Archive for the ‘early modern women’ Category

Lucy Hutchinson with one of her sons

‘Yet after all this he is gone hence and I remain, an airy phantasm walking about his sepulchre and waiting for the harbinger of day to summon me out of these midnight shades to my desired rest — Lucy Hutchinson, Final Meditation’

I write not for the presse to boast my own weakness to the world — Lucy Hutchinson

Dear friends and readers,

This past Friday afternoon the Washington Area Print Group (a small offshoot of Sharp, the Book History people) held its last meeting of this semester. The editor of Lucy Hutchinson’s four book epic poem, Order and Disorder (a retelling of the book of Genesis, and comparable to Milton’s Paradise Lost), David Norbrook spoke to us about what was printed and not printed in Lucy’s lifetime, with a view to show how Lucy resisted print culture in order to write candid truth about her and her husband’s lives and to find release in writing poetry. His talk renewed an old and still today continuing interest I have in the remarkable generation of English women in the mid- to later 17th century who were actively involved in the English civil war, several of whom wrote memoirs, letters, and poetry out of their experiences. I did an etext edition of the autobiography of Anne Murray Halkett; my first published paper was on the poetry of Katherine Philips; one of my first foremother poets was Margaret Cavendish; and I devoted years of my life to studying and editing texts and writing about the translations of Anne Finch, wrote part of a biography. I’ve published reviews of books which contain chapters on her (e.g., Seelig, Autobiography and Gender in Early Modern Literature)

The most brilliant and learned of these women was probably Lucy Hutchinson, and way back in 2008 with a small group of friends on EighteenthCenturyWorlds @ yahoo (now a defunct listserv), we read and discussed Lucy’s brief autobiography and her magisterial biography of her husband, which is of course an autobiography, but also a history of the civil war and its aftermath for those who fought against the monarchy. I read a copy of a new Everyman edition by N.H. Keeble, based on the manuscripts, and the original introduction by Julius Hutchinson in an old Everyman. Here is an excellent website citing and explaining all Lucy’s writings, where the manuscripts are located, recent editions, good historical information and bibliography of Lucy Hutchinson.

Prof Norbrook told us (as everyone who writes about the memoir does) that the book was first published in 1806 by a descendant, Julius Hutchinson, in an attempt to make money on it (he was badly in debt from, among other things, gambling). Julius Hutchinson was concerned to separate his family from the radical Jacobin politics of the 1790s, and so refused to allow Catherine Macaulay (the historian) to see it, and cut passages of religious and political enthusiasm. This was the text that the early 20th century Everyman edition published. If you obtain this one, you can read Julius’s preface which is at times unconsciously funny because he lectures readers on how to react to his ancestors. Lucy’s biography even when cut by Hutchinson projects an intense indwelling religiosity; her fragment of an autobiography, written much earlier and broken off, show she came from a cavalier, upper class family (her uncle was keeper of tower) and reveals an intense and bitter struggle with her mother who tried to stop Lucy from cultivating her mind (her father encouraged and supported her in this), and favored Lucy’s non-reading sister. In the 17th century parents regularly openly favored one child over another (primogeniture and gender were factors in this kind of behavior). Lucy’s autobiography frustratingly ends on an early intense love Lucy had for someone other than Hutchinson, someone of whom her mother did not approve. It has a refreshing immediacy lacking in the biography.

John Hutchinson with another of their sons

I’m not going to go through Lucy’s memoir of her husband’s life phase by phase. The reader may find a good summary and evaluation and large swatches of the biography reprinted with connecting explanations and contextualization, respectively in Margaret George’s lively (and Marxist!) Women in the First Capitalist Society: Experiences in 17th century England and Roger Hudson’s The Grand Quarrel (which also includes selections from Margaret Cavendish’s life of her husband, Hutchinson’s royalist rival in Nottingham, and letters and journals by Ann Fanshawe, Brilliana, Lady Harley, Alice Thornton and Anne Murray Halkett). Lucy is distinguished from her fellows by her overt active political behavior, opinions and fierce dislike of Cromwell, which she says her husband shared — apparently because Cromwell set up a dictatorship, with himself and his son-in-law Ireton, in charge. The Hutchinsons’ vision was of a godly republic ruled by a Parliament which would be made up by godly men of property. John Hutchinson retired from public life for a while; he and his wife eschewed ambition overtly. She is deeply anti-feminist (Elizabeth I did so well because she listened to her male advisors), herself never for a moment drops her sense of a class hierarchy and where she and her husband deserve to be (She says that initially she and John were much in favour of the original Levellers who were merely standing up for justice and against vice, but that later the name became associated with a ‘people who endeavoured the levelling of all estates and qualities which these sober Levellers were never guilty of desiring’); she is biblical and acidulous. So their far left of the revolution is much qualified. The central section offers a fascinating exposure of the internecine personal politics of Nottingham as well as its seiges, the battles military and social that went on. Nick Hay wrote of this:

the massive bulk of these 230 pages is taken up with the events of the war as far as they concerned Nottingham and Hutchinson’s Governorship of both Castle and Town. Such is the account of internal dissension, treachery and indeed incompetence that it becomes something of a miracle to the reader that the Parliamentary victory seems astonishing. We must remember however that the key military encounters of the war (Marston Moor and above all Naseby which gets about 2 lines) take place very much off-page.

Early 18th Century print of Nottingham castle and park, showing “priest holes,” as it was rebuilt by the Duke of Newcastle

It’s also brave and original of Lucy to discuss the king’s trial at all, much less from the Parliamentarian point of view.

Lucy is writing this history after the Restoration to vindicate her husband and their war effort. Hutchinson himself seems to have been a fanatic. About pulling down images. He would not yield and that kept them winning at times. He also was inflexible and knew it. He didn’t want a place in the high government. It was dangerous and not what the war was about to him. He was not seeking high place, and Lucy (his wife) wants him to be admired for this. She knows how unusual it is. She herself didn’t feel this way. There are numerous references to Cromwell’s ability, his personal courage in hindsight. From the viewpoint of the post-Restoration republican Cromwell, even if seen as a malevolent force, appeared as a giant saviour. Prof Norbrook concentrated on one episode presented indirectly in the memoir: in order to save her husband’s life (he was one of the regicides who signed the death warrant for Charles I) she forged a letter in her husband’s handwriting where he recants his beliefs and expresses deep remorse over the king’s death. She went to court with this, and angered her husband very much. She had to persuade him to want to live for the sake of his family.

From our group read of the memoir in 2008 I find we agree that John Hutchinson suffered from what we now call “survivor guilt and this becomes more oppressive as the repression deepens and more and more of his old comrades are executed, exiled, imprisoned. Lucy wishes that he would save himself and wants to do whatever she can personally to do so, which leads her to take momentous steps (for her) of going against his wishes. Fascinating political and psychological material here – what a marvellous drama. Lucy understands her husband’s psychological processes as in this passage where she describes his reaction to persecution of his friends and associates:

‘notwithstanding that he himself, by a wonderfully overruling providence of God, in that day was preserved, yet he looked upon himself as judged in their judgment, and executed in their execution; and although he was most thankful to God, yet he was not very well satisfied in himself for accepting this deliverance.’

Here is where she stands:

‘And his wife, who thought she had never deserved so well of him, as in the endeavours and labours she exercised to bring him off, never displeased him more in his life and had much ado to persuade him to be content with his deliverance.’

Notwithstanding all her efforts her husband is eventually imprisoned, somewhat to his own satisfaction; he “told his wife this captivity was the happiest release in the world to him’. We are told “His wife bore her own toils [which must have been massive but of which we are allowed to hear little] joyfully enough for the love of him, but could not but be very sad at the sight of his undeserved sufferings; and he would smile sweetly and kindly chide her for it.” Neither of the Hutchinsons in any sense repent; their views do not change. On the subject of religious liberty they become more radical still. John Hutchinson only questions the abuse of power by the Revolutionaries and advises his son that if there should be a second Revolution he stand back and wait and watch what those in power do before committing himself to them. Remember all this is left in manuscript. He was arrested in 1663 after a pathetic uprising, treated harshly, sent to Sandown Castle in Kent, a run-down ruined place, cold, damp, wind-blasted, and there he sickened and died. Lucy suspects he was poisoned.

Professor Norbrook’s interest in print culture (for this paper especially) led him to tell us of the elegant speeches printed and attributed to those who were executed: Algernon Sidney, for example. Edmund Ludlow “entered print culture” to express “fierce hostility to the regime” in his Voyce from the Watch Tower. Those executed her hung, drawn and quartered.Lucy did not want this kind of thing to be published about her husband at all and in her Memoir reveals a continued pesistent misunderstanding between them (which I find poignant). On the other hand, Lucy meant to in her book show her husband’s continued loyalty to the puritan regime.

Professor Norbrook asked what genre the book belongs to because it is written as a family history told to her children to remember their father and learn from his life. The family did experience a steep decline, with children and grandchildren leaving England, descending to bankrupt poverty. Keeble suggests we see the Memoirs as part of the literature of defeat, and places it alongside Milton and Richard Baxter. The issue for defeated revolutionaries was how God could have left them to be defeated. This is the theme of Samson Agonistes. John Hutchinson is Samson – ‘a prisoner chained’. It’s one of these works which supposedly justifies the ways of God to men. The detailed portrayal of John Hutchinson’s perfections are intended to show him as a complete ‘gentleman’ – and patriot ‘in the tradition of Roman republicanism’ (this is suggested by Lucy’s use of the word senator, and links Catonian republicanism and whiggish England as its heir found in Addison’s Cato). Prison (as with Bunyan) is a place of spiritual education and liberty.

