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Photo taken during Plath’s college years — this is one of my favorites (not in the exhibit)


One of several self-portraits in the exhibit — she is imitating the popular “abstract” style of the 1950s

Pursuit By Sylvia Plath

Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.
Racine

There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.

Most soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.

Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?

Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.

Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.

In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body’s bait.

Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;
Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;
The black marauder, hauled by love
On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.

Behind snarled thickets of my eyes
Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush
Bright those claws that mar the flesh
And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.

His ardor snares me, lights the trees,
And I run flaring in my skin;
What lull, what cool can lap me in
When burns and brands that yellow gaze?

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.

His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.

Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
— one of the poems typed by Plath in the exhibit, said to have been written almost immediately after she met Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Another foremother poet blog from a different angle than usual: I usually offer a few images from their best work, and comments, then a central section on the life and finally on the poetry in general. For tonight I want to describe a remarkable exhibit I saw and lecture I heard at the National Portrait Gallery: One Life: Sylvia Plath.

The exhibit was culled and put together by Dorothy Moss, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who also has taught at Smith College where Sylvia attended, and Karen Kukil, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Smith College, and editor of the first unabridged, uncensored (unbowlderized) books of journals, and now letters by Plath. Until Kukil’s work all the autobiographical writing by Plath that readers could reach were put together by Ted Hughes or only with his or his sister, Olwen’s approval; even now Plath’s daughter, Frieda, controls what is put in print, so there are still some letters, poems, pictures withheld, or where they appear framed and controlled by Frieda who is said to be a fierce partisan on behalf of her father, Ted Hughes. Frieda has written lines showing intense hostility and resentment towards those who want to know more about her mother’s life.

‘Wanting to breathe life into their own dead babies
They took her dreams, collected words from one
Who did their suffering for them.

They fingered through her mental underwear
With every piece she wrote. Wanting her naked.
Wanting to know what made her.

Then tried to feather up the bird again

The exhibit is small, only one room, but they pack a lot in. It takes us through her life at first using photographs, her own art work, letters about her by others, journalism, writing by her for obtaining prizes, an essay on the double in literature for a class, a recommendation by Ruth Beuscher, a psychiatrist who became her friend recommending her for a Fulbright after her time at Smith, and gradually focusing on her poems written upon specific personal occasions, and her later letters to friends in distress at Hughes’s treatment of her, trying to start a new life with two young children to care for. There is also a musical piece, an installation it’s called by Olivia Johnson, Glass heart/bells. On a table one sees glass jars and funnels, bells, light flickering, with some of Plath’s words from her poetry heard over and over (“I thought I could not be hurt”; “How frail the human heart”) and a line from Hughes (“a mirrored soul of art”). Moss and Kukil said they had a hard time getting the Smithsonian to agree to any exhibit: objections included the idea that since Plath killed herself, the exhibit would be dark and not appeal; the idea that Plath was not widely known. This is startling to be told when for most women poets she is the major figure of the 20th century. It reminds me of how until the 1960s Virginia Woolf did not receive public acclaim and only recently has her importance and greatness been acknowledged. Prompted by questions, Moss and Kukil agreed that her suicide has made her an ambivalent figure the way Woolf’s suicide has made her.

For the lecture, first Moss spoke for about a half hour, then Kukil for the same amount of time, then they took questions.

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A depiction of Plath by her from the exhibit: here she is weeping over what she is reading about World War One

Moss’s lecture: She began by saying how tears welled in her throat when the exhibit was finally in place. She surveyed the many books, essays, poems published on Plath since her death, and insisted that in fact Plath is part of popular culture, however unacknowledged or acknowledged only quietly. She seemed to determined to alter the picture of Plath as dark and brooding; at least she was not so when she was younger, though she had a break down before she went to college. Moss said many readers say they do not feel so alone in their reactions to our society and one another when they read Plath.

This made me recall one of the poems I first read by her, which I remembered ever after.

The Applicant

First, are you our sort of person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we given you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt,
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit —

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of _that_?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
(11 October 1962)

I too hate interviews. In my experience they are forms of hazing as well as demanding the applicant portray herself as utterly willing to efface the self to be loyal to the institution, the people who are hiring her, someone of high status, with a great deal of pride and determined ambition. Oh yes and doing what is fashionable. The poem is not in the exhibit.

Moss followed what is fashionable today too. Plath was presented as constructing her image, posing and savvy before the camera, so a picture of her imitating Marilyn Monroe (they said) in a bathing suit was one self, but another of her with brunette hair, looking demur was for application for a scholarship was another. They chose her with a bicycle in front of a school building with a sketch pad to be the leading image outside the door of the exhibit because they thought somehow this showed her presenting an image of herself. The photo was taken by a good friend at the time, Marcia Brown, who stayed loyal to her after Hughes left her, and to whom one of the poignant letters in the exhibit was written. They chose the poem “It was the night before Monday” to show a happy moment with her parents, Winthrop and Aurelia Plath, and her brother, Warren.


On one of the walls of the exhibit

She covered the usual early biographical material, her father’s sternness and early death, her closeness to an aunt Dot (Dorothy, her mother’s sister)), a picture of herself dressed as a nurse (done during her father’s illness). There were cut-outs by her: when young she wanted to be a fashion designer. These show an astute awareness of popular highly sexualized styles of the 1950s. (Yves Saint-Laurent similarly made his own beautiful cut-outs as a young boy; his were more original in style; see my comments on an exhibit of his art at the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond, Virginia.) There was a pony-tail, a long, Plath’s own from when she was 12 and first cut her hair, saved as a relic by her mother. Her mother wrote that she couldn’t sleep the night before Plath cut her long hair for the first time.

In her teens Plath drew herself again and again, imitating different styles. She was liberal in her politics , and some reflect that (there is a mocking collage of Eisenhower in the exhibit). She was horrified at the murder by the state of the Rosenbergs. Her pictures also imitate popular styles at the time (surreal, cubism), we see her as a clown. She originally wanted to major in studio art but soon after entering Smith her professors directed her into literature and writing.


A Fractured Self

Moss said the thesis about the double in literature reflected Plath’s own sense of her fractured selves. After she won a number of awards, she secured a position for a year working in New York City for Mademoiselle (much coveted). She interviewed Elizabeth Bowen; photographs of that interview are in the exhibit. She met Marianne Moore too. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, is about the disillusionment she experienced during that tie.

