as one might today say) de-stabilize the people in an area. In 1802 she can still say she is “never so well pleased as when I have a good deal of [literary] work to do” and her “greatest vexation” is her family affairs draw off her attention. She laughs at herself for thinking her library might be valued because it was hers, but she does not give up the thought.

Her letters in her very last year or so, especially the few months left her of life after Benjamin Smith’s death, become more relaxed. There is also a sense of relief around the time he was put in prison for the second and last time. This suggests to me she continued to live in fear of him (that’s why she didn’t want to meet him and it was cruel to make her) as well as in effect subject to his will. She indulges in literary gossip and begins to send commentary on the latest work of the Lees to Sarah. She feels better because her circumstances are becoming easier because of her own efforts too. After she finally accepts that Cadell and Davies do not want her work, and Low has died, she takes up with John Johnson. Johnson emerges as that blessing, a generous and respectful publisher. She begins to be embarrassed about his advances. Her dismay when she discovers he is not a letter-writer is comical; why is he delaying a publication? He sends money, but why oh why doesn’t he write back? He is stingy with words. Not that she’s not still at it with Egremont: from her bed-couch and in pain her last letter is to him in the third person formal demanding this and that (lots of underlining) to secure for her most vulnerable children what is left. She is still trying to help Harriet to marry a man Harriet is attached to and whom Smith thinks will make her a good husband. She was working on a volume of poetry (left in Johnson’s hands) that included Beachy Head when her letters cease.

An early worshipper at Nature’s shrine,
I loved her rudest scenes-warrens, and heaths,
And yellow commons, and birch-shaded hollows,
And hedge rows, bordering unfrequented lanes
Bowered with wild roses, and the clasping woodbine,
Where purple tassels of the tangling vetch
With bittersweet, and bryony inweave,
And the dew fills the silver bindweed’s cups-
I loved to trace the brooks whose humid banks
Nourish the harebell, and the freckled pagil;
And stroll among o’ershadowing woods of beech,
Lending in Summer from the heats of noon
A whispering shade; while haply there reclines
Some pensive lover of uncultured flowers,
Who, from the tumps with bright green mosses clad,
Plucks the wood sorrel with its light thin leaves,
Heart-shaped, and triply-folded, and its root
Creeping like beaded coral; or who there
Gathers, the copse’s pride, anemones,
With rays like golden studs on ivory laid
Most delicate: but touched with purple clouds,
Fit crown for April’s fair but changeful brow.
— Smith, from Beachy Head

She was more than remarkable.

Smith left an important and extensive oeuvre. It’s hard to say which is her finest novel. The one most in print has been The Old Manor House.

manor_house_illustration
A modern illustration

The opening of Old Manor House comes closest in tone to Austen — more opening sardonic. Its third book contains an long section dramatizing the 1750s colonialist war between France and England as fought in the America – she has a number of such sequences presenting the horrors and irrationalities of war.

Perhaps The Old Manor House is favored because it’s more shapely, feels more planned than the others; I feel Desmond is favored for the same reason. Smith’s novels more often meander and her emotions and thoughts pour out more and more frankly as the novels proceed. The reader has to let go with her, and I find I like them best when I don’t apply novelistic conventional criteria to them, but look at them as compendiums of life-writing, poetry, and political radicalism. Her letters give the reader insight into the background of these texts: literary, legal, social, economic and colonialist society, local town and rural culture from Smith’s woman-centered vantage point. Her family members seem to have tried to thrive by litigating with one another. In her frank presentation of family relationships her letters explain why her second fiction is a translation and abridgement of a set of law cases (The Romance of Real Life) where vulnerable individuals, and especially women, becomes victim of norms which develop everyone’s most hostile impulses. Candour and tenacity, truth-telling is their hall mark and strength, and the core truth is that the physical aspects of wife abuse, or, as the modern phrase is, domestic violence, horrible as that can be, is but one part of a pervasive harm acceptance and indifference allows. This blog can be regarded as an argument for an affordable publication of a selection of Smith’s letters.

beachy-head
A photograph of Beachy Head taken by a friend this summer

Ellen.

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