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My soul is sick with everyday’s report of wrong and outrage with which the earth is filled — William Cowper (anticipating Alice Oswald, Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch and Anne Carson below)

Friends and readers,

This week on Janeites, the subject of Austen’s knowledge and use of the Latin and Greek classics in her novels came up. What I discovered as a result of looking at women’s translations and adaptations of the classics then and now, and what the age of sensibility and romance poets said was on the one hand, a continual turning away from the violence, a love of the Horatian ideal of retirement and friendship, and on the other how these older classics even if individuals enjoy them, love translating them, are used to separate and stigmatize women, lower class people (by excluding them) and teach forms of elitist. No fault of theirs this latter.

Diane Reynolds had bought Mary DeForest’s slender self-published kindle book, Jane Austen Closet Classicist, where (like several other writers recently) claims to uncover a secret of hidden Austen, this time finding a systematic use of stories from the classical pantheon into novels “by, for and about women.” We had been talking of intertextualities in Austen, and enthused by the idea I went to see what in the consensus handbooks/companions, Margaret Anne Doody, Alan Richardson (“Reading Practices” in Todd’s JA in Context) and Chapman had to say. Alas, they could not find any quotation from the Latin or Greek classics in any form, no sense of enjoyment in the one citation in one of her letters Jan 24, 1809) where she writes of “Homer, and Virgil, Ovid and Propria que Maribus,” thus associating the two major writers with an Eton grammar, and thereby boys’ lessons which maybe she shared in with her brothers. The one reference in her novels is indirect, the statement in Northanger Abbey where she decries the mindless and unfair praise of pseudo-scholarship and learning in snippets from much-respected non-fictional male texts on comparison to disdain for novels, especially those by and for women. The one reference to learning in the novels is the absurdity of the way the Bertrams’s girls boast of their “knowledge” to Fanny: they know “the Roman emperors as low as Severus; besides a great deal of Heathen Mythology.”

The trembling Pilot, from his Rudder torn,
Was headlong hurl’d; thrice round, the Ship was tost,
Then bulg’d at once, and in the deep was lost.
And here and there above the Waves were seen
Arms, Pictures, precious Goods, and floating Men.
The stoutest Vessel to the Storm gave way,
And suck’d through loosen’d Planks the rushing Sea.
From Dryden’s Aeneid

It so happened that at the same time I was reading in Dryden’s wonderful translations of Virgil (The Aeneid, the Georgics) and from Homer, and some of the medieval and Renaissance poets, my favorites once upon a time, The Flower and the Leaf (visionary faery poetry), Palamon and Arcite (from Chaucer). I was reading James Winn’s great biography of Dryden as part of a project where I was reading Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, comparing these to other biographies and critical studies (his life of Gray against David Cecil’s and Edmund Gosse’s, his life of Swift against Victoria Glendinning’s, his Pope against Peter Quennell’s and Maynard Macks’). It was sad or hard to think that Austen had never enjoyed Dryden’s Virgil, or Pope’s Iliad, or another of the many translations and imitations from the classics in the era, at least two by a woman, Madame Dacier’s Homer and Sapphic lyrics (Dacier read Greek). And Anne Finch did many, though from Petrarch, and French author’s translations of the Latin and Greek

Leauing my Soul, and this forsaken air
With darknesse cover’d, and with black dispair,
I by the rising streaks of Cynthia’s light,
My greifs bewail, and dread th’approaching night . . .
My soul, till morning, thus her anguish shews,
When soft Aurora cheerful light renews.
— From Finch’s translation of a Petrarch sonnet

From her Tasso:

. . . . Thyself may’st be
Transform’d into a Flame, a Stream, a Tree;
A Tear, congealed by Art, thou may’st remain,
‘Till by a burning Sigh dissolved again
(Reynolds’s edition of Finch, p 117, lines 61-54)

I was also thinking about how Johnson’s biographies of these male poets (Dryden, Pope) relate to Virginia Woolf’s, both highly innovative in their era, on the cusp of significant change, Johnson into psychological analysis, character creation through finding the life of the poet in his work, Woolf through reading biography as an imaginative subjective art, no longer a commemorative pious family product, but inextricably bound up with the historical period in which the individual lived. (Woolf too when she writes of these male classics Latin or Greek texts, like Austen, tellingly, rarely, domesticates them; there is often an old woman on the scene carrying sticks, e.g., in Orlando her book, and then Sally Potter’s movie too).

To return to biography, we can see the first two steps of this biographical history, in which Johnson and Woolf partcipate, epitomized in the biographies of Austen: first the nostalgic family exemplary impressionist type, in the memoir of his Aunt Jane by her nephew; then the Bloomsbury portrait type in the early 20th century by the gentlemanly David Cecil:


This older edition (mid-century) shows how classical forms are associated with Austen’s 18th century

The third step or phase is of art, part fiction, sticking to facts still is first seen in Elizabeth Jenkins and more recently Claire Tomalin and David Nokes. Appropriately the thrust into fictionalization Woolf suggests biography must turn to (from Nigel Nicholson, in her own “Lives of the Obscure”) is found most graphically in films, with Gwyneth Hughes’s Miss Austen Regrets (2008), basing her script on Nokes’s apprehension and portrait of Austen in her letters.


Olivia Williams as Austen writing on her desk on a bench in the garden, a probably invented scene

Diane wrote she was interested in how (according to DeForest), Austen “upended the heroic, epic tradition and made love and domestic concerns central—seeing this not as a deficit but actually a positive—a subversive positive, an assertion of the equal or greater importance of the realms of relationship and domesticity. The minor poets didn’t background or submerge or subordinate war and conquest and heroism by mistake or because they were bad writers or limited, says DeForest, but because they consciously wanted to show that these ‘grand’ things were less actually important that what is usually called the ‘small stuff.'”

Mnesius rolled in sand Thrasius lost in silt
Ainios turning somersaults in a black pool
Upside down among the licking fishes
And Ophelestes his last breath silvering the surface
All that beautiful armour underwater
All those white bones sunk in mud
And instead of a burial a wagtail
Sipping the desecration unaware.
–Like Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson too Oswald values the obscure people shattered and thrown away meaninglessly

I thought of how later 20th century women poets rewrote the Iliad as an fierce anti-war poem, Alice Oswald’s Memorial: A Version of Homer’s Iliad (a small hardback): it’s made of up paragraphs of all the people who died, with surrounding poignant descriptions. The original’s horrific violence is brought out. And Simone Weil’s The Iliad or The Poem of Force, which I own in French, with her commentaries on her translated verses and James P.Holoka’s English commentary and translation following hers (it’s a critical edition published by Peter Lang as a paperback).

From Weil Englished:

…violence obliterates anybody who feels its touch. It comes to seem just as external to its employer as to its victim. And from this springs the idea of a destiny before which executioner and victim stand equally innocent, before which conquered and conqueror are brothers in the same distress. The conquered brings misfortune to the conqueror, and vice versa.

And

…war effaces conceptions of purpose or goal, including even its own “war aims.” It effaces the very notion of war’s being brought to an end. To be outside a situation so violent as this is to find it inconceivable; to be inside it is to be unable to conceive its end. Consequently, nobody does anything to bring this end about.

There’s also a brilliant graphic novel about Iris Murdoch’s use of the classics to overturn a patriarchal order (by Brian Nicol, see Her Moral Depth). One of the changes and transformations Samuel Johnson comes up against is the older neoclassic male-centered ideals and satiric norms of poets like Pope and Prior were being replaced by a poetry of sensibility, and romance and private agons found in Collins, Byron, Cowper, with Crabbe attacking the hierarchical establishment as ferociously unjust.

Austen does give us a sense of how she felt about these classics in the fragmentary two passages I cited and described above: she looks upon the classics as school texts and men’s scholarship out of an acute awareness of her body, gender, class — as a woman stigmatized. Is this imposition on women still true. Yes. Woolf reminds us in A Room of One’s Own of a history of public schools and libraries, universities women are excluded from without special permission, men’s luxurious clubs. From the 16th through early 20th century the classics and learning Latin and Greek functioned to segregate upper class men (gentlemen) from all other men and men from women. A rare woman poet to show a sense of the culture is Mary Wortley Montagu in her satires and Horation retirement poetry.

Give me Great God (said I) a Little Farm
in Summer shady, & in Winter warm
where a cool spring gives birth to a clear brook
by Nature slideing down a mossy Rock
Not artfully in Leaden Pipes convey’d
Or greatly falling in a forc’d Cascade
Pure & unsully’d winding throu’ ye Shade.
All bounteous Heaven has added to my Praier
a softer Climate and a purer Air.

Our Frozen Isle now chilling Winter binds
Deform’d by Rains, & rough wth blasting Winds
ye wither’d Woods grown white wth hoary Frost
by driving storms their scatter’d beautys lost
The Trembling birds their leaveless coverts shun
And seek in distant Climes a warmer Sun
The Water Nymphs their silenced Urns deplore
Even Thames benumb’d a River now no more
The barren Meadows give no more delight
by Glist’ning Snows made painfull to ye Sight ..
The opening of Montagu’s Constantinople

We see in men’s novels of the 18th through 20th century they use Latin tags — a rare women to use these is Elizabeth Gaskell (she went to very good all girl dissenting academies). Nancy Mayer pointed out that at the end of the 18th century Erasmus Darwin advised women they were allowed to read the classics, and urged them to read translations. Nancy provided the list offered to women: Horace, Ovid, Cicero, Virgil, Sailust, Terence, Phaedrus, Persius, Nepos, Pliny, Juvenal, Justin, Cato, Tibullus. It omits some beautiful poetry (Propertius) and the Greek anthology (also translated very early and part of the background of 17th century lyrics by poets like Cowley and Anne Finch). Upper class or genteel women’s substitute for learning Latin or Greek was to learn French; in the later 18th through 19th century we find them learning Italian (reading Dante while stirring soup); George Eliot went further and learned German when German Bible studies came in.

Texts function in a habitus, a context. The original immediate ones matter, are felt too. Shakespeare presents a picture of himself as a boy in school learning his Latin grammar (Merry Wives of Windsor). Dryden did all his translation in the last ten years of his life to make ends meet. Once William & Mary were in, he was out as a Stuart person. No more plays to be produced for him. His pension taken. So these beautiful verses are the product of hard desperation- and an ability to escape. He was escaping to the world of The Flower and the Leaf in his Fables ancient and modern. Anthony Trollope did not go to university and created his own self-esteem in how good he had been at Latin as a boy in public schools (where he was otherwise disdained for not being able to pay his fees, having shabby clothes) and late in life turned to Horace (we see this in his Old Man In Love). Horace was also a class marker for him that meant he belonged.