In 1955 she went to England on a Fulbright and there met Hughes whom she married a year later. There are many photographs of her and him together, and several familiar ones are in the exhibit, and a portrait by her of him (quite beautiful). Moss did not say this but it’s apparent (to me) that Plath unfortunately bought into the myth of the deep appeal for sexual women of aggressive, violent macho males and the poem “Pursuit,” and a letter she wrote immediately after that show her exultant upon meeting Hughes as a “savage animal.” She was in fact naive when it came to understanding the realities of living with a promiscuous aggressive domineering man; Moss said she thought she could change him; it’s not clear when she began to realize that he didn’t want to live a domestic life centering on children. She herself had longed to be a mother. Kukil said they included the famous poem, “Balloons” to indicate how much joy she felt with her children.

Here is one less well-known:

New Year on Dartmoor

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

It is said to be to her daughter, Frieda, as a little girl around Christmas. Plath’s greatest poetry comes from the period of her marriage and the desolation, despair and betrayal she knew in the separation.

Moss ended on Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In accordance with her upbeat presentation, she did not tell of the gravestone which apparently has had to be renewed several times as people keep trying to erase Hughes’s name from it. Nor did she mention that Hughes’s second wife, whom he was living with when Plath killed herself (not yet divorced) killed herself. She had a child too.

Another poem not in the exhibit:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odours bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

Diane Purkiss wrote an essay on this poem from which I quote: “Plath evokes first Cleopatra, whose serpents in Shakespeare are babies suckling her breasts, then Medea, whose ‘illusion of a Greek necessity,’ is revenge on Jason, her unfaithful husband.Medea’s revenge takes the form of child-murder. The woman in the poem hovers undecidably between the two figures, one whose ‘children’ killed her, one who killed her children, one whose violence turns towards her own flesh through her children, one whose violence turns outward through her children.”

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


Large Size Shoes by Sylvia Plath (this comes from an essay I read on another exhibit of Plath’s visual art — her drawings and illustrations, which are often very home-y and plain)

Karen Kukil concentrated on Plath’s writing, telling us briefly of the works she wrote, something of the history of the editions of the poems and letters. I wish she had told more about this. The exhibit includes the Royal manual typewriter she used as a teenager; later she has a semi-electric Smith Corona (so did I); then an Olivetti (in the UK). Kukil began by quoting a line by Plath: “I am in my deep soul happiest on the moors.” She is buried in Hepenstall (a parish church in Yorkshire). She covered The Bell Jar, the first book of poems, Ariel, with “Lady Lazarus,” a poem about suicide attempts. She too wanted to counter images of Plath as always a depressive by (as with Moss) by not giving the full context or de-emphasizing say her alienation from her mother’s form of ambition, such a poem seemed to come out of nowhere. She did talk later of the book, Letters Home, to her mother (Plath wrote altogether 747 letters to her mother); these show a happy complacent girl; they were carefully selected and censored after her death. Her mother had been very angry at the portrait of a mother in The Bell Jar, thinking it was simply her when it was a composite. Kukil said her own edition of Plath’s Journals (1955-62) is the first non-censored edition of Plath’s life-writing.

Plath, Kukil said, was “fearless.” That’s why she could write such frank bold transgressive poetry. She was an artist and would go through 15 drafts (of a poem “Elm,” a wood used for coffins, a poem about loneliness). She saved drafts of her poetry. All this was inherited by Hughes. Her poems also often have political context: so a poem on electrotherapy (which she apparently had inflicted on her) connects to her memories of how the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. Peter K. Steinberg whom Kukil worked with has created a website for studying Plath’s poetry. He is the co-editor with her of the two volume The Letters of Sylvia Plath (2017/18).

They then took questions. There was a good discussion. They told of how they came to study Plath. For Kukil it was being in Smith College. They were convinced that Plath knew she would someday be studied, and wrote at least some of her letters with a later audience in mind. She would write to Hughes saying they would someday be admired as a couple of poetic geniuses. (Their image has not emerged in quite the way she thought when she first married him.) They mentioned that Frieda has had a hard emotional life: her brother, Nicholas, Sylvia’s son, had a Ph.D. and did good work in science, but he too suffered from depression and killed himself. Teachers they had were important: Pamela Hunter gave a course which included work by Plath. Smith now has a rich archive of Plath material — bought from Hughes. They spoke of a course which joined together the work of Plath with Virginia Woolf. I made a comment at that: I said I thought that Plath and Woolf resembled one another in their after reputation: both died too young to control their papers; since they killed themselves, the reaction to their work has been affected by the average person’s discomfort with suicide, and this has kept the respect they both had early on subdued; that suicide arouses hostility in many people connected to someone who killed him or herself and by outsiders to the people most closely connected (say a husband). In Plath’s case there have been duelling angry biographies; in Woolf’s many attacks on her as elitist, “out of touch” with the world, often little understanding of Leonard. Both women commented on that, basically agreeing.


Stevenson has written about how she was hampered and stymied by Olwen Hughes

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

A Kitchen — by Plath

I’ll close on discussions I’ve had with people who’ve studied and written professionally on Plath, people who have taught her poetry, and people who have read her deeply. Often they object to autobiographical reading, but this seems to me cannot be avoided; the material is often rooted in the personal, and Plath makes this plain (as did a poet of the 18th century I’ve studied, Charlotte Smith.) Friends who suffer themselves from bad headaches mentioned that Plath suffered from migraines and how these are reflected in her poems; for example, the rhythms and imagery of “Lesbos.” One seeming impersonal theme that has general application emerges circles around Medea — as we know betrayed by Jason. My friend, Fran, wrote “one major aspect in Wolf’s own treatment of the Medea theme is the way people feed on other people’s catastrophes, scandals and often actually fan the flames of defamation themselves. Here you have a voyeuristic, vampiristic crowd gloating over a homier Medea’s personal calamity:

Aftermath

Compelled by calamity’s magnet
They loiter and stare as if the house
Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought
Some scandal might any minute ooze
From a smoke-choked closet into light;
No deaths, no prodigious injuries
Glut these hunters after an old meat,
Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.

