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Archive for the ‘foremother poet’ Category


A photograph of Tom Carpenter, the trustee of Chawton Cottage; he is carrying a portrait of Jane Austen’s brother, Edward

Friends,

Last night I came across in the latest issue of Times Literary Supplement (for January 25, 2019), an informative piquant review by Devoney Looser of a autobiographical book, Jane & Me. Its author, Caroline Jane Knight, a fifth great-niece (with now a little help from Devoney & the TLS), is launching this book maybe to provide herself with a raison d’être (a not “very promising heroine-in-training” says Devoney), a basis for her living independently someday. I think the information here and acid insights make it required reading for the Janeite, and discovered it’s behind the kind of magazine paywall where you must buy a whole subscription for a year, before you can read it. It is almost impossible to share a TLS article online as if you subscribe to the online version, you can only do it through an app on an ipad or some such device. So I here provide a summary, contextualized further by what I have drawn from Deborah Yaffe’s Among the Janeites.

Why is the review valuable in its own right too: we learn a good deal about the history of Chawton House Library this century from the point of view of the family who owned it — Jane Austen’s collateral descendants. Caroline is a poor transmitter: Looser points to where Caroline has not even begun to do the research necessary on her own life, but there is enough here to make do, and if you know something from your work, or can add further research like Devoney, you can have some insight into Austen’s family and what she was up against as she tried to write honest entertainments.

In brief, Devoney tells the story of a downwardly mobile family who let the house fall into desuetude and the present Richard Knight leased it to Sandy Lerner whose great luck on the Net had brought her huge amounts of money, some of which she expended by renovating, it’s not too much to call it rescuing Chawton House into a building one could spend time in comfortably enough so that it could function as a library. While she set about building, she started a board of informed people who would know how to turn it into a study center for 18th century women’s writing. Austen’s peers & contemporaries.


Richard Knight and Sandy Lerner walking on the grounds together during some occasion

Let me first bring in Yaffe’s account who also sheds light on Richard Knight who was at the conference as a key note speaker and we can here gather a few truths about him. He had “inherited a crushing estate-tax bill and a `16th century house in need of a million British pounds’ worth of emergency repairs.” A developer’s plan to turn the place into a golf course and expensive hotel had collapsed by 1992. Enter Sandy Lerner. She had made oodles of money off an Internet business, is another fan of Austen, one common today who does not like the idea of Austen as “an unhappy repressed spinster,” something of a recluse, not able to see the money and fame she wanted. When Dale Spender’s book, Mothers of the Novel, presented a whole female population writing away (as Austen did), a female literary tradition, she found a vocation, collecting their books. After she heard a speech by Nigel Nicolson, where he offended her (talking of a woman who thought Jane Austen didn’t like Bath as “a silly, superstitious cow,” described himself as heading a group who intended to open a Jane Austen center in Bath even though Edward Austen Knight’s Chawton House was on the market (too expensive? out of the way for tourists?), she decided to “get even.” When she had the money two years later, she bought Chawton House. She wanted to make it “a residential study center where scholars consulting er rare-book collection could live under 19th century conditions.” This super-rich woman loved the sense these people would gain “a visceral sense of the historical moment,” wake up to “frost on the windows, grates without fires, nothing but cold water to wash in.”

She paid six million for 125 year lease on the house and its 275 acre grounds; another $225,000 for the stable block. She discovered it to be badly damaged, inhabited by tenants she found distasteful, “ugly,” rotting. Crazy rumors abounded in the village she was going to turn the place into a lesbian commune, a Euro-Disney style theme park, her husband testing missile systems in the grounds. She thought of herself as this great philanthropist. Culture clashes: the Chawton estate sold its hunting rights for money; she was an animal rights activist. Disputes over her desire to remove a swimming pool said to be a badger habitat protected under UK law. I saw the Ayrshire Farm here in Northern Virginia that she bought during the protracted lawsuits and negotiations over Chawton: an 800-acre spread in northern Virginia, where “she planned to raise heritage breeds under humane, organic conditions, to prove socially responsible farming was economically viable.” She started a cosmetics company whose aesthetic was that of the Addams Family (TV show). Chawton House was finally built using a sensible plan for restoration; a cemetery was discovered, a secret cupboard with 17th century telescope. Eventually Lerner’s 7000 rare books came to reside in a house you could hold conferences, one-day festivals and host scholars in. It had cost $10 million and yearly operating costs were $1 million a year.


Lerner’s Ayrshire Farmhouse today — it’s rented out for events, and hosts lunches and evening parties and lectures, has a shop ….

Lerner is unusual for a fan because she dislikes sequels and does not seek out Austen movies; it’s Austen’s texts she loves — yet she too wants to write a P&P sequel. I sat through one of her incoherent lectures so know first-hand half-nutty theory that every concrete detail in an Austen novel is crucial information leading to interpretation of that novel. I’ll leave the reader to read the details of her way of research, her travels in imitation of 18th century people: it took her 26 years to complete. How she has marketed the book by a website, and how Chawton was at the time of the book thriving (though her Farm lost money). Yaffe pictures Lerner at a signing of her book, and attracted many people, as much for her Internet fame as any Austen connection. Yaffe has Lerner against distancing herself from “our distastefully Twittering, be-Friending world, for the e-mail boxes overflowing with pornographic spam.” But she will buy relics at grossly over-inflated prices (“a turquoise ring” Austen wore) and give them to friends. She launched Chawton House by a fabulously expensive ball, to which Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul (dressed as aging Mr and Mrs Darcy) came. A “prominent chef” made 18th century foods (“nettle and potato soup, pickle ox tongue, sweetmeats”). She was in costume: “a low-cut, pale-blue ball gown. She even went horseback riding with Rintoul. A real thrill for a fan.