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


A photo of Remedios Varo, escaped from the horrors of WW2 to Mexico (with her beloved cat)

Can we empathize with Austen’s sense of exclusion? Not quite. Looking at individual cases, we find that the spread of public schools has disseminated these texts with their wisdom, beauty, terrifyingly human stories. And yet exclusionary practices carry on, partly because the classics are seen as “not useful” and “hard.” Also they too emerge from particular and often anti-intellectual contexts in the US and social and racial conflicts.

On Janeites Catherine Schmick Janofsky who today holds an advanced degree in the classics and archaeology (they go together today) provided details of her younger years and when she taught in schools. “My junior high in Arizona, a school with maybe 200 students, offered Latin and Greek. I was in heaven. Alas, we moved home to San Diego when I was a sophomore and the school of 3000, Patrick Henry, did not. I took three years of German and continued through college. I had to wait til college at SDSU to continue. I majored in Latin. Latin, German, and Greek studied at one time makes for an interesting year. Classical archaeology at that time demanded it, two ancient, one modern. I took Spanish and Latin in grad school, in preparation for a royal dig in Belieze.” Then as a teacher in a charter and in a public school, children were taught Latin and this made them feel part of an elite. The public school children may not be able to eat (free lunches to the poor are now cut) but they could decline verbs and be part of an elite. Ironic human experience. Surely ambiguous — the child is being taught to reject its own background. So however good the texts might be in themselves, the context is teaching elitism and valuation of private schools poisons the public.

Diane Reynolds wrote that when her parents moved the family to where the children could go to a better school, she hoped for Latin but “the list of classes only meant that a class had been taught or might be taught again, not that it was currently on offer. My high school not only didn’t offer Latin, it didn’t offer German. I took French, which I had already started, and Spanish, the only other possibility. I picked up some reading German in college—two semesters worth—just enough to pass PhD language exams, which was why the course existed. And took Old English in graduate school and Hebrew in my Mdiv. (I tell my students, Jane Austen novels are not written in Old English, as they insist!) I suppose my point is to lament the general dearth of teaching foreign languages in this country. It really is a loss. I also find that taking just a few semesters of a language, at least for me, is not enough: it simply doesn’t stick without longer exposure.”


Alice Neel, a painting of Isabel Bishop (mid-20th century American artist) arriving at the studio

My story: as with Diane, in most schools I went to in NYC in the 1950s or 60s the two languages on offer were French or Spanish. Spanish was taken by the large numbers of Spanish speakers, and French lingered on as an instrument for college, and thus elite learning. Richmond Hill High School where I went was an unusual school for actually offering Latin. I heard that was dropped not long after I left — it used to have a good reputation as a public school (when humanities were valued). German classes in my experience are offered where there are German immigrants: again it’s a kind of cheat: the child is not extending his language or culture base. In Richmond Hill we did have Italian classes because there was a population of Italian people in Richmond Hill itself.

Fast forward to the 1990s in Virginia, in TC Williams High School, on offer are French, Spanish, and Latin, a lot of Latin, at least one Latin class for every hour of the day. How is this? I was one among many parents who put their kids in Latin classes in order to stream them automatically with other kids going to college. If you took Latin, you were streamed automatically into academic type classes. Who would take Latin? very few black kids (there were some), hardly any hispanic (one a class maybe). There were separate vocational streams in TC. There were also streams for AP.

How this happens? here are not that many classes for each subject. Say you are in AP English, it’s given but once a day, and so all taking that begin to have schedule which resembles others. Let’s say 50% of them take Latin — it was not as big as that. The largest number of language classes were in Spanish because of a sizable hispanic population in Alexandria. Izzy is Aspergers Syndrome (or Autistic Level 1) and I protected her from bullying, stigmatizing and cruelty (disabled children are mistreated) by putting her in Latin; she did love it from a young age: she read Edith Hamilton at 8 and had books of mythology and was keen on Latin because of her father. We what was the social result of her taking Latin. Laura, our older girl, was having bad difficulties too: as a pretty and sexy-looking girl, she was harassed (damned if you do and damned if you don’t), and she fought back by hitting someone hard with a book. She got into trouble, was shamed. Putting her into the Latin classes automatically put her in different classes from these thug boys and nasty girls. Other parents knew about this so in TC Williams at the time there was not only a Latin teacher, but two assistant teachers and Latin was taught every hour of the day; in the junior high at the time which took a population from Old Town the Junior High Latin was given four times a day.


Front Page (there is a 1966 reprint available on Amazon)

I was told most of these children did not go on for Latin in college. My two daughters did — and that is the family background. I’ll begin telling of this family background with a description of a family book owned by Jim, which I’m now told is called a “pony.” A slang name again suggests a coterie with its own inner language. It’s a fat Aeneid first published in 1882 and reprinted in the US in 1952 by the David McKay Company in New York. This one is a volume from a set of books called Classic Interlinear Translations; this one for the Aeneid (one volume of The Works of P. Virgilius Maro.” It’s described as a “interlinear translation, as nearly literal as the idiomatic difference of the Latin and English languages will allow, adapted to the system of classical instruction. Combining the methods of Ascham, Milton, and Locke by Levi Hart and V. R. Osborn. For each line of the Aeneid as Virgil wrote it, there is one beneath where the Latin is rearranged as an English sentence. And beneath that an English translation. This was Jim’s book in England (so it traveled across the pond) in the later 1950s, which he used in a local public (=private) school. Laura has said since Dad’s book made her very popular in college. She never let it out of her sight; when others used it they had to sit next to her. Izzy took it to Sweet Briar.

James Edward Austen-Leigh and Austen’s brothers were part of the male culture that read Latin — it made them superior to lower class men too, they were gentleman. My husband had many years of Latin in a public school as a day boy (wearing a different colored shirt so as to stigmatize him). Yet as an man he was fascinated by the history of the period as many of those who have such backgrounds. He had been taught manners and how to negotiate with middle class people in conferences. But his original context was the canning, caned when he didn’t do it right, buggery, suffering (the boys had had to stand in the pouring rain one day ruining their clothes as limousines ferrying MPs slid by). He still had the left over signs of welts in his palms from when he was struck with a hard stick in the hand hard. He was supposedly being lifted into another class by this training. Right. Still He could be amused by Winnie-the-Pooh in Latin – I still have that his copy of that book.

Years later when Izzy returned from Graduate school with her MLIS and was having brutal time getting a job, and becoming utterly isolated, she started at George Mason at night taking senior level BA courses and graduate for no credit or just a pass, so she would be people. And for the first 5 terms she took Roman history and yet more Latin classes. Alas, the 11 people she me and were with her for all that time lost out at the 6th term. Mason abolished the Latin and Greek or classical department because they said there were not enough students. They pretended not to and said they were merging just Latin with the Italian department because the Italian teacher (just one – -see the state of foreign language learning) could also teach latin. Izzy went on for 2 more terms at night and there was not one class offered. All 11 people who had been known to one another, sort friends, broke up. One of small tragedies of budget cutting. We have just seen a repeat of this in Fairfax county in disabled services where the people are deeply in need of the social environment and contact and pleasure.


My other Aeneid

As to myself I took 2 and 1/2 years of Latin in college (Queens, CUNY, I got there by two buses and livd in a rent control apartment in Kew Gardens) and got to the point where I could read simplified Latin texts. I used this groundwork later in life to pass an exam in medieval Latin for my Ph.D. (we had to pass two tests for an advanced level of language or 3 for a beginner or reader’s level). So I passed a beginner in Latin, French and Italian. Many years after this while translating Vittoria Colonna’s poems, I tried to read Renaissance Latin by one of Vittoria Colonna’s cousin, a treatise in which he was supposedly commending women and her as the great example of virtue. It dripped with condescension, and that it was in Latin made it unavailable for women to read. It’s claimed she read Latin but I’m no sure. I’m skeptical of all claims of women reading Latin in the Renaissance unless we have some proof. She wrote an Italian mixed with Spanish and never refers to a Latin text she read. Veronica Gambara by comparison translated a Latin poem and wrote a poem herself in Latin. But my real knowledge such as it is comes from translations and I enjoy translations and translating as such and enjoyed the different ones as a result of the translator. I knew Allen Mandelbaum who was a teacher in my graduate school and took and read his translation of Dante (as well as The Aeneid) and I have some good memories of this time – mixed as everything is too — each has its context and history.


Still l’ecriture-femme: women interested in home, domestic setting, a travel book in time

Izzy today enjoys reading Mary Beard, her Christmas present last year was Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, this year Pompeii: The life of a Roman Town. She doesn’t like the Aeneid herself, much prefers Horace to other Latin texts. She remembers Pliny the Younger whose letters seem to have charmed her. For me Confronting the Classics is a favorite book, in which I’ve stuffed paper essays by Beard from the TLS. I do not ignore Beard’s upper class antecedents and her present prestigious position at Oxford. That’s why she has her “A Don’s Blog on the TLS website. I own Anne Carson’s strange book of grief over her brother’s death, Nox, through a translation of Catullus’s poem on his brother’s death with many pages from other books (meaningful to her and him) and papers cut out and pasted into a series of accordion like pages. My favorite classics are the translated texts I’ve mentioned

I seem to have traveled a long way from Jane Austen and the classics. I’ve been exploring how the classics function in two friends’ lives and lives I know best today, how class, gender, monetary circumstances, local culture and our individual natures shaped how we understand and remember what we read and how these texts function for us. All this connects back to Austen — if only to say how long this stigmatizing of women and lower class people has been going on. And along the way I’ve shown how men and women have translated and responded to this poetry, these stories. I end on the poet thought the greatest of Austen’s period, Pope, his original Epilogue to his two last Horatian-Juvenilian satires: peculiarly apt for today’s times once again.

Vice now in charge.

In golden chains the willing World she draws,
And hers the gospel is, and hers the laws:
Mounts the tribunal, lifts her scarlet head,
And sees pale Virtue carted in her stead!
Lo! at the Wheels of her Triumphal Car,
Old _England’s_ genius, rough with many a scar,
Dragg’d in the dust. his arms hang idly round,
His Flag inveted trails along the ground.
Our youth, all liv’ry’d o’er with foreign gold,
Before her dance; behind her crawl the old.
See thronging millions to the Pagod run,
And offer country, parent, wife, or son.
Hear her black Trumpet thro’ the land proclaim,
That ‘Not to be corrupted is the Shame.’
In soldier, churchman, patriot, man in pow’r,
‘Tis Av’rice all, Ambition is no more!
See, all our nobles begging to be slaves.
See, all our fools aspiring to be knaves.
The wit of cheats, the courage of a whore,
Are what ten thousand envy and adore.
All, all look up, with reverential awe,
On crimes that scape, or triumph o’er the law;
While Truth, Worth, Wisdom, daily they decry —
‘Nothing is sacred now but villany.