Mother Medea in a green smock
Moves humbly as any housewife through
Her ruined apartments, taking stock
Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery:
Cheated of the pyre and the rack,
The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.

One last which seems to me to show Plath at her finest is vatic:

The Moon and the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness and silence.

Ellen

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graphicfreelibrary
From The Graphic, Women reading in the London Free Library, from Lady’s Pictorial, 1895)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Eight weeks: Monday, 11:50 am to 1:15 pm, September 20 & 27; October 11 – November 8
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax Va

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” and Oliphant’s Kirsteen.  We’ll also dip into on-line excerpts from Martineau’s Autobiography, Norton’s English Laws for Women in the 19th Century, Emmeline and Sylvia Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” and journalism; Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women”

Required Texts in the order we’ll read them:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, ed Macdonald Daly. Penguin, 1996 ISBN: 0-140-43464-X There’s a reading of unabridged text by Juliet Stevenson on CDs, Cover to Cover)

George Eliot, “Janet’s Repentance,” from Scenes of Clerical Life, ed. Jennifer Gribble Penguin, 1998. ISBN: 0-14-043638-3. There is also an online edition of Janet’s Repentance at the University of Adelaide’s website:

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/eliot/george/e42j/

Margaret Oliphant, Kirsteen, edited by Anne Schriven. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Studies, 2010. ISBN: 978-0-948877-99-5 or Kirsteen; or the Story of a Scotch Family Seventy Years ago, ed. Merryn Williams. 1984; rpt. London: Dent Everyman, 2012. ISBNs: 9780460011457; 0460011456. Not listed at Amazon. Available at Bookfinder: http://tinyurl.com/ycn3m6rz Also Booksource: https://mybooksource.com/kirsteen.html. Here are the covers:


Kirsteen, Association of Scottish Studies


Kirsteen, Dent Everyman

Digital editions of Kirsteen (if you are willing to read online): it is available online at the University of Pennsylvania:

http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/oliphant/kirsteen/kirsteen.html#I

There’s a version of Kirsteen on Kindle for $4.99; The Complete Works of George Eliot are on Kindle for $1.99, and these include Scenes of Clerical Life (which would include “Janet’s Repentance”).

On-line:

Harriet Martineau, from her Autobiography (The Fourth Period). http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/vwwp/view?docId=VAB7103&doc.view=print
Caroline Norton, from English Laws for Women: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/norton/elfw/elfw.html
Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death,” Great Speeches from The Guardian, 2007: https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2007/apr/27/greatspeeches1
Sylvia Pankhurst Archive: Selection, https://www.marxists.org/archive/pankhurst-sylvia/index.htm
Virginia Woolf, “Professions for Women:”
https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter27.html (Also available in Paperback titled The Death of the Moth and other Essays)

Format: Study group meetings will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion (essays mentioned will be sent by attachment or are on-line).

Sept 20: In class: The writing career for women and Gaskell’s. For next time: begin Mary Barton; Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Part IV, Section 1 and 2, pp 206-17.
Sept 27: In class: Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Martineau’s career and writing. For next time Woolf’s “Professions for Women.”
Oct 4: I must cancel the class as I’ll be out of town. Read ahead and on your own.
Oct 11: In class: Mary Barton. The topic of women’s professions. George Eliot’s career.
Oct 18: “Janet’s Repentance.” For next week Sections 1 and 2 of Caroline Norton’s English Laws  
Oct 25: “Janet’s Repentance.” Caroline Norton; marital laws, custody of children, violence towards women. Read as much as you can of Kirsteen.
Nov 1: Oliphant’s career and Kirsteen. Reading Kirsteen and Emmeline Pankhurst’s “Freedom or Death.”
Nov 8: Kirsteen. The Suffragettes.


Margaret Oliphant when young (click on the image to enlarge it)

Supplementary books, films, audio CDs:

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans aka George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.
Bulwer-Lytton, Rosina. A Blighted Life: A True Story, introd Marie Mulvey Roberts. Bristol: Thoemmes, 1994.
Mackenzie, Midge. Shoulder to Shoulder: A Documentary. NY: Knopf, 1975.
Mill, John Stuart. On the Subjection of Women (1861). Broadview Press, 2000.
Robins, Elizabeth, The Convert: https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2015/04/05/elizabeth-robinss-the-convert-excellent-suffragette-novel/
Shoulder to Shoulder. Script: Ken Taylor, Alan Plater, Midge Mackenzie. Dir. Waris Hussein, Moira Armstrong. Perf: Sian Philips, Angela Downs, Judy Parfitt, Georgia Brown. Six 75 minute episodes available on YouTube. BBC, 1974.
Sturridge, Lisa. Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction. Athens: Ohio UP, 2005.
Uglow, Jenny. Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993. The best.
Webb, R. K. Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian. NY: Columbia UP, 1960.
Williams, Merryn. Margaret Oliphant: A Critical Biography. NY: St. Martin’s, 1987. Excellent.
Wingert, Lee. Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction. Ph.D. Thesis, Iowa State University. On-line pdf

seekingsituations-jog
Ralph Hedley, Seeking Situations (1894)

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A drawing by Anne Bronte of herself and (presumably her dog, Flossy)

Dear friends and readers,

I have not been able to write on this blog for so long because I’ve been away twice, one to the Highlands of Scotland and once to a friend in central Pennsylvania, but I have been reading much of interest on women’s art and by women. Two outstanding writers whose art links to one another’s and Jane Austen’s especially: Anne Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65),about whom I’ve written again and again and long ago and as gothic.

Tonight I want briefly to add to a blog on Bronte as a poet and half a blog on David Nokes and Janet Baron’s film adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (dir. Mike Barber, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Rupert Graves, and Toby Stephens. I was asked to review Nick Holland’s excellent literary biography of Bronte, In Search of Anne Bronte, for the Victorian Web and just finished the review. I am so chuffed to say it now appears there – and with interesting illustrations: a watercolor painting of the dog, Floss, by Charlotte Charlotte Bronte, a photo of Ellen Nussey I’ve never seen before, a drawing of a waterfall, Haworth Moor.