I have tried to read some of Lucy’s translation of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura and (much better as a read) her Order and Disorder. The first appears to be an exercise where she is teaching herself about atheism and learning to reject it after careful consideration. Order and Disorder is a retelling of the Genesis story where (once again) she is justifying the ways of God, or finding justification. What are moving, however stilted are her elegies for her husband (written while she is alone, grieving for him). How to convey the agon of this woman? In her elegies she inveighs against court life (an old pastoral trope):

A troop of restless passions wander there,
And private lives are only free from care …
[The moon’s] image only comes to close the eye,
But gives the troubled mind no ease of care …
… he alone possesseth true delight
Whose spotless soul no guilty fears affright.
[she did once stop an execution] …
Those who survive will raise no mutiny;
His table is with home-got dainties crowned,
With friends, not flatterers, encompassed round;
No spies nor traitors on his trencher wait,
Nor is his mirth confined to rules of state;
An armed guard he neither hath nor needs,
Nor fears a poisoned morsel when he feeds.
[For the person retired from court and public life]
Sweet peace and joy his blest companions are:
Fear, sorrow, envy, lust, revenge, and care,
And all that troop which breeds the world’s offence,
With pomp and majesty, are banished thence.

Much more her “Final Meditation:” dense, fragmentary and complex prose on the subject of death. It is personal and self-searching as Lucy struggles to reconcile what she knows should be her own theological joy at John’s translation to heaven with her own sense of personal loss … She’s a wonderful prose stylist, a poet in prose superior to her poetry in verse.

She remains a strong supporter of patriarchy and even apologizes for writing! Keeble writes:

This tension between, on the one hand, dutiful wife and, on the other, creatively bold writer, is negotiated by the narrative device of splitting the identity of Lucy Hutchinson into two. There is, on the one hand, the Mrs Hutchinson who is a subject of the Memoirs, her husband’s shadow with no voice; on the other hand, there is the narrator, independent, defiant and assertive. She is obliged to be dutiful, deferential, quiet; I, however, enjoy licence to speak my mind.

I wish I knew far more about her last 18 years of life, her relationship to her children, but we have nothing written down by her. There appears to be a historical novel about Lucy by Elizabeth St John The Lady of the Tower): I’m not sure what the focus of the book is, so am obtaining a copy. Sometimes this genre when well done can add to our knowledge through imaginative use of history.

The author has done extensive research in archives and gone round to battlefields too.

And for my Austen reader, Austen could easily have read this memoir; it’s the sort of thing she was known to like to read (memoirs, history, letters by women — think of Fanny Price, Anne Elliot’s reading, of Austen and Anne Grant). She might not mention Lucy and John Hutchinson, radical revolutionaries, any more than she mentioned reading Wollstonecraft. Or references to this material were cut.

Il y a toujours d’hommes superposés en un homme, et le plus visible est le moins vrai — Régis Debray, Éloges



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Paul Sandby (1731-1809) The Magic Lantern

Dear readers and friends,

My second report on the papers and talks I heard at the recent EC/ASECS conference (see Money, Feeling and the Gothic, Johnson and The Woman of Colour). I’ve three panels, a keynote speech and individual papers to tell of. Of especial interest: a paper on hunger towers (the use of hunger as a political statement has reversed itself); on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (favorable!) and Mary Shelley’s Valperga, out in a good new edition; it’s about (among other things) a struggle between tyrannical autocracy and liberal democracy … just our thing …

1861 Illustration of Dante’s Inferno: Ugolino grieving over his starving dying sons

For the last session on Friday (Oct 28th), I went to the “Adaptation” panel chaired by Peter F. Perreten. Erlis Wickersham’s “Goethe’s Use of Traditional Hunger Tower Motifs in Gotz von Berlichingen. The historical background of the motive brings out the astonishing reverse use made of death through hunger today. Hunger towers were a visible symbol and reality that told people looking at them that the powerful family (or group) or political person has imprisoned someone so that he (or she) shall die a horribly painful death from slow starvation. Erlis said they were common in medieval landscapes. A very cruel form of murder. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is in Dante’s Inferno: Ugolino who was imprisoned with two sons and two grandsons. Schiller’s play is less complex than what happened historically, which was an instance of torture, of unspeakable inhumanity during the last days of the feudal system. Schiller alters this so that it becomes a chosen hunger strike. Schiller is showing us a new state of mind, a way of conveying a deep disapproval, a rejection of life as then lived. Kafka’s early 20th century story, “The Hunger Artist” presents a scene of people watching a man die for entertainment, a sort of paradigm mirroring aspects of humanity. The most recent example is found in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games: she depicts a grimly impoverished society, a dystopian culture. Those who win a primitive unfairly manipulated contest receive more food and comforts. Its heroine, Katniss Everdeen represents the strength of idealism. Hunger becomes a weapon against oppression, a defiance of the existing social order. Escape though seems to be impossible in this hunger-haunted world. Of course what should happen is ample food be supplied to all.

I had not realized the expressions on the faces of the actors in promotional shots for Hunger Games might suggest they are hungry ….

Sylvia Kasey Marks,”What did Playwright Arthur Miller do to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?” Helen Jerome was the screenplay writer for the first of the film adaptations of Jane Austen in 1941, a fairly successful P&P. The typescript is in Texas. At the time Miller was between jobs, his greatest plays had yet to be written, and one way he made money was to write radio plays He does not seem to have known much about the 18th century or its texts, and he used this Jerome adaptation in 1945 to write an hour-long radio show. Sylvia felt Miller had not read Austen’s novel: he is unaware of Elizabeth and her father’s warm relationship, of the witty use of letters. Miller made many more changes, some silly (Lydia gets drunk on raspberry punch), and a few subtle cruelties here and there. Miller also panders. But the play has as its theme a willingness to reject the past; the characters say that they never told the truth in this house for 10 minutes. We need to have a ruthlessness against the past that holds us.

Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot grieving over her letters (2007 Persuasion, scripted Simon Burke, it’s just possible to see Persuasion as a breaking away from the past that holds us in its grip)

Linda Troost gave an insightful account of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I enjoyed her paper because when I wrote my blog I could not find one review or blog which took the movie at all seriously or praised it; most people could not get beyond its mockery of aspects of heterosexual romance, and seemed to regard the piece as inane trivia. I reviewed it as a flawed work (see my The Violent Turn), which attempts a mirroring of our modern preoccupations with violence as a solution to all our problems; there is some serious gothic: a deep disturbance over the human body, it whips up disgust with nature, and (as Frankenstein, the ultimate origin) has an obsession with death. Linda took it on its own terms, which she appeared to enjoy: Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a great warrior, Wickham’s desire for power, how Elizabeth saves Darcy. I was aware of how many scenes in the film still keep the pivot or hinge-points of the book,and how the costumes quoted other films, Linda brought out many jokes through intertextual borrowing from other films

The kind of breakfast scene so typical of Austen films

The familiar Darcy proposal to Elizabeth becomes a violent duel, complete with swords and axes

The day was over; there was a reception for Linda Merians, who had been the secretary of the society for so many years, speeches, drinks, and then I went to dinner at a nearby Asian fusion restaurant with a friend.


Wm Hogarth (1697-1764), The Distrest Poet (1736)

The early morning session, Bibliography, Book History, and Textual Studies chaired by Eleanor Shevlin was marvelous but I doubt I can convey why because the fun was in the minute changes people make to their texts, the interest complicated questions of profits from copyright, and one woman’s thwarted attempt to sell her book of letters for money.

Jim May discussed Goldsmith’s multitudinous revisions, big and small, in his poems “The Traveller and the Deserted Village.” Jim began with how in the Clarendon edition of Pope, the editors chose to use the earliest possible text, a pre-publication copy, on the grounds that incidentals don’t matter. He then moved to Arthur Friedman’s edition of Goldsmith which shows a feeling for a very complicated text. For Goldsmith writing was rewriting. He rewrote other people’s adaptations, translations, introductory material. He would revise and revise and revise his own texts. He would respond to critics by revising for the next edition. The problem for readers is they don’t understand Friedman’s system of annotation (Lonsdale’s is easier to follow). You can trace Goldsmith’s thought by paying attention to these small changes.


Nancy Mace asked if Robert Falkener was aanother music private or a principled revolutionary, bringing otherwise unaffordable music (sheets) to “the masses?” It’s a story of 18th century conflicts between open access and protection of private property (musician and composer’s profits). In 1760s we find Falkener’s name on harpsichords as a builder; then then begins to produce music sheets. Printers had preferred to use engraved pewter plates; Falkener recognized printing from movable type was much cheaper. Music had been selling for shillings and so many pence; Falkener sold his sheets for a penny a piece. Music trade brought suit three times and courts sided with plaintives. It was in 1777 music regarded as texts was covered by copyright. Falkener used arguments like Handel’s work had been in the public domaine, he raised the troubling question (by then) of monopolies. She looked at the case of Love in a Village which led to a series of lawsuits, claims and counterclaims (Bickerstaffe, or Walsh or Pyle)and finally the; court more or less sided with original or first owner. Meanwhile Falkener had lost but he carried on printing: 8 of the most popular sheets, from a popular operetta). The problem with claiming his purpose was to reach more people falls down when you realize these people could not afford even the cheaper sheet music.