Yet may this Verse (if such a verse remain)
Show there was one who held it in disdain.

Ellen

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John Radner (1939-2017)

Friends,

Christmas is upon us, and I’ve yet to transcribe my notes on this year’s early November EC/ASECS conference, held at Howard University! I did not stay at the hotel but took the Metro each of the three trips (one evening, two days) so I arrived a bit late and left earlier than usual. We had our usual Thursday evening (Nov 2) of reading poetry aloud with a reception of drinks and snacks. It was the first time I had been to Howard University and I walked around campus too. I have about two blogs worth of papers and readings to tell of. This first one is on the first three sessions of the first day. The theme of the conference was “Capital culture and cultural capital.” I’d have loved to give a paper on Anthony Trollope’s stay in DC and his thought-provoking description of the city and surrounding environs during the civil war (including Alexandria and near where I live) but he’s not eighteenth century ….

I arrived on Friday morning, November 3rd, in time to participate in the tribute to John Radner (9:00 to 10:15 am). He was a great scholar who devoted his life to study and teaching, with his central interest in Johnson and Boswell. Last year as a culmination of a life-time of reading and thinking he published his book, Johnson and Boswell: A biography of a Friendship. He taught at George Mason for many years where I knew him. His office was across the hall from mine and we frequently talked during a few years when we were both there at the same time. He was an active and long-time member of EC/ASECS and also taught at the OLLI at AU where I teach too nowadays.


Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson (intensely reading)

The tribute consisted of four papers read aloud and talked through by four close friends of John’s. Each paper had a theme dear to the heart of Johnson and/or Boswell. Ann Kelly was just finishing hers on her first trip to the Hebrides, with her children, commemorating John through how Johnson and Boswell’s have text stirred her (and many others) into visiting the Hebrides islands, and making friends there. Henry Fulton who has just published a massive biography on John Moore used an incident where Moore and Johnson came together through a poem by Helen Maria Williams. The poem was given to Burke, Burke shared it with Moore as did Reynolds who then showed it to Johnson. Henry’s point was to show the connections between these people whom John had been so engaged with over the decades. Linda Merians then spoke: John knew more of Johnson than anyone. Walter Jackson Bate who wrote the great biography of Johnson was John’s mentor. She talked of how John empathized with both Boswell and Johnson, and wrote of how each thought “I am never with this man without feeling better and rendered happier.” Melancholy united Boswell and Johnson who had a deep fear of breakdown. Beth Lambert whose biography is on Burke spoke of the failed friendship of Burke and Boswell. They remained aware of one another is as far as it got, Boswell transgressed by using some private confidence; Burke’s Irishness made him more sensitive to spreading gossip which could be turned against him. Burke in turn doubted Boswell was “fit” (not smart enough) for their weekly clubbing. In each case the speaker talked of his or her memories of John. It was a very touching hour.


Fanny Burney by John Bogle (detail)

The panel I was chairing, “Portraits of Frances Burney” came after a short coffee break (10:45-noon). Kaitlyn Giblin’s paper, “To nobody belonging, by nobody was noticed:” Navigating the bounds of Feminine Authority and Female Authorship in Burney’s Evelina. Kaitlyn examined the depictions of motherhood in Evelina; Caroline, Evelina’s mother, is not married and thus her daughter has no identity. Her very existence is to be hidden. Evelina gains some status when she is revealed to be her mother’s daughter, but she knows a seachange only when she marries. Mr MacCartney’s story fits into the same trajectory: he too needs legitimacy, recognition, acknowledgement. Kaitlyn’s paper fit into the rebellious but 18th century Johnsonian figuring of a public reasoning Burney. Noello Chao’s “The Arts and Indifference in The Wanderer” produced a different sort of portrait. Noello made the unexpected point of the price artists have to make when they practice their art. Her spirit is annihilated when she does practice because she is not appreciated and feels profoundly divorced from herself as she tries to play in front of others wholly alien to her. Burney presents the failure of art to inspire or make others feel meaningful; Juliette feels little pleasure or solace in what she is doing; she cringes because she has to sell herself. The novel is about the hidden costs of producing art. We also see how limited are the choices upper class women are given; susceptible to assault and invective. High continental forms do not satisfy; instead Stonehenge with its ancient natural space offers calm and a quiet place to feel herself. Burney does not reject labor but wants it to have a chance to be meaningful.

Lorna Clarke’s paper, “Juvenile Productions in the Burney Family” She discussed her discovery of the early writings of several members of the Burney family. They were an artistic group living in a vibrant atmosphere, in a sophisticated London culture with professional and amateur theatrics around them. It was wonderful to listen to Lorna’s enthusiasm as she described these works; they did resemble the Brontes in how they invented a magazine and shared their writing, inspiriting one another. They drew frontispieces, made indexes, were imitating published books. The experience (as practised by these children) was educational socially; they think of their audience. Lorna then read passages to show how these works are funny, nervy, uses legends; there is a 34 stanza ballad the children seek freedom as their narrators find their voice. They incorporate violence meant to be funny; and also have blood baths at the end of a tragedy. Sophia Elizabeth produced her own anthology; we know Frances wrote a novel about Caroline, mother of Evelina. The vividness of her style is there in the earliest of her journals. You can see gender at work. The figure of Persephone is used for melancholy and romance. There is ambiguity about being a writer. One of the children writing died relatively young after a period as a governess. There are also letters.


William Hogarth, The Graham family (children)

The papers had been so interesting, full of details and varied there was much talk afterward (as moderator I didn’t get to write it down so have no details). Several questions on the Wanderer and attitudes towards art in Burney’s family. Lorna seemed to have made us all want to peruse these juvenilia far more than I have ever wanted to read the Brontes’s famous tiny-lettered children’s lurid romances (until recently when in another context I heard a paper quoting from these, showing that in there are more passages than one might expect which anticipate their adult novels). I was reminded of the March family in Little Women who produce a Christmas number (a reflection of the Alcott family); the Austens, much older, wrote a periodical which had circulation among adult readers.

We adjourned for lunch and I went with two friends to a nearby Asian fusion restaurant where we had good talk and food.


Charlotte Ramsay Lennox (1730-1804)

For the first session of the afternoon I went to Eleanor Shevlin’s panel, “Collection, Curation & Classicism.’ It had a miscellany of papers. Hilary Fezzey talked about autism in the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote and Hugh Blair’s letters. Her argument was an interesting and worthy one, as her point seemed to be how neurotypical (as she called the non-autistic) people are treated as a norm which all others have to be like. Which is unfair. People who are autistic may be said to lack social capital. She said that from Hugh Blair’s letters we can see he was socially very awkward, dressed differently, lived a wholly interior life, did not follow social “rules.” He had no sense of social inhibition where he should have been inhibited; seemed very innocent to others. He was married for a time. She felt the explanation for Arabella’s obtuseness and obsession with later 17th century heroic romances was that she is meant to be autistic. Even if Lennox would not have used that term, Hilary seemed to feel Lennox meant to describe autism as a type of person. She does not pay attention to other people, has no idea of social conventions, and the novel condemns her at the end.

Sylvia Kasey Marks’s paper was on the 20th century great playwright, Arthur Miller and the 18th century forger, Henry Ireland. She discussed them as both appropriating the work or understood persona and style of someone else. In the early phase of his career Miller wrote radio plays, and some of these are dramatizations of someone else’s novel. She demonstrated that in Miller’s case we see him consistently change his original to fit his own vision. Unlike Ireland, Miller was not trying to find a new space in which he could create something unlike what others were writing at the time. He was building his career and operating within a considerable group of constraints (which include pleasing the audience). Sylvia told the whole sad story of Ireland, including a conflict with his father, and how we may see popular attitudes towards Shakespeare in some of Ireland’s writing.


Arthur Miller when young (photograph found on the Net)

Bill Everdell gave a detailed historical paper, excellent, on “the evangelical counter-Enlightenment.He discussed the relationship between ecstasy and doctrinal fundamentalism in 18th century Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He was exploring powerful social and psychological currents in the era. He went into the more learned treatises, attitudes towards self-determination, equality, passion, calmness. I couldn’t begin to take down the details.

There was not much time for discussion afterward so I was not able to register the serious doubt I had about analyzing a character in a novel according to 20th century diagnostic criteria in watered-down ways. I know from experience before someone is diagnosed for autism, they are interviewed and must have 2 characteristics out of six sets of them on six sheets of paper. Arabella is a naif figure in a Quixote satire. Hugh Blair’s self-descriptions are closer to possibility as he was a real complex person but we’d have to have more evidence from others. People did attempt to ask about Miller and also the Islamic Enlightenment.

More on the later afternoon and Saturday in my second blog.


George Morland (1763-1804), study of a cat

Ellen

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot walking among the autumn leaves (1995 BBC Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am chuffed (proud, happy) to say two new essays on Charlotte Smith by me are now available from the power and liberty of the Internet. The first is my essay for Sarah Emsley’s new series of blogs, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion,” due to start December 16th. Mine is one of two previews;

“For there is nothing lost that may be found: Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

The other is by William Hutchings, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK, “A Sense of An Ending: Persuasion and Keats’s “Ode to Autumn.”

It will be seen both of us chose to dwell on the autumnal aspects of Austen’s Persuasion and how she uses or provides an analogy for autumnal poetry by two contemporary or near contemporary poets. Thus Sarah put ours on her blog before Austen’s birthday in order to be seasonally on time.

I am writing this separate linked-in blog since I want to make sure there is no misapprehension about the four years worth of blogs on this site about Jane Austen’s letters and the Austen papers. The blogs came out of a group read we did on the two Austen lists (Austen-l and Janeites) several years. It was my idea to do the letters slowly, one a week. However, what insights emerged were a “hive” effect, the result of all of us putting our collective heads together to close read and add our own bits of knowledge and insight—and sometimes clashing on who Austen was as a person. It was a wonderful experience.

The second is on Charlotte Smith in a different or wider vein: I’ve decided to put my paper on “The Global Charlotte Smith: migrancy and women in Ethelinde and The Emigrants on academia.edu where it may be read now. It is also timely in a different way: for its political perspective on women and emigration.