This blog is the spill-over of what I couldn’t put into the review also. In reading around Holland’s book, that is to say, other books and essays on Bronte as well as her Agnes Grey, poems, and again watching David Nokes and Janet Baron’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’ve discovered that Anne Bronte is having a true Renaissance, rightly newly discovered (almost for the first time) as an ardent feminist, hard-hitting truth-teller about women’s lives, serious artist, and quietly independent-minded ambitious woman. New biographies abound, new essays on her, new editions of her novels and poetry. Along with Holland’s book, I read Samantha Ellis’s revisionist Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life and Julie Nash and Barbara A. Suess’s New Approaches to the Art of Anne Bronte, where justice is done to her two novels. The first Bronte whom Winifred Gerin wrote about was Anne.

In brief, as I’ve surmised before, Anne Bronte wanted to have a career insofar as she was permitted to by her society — which meant as a governess, teacher, and writer. She studied hard at school, came to her own conclusions about religion (refused to believe in a punitive Calvinism), and fell in love once, but the man she loved predeceased her (Haworth was a deeply unhealthy place to live because the water was so bad). She did not hate her brother, Branwell, but felt for him in his self-destruction, and was close to her sister, Emily (quite a feat). And she succeeded in what she endeavoured — the pupils she had in her second place respected and liked and were influenced by her. Until the fatal illness that killed many in Haworth destroyed her at the young age of 29. Unfortunately she does not emerge as a separate presence in Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet, where she is (as she has often been) overshadowed by her elder sister, Charlotte, who in recent books emerges as the person most responsible for the early repression and distortion of her work, and later misunderstanding. We have left only five of her interesting letters.

She also drew. The three images we have of her are by her. The above of herself and a beloved dog; the one just below recording her love of the sea:

A third, at the end of this blog, in an antique sort of imaginary dress.

Agnes Grey gives an unsentimental depiction of the life of a governess at the time: the little valuation given to education, the small salary, withering disdain and lack of any life or free time; an austere emotional integrity governs this plainly written uncompromising and quietly gripping book.

I am so cheered when I read this book for its rare accuracy. Agnes will reminds us of Jane Eyre (though written first), but her experience as a governess is very different in that she does not get on well with her pupils and doesn’t meet a kindred spirit. The descriptions of the many little humiliations she meets every day in both the jobs are all too convincing, clearly drawn from life. The relationship between Agnes and Rosalie might have influenced Charlotte Bronte’s portrayal of Lucy Snowe and Ginevra Fanshawe in Villette – in both cases, there is the quiet, put-upon teacher who is overshadowed by a more worldly and beautiful pupil. Also, in both books, the two are love rivals, but with the younger girl regarding the man concerned as a plaything or “conquest”, while the poorer and slightly older woman living in the shadows truly loves him. Even the surnames “Snowe” and “Grey” are similar, both with a lack of colour. Agnes is passionate, just as Lucy and Jane are, but all have to put themselves under constant unnatural restraint. What’s remarkable and unique is how Agnes-Anne feels so alienated and hurt from the cruelty, bullying, lying, cupidity, and stupidity of most around her. Here is a person so jealous she cannot bear for her governess even to have a passing relief. This is so strong. The book is about justified alienation from the social world around the heroine, at the same time as the heroine does not give up her desire for achievement and fulfillment.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells an utterly believable and powerful story of a woman who made a bad choice for a husband, how when he becomes an alcoholic who wants to make his son another, leaves him, and creates a career for herself as an artist; she returns to her husband to nurse him in his last illness, and when she does remarry (as in Agnes Grey) she chooses a man for his character, one where he respects her as of equal worth with him, has compatible intelligent tastes, and genuine kindness. Other women’s fates, other marriages, are depicted in these two books.

Wildfell Hall is written as alternating diaries, so subjective in presentation. Like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Forster’s Howard’s End, E. H. Young’s Jenny Wren, Trollope’s Small House of Allington, Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, all of them are novels of erotic awakening and then renunciation — you chose the wrong man. George Sand’s early novels belong to this pattern too. Bronte’s is unusual for insisting on how society forms wrong norms for women and making the two marry early and then we watch what would happen in such a marriage.

It is also a story of motherhood — something omitted from the film. Elisabeth Gruner shows that unless you figure in the stories of motherhood, which include dialogues or debates on how to bring up a child (boy in one way and girl in another) you lose a central meaning of from this novel. Helen Graham argues both sexes should be sheltered and is against teaching a boy to drink or be amoral (which is what others urge her to do). We see how the society around these women use the women’s attachment to their children to control their behavior. She shows the hypocrisy of the claim that the society cares about the welfare of the child first; what the society’s rules and customs are set up to do is make the woman stay with the man and obey him. Helen’s second husband, Gilbert Markham is treated in terms of his relationship with his domineering mother. Here Anne Bronte anticipates later Victorian books: Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved (about having children taken from you) and Ellen Wood’s famous East Lynne.

I find I put two more poems by Anne on my Sylvia blog (scroll down) and will conclude by adding yet two more that I never noticed before but which reading Holland and Ellis have made me appreciate are also part of her character:

Lines composed in a Wood on a Windy Day

My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the winds of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.

The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves beneath them are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.

I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder to-day!

The Consolation

Though bleak these woods and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strewn,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan,
There is a friendly roof I know
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.

And so, though still where’er I roam
Cold stranger glances meet my eye,
Though when my spirit sinks in woe
Unheeded swells the unbidden sigh,

Though solitude endured too long
Bids youthful joys too soon decay,
Makes mirth a stranger to my tongue
And overclouds my noon of day,

When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.

Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.

The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.

Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.

She has been likened to Jane Austen but I think not: she is more in the vein of Dorothy Richardson in Pilgrimage, Harriet Martineau in Deerbrook and her autobiography. I understand better why I am so drawn to her too: in the second poem she loves her home in the way I do mine. Do read her, gentle reader, she has much to say to you.