Michael Parker discussed “the unknown career of Harriet Woodward Murray, a Maryland Woman of letters. Prof Parker edited the poetry of Edmund Waller and is now working on a biography, and in a letter by Alice Mary Randall he read of her friend, Harriet Woodward (1762-1840) who produced a book called Extracts. He then came across a 2 volume set of Extracts attributed to someone else, which he recognized from the earlier description. The book reflects the preoccupations and tastes of genteel American who is a great reader; she moves from gaiety to piety, to trying to help impoverished and African-American people. She includes Shenstone and poetry of sensibility, Shenstone himself had gathered poems by his friendsHe told of her parents, who she married, the planation where she grew up, where she lived later upon her marriage, her good friend, Catherine Nicolson Few (1764-1854). Harriet’s husband had lost a great deal of money, so Harriet wrote this book and Catherine attempted to get up a subscription list of 380 individuals for 456 copies, 156 of which were women. Frederick Green of the Gazette printed it. The friendship between the two women seems to have lapsed, and Harriet tried to sell the books herself. In fact few took their copies, mostly family members and the profit was $30. In this century most of the copies were destroyed by a descendant by mistake. The family was related to the family behind Daisy in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.

The room was full and there was a lively discussion afterwards — about American culture, the realities of selling books by subscription, did writers stay with the same printers? Nancy reminded us that music was a luxury business: middle class people learned to play instruments, and most money was made selling instruments. The audience did not care about the quality of the printed sheets. The composer had to sell his music through a fee; there were no royalties then.

Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), Staircase by Night (1848) — I felt an appropriate image for Wright’s poems (see just below)

Catherine Ingrassia’s keynote address, “Familiarity breeds Contentment: (Re)locating the Strange in 18th century women writers” was basically about how to go about changing the canon so we can bring in 18th century women writers hitherto not studied. The new technology and editions make it possible to study minor women writers for the first time: we can have the texts from ECCO and Pandora online. She had two lists of words: those signifying familiarity are pleasant; those signifying strangeness, hostile. The period saw the first editions by women of their poetry, first biographies; they were attacked too. But obstacles to a woman writing are many, from family obligations, to impoverished widowhood. To use the old anthologies is to repeat the same mistakes as often editors rely on a previous edition. Now we have tools to use like the Cambridge Companions to Women’s Writing: books which offer ideas on how to approach the texts we have. There were anthologies of women’s poetry, miscellanies by individuals, often writing in solitude without much opportunity to make money. Catherine read aloud to us poems by women of the 18th century, one a widow with 2 daughters, another by a spinster. She chose a poem about a battle, about Culloden (great defeat and slaughter), about a riot in Bristol; women wrote poems about widowhood, homelessness, hungry children, wives thrown into prison with their husbands (not male topics). Among the better known women mentioned were Mehetabel Wright (about the death of a new born child). I’ve written a foremother poet essay on her life and superbly strong verse. Catherine ended on Eliza Haywood as a good candidate for major treatment in a course, highly topical, daring in her treatment of same-sex relationships. There is a six volume set of her works; an Approaches to Teaching volume.

The discussion afterward did not turn on the question of the quality of Haywood’s work, but rather the problem that since in many colleges, there will be a course given in eighteenth century literature and/or history at best once every two years, which of the traditional authors should you eliminate so as to make room for Haywood? It’s not as if the canon which is so recognizable and familiar to us is at all familiar to the undergraduate, who you might like to attract to a study of 18th century literature, culture, art. It was then time for the business lunch.


It was at this point I found myself unable to take substantial enough notes to report on the afternoon consistently. So I’m going to conclude on noting for those like myself interested in three papers on women writers or artists, with brief summaries of three papers in the last session. Alistaire Tallent’s paper was on “Stranger than Fiction: How a Slanderous Novella Made Mademoiselle Clairon a Star of the Parisian Stage (I know how important these memoirs are for actresses’s careers and reputations — see my The Rise of the English Actress); Joanna M. Gohmann’s “Paws in Two Worlds: The Peculiar Position of Aristocratic Pets in 18th century Visual Culture” (especially as a cat lover I regretted not hearing this one) and Caroline Breashears, “Novel Memoirs: The Collaboration of Tobias Smollett and Lady Vane” (Constantia Phillips, Lady Vane’s life appears as an interlude or insert in Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle, utterly non-conformist, an instance of scandal life-writing).

Marguerite Gerard (1761-1837), Le chat angora — those familiar with later 18th century painting will be familiar with paintings of women aristocrats with their pets (not always accurately rendered, often placed in the position of a child or among children)

XIR64477 The Cat's Lunch (oil on canvas)  by Gerard, Marguerite (1761-1837); Musee Fragonard, Grasse, France; Giraudon; French, out of copyright
Another Gerard: The Cat’s Lunch


Mary Beale (1633-99)
, Portrait of a Girl with a Cat — the salacious ones are remembered but the appearance and accuracy of most (like this) testify rather to how animals were increasingly treated as companions to owners and their children

“Giving Voice to the Persecuted” (3:30-4:45 pm) was the last session, and chaired by Sayre Greenfield. Ted Braun gave a full description of Olympe de Gouges’s L’Escavage des negres, and its first production (deliberately played badly). He also placed it in the context of Gouges’s passionately-held revolutionary beliefs: it might fail as theater (it’s an excessively sentimental heroic romance), but not as an anti-slavery tract. Gouges asked direct resonating questions (how can we behave so miserably, deplorably to these people?!). She spoke on behalf of the oppressed, revealing the worst cruelties, asked for equality for women. For her efforts, she was reviled and guillotined.

Jennifer Airey’s paper, “A temper admirably suited to Enthusiasm: Sexual Violence, Female Religious Expression, and the Trial of Mary-Catherine Cadiere (1731)” was about a young nun who was probably taken gross advantage of by her confessor; she sued him for rape, he was acquitted and then accused her of witchcraft. She was using a relgious vision to give her cultural authority. It was a cause celebre, pornographic pamphlets, and anti-catholic propaganda appeared. Both people were in danger of fierce physical punishment. The real story ended in his death and her disappearance from the world’s stage; but Mary Shelley re-worked the story fictionally in her Valperga in the characters of Beatrice, an orphan who becomes a prophet, and Castruccio, a tyrant prince (see Mary Seymour, Mary Shelley, pp 251-53). After a prolonged sexual assault Beatrice goes into violent convulsions, and has visions which Shelley sees as empowering her. Shelley also flirts with heresy by suggesting an actively malevolent God.

An excellent new edition by Stuart Curran is reviewed in Romantic Circles — “the novel dramatizes a struggle between autocracy and liberal democracy that spoke to its era and now our own

Christine Clark-Evans’s “Colbert’s Negro/Negres Slave Mothers and Montesquieu’s Climatic Mothers: Motherhood in the Code Noir and Of the Spirit of the Laws,” was the last paper of the day. She spoke of the harsh treatment of enslaved mothers (no right to anything, least of all their children) who were abused concubines, forced back to work immediately after giving birth. Theories of mothers and motherhood (Roxanne Wheeler has a book on this) ignored. Montesquieu was against slavery and in his work said that only through vicious slavery could you clear the land and produce sugar at a profit; he described the horrible treatment of enslaved black women.

We stayed to talk though we had run out of time. Ted said one problem with her play is decorum deprives her slave characters of authentic voices. Jennifer suggested Shelley asks if nature is inherently evil, with God an incompetent adminstrator. Shelley’s Last Man we find God treated as love.

And so a fine conference ended.

One of the worst things that happens to Greer Garson as Elizabeth is she gets mud on her shoes and dress (this in 1941) — this is after all a Jane Austen blog


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This painful image reflects the reality of black woman slaves’ lives — of which Mary Prince (1788-after 1833) was one

I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners: so that we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage. When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging of us to keep up a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing.**

** Let the reader compare the above affecting account, taken down from the mouth of this negro woman, with the following description of a vendue of slaves at the Cape of Good Hope, published by me in 1826, from the letter of a friend, –and mark their similarity in several characteristic circumstances. The resemblance is easily accounted for: slavery wherever it prevails produces similar effects.–“Having heard that there was to be a sale of cattle, farm stock, &c. by auction, at a Veld-Cornet’s in the vicinity, we halted our waggon one day for the purpose of procuring a fresh spann of oxen. Among the stock of the farm sold, was a female slave and her three children. The two eldest children were girls, the one about thirteen years of age, and the other about eleven; the youngest was a boy. The whole family were exhibited together, but they were sold separately, and to different purchasers. The farmers examined them as if they had been so many head of cattle. While the sale was going on, the mother and her children were exhibited on a table, that they might be seen by the company, which was very large. There could not have been a finer subject for an able painter than this unhappy group. The tears, the anxiety, the anguish of the mother, while she met the gaze of the multitude, eyed the different countenances of the bidders, or cast a heart-rending look upon the children; and the simplicity and touching sorrow of the young ones, while they clung to their distracted parent, wiping their eyes, and half concealing their faces,–contrasted with the marked insensibility and jocular countenances of the spectators and purchasers,–furnished a striking commentary on the miseries of slavery, and its debasing effects upon the hearts of its abettors. While the woman was in this distressed situation she was asked, ‘Can you feed sheep?’ Her reply was so indistinct that it escaped me; but it was probably in the negative, for her purchaser rejoined, in a loud and harsh voice, ‘Then I will teach you with the sjamboc,’ (a whip made of the rhinoceros’ hide.) The mother and her three children were sold to three separate purchasers; and they were literally torn from each other.”–Ed.

Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

“Conscientious Objector” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the
        clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the
        Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will
        not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the
        black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but this is all that I shall do for Death; I am
        not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of
        my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the
        route to any man’s door.

Am I a spy in the land of living, that I should deliver
        men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe
        with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

Dear friends and readers,

On any other blog, this coupling might seem strange. I hope not so here. Mary Prince was that nearly unique presence in 18th century texts: a black woman slave who atttempted to tell the story of her life in her own words. Edna St Vincent Millay was a very great women poet. I’m carrying on my much delayed accounts of conferences and lectures I attended this past fall. Tonight I tell of two excellent lectures I heard at the Washington Area Print Group (WAPG) held once a month during the college semester at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. We look upon ourselves as a small “cell” or twig of the larger SHARP group (book history), which twice I was privileged to attend and once to give a paper on Anthony Trollope’s mappings of his imagined counties: Geographies of Power.

Here is the description of our October 7th meeting:

The slim pamphlet, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African (1831), has gained increased visibility over the last decades due to its claim to being the first slave narrative written by a woman in English. Yet, like its predecessor, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789), these British publications do not fully anticipate the genre models that would later be established by their nineteenth-century North American counterparts. And, unlike Equiano’s Narrative, Prince’s “History” also highlights issues of authorship that continue to raise debates over how scholars should view the autobiographical accounts of enslaved and formerly enslaved people. This talk will cover the life of along with the production and dissemination of the biography formerly enslaved Mary Prince (c.1788-after 1833, b.Bermuda), including her negotiation of familial and religious networks to navigate the West Indies and Caribbean while enslaved, and her eventual self-emancipation through alliances with abolitionist groups in London. It will also look at how Scottish-born Thomas Pringle’s editing of and libel trials over her biography fits into his own history as one of the “founding fathers” of South African settler poetry as well as how Susanna Strickland Moodie’s transcription of Prince’s oral history later shaped her work as one of the first Canadian novelists and the increased visibility in the second and third editions of reader-produced paratexts. This is part of a larger project that looks at women in the British Empire, and positions the writings of formerly enslaved women such as Mary Prince as central to the histories of Britishness, African identity, as well as foundational to understanding the writings of other more well-known authors, such as Jane Austen.The model of narrative, the history that leads to its publication, and the dissemination of Prince’s life history illuminates the way authors, especially women, negotiated the interpersonal and imperial politics of making their stories heard throughout English-language Atlantic print networks.

Susannah Strickland Moodie might be familiar to my readers through Margaret Atwood’s imagined recreation of the Journals of Susannah Moodie as well as the Booker Prize winner, Alias Grace. Moodie wrote the classic memoir of Canadian literature: Roughing It i the Bush, was a journalist and wrote poetry. Early Canadian women of letters;=, she and her sister, Catherine Parr, are the subjects of an illuminating biography, Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray (a wonderful read).

Here is a brief gist and transcription of what Emily said:

Emily’s talk was so stimulating of interesting questions and suggestive about so many concrete details about slave women’s lives and the difference between these (where there were moments of pleasure, often with their childen if they were fortunate enough to keep some semblance of family) and the texts we can or must rely upon.

The text of Mary Prince’s life is available in a Penguin classics, edited by Sarah Salih, ISBN 9780140437492. Her life has been published in a number of scholarly editions, with excerpts in anthologies. One of the best, which I can’t recommend too highly is Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader, ed. Antoinette Burton. for those seriously interested in Jane Austen, it is noteworthy that Bristol (from which it will be recalled in Austen’s Emma, Mrs Elton aka Miss Augusta Hawkins, daughter of a tradesman, hailed). Her life story was the first slave narrative attributed to a woman. Equiano was her predecessor in Europe; Frederick Douglas came after her. Her life was published as a tract of an anti-slavery society; her story came with a supplement by an abolitionist editor, Thomas Pringle, as “taken down by” Susannah Strickland, to which was added another yet briefer narrative of another female captured African slave. The questions swirling around it concern authority and ownership. Whose testimony are we willing to endow with authority? (We weren’t sufficiently to Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016.) Who owns the telling of their own lives, its perspective. We see in this text a cultural exchange between bourgeois “white” people trying to present the subaltern enslaved existence of someone regarded as ontologically “not quite human” (not mattering as in #BlackLivesMatter). She (and Susannah Moodie too) was helped to get into written history and then be paid attention to by the 19th century phases of feminism, or “Female Societies” for example for “the Relief of British Female Slaves” (founded 1825).

Mary Prince traveled around the world of Britain’s global colonial empire in her brief hard-working life. I have rarely come across someone whose bodily strength was so used/abused from the time she was outside infancy. Born after England abolished the slave trade, she was at first owned in Bermuda, Jamaica, by a very young girl as a present/toy/doll/commodity. When the chief male of the household remarried, Mary Prince was sold. She survived by luck and by her ability to negotiate with her owner/lovers. One problem in telling her life is she cannot admit to allowing her body to be used sexually. It seemed to me her most basic work-job was as a washer-woman (very hard work) cleaning clothes. She was made to work with half her body in salt water for long hours at a time (rice production) and that shortened what life her body managed; she was also subjected to severe flogging, partly (I think) a result of her strong intellect, which at the same time enabled her to survive. To try to imagine what her legs, feet and back looked like is probably beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not seen tortured people or someone who has lived in the extremis of harsh colonized existence (from Ireland to the Congo). Flogging was a commonplace yet horrific practice inflicted on slaves, colonized peoples, and mainland British males who were “pressed” (snatched as ruthlessly as any genetically African individual). Emily mentioned the “problem” of her being overly emotional, but it seems to me it’s important to keep registering (no longer is the present a better age) outrage. Equiano had the advantage of maleness so he was far better educated by those who recognized or used his real talents/gifts or those of our Mary. He lived well at times, rose to an office-linked higher status; as a woman she could never have this. On a couple of occasions, men who became Mary’s lover or others who became attached to her tried to buy her freedom. This appears to have enraged more than one employer, and she would be whipped ferociously because these attempts had been tried.

On her text’s publication, there were lawsuits, set on essentially by the people (John Wood specifically) who had owned her and whose cruelty her text made plain. First Pringle’s veracity was questioned by the editor of the Glasgow Courier in Blackwood’s Magazine (wide circulation); Pringle sued Cadell, the publisher of Blackwood’s; then Wood sued Pringle. Mary was forced to take the stand and told of her sexual relationship with a Captain Abbot with whom she lived for seven years and to whom she was emotionally attached. (She would hire herself out or be hired by other families where men would take her body either for money or free, if they could.) This kind of thing damaged her stature and reputation further in the eyes of the public (the public did not respect slaves); and she had to leave one society she had joined, the Moravian, and went to live with a freeman, Oyskman who promised to buy her freedom from whoever nominally owned her. Susannah Moodie Pringle had to justify herself again and again for being an amanuensis (probably more like an editor) and defended Mary Prince’s chastity (as if she didn’t, hers would be called into question).

Emily then contextualized Mary among other African-American women. She covered the life and poetry of Phillis Wheatley (left poems), Margareta Mathilde Odell (poems and a memoir). One has to resort to finding names. (I find this is still true of 20th century women artists who participated in the surrealism movement!). Much is to be gleaned from John Gabriel Steadman’s narrative of Surinam (Emily didn’t mentioned Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which while it is a romance, has led to serious texts about Latin and South America), the narrative of “Joanna, An Emancipated Slave,” from the colonialists of North America, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Elizabeth Freeman who was Sedgewick’s nanny, Florence Hall (but 4 pages). Such texts are still often dependent on staying in print by attracting women readers. The average woman reader wants an upbeat story, something where she sees something like instant emancipation when at its rare best is gradual. They are trained to want a veil on sexual experiences, on sexual violence.

I found one of the most disturbing aspects of her story is that she was forced to allow other women to examine her body to prove her stories of abuse were true. We see here what also happened to working class, agricultural, servant women: if suspected of being pregnant, other women had no compunction against coming to them and literally grabbing a dress and feeling the woman’s body. There is no protected space around a woman, her body is not her own if she has no high status to protect her.

As to what Jane Austen could read or know of this material: she had Cowper, Thomas Clarke, Charlotte Smith, Southey; her younger brothers. while ordering flogging, and her older brother witnessing and accepting as a local militia man the anguished punishments of mutiny, could at least tell of what they saw — though it was commonplace then as in World War One not to tell.