A photograph taken in Oxford, Wytham Woods this November 19, 2017 by a friend

Ellen

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From Peter Staughan’s 2015 Wolf Hall: actors dancing Renaissance dance, POV Cromwell

What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible — Larissa MacFarquhar on Hilary Mantel’s imagination, The New Yorker

Friends and readers,

It’s now two years since I wrote four blogs on the powerful mini-series by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall (featuring Mark Ryland and Claire Foy) (1-2: Fathers and sons;, 3-4, Stealth Heroine and a contemporary Man for All Seasons; 5-6, what human beings are capable of). Though I had read it and listened to Simon Slater’s brilliantly interpretative reading aloud of the whole text (available on CDs), where he makes Cromwell come out much less sympathetically than Mark Rylance’s nuance kind performance in the mini-series, I didn’t blog on the novel just by itself — which I often do for other books so filmed/adapted.

I’ve just had the great pleasure of re-reading the book with a class of retired adults, 20 or so people who appeared to enjoy it very much. I would like to tell a little of what they and I said, but am realizing that we found it such fun not because of any particular insight or examination of the text we did. The fun was in learning relevant history this way. So much we saw in the tyranny of Henry, the complicity of his courtiers, the sexual exploitation of women so germane; the psychologies of the characters we could recognize in ourselves or people close to us. Then they would go off and read history and find these stories re-hashed. The amorality of these characters. They were intrigued by the actual history, the characters, the style of the book (they said this and read passages aloud from the book they were especially taken with), its participation in historical romance. A very intelligent group of people, with interesting personal histories of travel, employment, court cases themselves.

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Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1534)

As a historical novel:

They asked if all the characters represented people who once lived. Yes, I said. It’s the type of historical fiction which uses actual historical personages as chief characters (another is I, Claudius); all the people named existed and outwardly they did or lived more or less as we see the the characters here. Unnamed people are representative. This strict version invents almost no one. That’s hard, isn’t it? It’s like a sonnet, a 14 line poem which rhymes in a prescribed way; the villanelle that follows a prescribed obsessive pattern.

The crucial differences in the presentation of this Tudor Matter: Mantel chooses characters most people have ignored and dramatizes them through a fresh convincing, often ultimately compassionate interpretation. Not just Cromwell become hero, but Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, emotionally disabled: the pity for Mary Tudor as so twisted emotionally and her body so small and she in pain. Mary Boleyn generous-natured, frank and so become female fodder. Anne Boleyn now seen as not just sexually manipulative, and for a Protestant state, but seethingly ambitious, yet (like Cromwell, Wolsey) vulnerable so (in her case paranoaic), egoistic, losing perspective. Her helpless fall from favor. Thomas More now the fanatic and torturer. Wolsey the luxurious cat-like power-seeker, yet humane, a builder of schools.

All three books one continuous tight-knit story: a fictional biography of Thomas Cromwell based on his papers and a school of Renaissance scholarship that began with G.Elton, to whose disciple, Mary Robertson, Mantel dedicates her novel. This big fat book is Act One of Cromwell’s story, ending in the murder of Thomas More (a contrast to him). The second, Bring Up the Bodies, Act Two, worked up as dramatic clashes between Cromwell and those he’s partly framing, in order to enable the king to murder Anne Boleyn (the stealth tragic heroine, with her wry, embittered alter ego, Mary Boleyn). Act Three, not yet finished (still under construction), The Mirror and the light, ending in the murder of Cromwell himself.

Fintan O’Toole says the appeal of this Cromwell is he is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. Thirty years ago, Mantel’s Cromwell … of limited interest. His virtues — hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, a talent for office politics, the steady accumulation of money, a valuing of stability above all else–— … as mere bourgeois orthodoxy. Boring, contemptible, in a damning word, safe. But they’re not safe anymore. They don’t assure security. As the world becomes … precarious … everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment (Anne’s tablecloth removed). The terror that grips us is rooted not in Cromwell’s … extraordinary strength. Except for the twist -— meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?

Wolf Hall, Act One, is made up of six parts — we read two a week. The structure so familiar from women’s writing, (l’ecriture-femme), is here: it’s cyclical, moving through repetition across eras. One realizes the title, Wolf Hall chosen to suggest how this is a world of wolves. Threes. Each of the six parts is in threes: an introductory chapter (sometimes shortish), a middle chapter (longish, the “meat” of the part), and coda (short chapter).

Part One builds the picture of Cromwell as an abused survivor of a boy, a fully mature man in the home he creates for himself and family, astonishingly a stable well educated kindly man, enacting the good father to the boys he takes in, as we see Wolsey with due irony behaved to him. “He was ever kind to me” Cromwell tells Henry in extenuation of Cromwell’s continued loyalty to Wolsey.

At Austin Friars – in very few pages Mantel has to establish a trusting loving relationship between Cromwell and his wife since she makes Cromwell grieve for his loss of Liz during much of this book. Decent feeling. Playful, sensible. Through her and her sister, Joanne we see how women looked at Anne Boleyn and the divorce — pitied Katherine for not having had a sons

Part Two all comes to grief: Wolsey ejected, the death of Cromwell’s beloved wife and daughters; the central long section (“Occult history”) explains how the ejection of Wolsey came to happen and includes extravagances of mythic history; a coda of George Cavendish (whose love for Wolsey makes him perpetually plangent) astonished to see Cromwell (also a mother figure) crying.

We talked of sources. Although she doesn’t admit them, Mantel was also strongly influenced by Alison Weir’s The Other Boleyn Girl, filmed twice, one released to the theaters with Scarlett Johanson as Mary Boleyn, and the other a BBC single episode with Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn (by Philippa Lowthorne). I read aloud to them Mary Boleyn’s letter to Cromwell when she was thrown out of court with William Stafford, a groom whom she seems to have loved (he valued her). Just extraordinary letter for a Renaissance women – I’ve read a lot of these at one time, most personal letters are guarded or hypocritical, so much verbiage out of which you may glimpse some truths. Correspondence was read by gov’t officials — there was no privacy. MB paid someone to hand-carry it to Cromwell: that she could write such a letter to him speaks well of him, for the relationship must’ve been open to it, invited it. Weir disdains it and talks of it stupid — yes she is not phonily performing (guarded, hypocritical) which is Weir’s criteria I suppose. But Mantel no more favors Mary Boleyn than Cromwell.

Cromwell was a controversial figure and had been bad-mouthed (not too much to say it was snobbery too) with an apotheosis in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Leo McKern memorably this corrupt bully. So we have to unlearn a bit: not only was he beheaded because the king grew angry at the ugliness of Anne of Cleves, Cromwell was sincerely protestant and he succeeded largely in altering the composition of the English structure of gov’t – as is now being tried before our very eyes in the US and has been going on some say since the mid-1970s with Trump and this rump republican congress the fruits of it. How do you affect change: Cromwell did it bit by bit, each time cagily appealing to the self-interest of whoever had the reigns of what he was altering. He left many many letters, diplomat’s letters but write something down and it gives you away.

Mantel has made every effort to make us respect and like Thomas Cromwell but when it comes to the trial and beheading she does not whitewash the man. Six young man: we are shown how awful they are to those beneath them, but should they have been beheaded? it was Thomas Cromwell who made the evidence (if there was any) into a case which could withstand a trial. In other words, if you think Anne was just about wholly innocent, he framed her and killed them all. Unlike More’s behavior to those he burned alive and oversaw the beheading of, there is no evidence for torture. Still, part of the blackening of his character, paradoxically is while until the 20th century Anne Boleyn was often presented as guilty at least of sex with the courtiers, Cromwell was vilified. What Mantel does in the book and the film even more Straughan present Cromwell as doing this unwillingly; he gets no pleasure from it; he looks grave, unhappy, and after she’s dead when Henry welcomes him with open arms, he looks terrified. But he did it. In Bring up the Bodies we also see him exploit women and in general he’s more of a villain, hardening of his character as time goes on. The book takes a much shorter time. No more liaison with Johanne, Rafe and Helen are gone, Richard in another house. We can project this process might go further in the final act Mantel is said to be writing: The Mirror and the Light.


Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey (2015 Wolf Hall)

Wolsey – what kind of man is he presented as? – long effective career in church, slowly promoted up – destroyed or neutralized the positions of those around him; what religious beliefs did he have? You might say Cromwell was a son of Wolsey – a brilliant foreign policy person, diplomat, powerful administrator, he built major benefactor of arts, humanities and education. He projected numerous reforms, with some success in areas such as finance, taxation educational provision and justice. He reformed taxes—opposite of what’s happening today; before him all owed the same, now poorer much less and Wolsey collected much more for the king’s wars and luxurious entertainments, But Wolsey failed him in oen particular? The diplomatic situation was hard: Catherine a daughter of the Aragons; Charles V her nephew, and in a way Charles V besieged Rome, and took over Clement’s power for a while

Wolsey and Cromwell talk and eat together. Then as events close in, Cromwell’s helping to move the old man to Winchester and then York,
Cromwell: “Masters, I want kindling, dry kindling … Get the fires lit … Stephen, find the kitchen …. Actually, see him in first… I need the bedding … What? Who is that? … Michael? Down, off. The horses, later. We want the Cardinal in bed and warm. …Come on, come on, we’re not done yet! …”
To Wolsey now in bed: “I asked if they had nutmeg or saffron – they looked at me as if I was speaking Greek. I’ll have to find a local supplier.”
Wolsey: “I shall pray for it.”

I find it very touching the way Cromwell tries to secure creature comforts for the old man, and how the old man gently mocks his endeavours. Despite Henry’s claim that he loves and misses the Cardinal, and that he cannot bring the Cardinal back (as his courtiers, and the powerful aristocratic clans who loathe Wolsey as a butcher’s son are pressuring him), Wolsey is thrown away, humiliated, sickens and dies.

I come back to the use of Rylance as POV and his uncanny ability to convey complicated layers of thought in different scenes with these highly theatrical characters in situations of deep crisis strain, to seem out-side the action and questioning it. The character he plays, Cromwell, is himself deeply complicit, com-promised and comprising — rising, becoming wealthier, powerful, using his nephew and ward, Rafe as spies. He says at one point, now it’s his turn to get back. He participates in the neurotic fights of the Boleyns. He may tells Henry Percy (then drunk) the day of the power of the thug warrior-aristocrat as all-powerful is over: that the world also works on money, that bankers are in charge (this seems a bit anachronistic, you’d think the Italian bankers were turned into today’s European Union and World Bank).

There is his true son, Rafe, who does not have bad dreams, p 26 – we shall see how he came to live with and revere Cromwell; how did he comes to take in Rafe – it’s in the long occult history, back history :so touching every moment: Cromwell as mother – look with me on page 106-7, well into chapter

Part Three introduces the court characters, the king, Anne and Mary Boleyn, deepens Cromwell and Wolsey’s relationship (“Entirely Beloved Cromwell”), people lost along the way become ghosts haunting you (“The Dead Complain of Their Burial”).