Ellen

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Cassandra’s drawing of Jane — close-up

“We are all offending every moment of our lives.” — Marianne Dashwood, Austen’s S&S

“We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing” — Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s P&P

Sitting with her on Sunday evening—a wet Sunday evening, the very time of all others when, if a friend is at hand, the heart must be opened, and everything told…” Edmund from Austen’s MP

“She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself.” Emma from Austen’s Emma

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! — just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout — too old to be agreeable, and too young to die … May the next gouty Attack be more favourable — Lady Susan from Austen’s Lady Susan

But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? …. Catherine Morland from Austen’s NA

One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering….’ Anne Elliot from Austen’s Persuasion

Friends,

July 18th, 1817: Not, one might think, an occasion for happy commemoration. On that day a relatively young woman ended a long painful period of dying (dying is hard work), in bad pain (opium could not cope with it except as dope), cradled in the arms of her loving sister, a close friend, Martha Lloyd, and relatives near by. She had managed to publish but four novels, and no matter how fine, there were so many more she could have written or drawn from her stores of fragments. Two came out the next year, posthumously, one clearly truncated (Persuasion), the other not in a satisfying state according to Austen herself (Northanger Abbey). (Titles given by her brother and said sister.) She had been writing for 21 years at least before her first novel was published — Sense and Sensibility, by herself with money saved up and money and help from said brother, Henry and his wife, her beloved cousin, Eliza Austen. After Emma and a couple of unwise (seen in hindsight) decisions, she was just beginning to make money — or there was a hope of it. She was not altogether silenced as her books were reprinted in sets of novels over the 19th century, while over the next 170 years (1951 was the last date for a new text) fragments and letters by her emerged, albeit framed by contexts set up by her family and then academic critics. A sentimental identity was concocted for her by her loving nephew, Edward Austen-Leigh in 1870, in a memoir of her, an important year and publication because his portrait and picturesque edition was the beginning of a wider readership for her novels.

It will be said the poem she is said to have composed on her last days where she wrote: “Behold me immortal,” has been fulfilled. All her extant writings seem to be in print; some are widely read, the major six filmed over and over, and recently a seventh (Lady Susan) and an eighth (Sanditon) added, with influence on many other familial romanes and witty romantic comedies, and from her work, a growing number of appropriations to boot. All written and/or discussed in newsprint, on public media, TV, in conferences as of the utmost importance. Her fictions has been translated into the major languages of the world. Who has not heard of Jane Austen? A New Yorker joke of 30 years ago was a good alibi on the stand was you were writing a biography of Jane Austen. The Bank of England commmemorates her today with a £10 note.

Nonetheless, she had so much life left in her, she was so open to trying new trajectories, looking for new ways to develop her novels (as Persuasion and Sanditon seem to suggest), that the commemoration ought to be done with a sense of loss, of what might have been before us (and her) — as well as acknowledgement of what her journey’s end was. That this is not the tone can be accounted for in numerous ways, but a central one is the phenomenon of celebrity — as it is enacted in her case. For all such individuals, a kind of “ideological magic” (Theodor Adorno’s word) is ignited which may be sold through respected cultural industries’ institutions because it is recognized to confer power on people surrounded by this awe — such a person can get elected to be president of the United States however ill-qualified, or simply be worshipped as genius and each decade his or her identity (biography) reshaped to fit the new decade’s ideas of what is most admirable. That this re-shaping is going on before us can be seen in the various articles that were published in the New Times Book Review on Austen yesterday (on which more below).

For my contribution, for yes I’m pulling my little bandwagon along behind or with the others too, I’m prompted by Diane Reynolds’s fine blog on the first lines in Austen’s fiction.

I thought to myself, What more fitting in thinking how she was cut off, than her last lines? Tracing these in order of publication (so at least we know that there is evidentiary basis for our chronology),

Sense and Sensibility (1811):

Between Barton and Delaford there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate; — and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that, though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.

Pride and Prejudice (1813):

With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.

Mansfield Park (1814):

On that event they removed to Mansfield; and the Parsonage there, which, under each of its two former owners, Fanny had never been able to approach but with some painful sensation of restraint or alarm, soon grew as dear to her heart, and as thoroughly perfect in her eyes, as everything else within the view and patronage of Mansfield Park had long been.

Emma (1815):

The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. — “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! — Selina would stare when she heard of it.” — But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.

Northanger Abbey (1817):

To begin perfect happiness at the respective ages of twenty-six and eighteen is to do pretty well; and professing myself moreover convinced that the general’s unjust interference, so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment, I leave it to be settled, by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.

Persuasion (1817):

His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that Tenderness less; the dread of a future War all that could dim her Sunshine. — She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.

Lady Susan (1871)

For myself, I confess that I can pity only Miss Mainwaring; who, coming to town, and putting herself to an expense in clothes which impoverished her for two years, on purpose to secure him, was defrauded of her due by a woman ten years older than herself.

The Watsons (1871):

As for me, I shall be no worse off without you, than I have been used to be; but poor Margaret’s disagreeable ways are new to you, and the would vex you more than you think for, if you stay at home —
    Emma was of course un-influenced, except to a greater esteem for Elizabeth, by such representations — and the visitors departed without her.

Love and Friendship (1922)

Philippa has long paid the Debt of Nature, her Husband however still continues to drive the Stage-Coach from Edinburgh to Sterling: — Adieu my Dearest Marianne, Laura

Sanditon (1925)

And as Lady Denham was not there, Charlotte had leisure to look about her and to be told by Mrs. Parker that the whole-length portrait of a stately gentleman which, placed over the mantelpiece, caught the eye immediately, was the picture of Sir Henry Denham; and that one among many miniatures in another part of the room, little conspicuous, represented Mr. Hollis, poor Mr. Hollis! It was impossible not to feel him hardly used: to be obliged to stand back in his own house and see the best place by the fire constantly occupied by Sir Harry Denham.

Catherine, or The Bower (1951)

A company of strolling players in their way from some Neighboring Races having opened a temporary Theater there, Mrs Percival was prevailed on by her Niece to indulge her by attending the performance once during their stay — Mrs Percival insisting on paying Miss Dudley the compliment of inviting her to join the party when a new difficulty arose.

If we pay attention just to these last lines, we do not see the ironist and satirist primarily. Yes there is a barb in the Sense and Sensibility line; and the ending of Emma brings us yet another exposure of the complacent shallowness of Mrs Elton’s moral stupidity (she does though have the last word); however muted, some hard ironies in Lady Susan, plangent ones in Sanditon. In a novelist supposed to pass over death, two have direct allusions to death (fear of widowhood for Anne Elliot, a more pragmatic re-enacting of life now without the partner). If we cheat just a little and go back one sentence we begin to darker emotional ironies: Elizabeth Watson will stay in a seethingly bitter home so Emma can visit a brother not keen to have her. Go back two or three paragraphs, and we learn for Sense and Sensibility the moral of our story has been:

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.