Here is the full blurb for the Edna St Vincent Millay meeting on November 18th:

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was a daring, versatile writer whose work includes poetry, plays, essays, short stories, songs, and a libretto to an opera that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera to rave reviews. Known for her free-spirited lifestyle in Greenwich Village, Millay wrote poems promoting personal freedom that resonated with a generation of youth disillusioned by the social and political upheaval of the First World War. Millay’s literary executor Holly Peppe will present an overview of the poet’s life, illustrated with slides, and suggest reasons for her poetry’s uneven critical reception. Dr. Peppe will also talk about her friendship with the poet’s sister Norma Millay. Dr. Timothy F. Jackson will discuss Millay’s manuscripts, her publication history, critical reception, and the process of editing Millay’s works.
    Holly Peppe, literary executor for Edna St. Vincent Millay, has written and lectured widely about the poet’s life and work. Dr. Peppe’s essays appear in various books and periodicals including Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal (Southern Illinois University Press, 1995); Millay’s Early Poems (Penguin Classics,1998); Collected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2011), and Selected Poems: An Annotated Edition (Yale University Press, 2016).
    Timothy F. Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Rosemont College. He earned his doctorate in editorial studies from the Editorial Institute at Boston University. While a CLIR Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he served as an assistant editor of the Walt Whitman Archive and was the initial executive editor of Zea E-Books. He has edited work for traditional and digital publications in a variety of fields, including poetry, philosophy, and business.

Both talks were very engaging. Holly Peppe: Millay was regarded by academia as simply this “song-bird,” and not seen as the major American figure in letters that she is. It was the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature which first featured a variety of her poems and took them all seriously. An obstacle to writing her life accurately is her sister, Norma, still alive, is determined to censor anything that might be seen by the average person as “negative.” At the same time she (who has much insight into her sister’s life and politics) controls all the papers.

On her background: her mother provided her with a steady diet of interesting music. In high school she worked for the literary newspaper. It was after graduating college, that she was writing poetry and first attracted a modicum of serious attention and respect. She wrote political, love, confrontational poems. She was the first to introduce and deal with themes of real female sexuality in American literature. She was fortunate to attract patrons. She had won a couple of contests, and Caroline Dell heard her read and paid for her to go to Vassar. From 1917-21 she became part of groups that included important critics (Edmund Wilson) and painters as well as writers (Isobel Bishop, Max Eastman who escaped Nazi Germany). To make money she wrote “pot boilers:” Nancy Boyd was her pseudonym. She was consistently anti-war. She met and married Eugen Van Boissevain, widower of the labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland, a political icon Millay had met during her time at Vassar. A self-proclaimed feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their twenty-six-year marriage.

A pivotal moment was buying a 700 acre farm-house, Steepletop, which became a core place around which they built a shared unconventional life. Both drank a lot. She had a much younger lover, George Dillon, whose presence is the center of her erotic sonnet sequence, Fatal Interview (which became one of her signature texts with her wider public). One finds her with Charles Ellis Norton (important intellectual of the era just before and early 20th century); she became active in opera patronage. Her writing is written from the woman’s point of view: the woman’s body is central to her experience of social life (how men like, are attracted to, marry a woman). It was in 1940 she first was attacked for a Notebook she published. A few close relatives and friends died, and she had a nervous breakdown. Remember this is a time of barbaric war. Her sister, Catherine died, and then her beloved husband of lung cancer (1949). She returned to Steepletop to live alone. She translated Latin texts during this time. She did drink heavily all her life, and at age 58 she died from a fall down the stairs.

The main house at Steepletop

Tim Jackson told us more about editing the texts — which was his basic function. There have been many reprintings and editions of Millay’s work. Since 1912 her poems have appeared in more than 50 anthologies. To do a collected standard edition of course requires going to the manuscripts. He was interested in who influenced Millay (and also who her work influenced). Millay copied out John Donne, Housman and Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” She read the later 19th century French poets. She wrote Edmund Wilson about her memories of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and she wrote Matthiesen about her later poems. T.S. Eliot was interested in publishing her poems but as they appeared in first editions. but she would tinker endlessly (revise and revise small things). We find her angry at publishers over specific lines: she worked very hard on prosody, rhyme.. Her most popular book was one filled with lyrics, Figs from Thistles (the poem people seem to have remembered “My candle burns at both ends”), and by the wider public her earlier poems are much much better known, especially her sonnets. Apparently (for reasons I can’t figure out), “Rendez-vous” is among her most widely read and praised:

Not for these lovely blooms that prank your chambers did I come. Indeed,
I could have loved you better in the dark;
That is to say, in rooms less bright with roses, rooms more casual, less aware
Of History in the wings about to enter with benevolent air
On ponderous tiptoe, at the cue, “Proceed.”
Not that I like the ash-trays over-crowded and the place in a mess,
Or the monastic cubicle too unctuously austere and stark,
But partly that these formal garlands for our Eighth Street Aphrodite are a bit too Greek,
And partly that to make the poor walls rich with our unaided loveliness
Would have been more chic.
Yet here I am, having told you of my quarrel with the taxi-driver over a line of Milton, and you laugh; and you are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed–with pumice, I suppose–
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish I did not feel like your mother. (from Huntsman, “What Quarry?”)

I found the above on the Internet with an ordinary person explaining why she personally loved the line “I could have loved you better in the dark.”

In her notebooks one finds quite a lot humor and comedy, comments on the immorality of the “seven deadly virtues.” She also wrote an essay on faith as a philosophical groundwork for herself. By John Crowe Ransom, an important contemporary critic, she was treated with disdain mainly because was a woman; and it has been her gender and the preference of the wider public for love poems that have gotten in the way of her gaining the respect and place in American letters she should have. In life she found herself dunned by the IRS for information about her tax liabilities. Eventually a historian, Alice Burney, interested in her work gathered a great deal of it and sold it to the Library of Congress. She made a lot of money and with her husband’s accumulations, was able to live the life of a chatelaine, farmer, and women of letters at Steepletop, an estate of 300 acres, which is nowadays a “site of memory,” a place you can visit. There are regularly scheduled tours.


Kauffmann, Angelica; Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses; National Trust, Saltram; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/penelope-taking-down-the-bow-of-ulysses-101590
Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807); Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses

There is no comparison between the hardships of Mary Prince’s life and how all she ever said was brought into question because she had been a slave; and the liberty, fertile and happy relationships of Millay’s and a relative lack of respect for her work because she was early on marginalized as a woman. In her brief and frank autobiography (her voice does come through), Mary tells of how she saw herself as chained to a washtub for most of her waking hours in her strongest years. The line quoted by Sarah Salim as an epigraph for her edition of Mary’s life brings out how African-American women were seen and used for the first two hundred years of living in the US: “The nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God, 1937). I first became interested in Millay when I read her “Conscientious Objector” in Jon Silkin’s great anthology of war poetry, The Penguin Book of First World War One Poetry. In the edition this poem first appeared, it was in the back of the book with other poems by women. At first there had been no poetry by women worth reading according to Silkin’s anthology. His book has been much admired and reprinted several times: the most recent edition threads the women’s poems in chronologically and at the back we now have superb poems originally written in other languages and translated into English (a number of German poems, Russian including one each by Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, by Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti). I hope the new edition is part of a change placing Millay in the contexts where her work truly belongs. This does not just mean in “mainstream” American literature (preponderantly by men) but books of women’s poetry too. I’ll end on two. Here is “Menses” at the Poetry Foundation (also read aloud) and

An Ancient Gesture

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried


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From Enchanted Cornwall — Cornish beach — to them this recalls Andrew Davies’s 2009 Sense and Sensibility

Dear friends and readers,

Since tomorrow I’m going to try to travel to Cornwall where I will spend a week with a beloved friend, I thought I’d orient myself by reading an overview of the place, and found myself again reading DuMaurier’s Enchanted Cornwall and Vanishing Cornwall. Though I’ve long loved a number of her books (basically the historical romances with female narrators, Rebecca, her biographies, life-writing, travel writing) my yearning to see Cornwall does not come from them, as what drew me were the atypical romance stories; it comes from the Poldark novels where the life experience, landscape, kinds of employment offered, society of Cornwall is central. Thus (with little trouble) I’ve picked photos from DuMaurier’s book which relate directly to the Poldark world:


I remember Demelza frolicking on such a beach with her lover, Hugh Armitage (The Four Swans)

19677-78 Poldark: Part 8, Episode 8: Demelza (Angharad Rees) and Armitage (Brian Stirner) cavorting along the beach —

and DuMaurier tells a tale of haunted vicar living a desolate life after he alienated the few parishioners he had in Warleggan church:

WarlegganChurch — From Vanishing Cornwall — Warleggan church

I’ve read all sorts of books on Cornwall since my love of these Poldark novels began, from mining to Philip Marsden’s archeaological reveries, Rising Ground, Ella Westland: Cornwall: The Cultural Construction of Place, to Wilkie Collin’s ode to solitude and deep past in his Rambles beyond Railways); to smuggling, politics beginning in Elizabethan times, poetry (its authors include Thomas Hardy, John Betjeman’s Summoned by Bells), to women artists (Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes, Dame Laura Knight), corrupt politics in this patronage-run Duchy. If I were to go back to count in the books on Arthur and the legends surrounding his figure, and literature, I have conquered whole shelves. Bryychan Carey’s website will lead you to much from a modern abolitionist left point of view, plainly set out. So much from one corner of a country.