What kind of person is Henry in this book? We talked of his sexual anxiety, his apparent timidity; how he believed the old supposedly Biblical culture. When Anne proved no virgin, and he realized how much she knew about sex, how to please him, paradoxically but in character he begins to mistrust her. Jealous. She is bitter herself. Extraordinary sequence of Cromwell taken from bed and re-interpreting king’s dream. All imagined but captures deeper truths about these people — including Cranmer who is so hesitant, young men around king obeying his slightest whims. Cromwell comes home to be haunted by Wolsey, by Liz. I read aloud from Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes on Wolsey; Shakespeare’s Henry VIII had he only served his God before his king …; Wyatt’s poem on Anne as like this deer so alluring.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change …

Part Four dramatizes how the world is a profoundly dangerous place (you must “arrange your face”), with its long center showing people seeking love (“What shall I do for love?”), discovering enacting cruelty, torture (the burning of the old woman, a Lollard so crazed), treachery under hats. The family groups formed, with Cromwell emerging as Henry’s man (the speech to Henry Percy about where the world is ruled from a case in point).


Said to be Mary Boleyn (reprinted in Alison Weir)

Part Five with Anne now queen (“Anna Regina”), become paranoiac, losing perspective. Contrasts: she and Henry to Rafe’s calm integrity and love for Helen, ex-laundress, widow, all calm competence; Cranmer and his barmaid Margaret, he too like Rafe could not help but love her; the desperate Mary seeking a protector. “The Devil’s spit” (middle chapter) exposes the underbelly of women’s subject position: Elizabeth Barton’s malevolence allows her to take a place on the stage. Ends in Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell’s outwardly iron self.

Master Secretary,
After my poor recommendations, which is smally to be regarded of me, that am a poor banished creature, this shall be to desire you to be good to my poor husband and to me. I am sure that it is not unknown to you the high displeasure that both he and I have, both of the King’s Highness and the Queen’s Grace, by reason of our marriage without their knowledge, wherein we both do yield ourselves faulty, and acknowledge that we did not well to be so hasty nor so bold, without their knowledge.
But one thing, good Master Secretary, consider: that he was young, and love overcame reason; and for my part, I saw so much honesty in him that I loved him as well as he did me; and was in bondage, and glad I was to be at liberty.

So that for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little store by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him. And so I do put no doubt but we should, if we might once be so happy to recover the King’s gracious favor and the Queen’s. For well I might a had a greater man of birth, and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well, nor a more honest man. And besides that, he is both come of ancient stock, and again as meet (if it was his Grace’s pleasure) to do the King service as any young gentleman in his court.

Therefore, good Master Secretary, this shall be my suit to you, that, for the love that well I know you do bear to all my blood, though for my part, I have not deserved it but smally, by reason of my vile conditions, as to put my husband to the King’s Grace that he may do his duty as all other gentlemen do.
And, good Master Secretary, sue for us to the King’s Highness, and beseech his Highness, which ever was wont to take pity, to have pity on us; and that it would please his Grace, of his goodness, to speak to the Queen’s Grace for us; for, so far as I can perceive, her Grace is so highly displeased with us both that,without the King be so good lord to us as to withdraw his rigor and sue for us, we are never likely to recover her Grace’s favor, which is too heavy to bear. And seeing there is no remedy, for God’s sake, help us, for we have been now a quarter of a year married, I thank God, and too late now to call it again; wherefore it is the more alms to help us. But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I ensure you, Master Secretary, for my little time, I have spied so much honesty to be in him that I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen christened. And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.

Therefore, good Master Secretary, seeing we are so well together and does intend to live so honest a life, though it be but poor, show part of your goodness to us as well as you do to all the world besides; for I promise you, you have the name to help all them that hath need, and amongst all your suitors I dare be bold to say that you have no matter more to be pitied than ours; and therefore, for God’s sake, be good to us, for in you is all our trust.

And I beseech you, good Master Secretary, pray my Lord my father and my Lady my mother to be good to us, and to let us have their blessings, and my husband their goodwill; and I will never desire more of them. Also, I pray you, desire my Lord of Norfolk [her uncle] and my Lord my brother to be good to us. I dare not write to them, they are so cruel against us. But if with any pain I could take my life [that] I might win their good wills, I promise you there is no child living would venture more than I. And so I pray you to report by me, and you shall find my writing true, and in all points which I may please them in I shall be ready to obey them nearest my husband, whom I am bound to; to whom I most heartily beseech you to be good unto, which, for my sake, is a poor, banished man for an honest and goodly cause. And seeing that I have read in old books that some, for as just causes, have by kings and queens been pardoned by the suit of good folk, I trust it shall be our chance, through your good help, to come to the same; as knoweth the [Lord] God, Who send you health and heart’s ease.

Scribbbled with her ill hand, who is your poor,
humble suitor, always to command,
Mary Stafford.

We talked of the attitude towards women in the novel: they get a very rough deal; Cromwell and Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth Barton Mantel’s Wolf Hall performs the function of recent sequels to classic fiction and revisions of consensus histories; she asks us to switch our allegiances to the victimized, conquered, castigated and stigmatized lives of traditional histories and in so doing discover the tragedy going on is one where the subaltern fig-ures are us. In this case these figures include several of the hitherto despised and dismissed women of Henry VIII’s court and his low-born secretary, Thomas Cromwell. My feeling is Mantel came to her very project, her very choice of historical span, by way of so many women’s identification with Anne Boleyn, and added to her Mary and Jane Boleyn, Mary Tudor (Lily Lesser) re-seen (as the product of a neurotic relationship of a profoundly sexually twisted man and woman, Henry VIII & Katharine of Aragon). Thomas Cromwell she came to by way of her insight of the deep evils religion (in her case, originally Roman Ca-tholicism) promotes and disciplines people to enact. Queen, the devil’s spit is Elizabeth Barton; that old woman burnt to death that Cromwell witnesses as a young (288-93) – it’s in the fourth part


Holbein’s 1527 Thomas More (close-up of his face)

Part Six ending in execution of More, and the sexually anxious king turned against Anne and towards Jane Seymour, is a disquisition on power (with which it begins), who has it, where it comes from. Mary kicked out; I read her letter aloud.

John Schofield’s The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. The questioning of the previous factional interpretation begins with the great scholar Geoffrey Elton, and culminates with the work of Mary Robertson to whom this book is dedicated. All very detailed, not overtly entertaining. I’ll send along just one essay by Mary Robertson and it shows how Cromwell operated in the West Country. Since Mantel’s book there has been a revolution in how to regard Cromwell popularly; she has also been attacked by scholars and critics for being anti-catholic: she is an ex-Catholic.

The book was discussed in the US by people on opposite sides of religious politics with as I recall, an arch conservative – of all people – Jewish – attacking the book and her, “maddeningly” great fiction to distort the record so. Krautheimer likes having Sir Thomas More as a saint. Krautheimer wrote in several places attacked Mantel, he was so exercised against this portrait of More as an utterly cold egoistic torturer, fanatic, anything but the humane man for all seasons Bolt dreamed up. Mantel is closer because even though More wrote those great books he did torture and willingly, superfluously seeking people out, while Cromwell avoided it as bad policy. He’d have been against slavery in the 19th century as bad policy. I read aloud parts of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, from More’s Utopia and book on Comfort in Time of Tribulation (written while in prison).

Her interest is as much in religion as culture and politics; it’s fictionalized biography as well as fictionalized history; inspired anthropology as well as extraordinary artistry on all levels. I think it’s a masterpiece or masterwork like Swift’s Waterlands or Scott’s Raj Quartet taken altogether, at the same time as you can discern a cynical appraisal of what formula and content will attract attention, make her big money.

I think it’s more than that and wrote a paper on this – Journal of Popular TV didn’t care for it as too learned. But they liked my thesis that Tudor matter appeals because it presents “men under dire pressure” who transgress sexual and masculine norms. We have these enormously strong women and men who are allowed to dress flamboyantly, enacting abjection in poetry and stories, were sycophants at court and themselves beheaded. It’s this freedom of men to come out of their usual boring clothes and compete with flamboyant women who often win. It’s the costumes. George Boleyn said to have been gay, Smeaton the musician (Mary Queen of Scots also involved herself with a musician, David Rizzio and he was slaughtered. At the end of Mantel’s second book we have had quite a number of men beheaded, six for sexual transgression. Latest idea is that Anne may have been guilty with one of Henry’s close men – Henry Norris, Francis Bryan, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton, George Boleyn also murdereed. Francis Weston. Elizabeth beheaded Essex – rightly.

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As erotic historical romance


From 2008 The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Lowthorpe, Anne and Mary in the tower (Jodhi May and Natasha Mcelhone)

We began with Mantel’s choice of prologue: from John Skelton’s masque, Magnificence. What’s the effect of this framing? Is this tragedy, comedy or satire? For Cromwell’s contemporaries for Shakespeare a question about genre counts … What’s interesting is the allegory is brought back inside the book. Anne Boleyn is Peseverance in the masque we first her at – dancing with Percy 45-46), we are told in Cromwell’s dream mind Cavendish, George, is virtuous Councilor, Wolsey Decayed Magnificence, he Cromwell is Tempter. If you go to page 14, you find Cromwell supposedly remembering she was Beauty or Kindness (a generosity and openness of spirit). When we think of allegory, we think of simple words. Not the Elizabethans.

People in the class talked of other books “like this one.” One woman in the class gave me a copy of her published poetic narrative verse book, Barbara Goldberg, her Berta Broadfoot and Pepin the short

A 64 page historical romance made up of soliloquies. It is remarkable. Barbara’s sources are much reading in history of the 8th century and earlier in France and Norma Lorre Goodrich’s Medieval Myths. Barbara also used books of troubadour poetry — including the few by women. Her introduction tells of her archetypal Jungian interpretation which uses fairy tales which correspond to the legends and history. It has illustrations which are wood-cut like and remind me of those accompanying a volume of ghost stories by Wharton. Norma Lorre Goodrich takes a feminist or feminine view of these myths, but it’s not acknowledged as such; she puts me in mind of Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespeare Illustrated. The story as Barbara sees it is of a girl with clubfoot whose housekeeper or evil servant substitutes her own daughter in the marriage bed of Pepin the short.