More famously in Mansfield Park:

… Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated, reason to rejoice in what he had done for them all, and acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh puts in a final appearance before the happy coda of Pride and Prejudice:

But at length, by Elizabeth’s persuasion, he [Darcy] was prevailed on to overlook the offence, and seek a reconciliation; and, after a little farther resistance on the part of his aunt [Lady Catherine], her resentment gave way, either to her affection for him, or her curiosity to see how his wife conducted herself; and she condescended to wait on them at Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received, not merely from the presence of such a mistress, but the visits of her uncle and aunt from the city.

Still, I suggest what we have in these last lines, is coda, resolution, a sense of quiet satisfaction at the way things turned out for the characters (like all of us far less than perfect people) at journey’s end. This continuum of stability, of order, of reasoned perspective is central to what many readers seem to value Jane Austen for still.

According to Cassandra, Austen’s last written lines were:

“Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers–‘.”

As Hermione Lee in a good book on biographical writing has shown (she is not the only biographer to do this), what is often asserted as the dying person’s last words won’t stand courtroom-like scrutiny. Emotionally involved people have their agendas just as surely any more distanced politicized (as who isn’t?) group of people. And it’s hard to remember or get the emphasis accurately: Cassandra says that towards the end of conscious life Austen said “she wanted nothing but death & some of her words were ‘God grant me patience, Pray for me Oh pray for me” (LeFaye’s edition of Austen’s letters, Cassandra to Fanny Knight, Sunday, 20 July 1817).

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


Another portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra — when she was in good health as may be seen from her strong body (see JA and Food). Some readers/critics complain vociferously that we don’t see her face refusing to recognize this was at the time a trope for absorption in landscape reverie

But, as I mentioned, the usefulness of Jane Austen as icon makes for a ceaseless attempt to get past such texts, peer into them to find what is wanted by the viewer, and pry something new out. I recall how Hamlet did not like being played upon by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Matthew Arnold congratulated Shakespeare that he eluded it: “Other abide our question; thou art free …” Since her nephew’s memoir, Jane Austen has not been so fortunate. And this pronounced phenomenon – the re-invention of Jane Austen as well as an exploration of who these millions of readers are (now recorded in book reading groups and blogs across the Internet) is found across the many publications this year. I’ll confine myself to what was printed in the New York Times Book Review and their Sunday Review for some examples.

The most to the point was John Sutherland’s on Helen Kelly’s JA: Secret Radical: at first he lightly and deftly, but definitely skewers Kelley: he picks out precisely the most untenable of her theses and arguments. I did not know that Kelley trashed Tomalin’s biography (I missed that), Sutherland picks up that as as well how she is deliberately insulting, provocative. One online review I read said she combines blog-style snark and literal readings with academic (sort of) approaches; I know that she misreads in a peculiar way: if we do not see Catherine doing something then she didn’t do it — no novelist conventions are allowed the usual play.

Bu then he says something significant: that the aim of Kelley’s book (as with many other readers who want to turn Austen into a political radical) is ultimately against the Marilyn Butler thesis that Austen is a deep conservative.  The problem here is as with other critics Kelley is dependent on, she no where mentions Butler. But the opposition is important: Butler’s thesis is persuasive and convincing in her first book especially, Romantics, Rebels and Revolutionaries because there Butler analyses at length true radicals in the era against which both Scott and Austen emerge as reactionary. Butler’s thesis fits  William St Clair’s about “the reading nation” that it is no coincidence Scott and Hannah More and Austen a little later were readily available and the likes of Wollstonecraft’s works and Charlotte Smith, Holcroft, &c were not. Butler’s edition of Northanger Abbey remains the best and she wrote the present authoritative ODNB of Austen.

Jane Smiley on Deborah Yaffe, a book about readers and writers of Austen, especially of the common reader kind (“Fandom”), complete with interviews. She is a journalist. Smiley says the second half of Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen contains worthwhile analyses: it is a “book history” book, tracing the literal publications, what they looked like, who bought them. It’s weak on illustrations, but then in the second half she discusses the way Austen has been discussed in the 20th century: by male academics, and then by women readers (Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern is important), and now the new manipulations of her texts. Smiley feels just about all of Paula Byrne’s book on Jane Austen and the theater of the time teaches us in an interesting insightful way: about the theater, when Jane Austen went there, and how the plays of the era relate to her books. From my reading I find Byrne’s claims for sources in specific plays won’t bear scrutiny, but as a book about an aspect of the cultural world of Austen, it’s fascinating. Byrne’s other book (A life in Small Things) explores Jane Austen through small things she left and marginalized texts adds real information and readings of Austen’s life-writing.

Sutherland is followed by an essay by Lizzie Skumick on sequels, the writer and texts in question, Joan Aiken. I have one of them somewhere in my house and remember I found it unreadable. Then a Francesco Moretti like analysis of Jane’s vocabulary using computer cluster technology by Kathleen Flynn (who wrote the JA Project, a time-traveling tale, claiming to unearth further secrets about Austen’s private life and death) and Josh Katz. They find Austen uses many intensives (very, much), lots of abstractions, in fact defies prescriptions for good writing. What then is her magic? they fall back on interpretation (forgetting Sontag who we recall instantly was against interpretation) and argue the tension between appearance and reality, pretense and essence (a good nod to Marvin Mudrick book on irony in Austen: “defense and discovery” were her modes). Moving on, Rahhika Jones reveals no deaths in Austen’s pages while we are reading them — we hear of a stillborn Elliot. But we hear of a number of deaths before the fictions start is the truth. And these deaths are important: Lady Susan’s husband, her support, Mrs Tilney, Eleanor’s, Mr Dashwood — all these set the action and it’s not just a question of property and money. Not content, we get a quiz with “famous” people (small celebrities) who alluded to Austen. Finally on p 16 it gives out.