A photograph my friend took today, near Truro

DuMaurier’s lyrical prose carries so much information so lightly, one is in danger of not realizing how much is there. There is a film adaptation of Vanishing Cornwall (half an hour); it accompanies the movie, Daphne with Geraldine Somerville and Janet McTeer as the leading lovers) developed from her letters, memoirs, and Margaret Forster’s biography. Her stance is less subjective than Graham’s, legend, myth, than Graham does in his Poldark’s Cornwall, which dwells on his life, his career, the place of Cornwall in his fiction right now. Appropriate to Graham’s fiction so concerned with law, justice, in his travel book, we have a photo of Launceston jail gate today:


The DuMaurier’s may be regarded as instances of l’ecriture-femme too: in Enchanted whole parts of her novels emerge from this or that landscape memory as well as the sea. I had forgotten how many of her novels are situated there, from the one I think her finest, The King’s General (set in the later 17th century, the heroine in a wheelchair almost from the beginning) to the later one, Outlander takes off from, Hungry Hill. Her historical novels are historical romances: at core they are gothic, erotic fantasies. Vanishing is circular in structure, at the core her retelling of legend is minimized so she can do justice to the geography, archaeaological history, various industry. There is a paragraph on the coming of pilchards every spring which owes a lot to Graham’s lyrical miracle in the third book of Ross Poldark (there used to be a podcast on-line from the BBC, now wiped away, alas). Legend blends into history; history becomes poetical writing. She is not much on politics, dwelling on the upper classes as they’d like to be seen (mostly the later 17th into later 18th century and again the 20th).

For now here a piece from Vanishing Ground read aloud, evocative.

As qualifiers:

A poem by Betjeman: Cornish Cliffs

Those moments, tasted once and never done,
Of long surf breaking in the mid-day sun.
A far-off blow-hole booming like a gun-

The seagulls plane and circle out of sight
Below this thirsty, thrift-encrusted height,
The veined sea-campion buds burst into white

And gorse turns tawny orange, seen beside
Pale drifts of primroses cascading wide
To where the slate falls sheer into the tide.

More than in gardened Surrey, nature spills
A wealth of heather, kidney-vetch and squills
Over these long-defended Cornish hills.

A gun-emplacement of the latest war
Looks older than the hill fort built before
Saxon or Norman headed for the shore.

And in the shadowless, unclouded glare
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sea-line meets the wash of air.

Nut-smell of gorse and honey-smell of ling
Waft out to sea the freshness of the spring
On sunny shallows, green and whispering.

The wideness which the lark-song gives the sky
Shrinks at the clang of sea-birds sailing by
Whose notes are tuned to days when seas are high.

From today’s calm, the lane’s enclosing green
Leads inland to a usual Cornish scene-
Slate cottages with sycamore between,

Small fields and tellymasts and wires and poles
With, as the everlasting ocean rolls,
Two chapels built for half a hundred souls.

Laura Knight paints the contemporary world’s hopes.

Laura Knight’s rendition of a China Clay Pit (a detail, painting from early in the 20th century)


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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:


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.


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).

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.


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:

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.


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.

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.

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.

A photograph of Beachy Head taken by a friend this summer


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Probably by Mary Beale, but it is initialed CB and has been attributed to her son, Charles, though nothing else of this quality is known to be by him nor did anyone anywhere give him any credit or notice for this kind of work (Henry Scipio Reitlinger, The Beale Drawings in the British Museum, Burlington Magazine, 41:234 (Sep., 1922):142-47)

James Scott (1649-89), 1st Duke of Monmouth (Fabien Newfield, Mary Beale)

Gentle reader,

I continue my project. Mary Beale is among the first women artists in Europe whose careers resemble that of 20th century professional expert: from the time she began she produced work on commission for a set price and supported herself and her family well; she clearly had a vocation for at the same time we find many pictures she did for the sheer love of painting, the person she painted and the image she captured. She was devoted to her art and developed it technically. A the same time as she was so famous to get all these clients, she is unknown to those looking at her pictures.

Trust me if you have ever looked at pictures of famous people at or on the fringes of Charles II’s court, you have seen the work of Mary Beale.

Take the familiar portraits: perhaps the most famous, though utterly without any sense of the personality we conjure up: Aphra Behn; Charles II with his long fat nose, sensual lips and wrinkle-filled countenance. Or Nell Gwynne whose main interest beyond the person the picture is said to represent, Charles II’s “protestant whore,” is that one has to remember that for most periods people who have power (including Hollywood stars in promotional photos) have not wanted their actual personalities to be discerned, but some abstraction which conjures up a presence hieratic and guarded, strong, invulnerable, and what is considered sexy and powerful at the time, in this case the Lely idea of well-fed opulent luxurious elegance.

These are not her best. Her best are the pictures of her family and those of ordinary people we’ve not heard of or go unnamed. Mary Beale is typical of so many women painters in using herself and family primarily. There appear to be many of herself, two of her husband. Her work occurs at the opening of Frances Borzello’s excellent Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits (which readily becomes a history of women artists):

Mary Beale, Self-portrait, painted on sacking, recorded by her husband as a “study” for “improvement”

In her portraits of herself with her husband and son, she is more guarded


Those images I’ve found in color have been these personal ones (for which she presumably was not paid) and these offer those critics disposed to look at her mastery of painting, the most opportunity. But I did find one not of her family written adequately about:

Young Women

From Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art: “As Mary Beale’s artistic career advanced, her pictorial quality increased through a more meticulous treatment of space and growing attention to detail. In her first paintings, the artist gained all of her expressive force from a marked chiaroscuro, employing strong contrasts and the effects of light to emphasize the figure’s face and expression. Later, during the 1670s, she began to move toward a more decorative and complete style.
    In this painting, the artist renders a young woman in profile looking toward the right. The woman seems to observe the viewer discreetly from the corner of her eye. There is a considerable difference in conception, aesthetic, and technique between this portrait and those by her husband or by George Saville. The figure is sophisticated, somewhat distant, and idealized. There is a marked interest in representing her with a beauty that does not go unnoticed by the viewer. Indeed, it attempts to capture the viewer’s full attention and sentiments.
    Beale thus treated the very last detail with great care, from the complexion to the facial features, sophisticated and modern coiffure, and the somber, elegant, and distinguished dress
made of expensive fabric. The care with which the artist executed the facial features in order to convey a specific expression is enhanced by the dress. Its soft white combines perfectly with the sitter’s delicate skin and creates a strong contrast with the black silk scarf. The folds of the scarf give rise to an interesting interplay of light and shadows, acquiring a sense of texture accentuated by the fleeting highlights of the fabric. Similarly, for the model’s bare shoulder, Beale used the effect of the light to transmit the tactile sensation of the young woman’s skin.
    A new element is introduced in this painting: The posture adopted by the woman is neither random nor circumstantial. The artist’s attention to detail serves to intensify the artist’s efforts to create an image with a dual reading in which elegance is combined with sensuality, an attitude of distance with subtle flirtatiousness, and the delicate beauty of skin and dress with refined eroticism, all conveyed by placing the principal point of light on the model’s shoulder and stylized neck. The artist gathers the woman’s hair on top of her head in order to reveal her rosy cheeks and best use the effect produced by the light as it strikes her skin.”

As someone who prefers the unfinished work that reveals something of the individual soul of the artist, I wish more were written about the drawings I started with:

Girl’s Head (also attributed to her son, Charles)

What’s preferred by the general art historians is this kind of coy chubby sexy sentiment: for those who persist in attributing the drawings to her son, consider how like the face of this Bacchus is to the woman above

(c) St Edmundsbury Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Bacchus as a sensual adolescent, sex not clear

Her finest pictures are somber, capturing yet “vigorous, with an “expressive style, the skin tones fresh yet not voluptuous, fine treatment of drapery (Germaine Greer, Obstacle Race, 255-57)

Self-portait (1666): note the inset paintings of her son and perhaps a female relative — it’s very large for the era, the subdued brown to red tones and skin color is vivid; there is the beginning of a smile she is trying to subdue too

Some of the less familiar, not quite celebrity types do show Mary Beale’s ability to capture a living identity:

Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), Bishop of Salisbury, historian, theologian, apologist for powerful people

What you have to do is look past all the paraphernalia to the person peering out at you from behind the mask, the clothing, the wig, or not, unknown ones looking away (probably directed to do that) as the case may be:

Portrait of a Young Girl (in Newfield)

Some look cunning, some smart, some mild. I recognize many famous individuals those who study the period will recognize by name; and individuals I’ve read about in Anne Finch’s biography (e.g., the Twisdens); there are other family groups. She painted people dressed in semi-classical guise; others imitating Renaissance figures (one woman breast-feeding as if this were a Madonna and child, but dressed in Restoration luxury). Mary Beale also flattered her sisters by giving them long noses, pursy lips and doe-like sensual eyes so that we have to look to see the still breathing identity staring at us:


She did paint a wide variety of minor and major known people of the era for some specific achievement or niche, to start to name a few, John Tillotson, John Ray and Henry Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Newcastle (a remarkable likenesses), John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale and two John Lakes (minor powerful people), George Saville, and wives and daughters. And this is what many people might admire her for even if it intrigues or frustrates someone seeking a real presence from them.