The soliloquies are modern women’s poetry — not free verse, but the elegant Anthony Hecht kind of thing. The story is about the misery of these women — when the servant’s daughter is substituted for the princess and she has to go to bed with Pepin, Goldberg writes of the experience as just awful, terrible, ugly and it’s convincing. Hatred is fostered between Aliste who is the daughter substituted for Berta by her mother, Margiste; the substitution is discovered and Margiste is tortured and then burnt at the stake. She justifies herself. We feel the intensity of these women’s bodies so hurt. The true daughter, Berta, is transferred to Pepin — poor woman, her broadfoot was partly the cause of what happened; a knife would have been take to cut her foot or leg off — the sense is a clubfoot but hard to say. She is disabled and no more wants to go to bed with Pepin and have his children than Agiste. Berta has a mother Blanchefleur whose name reminds me of Arthurian matter. The core here is the erotic physical experience in bed — very like Outlander – only here not idealized at all, forced. A mother forcing her daughter to go to bed with a king is not a joke: even if the man weren’t awful, it’s horrible to be forced this way to give your body to someone to do with as he pleases:

Aliste Considers Her Position

Who was there to turn to when I found
his morning gift, a handsome brooch
encrusted with pearls, on my pillow?
Him? Not him, no morning gift, pink
and strutting, boasting of the seed
he felt spring from him with the force
of ten thousand steeds. When he forced
himself on me, pink, boastful, bent
to suckle like a piglet in his greed,
who was there? He threw his head back,
shouted, boasting of his seed, my morning
gift, and who was there to turn to? I set
my lips in imitation of a smile, spread
my limbs like any sow, but who was there?
Could I proclaim, pink and strutting, ‘This.
This is who I am, your morning gift, servant
girl who cannot sign her name. And do you
love her still? Would you leave a gift,
a morning gift, a handsome brooch, on her
pillow?’ Who was there, who, to turn to?

Not Mother, hopping about with glee, fingers
greasy from palace meat. She pokes my ribs
and cackles, ‘We fooled him, eh? We two
make quite a team.’ when, hankering for all I’ve lost, I think
of home and sister and the poor dumb sheep
I used to shear. Sister [the one she was substituted for]. Sister. Poor
dumb sheep I use to sear. Berta and I
once laughed ourselves to sleep I shuddered
when I saw her heart, darkly gleaming in
Mother’s palm. She hopped about with glee
then tossed it down her throat. ‘There,’
she said,’That’s done,’ her fingers greasy
from the meat. And poked my ribs, while I,
dumb sheep, must play the part of Queen.

This is what Mary Boleyn feels when in the book she must “service” Henry at night because Anne’s pregnancy must be protected.


Charity Wakefield as Mary talking about how she’s used, Mark Rylance as Cromwell feeling for her (2012 Wolf Hall)

I wish I had known about books like this when I read medieval poetry by women, Christine de Pisan, Marie of France, Silence (attributed to a woman, anonymous) and the women’s troubadour poems. My sense is Goldberg is reacting to these — she is by origin German and French-American and the book is dedicated to her mother and grandmother.

Lastly they were interested in Mantel and a few people said they had read other of Mantel’s books and liked them very much. So I close on what I said of her: see “Answering the Heart’s Needs: Giving Up the Ghost

She is the daughter of Irish Catholic Immigrants into England. he daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, Hilary Mary Mantel was born on July 6, 1952, and raised in a small provincial town in the north of England. Educated at convent schools and joining a monthly processional to the church for confession, she struggled to understand her connection to a faith that seemed at once punitive and alienating. “From about the age of four,” she writes in her 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost, “I had begun to believe I had done something wrong. Confession didn’t touch some essential sin. There was something inside me that was beyond remedy and beyond redemption.” She sees herself as having rebelled against systematic suppression by rules all the more adament because never articulated. She met her husband, Gerald McEwan years ago and they went to Sheffield together to law school We don’t need women.

Her physical is important; from age 20 attacked by debilitating illness and told it was psychosomatic, stress caused by over-ambition. Unbearable pain led her to do research herself and came up with a diagnosis of endometriosis; she had a hysterectomy which is actually one of the treatments but she was still in pain and hormones suddenly made her hugely fat. This happens to other women who put IUVs in themselves – she lived in Saudi Arabia with her husband at one point and didn’t go out anyway.

The first writing I ever read by her was a remarkable attack on the human dimensions of the medical establishment, the way it works by intimidation, indifference, how little they often know and how they are most interested in their place in the organization (as Cromwell might say) She immerses herself in research, in the past and writing becomes her compulsion, her liberty. There was a separation from her husband, she really hit a terrible nadir.

By the end of their stay in Africa, she had produced a huge manuscript. But after she returned to London, she found that it was not easy to find a publisher for the book she titled A Place of Greater Safety. Before A Place of Greater Safety finally appeared in 1992, Mantel had established her reputation with four other novels: Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985) and Vacant Possession (1986), satirical thrillers about a macabre mother-daughter relationship; Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), about a Western woman’s disorientation in the Middle East, based on her own experiences in Saudi Arabia in 1982. She comes into her own when she becomes at once political and personal in A Change of Climate (1994) it considers Ralph and Anna Eldred, recently returned from apartheid South Africa, where they had administered a church mission. Ralph took the post initially to flee from his domineering father, who forbade him to pursue a career in geology. Both he and Anna struggle to justify their good works in the context of a religion from which they feel increasingly distant and a political situation that increasingly sees them as part of an endemic problem of colonialism. After they are forced out of South Africa, they accept a remote post in Botswana. Here, too, they become victims of political discontent and unrest. A disgruntled servant abducts their infant twins; only one, the girl, is ever found, and Ralph and Anna flee to the safety of home. How a woman is connected deeply to her body, her identity is her body is An Experiment in Love (1995), a law student who becomes anorexic. Her memoir Giving up the Ghost (that’s another one I’ve read).

Odd historical novels, The Giant, O’Brien – -18th century very tall man. We have a woman in drag, arguably Cromwell is a womanly man – but also stealth heroines I call them: Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn especially. Anne Boleyn fascinates her as she has others.

I didn’t sufficiently emphasize how this book is also historical romance but Barbara’s book and the interest in Mantel’s non-historical novel showed they got that without being told.

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

I read with a class on 19th century Women of Letters this past term Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen: The History of a Scotch Family 70 Years Ago, and am gratified to report the class as a whole liked it very much: some called it a “page-turner;” it was a class of 35 and I’d say about 25 stayed the course (it’s was a sort of college course where there is no exam, no papers, mostly made up of retired adults, towards the end all but one were women), and most of them read Kirsteen, and were eager to discuss it. Over on Trollope and his Contemporaries (the one yahoo list I moderate, apparently still going despite all yahoo’s software failures), one of the first non-Trollope novels we read together, after a period of just Trollope and then trying to reconstitute the list in new directions was her last Carlingford book, Phoebe Junior, and it brought the list to life again. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the introductions to the Virago press publications of two of the Carlingfords, Salem Chapel and The Perpetual Curate. Miss Majoribanks, yet another, is the one book feminist readers read and often praise, the Carlingford novels because of their original connection to Trollope (as about church politics in the dissenting vein) are still known and some in print (they were her success among English readers). People who read gothic works are aware of her masterpiece ghost story, The Beleaguered City, and her uncanny shorter ghost stories.

I write this blog tonight because earlier this week Oliphant came up on a face-book discussion group page, Readers of Fine Literature, where someone was so enthusiastic about Oliphant’s Hester, as extraordinary (the first time I read it I thought it a masterpiece that should be assigned alongside the usual “great Victorian novels”), that the posting prompted “ayes” and citations of books by Oliphant different people enjoyed, or denials of Oliphant as filled with pleasure, with vows never to try an Oliphant again. I want tonight to describe briefly or add three more heroine’s texts to those I’ve analysed here on these blogs already (Phoebe Junior, Hester, The Marriage of Elinor). Agnes, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Carr (a four volume work) and Kirsteen, and to suggest how her very late ghost story, The Library Window is yet another and a comment on her career. They are novels comparable in subtlety and interest to those of Trollope, Gaskell and Eliot. Their criticism of marriage and presentation of women’s lives put them together with Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved. Their uses of irony show her early immersion in Austen (her first two Carlingford novels have characters named after Austen, situations reminiscent of hers. For her life and work, start at the Victorian Web.

It’s best to be either brief or write at length for a magazine. Here we must opt for concision. Why? Oliphant writes realistic novels which are not easy to describe as they often move episodically. Their subversive and riveting material comes in inward interstices and twists and turns of stories whose endings are often unexpected. When they happen, these feel inevitable and as coming from the situation as it’s evolved or been all along. Most are almost strongly unsentimental. Agnes is very like Elinor in that the heroine makes a bad marriage and the novel is about how she copes — or doesn’t. Customs and laws inflict problems on Agnes which her ne’er-do-well husband doesn’t share, but when her husband dies she finds she loses all personal happiness; her child is taken from her; complex feelings most novels didn’t go near until very recently are the subject matter.

I find her Ladies Lindores and its close sequel Lady Carr compelling throughout; I could hardly put the first volume down. Taken together, they form (as Merryn Williams writes in her great Critical Biography of Oliphant) a story about human indifference to one another, cruelty and “torture” (Oliphant’s word for inward pain). The father of the family inherits a peerage and becomes a tyrant to his wife and daughters in his insistence the two daughters marry money so Caroline, sensitive, gentle is sold to a brutal man with her mother unable to protect her from his violence. Oliphant breaks a tremendous taboo when she has Caroline cry out in gladness when her husband is accidentally killed. She remarries the young man she had originally longed for (Lady Carr) but ends up alienated because the man she had so dreamed of turns out to be superficial, a dilettante, egoistic. Its Scottish landscape is deeply appealing, and she has Walter Scott in mind as she describes Scottish culture more wryly and realistically. Italy and London are described well too.

Kirsteen is the book that (like Miss Marjoribanks) seems to speak most to women more today. It is the story of a young girl’s flight from an enforced marriage in Scotland, from a tyrant father, a life of utter devaluation of herself as anything other than an obedient woman within a family geared to making white men the owners and rulers of society, and her successful entry in London into a seamstress business, where she invents a satisfying life for herself as seamstress and co-partner. Oliphant’s women might seem better off when they start out disenchanted — like Kirsteen’s sister, willing to marry the older man Kirsteen flees because he will provide title, home, children and he is gentle — she hasn’t that low expectations but lives with his lack of status in London and ends content enough to be with Kirsteen’s neighbors at Kirsteen’s shop — the truth being she doesn’t care about much but her rank, status, creature comforts, and convenience. But such people are not to be depended upon at all; Kirsteen’s younger sister might have ended with a man who forced an elopement without marriage on her; only Kirsteen wanted to act with integrity to force him away; ironically he is eliminated by the violent father, a murder he gets away with (a ploy that in Ladies Lindores too eliminates Caroline’s first husband, and for which an ordinary loyal Walter Scott-kind of servant almost pays with years of life in prison). Kirsteen’s quest is survival on terms of self-determination. She undertakes a frightening journey alone to find a place where she can be free to be herself. She reminded me of Bronte’s Villette but does not become enthralled to a man once she lands a position. Wendy Jones in her “Margaret Oliphant’s Women who want too much,” describes all three of these (Phoebe, Hester, and Kirsteen) wonderfully well. The flaw in Kirsteen is she succeeds too easily; in travel she is never sexually harassed, and much of the plot-design’s ins and outs turns on her sisters’ experience of marriage as refuge, sheer status (hollow within), and escape from rape and a life of the equivalent of prostitution.