Not to despair, in the Sunday Review we find Devoney Looser arguing suggestively against the idea that Austen did her major writing on a tiny desk with a handy set of pages to push the little bits of writing under. It does sound improbable as long as you don’t take into consideration she might have done it once in a while when company was expected. Looser is also not keen on the assumption that Austen carried about much of her papers in a writing desk (rather like an ipad). Again it does seem improbable she took them all — but that she took some when she traveled (the way one niece describes) is demonstrated in one of her letters where she talks about a panic when her writing desk with was carried off in another carriage during trip. The desk was rescued.

Some of these revisions of Austen in each era’s image can add much to our knowledge. Such a book is Jan Fergus’s on Austen as an entrepreneurial businesswoman, a professional (a word with many positive vibes) writer. Each must be judged on (my view) on its merits as contributing to sound scholarship (documents explicated using standards of probability and historicism) or ethical insight into Austen’s creative work.

Susan Sontag in several of her essays on the relationship of art (especially photography) and life (especially the representation of pain, of illness) asks of works of art, that they advance our understanding of the real. Do they instead conceal reality under the cover of sentimental versions of what probably didn’t happen or not that way. Austen’s own fervent adherence to doctrines of realism in her era (probability, verisimilitude) suggests she thought the justification for her irresistible urge to write and to reach a readership is to promote an understanding of the reality of another person’s experience of life. I suspect such a standard would produce contemporary serious critiques of Austen’s fiction along the lines of the older irony-surveying Marvin Mudrick. This, as Amy Bloom on Lucy Worseley’s documentary about the houses Jane Austen lived in (also in the New York Times Book Review) concedes is not what’s wanted by a majority of Austen’s readers; Bloom reviews a BBC “documentary” (as much myth as fact) by Lucy Worseley on Jane Austen’s houses. It’s characterized, Bloom says, by “shameless ebullience” is a composite phrase using Worseley’s frank admission.

One counter is Elena Ferrante’s unusual (and obsessive) defense of anonymity as the only true way to elicit for a piece of art its value in its own right (not as belonging to some group, some identity, some agenda). While her choice of anonymity has been defended on the grounds she has a right not to tell her name or about her life, the principles she tirelessly repeats in Frantumaglia: A Writer’s Journey has not received the endorsement it should. Online when she has put an essay arguing why anonymity is important, against in effect celebrity (fame) and icon worship, commentators don’t believe she really thinks as she does. Her idea, like Sontag’s, Austen’s own, and numerous of Austen’s more sober critics, that it’s the duty of the fiction-writer to “get close to the truth” of reality calls out for more attention. Sontag puts it in her Regarding the Pain of Others, that falsehoods protect us, mitigate suffering, and allow us to avoid the terrifying moment of serious reflection (I condense and paraphrase).

Are there any terrifying moments in Austen. Yes. Some of this important material in found across her letters (which are often glossed over or dismissed on the grounds she never meant them to be read by others); some in the Austen papers (the life history of Jane Austen’s great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Weller Austen, how badly she was treated as a widow and her struggle to provide for herself and for her children), in Austen’s fiction, an undergirding of deep emotions held at bay, which I think come outs strongly in her treatment of death as experienced by widows in her fiction. At this level Austen also (in some words Victor Nunez gives his Henry Tilney hero in Ruby in Paradise about reading Jane Austen): “Saved me from evil. Restored my soul. Brought peace to my troubled mind. Joy to my broken heart” (Shooting Script, p 41).

It’s good the books survive, and some of the films, biographers, and literary critics do justice to them.


From the Jane Austen Book Club: Sylvia (Amy Brenneman) reading Emma

Ellen

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Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) and Maudie (Sally Hawkins) early on in film

Dear friends and readers,

A few days ago I saw a extraordinary movie which had a moment so uplifting that it caught my breath: Sherry (Kari Matchett) asks Maudie (Sally Hawkins) what has sustained her, enabled her to survive to paint these marvelously colorful expressionistic depictions of gardens, people, landscapes. Maud says with a deep sincerity, she has had windows to sit by and look at the world out of, and these experiences which she paints and from which painting and interaction within herelf give her such fulfilment, it’s enough. What more than this core does anyone have. Words to this effect.


An image of one of the real Maud Lewis’s paintings

She is living with Sherry because Sherry has taken her in after she left her partner-husband, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) because his latest form of obtuse bullying includes trying to stop her from talking of the baby she gave birth to many years ago, and how it was taken from her immediately by her aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), how they claimed the baby was born deformed and died, but was in fact (her aunt has now out of guilt and respect for Maud told her) perfectly formed, and lived. Her brother “sold” the baby, says Ida, because the couple was a stable, good pair of people and they thought this was for the best. They cannot have had Maud’s feelings in mind: we now realize she experienced an agon of grief, loss, and despair (she was led to believe she should never have children).

This is just one of an at first ever-growing pile tragic traumatic experience visited upon Maud (that we get to see): when we first meet her, she seems old, wizened, badly disabled by arthritis or some such condition, and despite this painting gay flowers. Flashback (the rest of the movie) to her in say her twenties when she is living a stifled life with this same aunt, no money, no access to any enjoyment, spoken harshly to, ripped out of her mother’s house (which her brother has now sold — he is into selling things) and left to rot with this aunt. Late at night, she quietly leaves the house and haunts a nearby roadhouse, where people are drinking, dancing, talking, and she can cage cigarettes, a glass of beer, and dream amid the noise and stars. She finds (most improbably it might seem) liberty, and then creates her life as a painter and loving companion with a silent seemingly “retarded” (he is autistic) fish-peddler (precarious living) she sees in a general store asking someone to write an advertisement for him for a “housemaid.” His house is a filthy shack. Ignoring the aunt’s protests, sneers, predictions she will be a “love slave” (which she laughs at astonished), she approaches this man and gets permission to become his housemaid.


Everett at work

More oppression is what she finds: giving her hardly any tools, no money, he demands she clean the house, cook for him (he is clearly impoverished from the state of his kitchen pots, utensils, stove), is barely civil. She has nowhere to sleep but next to him in his bed in an attic room. He speaks of an orphanage, and we gather his abominable behavior is what he learned there: he seeks control as a way of stablizing his environment. It gets so bad, he is so distrustful of her encroaching on him, taking power, that when an associate of his (also staking out a precarious living) speaks to her, and she responds, he hits her hard across the face. Her startled scream of anguish made the single slap and its sound means more than 100s killed in other movies. I thought to myself, if this keeps up, I can’t stay, and wondered if my friend (I was with a new friend) would mind if I insisted on leaving. But this is the nadir of the film.