Tabitha Barber has written the well-researched biography, Mary Beale: Portrait of a 17th century painter, her family and her studio: Mary Beale lived a personally apparently exemplary quiet life of a gentlewoman, wife, and mother more typical of earnest religious people of the era — except that she was a working woman, professional in 20th century style, producing valued work for a decent living.

This is the sort of thing especially liked: young children made to conform to a current ideal of sensual rich beauty

She was born 1633 in Barrow, Suffolk, her father was recorder of Barrow. Her mother died in 1643, and nine years later she marries a fellow painter, Charles Beale. Two dates record two of the deaths of Mary Beale’s children by Charles: 1654, the first child died; 1656 a son, Bartholomew. While marriage often ended women’s careers in this era, Mary throve after her marriage. She began a professional apprenticeship then, and continued to paint during her children’s younger years. It was in 1656 she first established herself a a portrait artist. By 1655 she had a house in Covent Garden, and upcoming church people, and artists are said to have intermingled there. In 1656 husband and wife left London to avoid the plague. Another son, Charles, was born in 1660.

Nancy Heller (Women Artists: an Illustrated History) records Mary may have trained with Robert Walker, official painter to Cromwell and by Thomas Flatman, lawyer, poet, miniaturist. Then Lely helped her by inviting her to copy works from his personal collection. In 1670 her husband lost his job in the patent office, and this seemed to stir her up to become a professional artist, find a congenial milieu (not easy). So they moved to Pall Mall where clientele again grows. While she worked in pastels, watercolor, oils, drew, and grew popular for her pictures of children, her husband managed the household, primed canvases, mixed colors, became an art dealer. Heller singles out her portrait of John Wilkins (important person at Oxford and Cambridge universities, eventually Bishop of Chester) as typical of her: half-length, seated, dark background, eyes fixed on viewer (46-47):


Her husband, Charles, says she recorded her workshop practices and sitters, it seems two notebooks of her own have survived out of many. They record lived life for middling or lower middle professional people from Cromwell to William the 3rd’s era; Interregnum to Stadlholder). There is a further diary written by a kinsman, Samuel Woodford, 1 Sept to 30 Nov 1662. These tell of friends and associates, and slowly a picture of an attractive congenial interlocking group of families emerge -= to which Mary Beale belonged despite her rakish, libertine and philosophically thinking clientele (from Carol Gibson-Wood, “Samuel Woodforde’s First Diary: An Early Source for Mary Beale,” The Burlington Magazine, 147: 1230, Painting in England (Sep., 2005):606-607)

Again from Nancy Heller one learns, Mary’s husband’s notebooks survive and these record the daily activities of his busy painting wife. Her husband recorded 83 commissions in 1677. Her sons helped with the work. Charles painted portraits – so the drawings might be his. She worked endlessly, painting replicas of her own work too. Lely’s death led to her losing subjects, and the household felt some financial straits. But after Lely’s death in 1680 she was commissioned to make copies of his work; “ironically, the accuracy of her copies has helped increase the confusion about what she painted” (46-47).

Several people record that Mary taught another woman painter, Sarah Curties (d. 1743) to paint portraits, including her husband, Dr Hoadly. Sarah was a successful portraitist. Elsa Honig Fine (Women and Art) sees Beale as one among several female artists around the court of Charles II and Germaine Greer supplies an image of one such painting:JaneCarlile
Joan Carlile

Greer: “A case has been made for this as a conversation piece; it’s rather a group portrait … figures posed before a background rather than social interaction. It is possible the same figure occurs in both groups, and that there is some attempt of making the picture an allegory of spring, with the lady of the house in the title role” (255-57)

Mary Beale herself charged £10 for 3/4 length, £5 for head and shoulders. On these terms she painted church people, nobility, landed gentry; she received a commission for 30 portraits from one family. “Most in demand were her charming portraits of children” (Fine, 68-69). I’m fond of two for the sake of the cats:

Girl with Cat (in Newfield) — curled up

In this attributed to her son: the cat resembles the girl, maybe a bit cleverer?


In 1699 Mary died in her own home in Pall Mall. She left two manuscripts of a Discourse in friendship (written for her friend, Elizabeth Tillotson).


There was an exhibition held in London in 2000 in a newly constructed section of the Geffrye Museum (January 30): Mary Beale (1632/33-1699): Portrait of a 17th century painter, her family and studio. There can be no better example of how a woman’s work is denigrated than the review by Oliver Millar (Burlington Magazine, 142:1162 [January 2000]:48-49): not only were there fewer works by Mary on display than in another exhibit 24 years ago, Millar thinks this no great loss as he finds her work limited, dull, lacking any variety of mood, restricted in range of color and inferior in execution to other imitators of an inferior master, Lely. Mary was just not successful. Millar concedes there is interesting work by other people (Flatman, Mary’s son Charles) and so this exhibit has historical interest for students of Stuart Britain. He’s read Barber’s book with its “sensitive account of the ethics and social world” of Charles and Mary Beale. He sums up Barber thus: Mary lived an admirable life showing “unshaken adherence” to Christian ideals of piety, and with her husband enjoyed “marriage of equals:”

There was a rounded perfection to the Beales’ family life into which aspects of their professional work can be seen to fit with ease. They were godly, puritan folk, producing honest and truthful work to the best of their ability.

As described by Millar, Charles, her husband, emerges as the much more important figure from the catalogue:

Mary Burtin provides an invaluable account of Charles Beale’s investigations to a painter’s pigments, supports and method, an account partly based on his manuscript Experimental Secrets, studied here for the first time, and on materials in the Notebooks. It is a notable addition to what is already in print on an artist’s method and on portrait practice, relevant undoubtedly for other painters than Mary Beale.

Obviously I should have written this account of Charles, the husband, or Charles, the son, or maybe Flatman or anyone else but the central creative artist around whom the exhibit was built and around whose presence her family lived their lives.

But I haven’t. Mary Beale’s work is at its finest when she’s painting ordinary people and her family, and if the drawings are hers, when she is not under pressure to flatter people but can realize a truer likeness.

So I end on this one of her beloved son, Charles:


And I offer two typical portraits of women: both seem to me to be intelligent, the second dreamy



And one last child (also attributed to Charles, her son):



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Sofonisba Anguissola, The Chess Game (left to right, Lucia, Europa, Minerva Anguissola, 1555)

Vigue: “In this painting, Lucia is on the left. She has just killed her opponent’s queen. The other player is Minerva, who is lifting a hand, perplexed and rather serious, since she has nearly lost the game. The young Europa smiles openly in the center, enjoying the situation. The psychological rendering of the figures is perfect. The expression of the servant gazing at the game is also remarkable. Occupied in her domestic tasks, she nevertheless has time to notice matters affecting the girls. This painting reveals Anguissola’s human spirit The young women are wearing elegant silk clothing with lace cuffs, high collars with a ruff, and necklaces and tiaras with precious stones and pearls adorning their heads. Anguissola paints a landscape in the background that adds depth to the painting. The canvas has a soft light throughout, with the indistinct, misty landscape in the background characteristic of Northern Italian painting in a technique called sfumato. The drawing is solid and the strokes of color are not very detailed, but rather suggestive and subtle, as is the case in Flemish painting. This can be observed in the complexions, in the magnificent golden highlights on the sleeves and in the highlights on their pearls … Vasari was profoundly impressed at its vividness, to the point where he assured readers that the girls might begin speaking at any moment. Chess was reserved for men of the nobility or upper classes. Anguissola did not paint her sisters sewing or embroidering, but rather exercising an intellectual activity, that is, playing chess … “

Lucia Anguissola, Self-Portrait (1558)

Exhibition catalogue of Italian Women Artists: Lucia portrays herself sitting down in elegant but modest attire. She wears dark clothing under which appears a white blouse. In her left hand she holds a small book (a Petrarchan or prayer book) … The same format and sense of silent detachment in this self-portrait can be found in a similar drawing by Sofonisba of Lucia … [Flavio Caroli suggests Lucia] is ‘reclined in a remote suspension of the heart … The attention given to the psychological element and the ‘movement of the soul’ falls squarely in the Lombard tradition, and is traced to the studies made by Leonardo … with respect to subtlety of feeling, in her own introversion, as well as human understanding, Lucia is not less talented than her sister … ‘

Friends and readers,

In recent years, no less than three biographies have been written about Sofonisba Anguissola (1535/6-1625), about which four argumentative, passionate, and insistently corrective reviews have been written (one of them embarrassed by the biography under review); she has had an exhibit dedicated to her (and her family), been a central painter of an exhibition of Italian Renaissance Women Painters from Renaissance to Barque, figured in another wider exhibit of Women Artists, 1550-1950, and at least three academic essays, two in peer-edited journals, where she is taken to stand for important trends and forms of creativity for women, for the Renaissance, a third in the Woman’s Art Journal, have appeared. She is discussed in detail in six of the surveys I’ve consulted, was the subject of early 20th century articles about a relationship with Michelangelo and Philip II, to omit passing mentions and casual reproductions of a few of her portraits in others. Yet when when one starts to compare, there is much contradiction, attributions disputed, dates tentative, much not known about her (how many sisters did she have, what were their names, did two or three paint?), and the whys and wherefores of what is known not clear.