If one includes Phoebe and Miss Marjoribanks, all five are books which Oliphant wrote later in life. Her great strength in them all is how she explores and illuminates everyday painful situations people rarely face up to, which can end up destroying or making their characters. She’s an insightful critic of other realistic novelists. She wrote one of the finest critical articles on Austen in the 19th century, in her review of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt (Jane Austen), from which I quote a paragraph which offers a glimpse of the austere power of her own mind:

She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter

These (and other) fine novels about contain incisive penetrating critiques of how women are without needed rights as inescapably and necessarily responsible adults, are led or forced to make bad marriages, while males are led to conform to destructive norms for all. I suggest she is sometimes not enjoyed because of her disillusioned views on marriage; she hardly believes love for another can exist, or it is only the rare spirit who is capable of sustaining it. I find her strengthening the way I find Samuel Johnson or other truth-tellers who use irony and open identification to convey compassion.


“The Library Window”

I end on “Library Window” (which so puzzled me when I first read it, as the reader will see if he or she clicks on the link above), since I’ve at long last realized it’s a late meditation by Oliphant on the distance she has had to keep herself from some ideals of writing and reading, and her deep yearning for approval as strongly ethical. We see also how restricted young gentry girls were kept, how closely monitored. Once Aunt Mary thinks whatever was wrong with our heroine is getting worse the mother sweeps her away. Is she ever named? She remains nameless as does Dickens’s signalman. It can be said to be a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Intense yearning: aunt says the meaning of the vision (which we are given to believe Aunt also sees) “It’s a longing all your life after –- it is a looking for what never comes. Sybilline witchlike but kind Lady Carnbee says “the imagination is a great deceiver, the heart, the eye. But if gift deceives, it consoles.”

What happens in “The Library Window?” A young scottish girl is sent for her health to stay with her aunt Mary and finds herself pinned down by imposed schedule, feminine occupations but her aunt, unlike her mother, gives her a lot of time to read. They live on high street of St Rules, St Andrews so a university not far. She becomes gradually absorbed until she sees a male at work incessantly and he sees her and after her visit to the party comes to the window and waves and then blank forever more. Coming home from death of her husband many years before, Oliphant had thought she saw him in the crowd and for a poignant moment thought he’ll help her and he vanished. There is a a bond between this unfulfilled writer seen in the window and herself. The portrait is modeled on a legend of Scott started by his son-in-law Lockhart.

Tamar Heller (“Textual Seductions: Women’s Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant’s “The Library Window”) thinks it strongly feminist: the man was murdered by the brothers of a girl he tried to court and was above him. Yes, that’s there too. This is the life of the artist and scholar Oliphant felt closed to her, she couldn’t achieve a Middlemarch because she had no GHLewes to shelter, to negotiate, to give her time. In Framley Parsonage we can see in Mark Robarts a certain flagellation by Trollope who also sacrificed much, and sold his soul in the marketplace. With Oliphant in this story, it’s not just that she’s trapped, but lonely and longing — this is poignantly tragically seen in Hester. Is it fair to say the girl of the story is shattered by the experience. A continual play of light, or perception, of different kinds of reality are at work. The theme her life as a writing career.

Ellen

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The old pump at Steventon as drawn by Ellen Hill for her and her sister, Constance Hill’s, Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends

Friends and readers,

Saturday began with a lavish morning breakfast on a terrace overlooking the beach, after which the second keynote speaker, Devoney Looser delivered a remarkable speech, and there were two breakout sessions, one directly after Devoney’s, and another after an hour and one half break for lunch. At this the conference proper seemed to be over, unless you count the “special events,” and at the last moment I paid for and heard an informative talk by a man running a local museum on printing about printing in the 18th century. Since the third keynote speech on Sunday morning was (like all the other JASNAs I’ve gone to) in mid-morning, and Izzy and I had a plane to catch (and a drive through congested highways to get there), we had to miss this once again. I have yet to hear the third keynote speech. It is not designed for those who are not staying for yet another day, half of which has no scheduled events having to do with Austen (this time it was expensive tours, wineries, beach and cruise excursions, dinners). And of course that means payment for yet another night at the typical expensive JASNA hotel. And very like the other three JASNAs where Izzy and I stayed at the hotel for Wednesday through Sunday morning, many people were leaving Sunday morning — as witnessed by the plethora of cabs, shuttles and other non-pedestrian modes of getting away (as there is no public transportation and few sidewalks in this area of California one cannot walk anywhere).

Devoney’s keynote speech was (in my case) followed by two outstanding presentations in sessions (I chose luckily at last) and a third of suggestive interest about Austen criticism. As I will try (as I have been doing) to tell a little of what I could not hear from what others told me of talks they heard, I will have four blogs after all. Here I discuss just the keynote speech and the papers I heard during Sessions D and E.

Devoney’s title was neutral: “After Jane Austen.” Like Gillian’s and the theme of the conference, her matter was not directly about Austen, but post-Austen matters, with this difference: the unusual areas she had researched, a resolutely neutral stance which allowed for much (I at least assumed) irony towards the absurd, commercial, and bizarre material she uncovered, and for a nervily dry delivery. She offered the kind of apology people do when they are not apologizing but defending a stance: she was not going to assume a “solemn” or “mournful” tone (even though this was 200 years after a relatively early death of a remarkable writer, a death I would add in great pain). No, her stance is that or closer to that of Rebecca Munford on Emma Tennant (the essay is “The Future of Pemberley: Emma Tennant, the ‘Classic Progression’ and ‘Literary Trespassing’ in Dow and Hanson’s collection, The Uses of Austen); she accepts Jane Austen and Zombies even if the argument of whatever text is pro-war is for the common good (arguably the stance of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; see my “The Violent Turn”); her view that the 1960s/70s formed a rallying time for social transformations that included Austen; she is open to ghosts of Austen haunting us, even literally and unscrupulously (if I understood her correctly). Throughout her speech her power-point presentation gave us illustrations of “the bizarre stuff” that’s out there: outrageous headlines about Austen, ludicrously unhistorical pictures, ridiculous contests and assertions, and she told several exemplary stories.


Lily James as Elizabeth and Sam Riley as Darcy fighting over a gun, guns are regarded as good ways of remaining safe in Burt Steer’s film (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)

Devoney’s first story was about putting a plaque for Austen in Westminster Abbey in 1967; there were large sculptures of writers there, mostly male, and the burden of her theme was that quite a number of people in the Jane Austen society were not exactly for this, nor were the Westminster Abbey individuals. Yet it happened, and she could name only those she assumed had the contacts to do it (one woman who lived in Winchester all her life who “had no profession”). A sermon was given which was an attempt to diminish Austen or put her as a woman in her place Austen with “small things,” like apple pieces; absurd straining to find analogies with Biblical metaphors. The last and fourth story had a similar theme: it included as one of its principals Joan Austen-Leigh, a descendant of Austen, active in the Jane Austen Society in Britain; she wrote sequels as well as plays, and was an entertaining raconteur. The story told highlighted how rigidly prissy one of the elected officials of that society had been in, someone who had never read any Austen (as apparently several of those involved in the politics of the plaque would never have read any Austen). The second story was about the pump that stood on the site of the Steventon vicarage (torn down in the 1830s). In fall of 1793 it was reported stolen by the New York Times, and a melodramatic account was given: it happened in the “dead of night,” a Chief Inspector was involved, and it was concluded (by at least the person who wrote this remark) that it had been spirited away to the United States “by a mad Austenite.” Research on the pump that was reputed to have been there began to question a photograph of the old pump. A third was about the statue of Colin Firth as naked to the waist in the water. It seems this has been destroyed. She regaled us over silly goings-on in these incidents.

The fourth (perhaps the most interesting to follow up on) on a script for a TV movie in 1974 by Stromberg Junior (the son of the man who produced the 1940 P&P featuring Laurence Oliver and Greer Garson). Writers included Christopher Isherwood; perhaps Peter O’Toole would have been in it. Devoney had read the script and found it “a hoot:” she took the view that it mocked Austen’s book by mocking the cult values (sweetened up heterosexual romance ending in conventional marriage and family). This Lizzie can’t see spending one’s life to find a man. Devoney quoted dialogues intended to be funny; it seemed to me (like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) to have a strong gay subtext. Stromberg Jr was not a liked man, and the deal fell through; indeed there was a threat of a lawsuit. Devoney mourned that we had not had this version of P&P after the 1940 one (which she seemed to like); the implication was maybe we would have been able to have a differently framed Austen than the one which did emerge. The 1979 dramatic romance by Fay Weldon, where it should be said Elizabeth was made the center, and other serious familial romance mini-series and cinema movies? Amy Heckerling’s Clueless has been, until recently, an exception to the rule. (I’m not sure about that; it seems to me that movies made for movie-houses have tended to be broadly comic, e.g., Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility has much comedy; the Indian Bride and Prejudice and Aisha [an Emma appropriation]).

She received a standing ovation, after which there were questions and semi-speeches. One elicited from Devoney stories of the 1970s and 80s when the first feminist criticism of Austen emerged (e.g., Alison Sullaway, a friend of hers). Juliet McMaster told of her memories of the 1970s JASNAs.

I thought it a spectacular speech, beautifully delivered, probably appropriately because it was (in effect) a celebration of celebrity culture. She intended to be or presented herself (though ironically) as respectful of popular reactions to Austen’s works (or to the framing of them); and among the books she praised at the outset was Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites: A Journey through the world of Jane Austen Fandom. Jane Smiley remarks (rightly) that this book includes interviews with quite a few men: as someone who has been a long-time inhabitant of the listservs and pays attention to the blogs, I know that this is a distortion: at no time over the years I’ve been on-line have I ever seen more than one or two men active on the listservs, and most of the time they acted as thorns in the bush, aggressively insulting (Arnie Perlstein used to do this) or objecting “robustly” (as some put it) to other views. Scottie Bowman, whose death was responsible for his disappearance used to enjoy himself mocking Austen-l members; with his pretense of urbanity and gift for poisonous banter he was one of the causes of the famous Fanny wars. He was a troll though a published novelist. But men have more prestige than woman, and it’s not that acceptable to admit that still most of the most fervent fans are women. Yaffe’s book is not broadly accurate but spotlights what she thinks will be entertaining and attract readers and sales, and those interviewed are delighted by the attention Other books deliberately turn for their findings not to the unknown ordinary female Janeite (or unnamed except on the Net), but to published books, films, which are usually skilfully manipulated commodities intended to reach far more than Jane Austen fans whose appeal is quite different than Austen’s books. It’s easier to catalogue tourist sites than track down the unpublished (see Kathryn Pratt Russell’s “Everybody’s Jane Austen,” South Atlantic Review, 76:3 (2011):151-57; she reviews Juliette Wells’s Everybody’s Jane and Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures. Russell finds that Claudia Johnson uses her findings to describe powerful ideas about class, sex, and culture (of the type that feed into populism).