Ride in the Snow (the movie landscape is filled with ice and snow)

Gradually she wins him over, by her patient improvements of this cottage and then her cheerful naive paintings celebratory of all around them, the natural world (we learn eventually we are in Nova Scotia, Canada), everything in the cottage, him, her, invented anecdotes. First the walls, then we see her making her painful way to a shop, grudgingly he buys her paper and paints because she has begun to use one can of paint to paint on discarded boards of wood she found outside the shack. The state of their relationship may be measured by his beginning to follow or go before her with his wagon, and then his putting her in the wagon while he pushes it ahead of him. It is Sherry’s first visit to complain that Everett has not delivered the fish she paid for that effects the first transformative change: Sherry sees the paintings on the wall, and asks Maud to paint postcards for her. She will pay Maud. Out of his first success, and Sherry’s advertising Maud to other people, telling her NYC friends, associates in gallery, Maud’s first enlarged custom comes. By this time Maud is regularly lying with Everett at night and when once he is moved to try to have sex with her, she has told the story she was told of the birth and death of a deformed baby. At that, he moves back, but he is not turned off. She has begun to write down an accounting of his business (money taken in, fish promised), and he has begun to do some and then gradually more and more of the household chores while she paints. He is alive to the money she is bringing in. The film is not sentimental. They form a partnership.


The marriage day — outside the church

But it is touching even if we feel that the roughness from him, and abject acceptance from her never goes. If I were to characterize their developing emotional relationship for the rest of the film I would use the word tender: a vein of tender affection is drawn out of him as he increasingly compensates himself for what she cannot do easily. They do make love in that bed, and (very characteristic throughout) she says gingerly and then repeats the idea they should marry, and eventually we see both of them dressing themselves respectable and carefully and then with the original friend-associate and his girlfriend coming out of a church a married couple. The mood of their life is cheerful, because very unexpectedly as soon as she is treated with minimal decency, a kind of laughter comes out of her eyes, her face shines with eagerness; she is quietly buoyant and I was reminded of the first time I saw Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s Happy-go-Lucky (as long ago as 2008), which was about a stalwart happy community (that I now associate with Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls). Hawkins has the unusual ability convincingly to bring joy out of anguish (that is what she did as Anne Elliot in the 2007 Persuasion). Aisling Walsh, the director gives them plenty of room for inward-outward display; Sherry White’s script is both simple and subtle.


Maud Lewis in front of the small house where she lived with Everett

Not until the end of the film did I realize that Maud Lewis was a real Canadian artist (1903-70), that this was a deeply empathetic biopic of a beloved artist, who had indeed been arthritic, disabled, and rescued by while she rescued, an isolated man, also disabled. Just as the credits are about to roll, photographs of the real Maud and Everett Lewis appear (and we see these actors modeled their bodily appearance on the original people). As Glenn Kerry puts it, “This film fits into a particular kind of sub-genre: the story of two lonely people, societal outcasts, who find comfort and solace with each other.” But it does not treat this theme (or any other) conventionally. It’s not a story about how wonderful is fame — indeed I as a viewer kept worrying that somehow the increasing number of people showing up at the cottage, and eventually the crooked brother, would somehow break this couple up. The suspense of the film comes from our fear they will lose one another because they remain inarticulate: each concession comes unexpectedly, not prepared for. After Maud returns to Everett, and a scene between them where each has trouble acknowledging love (for different reasons):


she listens to him, pays attention

After they come back together, he seemingly suddenly drives her to a respectable looking house outside of which is a young 20 year old woman and her husband. Everett says “there is your daughter.” He has found the girl and Maud begins to cry. They also do not move from this isolated existence, so towards the end when her arthritis is much worse and she falls in the snow while Everett is off selling fish, she is in danger of freezing to death, of badly hurting herself.

What breaks them is aging, her disability gets worse. She cannot walk far, can hardly hold her brushes. She has throughout the movie smoked and now she can’t breathe. A doctor shows up, and declares she has emphysema and must stop smoking. Everett declares (in his usual bullying manner) she already has. But it is too late. One night together in their now electric-lit, heated, comfortable home, she falls over unable to breathe. He rushes her to a hospital, where she gradually dies. Hawkins performs her usual spectacular acting (she was an inimitable Duchess of Gloucester, jealous, foolishly playing with superstition, then blamed and tortured, gone mad in the Hollow Crown), but Ethan Hawke is not far behind. He looks different, thicker than his usual types, gradually utterly convincing. As he walked away from the hospital to loneliness in this cottage filled with her things, her absent present I remembered him when young in Sunrise, and then five years later Sunset with Julie Delpy, then ten years on, Midnight, and somehow this movie seemed another phase, with his beloved partner now deeply aged and quietly much wiser.

I write this detailed review because the blurbs on IMDB are so distorted (this is the story of an arthritic housekeeper who makes good in her community one runs — what community?) and the reviews few and uncomprehending or uncomfortable. It seems disabled people living in poverty need to be prettied up more. Manola Dargis sees the film as “about the fantasies we make of our lives as we spin beauty and hope from despair.” There is a book, Lance Woolaver’s Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door where he shows a desperate life. Everett Lewis was a far more difficult man to live with than the film makes out. The movie softens, but it’s often through remembering and emphasizing the paintings, the imagery, the artist painting.


Cats

I often despair, I’m alone much of the time, and it was good for me to have validated the kinds of moments (mine literary) I have which make all the hard and tiring parts of life, the awareness of how excluded I am, still worth enduring for me. This has come to be another in my series of women artists. Maybe I will find the spirit to return to these yet.


A slightly sadder picture

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Luke in corridor in Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Atwood herself in an authorized photo

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

Werewolf Movies

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

Ellen

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Photograph of DuMaurier at her desk

Dear friends and readers,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Menabilly in the landscape

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


Godolphin House, Cornwall (one of the ancient ruins)

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


Early wheelchair — 17th-18th century

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Geraldine Somerville as Daphne (2007)

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

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

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

Ellen

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