I take Sofonsiba’s somber, contemplative, and self-aware characterization of her subjects, and Lucia’s psychologically acute depictions of vulnerable, guarded nuances to be a core cause for the embattled defenses I’ve come across. Although Sofonsiba tends to warm colors amid the darkness of her sitters’ outfits, neither sister paints overtly emotionally warm, sensual, smilingly open (compliant? available?) women; raped, sexually inviting, castigated, vengeful or humiliated women are not part of their repertoire — as they are in most early modern Italian painting. Dare I say this makes some viewers and students of art turn away? (Find this boring?) Sofonisba and Lucia are rather concerned to show themselves as contemporary non-mythic women of high culture and status:

Sofonsiba of herself at the spinet

Sofonsiba repeats a self-reflexive motif in this inset intriguingly individuated intense mother-and-child painting she has painted within the larger frame of herself at an easel (c. 1556)


While Sofonsiba is said to have spent at least 21 years in the Spanish court at Madrid and painted many portraits, little has survived of this; Lucia died young, and her and her sisters’ most compelling (alive) portraits left are those of one another and their siblings, servants, pets, e.g, Sofonisba’s rendition of the family with a nervous poodle:

Said to be Amilcare, the father, Minerva and the one brother, Asdrubal (c 1557)

This panel by Lucia may be of Europa (the inscription is uncertain):


The vastly superior content, technique, accuracy of their portraits of people close to them or ordinary people (not always named) may be seen in comparing Sofonsiba’s Prince Charles of Austria (c. 1560)


to the density of apprehension in Sofonsiba’s “Husband and Wife:”


There are no extant or recorded landscapes, but there are remarkable drawings made by Sofonsiba, presumably at a young age:

of herself on white and blue paper

And here and there enlarged reproductions of detailed work in Sofonsiba’s painting:

Said to be from a portrait of Bianca Ponzoni (Anguissola?, c. 1557)


Sofonsiba’s life patterns resemble Garzoni’s and Gentileschi’s: sudden escapes or at least movement away from her family, long periods on her own here and there, with commissions from a court or courts as her support; she differs in having married late in life (so no pregnancies) two husbands, one political or arranged and other a seemingly sudden a love match. The intensity or genuineness of emotion here finds a parallel in the emotions felt and portrayed in the tight-knit continual painting and drawing of one another seen in Sofonisba’s early years.

The home and birthplace was in Cremona, their father, Amilcare Anguissola, not himself a painter but someone who recognizing his daughters talents’ cultivated them, had them study under the portraitist Bernardino Campi. There is an introverted self-reflexive mirroring in Sofonisba’s complex portraits of herself painted by Campi.


Biana Ponzona was the mother’s name; and may be painted by Lucia here:

The image also could be of Sofonisba before she went to the Spanish court (the inscription is a later one)

There were possibly five or six daughters, Sofonisba, Minerva, Europa, and Anna Maria. Only Elena did not paint; she is said to have became a nun:

Elena as a nun by Sofonsiba

The one brother, Adrusbal, did not paint:

This may be Adrusbal or a young nobleman: he does have the large family eyes

Nancy Heller supplies information about the sisters beyond Elena, the nun: Minerva died young too; Europa and Anna Maria married and painted religious works as well as portraits.

This is said to be of Minerva, by Sofonsiba, she is made much harder and more extroverted than Lucia’s Minerva (see below) — and wears matching rich red jewelry.

The records for Sofonisba’s individual career begin when she was 15. Two letters from Amilcare to Michelangelo at the time, show Amilcare bringing Sofonisba’s talent to Michelangelo’s attention, after having received encouragement. It’s said Michelangelo asked for a portrait of boy crying: whence this drawing said to be her with her brother bitten by a crawfish.

Sofonsiba (?) with her brother who it’s said has been bitten by a crawfish — he is one upset little brother

Documents suggest that when Sofonisba was 24 (1559), Philip II asked for her services as a portraitist, whence she left Genoa (where she was at the time) and went to live at Guadalajara. Eleven years later (1568), after the death of Queen Elizabeth of Valois whom Sofonisba had painted:


it’s thought that Sofonsiba took charge of the education of the Infantas, Isabel Clara Eugenia and Catalina Micaela. At any rate later visits show a remembered relationship and Sofonisa may have painted

Catalina Micaela, sometimes called the Lady in Ermine.

It was supposed an honor when after thirteen years at court Philip married Sofonisba to a Sicilian nobleman, Fabrizio de Moncada, who died three years after that when his ship was sunk (pirates are mentioned).

Two and one half years later she also defied a custom which tended to decree that widows (especially without children) not re-marry and while on a ship married the captain, Oracio Lomellini. She had asked no one’s permission, and to criticism is said to have replied: “Marriages are made in heaven and no on earth.”

The couple settled first in Genoa in 1584, where Sofonisba continues to paint and perhaps teach painting. She was then visited (or herself visited) the Infanta Catalina Micaela with her husband, the Duke of Savoy. Fourteen years later (1599) the Infanta Isabel Ciara Eugenia visited Sofonisba there.

We know that by 1624 she was living in Palermo because Anthony Van Dyke visited her there on July 12th. A year later in November she died, and was buried November 16th, in San Giorgo dei Genovesi, Palermo.


No specific events of Lucia’s life are known; her name repeated in the family group as a painter, trained like the others:

By Lucia Anguissola, said to be of their sister, Minerva (c. 1558-60, see above for Sofonisba’s)

Vigue: “Minerva was … was represented in three works by Sofonisba: The Chess Game, Family Portrait, and a portrait in which she is wearing two bracelets, a red coral neck-lace, and a pendant of the goddess Minerva (Museum of Art. Milwaukee). Minerva was a painter, but she also wrote. Filippo Baldinucci (1681) stated that she was an excellent write, both in Latin and in the common language, but that she died in the flower of her youth. The composition of [Lucia’s] portrait shows a great affinity with the tondo of the young Europa Like the portrait of the women’s mother, this one is somber, though the background is ochre instead of the dark green Lucia usually employed. The light is diaphanous and the brushstrokes evocative and subtle, especially in the lace on the shirt and the fine white strings against the dark dress. With its light background, this portrait emanates warmth …

Perhaps to fill out her portrait Lucia is credited with studying music, Latin and the humanities according to the plan of Baldassare Castiglione in his Courtier. There is a series of consistent comments which suggest intelligence, and her portraits of herself show that: we are told that she liked music, enjoyed playing chess (whence the famous picture), and reading. Lucia signed her portrait of herself reading a book. She also signed this portrait of Dr Pietro Manno as a hard secular man:


Lucia is also credited with painting a Virgin and Child which recalled Raphael (all tenderness). One can see a (as art critics have said) her softness of approach in color and brushwork in the extant pictures. I am attracted to the melancholy of those of her pictures that have survived. She was mentioned by Antonio Palomino (1655-1726) in his Lives and by Filippino Balducini (1681). In his Vite, Giorgio Vasari says Lucia had comparable expertise with Sofonisba, and it is he who wrote that when he visited her father in Cremona in 1565 Lucia had died, with words that imply recently.


One last self-portrait (black-and-white reproduction) of Sofonsiba of herself

I began my reading and some research for this blog by wondering why, and ended understanding how and why Sofonsiba especially but also Lucia have sustained respect and adherents over the centuries.

Germaine Greer suggests that Sofonsiba was Lucia’s teacher, that she escaped being subject to her father or a ward of the Spanish king by marrying; that is, it was she was initiated her first marriage. She may have married the second time to maintain a form of independence (182-86). Elsa Honig Fine portrays her as pro-active for herself and holding her own in her interchanges with powerful royalty (8-10). The Italian Renaissance Women Painters entries go over the complex iconographies that can be allegorically teased out of both Sofonsiba and Lucia’s extant works who were making identities for themselves — aristocratic, proud, and loving one another (106-24). Heller further suggests that Bologna and its environs manifested an exceptionally liberal attitude towards female citizens, with Bologna accepting women students as early as the 13th century and connects this to the high culture of Anguissola sisters (16-17).

In their Women Artists, 1550-1950 Nochlin and Harris cannot say she was the equal of Titian in variety, color, achievement in her portraiture, but insofar as her form of commissions and position as a woman painter (what she could paint) permitted in his league (106-8). Peterson and Wilson quote a diary entry by Van Dyke in his Sketchbook after his 1624 summer visit to Sofonsiba late in her life:

While I painted her portrait, she offered me advice as to the light, which should not be directed from too high as not to cause too strong a shadow, and many more good speeches, as well as telling me part of her life-story, in which one could see she was a wonderful painter after nature (26)

I end on the intensely felt life caught in these two details from both women’s paintings: Sofonisba’s laughing or grinning young girl in the The Chess Game


and Lucia’s delicately fingered hand holding her book:


The implied early close-knit family story is touching in the way of the Brontes. We may hope Sofonsiba’s older years, after her second marriage and departure from the Spanish court, were good.

My next subject will be Mary Beale (1633-99) who held her own in the Restoration English court. See my first series for an explanation of this project and who has been covered thus far beyond Giovanna Garzoni and now these Anguissola sisters.


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