I know I am unusual in critiquing celebrity culture for its falseness and for maintaining that one can evaluate and judge between works. In fact Johnson evaluates and is condescending; how could she not be? But I am not alone. John Sutherland (on Helene Kelly’s Jane Austen: Secret Radical; scroll down “on the anniversary”) and Ruth Bernard Yeasell hestitate and critique too (see Yeazell’s “Which Jane Austen,” NYRB, 64:14 (Fall 2017):63-65.


Charlotte Heywood (Amy Burrows), Felicity Lamb (Bonnie Adair) Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan), Brindle’s Sanditon play

Mary Marshall’s “Sanditon: Inspiring Continuations, Adaptations, and Spin-offs for 200 Years” (Session D) drew me because I’ve gotten to know Chris Brindle’s filmed play, Sanditon and have the edition of Sandition by Prof Marshall which includes Anna Lefroy’s continuation, which Marshall was respectful of. She began with the larger picture: Sanditon is the least adapted of the novels, Pride & Prejudice the most adapted, with Emma at this point coming in second (though S&S is still a strong contender for second place). Sanditon was first known to the public in 1871 when James Edward Austen-Leigh described it, summarizing it in the 2nd edition of the Memoir. It was first published in 1925; 1954 Chapman made a much more accessible edition; it is the largest surviving manuscript we have (longer than The Watsons, though The Watsons is far more polished and finished, with implications much fuller as to how it was to proceed): 24,000 words in 12 chapters. Austen was giving us a much wider world than she had before, her language is more relaxed and at times so fresh the descriptions; the plot is unfolding slowly, with its direction not yet clear. Basically Marshall then described several of the continuations. Anna Lefroy’s, written between 1845-60, was first published in 1983 by Marshall; she had been working as a rare book cataloguer, and came across this working draft. It was Anna who had the cancelled drafts of Persuasion (she reminded us). She carefully developed the Parker family in a direction consonant with what Austen wrote. There is a real aptness and similarity of tone. The POV is Charlotte, Charlotte and Sidney are to marry; Sidney is clearly going to help his brother-in-law; Marshall was reminded by one of the new names of Hasting’s man of business, Woodman; the ambiguous character of Tracy is developed – a business world is being put before us.

A brief list: 1932 Alicia Cobbet (?), whose text is not faithful to the original personalities at all, with its melodramatic plot about kidnapping, smuggling and the like. A best known continuation: by Austen and “another lady (Marie Dobbs): Dobbs extended the story in a direction Dobbs thought Austen’s novel might have moved; Charlotte, for example, thwarts Edward’s seduction of Clara; Sidney proposes to Charlotte. 1981 Rebecca Baldwin who hopes the reader may take what she has written as homage to Austen; Julia Barret 2002 whose book Ms Marshall said is said to be terrible; Regina Hall 2008, where a mere description showed ludicrousness; Helen Marshall 2012 wrote a bizarre short story. Carrie Brebis, The Suspicion at Sanditon; or, The Disappearance of Lady Denham 2015, a “Mr and Mrs Darcy mystery,” was characterized by Marshall as “a well-written mystery.” Then there are several self-published texts: Juliet Shapiro 2003; Helen Barker The Brother 2002; David Williams’s Set in a Silver Sea 2016 with Miss Lamb as the main character. This is not the complete list she went over; I am missing titles; it was clear that Ms Marshall enjoyed some of these.

She then told us about Chris Brindle’s play, the film, the documentary; he owns the Lefroy ms, recruited Amanda Jacobs who sang his music very well (especially the beautiful duet, Blue Briny Sea; you can listen here to his most recent music for Jane Austen). Her last text was the coming (she hoped) new Sanditon commercial film (2018-19), with Charlotte Rampling as Lady Denham, Holliday Grainger as Charlotte, Toby Jones as Tim Parker, John O’Hanlon ,the diretor, Simone Read scripting. After she finished, I asked if she agreed with me that Chris Brindle’s was a fine continuation and Chris was right to take the two texts (Austen’s and Lefoy’s) in a direction exposing corrupt financial dealings, and she said yes. I regretted more than ever not having gone to listen to Sara Dustin on Friday on “Sanditon at 200: Intimations of a Consumer Society. I had chosen the paper on Jane Austen’s letters, wrongly as it turned out, for it was just a basic description and introduction to the problematic nature of the letters, which I’ve known about since blogging about this letters here for over 3 years. Peter Sabor said he had had the privilege of reading the script for the coming film, and it seemed a work of reminiscence. Many questions were asked about the textual sequels. This was perhaps the best session overall that I attended.


Emma Thompson as Elinor writing home to her mother

After lunch, I listened with much profit to Susan Allen Ford’s “The Immortality of Elinor and Marianne: reading Sense and Sensibility” (Session E). She was interested in using the development of the sequels and films (sometimes from one another) as a way of understanding Austen’s novel, both how it has been read and what it is in itself. She covered three sets of texts, the books, the staged plays, and the films. I’ll start with what she said of the films: since Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s 1995 Sense and Sensibility, the novel has been read through it again and again, and it has influenced all other Austen adaptations (including non-S&S ones), she covered it thoroughly, including its many departures. The treehouse, the use of the handkerchief, and the way Marianne is rescued twice, first by Willoughby and then by Brandon have been especially influential; Rickman’s performance has mesmerized audiences, the gorgeousness of landscapes and houses, the melancholy music. I’ll add the lighting and coloration and that what Thompson “corrects” others have before her too. Rickman is anticipated by Robert Swann in the 1983 mini-series, but it had a somber dark vision (it’s by Alexander Baron) that has not been influential; Susan commended this mini-series for the use of complex contrasting depictions of Elinor and Marianne and its the first to include a loving depiction of landscape. She mentioned the Tamil Kandukondain Kandukondain or I have found it, as effective modernizing (Elinor looking for a job for example) but under the influence when Bala (Brandon) rescues Meenu (Marianne) from a sewer. There is a deep intensity in Davies’s 2008 film, which by the end has lost contact with the original scepticism of Austen’s book in its comic joy; Barton cottage is now by the sea and Brontesque in appearance.

The book sequels exist because of readers’ desire to spend more time with Austen’s characters, to experience the book’s conflicts. Like the films, they often give a bigger role for Margaret, maked the heroes more central, more acceptable, and more (erotic heterosexual) loving. It’s obvious (Susan thinks) that Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story lies behind Austen’s novel. The didactic and verbal parallels are striking. Austen changes a lot, gives psychological complexity, so her book resists easy encapsulating moralizing. Early on Isabelle de Montolieu’s adaptive translation changed the novel in her translation to be much more sentimental. Rosina Filippi wrote dialogues in the early 20th century, including the debate betweeen John and Fanny Dashwood over how much money to give his “half-sisters.” Susan suggested Emma Brown, an Austen great-great niece, wrote a strong sequel. In hers Margaret wants to observe life, to travel and elopes to Scotland. Susan went over Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility: the story is updated; the situations repeated in modern terms. She too has a treehouse.


Irene Richards and Tracy Childs as Elinor and Marianne debating whether Marianne can take Willoughby’s offer of a horse (1983 S&S)

Susan said the two recent staged plays have been a delight, especially Kate Hamil’s which returns us to Elinor as central POV; she breaks with realism for high activity and comic effect. Both repeat elements not found in Austen’s novels but now part of the collective memory of all these post-texts. I saw Hamil’s play and can confirm the script is intelligent, thoughtful, and reflects Austen too. Susan rightly said that Austen was deeply sceptical of the rescue fantasy; of the risks of emotional and erotic openness; aware of the pains of romance, and she summarized a couple of critics recently who took her point of view. During the discussion period afterward people emphasized how important Elinor and Marianne’s relationship to one another is; that the book is not primarily a romance and that is why people keep “correcting” it. There is great pain in Elinor when she discovers Edward’s lies, and shame in Marianne after she realizes she has been deluded. The films have embraced nostalgia; the narrative voice become cosy instead of almost unfriendly.


Kate Winslet as Marianne playing the deeply melancholy music of “The dreame” on the piano, a present from Brandon (borrowed from Austen’s Emma story and transformed).

I cite two post-texts that Susan did not mention: during Emma Brown’s era, E.H.Young wrote a moving rewrite of S&S as Jenny Wren: two sisters, Jenny and Dahlia Rendall with their mother, Louisa, lose their father/husband, are forced to move and try to make a living taking in lodgers; andCathleen Schine’s The Three Weismanns of Westport, which does the same thing as Joanna Trollope with rather more depth, originality, and yes dignity and grave pleasure in the style and stance. They do not fit into Susan’s trajectory as both did not add the typical elements of the above sequels, and both picked up on what Margaret Drabble in her introduction to an older Signet edition of S&S argued: that the economic and social milieu of the novel is its true interest.


The title alludes to Dickens’s disabled seamstress in Our Mutual Friend


Schine writes as a reviewer for the NYRB occasionally

For myself I have enjoyed many of the film adaptations. Recently I just loved Towhedi’s film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley, and feel Jo Baker’s Longbourn is a good novel, not to omit Helen Fielding’s brilliant Bridget Jones books, and The Jane Austen Book Club (both the movie and books by and centered on women). I was interested by Anna Lefroy’s perceptive continuation of her aunt’s story (she did understand her aunt as few can, none of us having known her), and found Young’s book to be a quiet gem; Young is one of the authors covered in “The Virago Jane” by Katie Trumpener (in Deirdre Lynch’s Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees). Miss Mole is a truly effective novel in the tradition Jane Austen started within women’s novels.


Miss Mole would be in my terms a variation

Next up: Annette LeClair’s “In and Out of Foxholes,” what Izzy heard at her choice of sessions, Eighteenth Century Printing and some remarks on widows and widowers in Austen, more on Darcy, and, a conversation on Austenesque Variations, i.e., yet more on sequels from a panel conversation held in another room during the fall, and last thoughts on these American JASNA extravaganzas.

Ellen

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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.”

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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

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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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