Chawton House Reading Room — there are two rooms, one open to the public, the other locked and filled with rare 18th century books

Devoney doesn’t say this nor Yaffe but I will: Chawton House never quite made it as sheerly a study center for women’s writing as originally envisioned; instead it became a sort of Jane Austen tourist site where festivals and conferences dwelling on Austen for fans were necessary, sometimes becoming a semi-popular community center like the Bronte Haworth house seems to be turning into. That’s not so bad, far worse was the people working for and at the place never acquired enough funding to do without Lerner; and over a fit of pique and probably long-standing resentments, some two years ago now Lerner pulled all her money out. It turns out 80% of funds came from her, and no way has been found to locate a substitute so the place can carry on its serious functions in the same way. Some new compromise will have to be found. Nearby is Chawton Cottage, now a small research center (for those select people who get to see its library), but more a tourist site; also nearby is the Austen family church where (among others) Austen’s sister, Cassandra and their mother, are buried. The house now (Looser says) “stands to revert back to Richard Knight’s family,” of whom Caroline is a member. All of us who know something of the house, who have experienced its scholarly meetings, its library, walked on its grounds, heard a concert at the church, mourn the fact that its fine director, Dr Gillian Dow has gone, to return full time as a scholar and lecturer to the University of Southampton.

This is the larger context for the story of Caroline and her older relatives from the turn of the century to now. Like other of these aristocrats who cannot afford to life the extravagant life of leisure they once did, Caroline (says Devoney) presents herself a slightly downtrodden: she and her parents lived in the basement of Chawton house while the rich tenants occupy the plum apartments above. One of the houses I was shown in the Lake District/Nothern Borders of England is owned by an aristocrat’s wife’s family; and the husband himself works to hold onto it by throwing it open to the public for various functions. He is clearly a well-educated man who lived a privileged elite life; nonetheless, he gave one of the talks. He told us he and his family living in the basement quarters below; their paying tenants above stairs.

The various Knights during Caroline’s life didn’t have many servants (oh dear poor things) and spent their time in less than admirable ways (watching TV say, horse racing — which costs). None of them were readers, and (as opposed to Devoney) I would say none of them ever produced anything near a masterpiece or important book, except maybe JEAL — if you are willing to consider how central his Memoir of his Aunt has been and how it has cast its spell over ways of reading Austen and understanding her ever after. A few have been minor literary people, and Joan Austen-Leigh and others been influential valued members of the British Jane Austen Society and they “grace” the JASNA every once in a while with their presence. Several have written sequels. Looser goes over a few of these, giving the impression that a couple which JASNA has promoted are better than they are.

Various financial troubles and also legal ones (including one male relative running over a local person with his car and “found not guilty of manslaughter” although he fled the scene) are covered by Devoney. When it comes to explaining the financial problems, Caroline says they are all a mystery. She omits any clarifying description of what the estate was like and which Knights lived here in WW2. Devoney supplies this: she tells of one recent Edward Knight’s time in India — his father had had been a royal favorite and a public-spirited magistrate, who loved to shoot birds. In 1951 thirty cottages in which tenants lived were auctioned off, and some went to occupants. They were in such bad shape apparently (again that is my deduction from what Looser gently implies) that one lucky man who could afford to buy the cottage said he got it for the price of a TV. Devoney implies this was dirt cheap. Not so: for many British people in 1951 the price of TV was out of their range; in the 1950s most Brits rented their TV


Chawton House recently from the outside

Death duties, genuinely high taxes each time the house changed hands is what did them in. (We no longer have even that in the US and the Republicans are salivating to change the death tax laws once again — these are important tools to prevent the growth of inequality.) I thought interesting that Chawton House was sold to one Richard Sharples, a conservative politician (1916-73) who served as governor of Bermuda and was assassinated (in Devoney’s words) “by black power militants.” Of course this bad-mouths these people, and when they were hung for the murder, there were days of rioting. I remember how horribly the white treated black and native people on Bermuda — so cruel that there are famous rebellions (Governor Eyre) wth terrifying reprisals by the British and colonial gov’ts. In the 20th century Sharples’ widow’s only recourse was to sell the property, furniture, books, portraits in 1977. There have over the century been a number of such sales to pay off death duties and some of the objects prized in museums, libraries came out of just such Sotheby auctions. Looser tells us in an aside there is a ditigal project trying to reconstruct the Knight Library as it was in 1935 (“Reading with Austen,” readingwithausten.com)

As to Caroline, she has apparently read very little of Austen’s fiction — that must very little indeed since Austen left only 6 novels which can easily be reprinted in one volume. She has appeared on TV, and is now she’s trying what a book can do. It’s not a memoir worthy of Jane Austen, says Devoney: the lack of elemental research even about her own life; Caroline’s account of herself features James Covey’s self-help book, The Habits of Highly Effective People, as the one that has gotten her through life. Wouldn’t you know it was seeing the 1995 P&P film by Andrew Davies that “kindled” Caroline’s interest in Jane Austen. I watched a documentary with Andrew Davies aired on BBC recently about just how much he changed the book to be about men; how much “correction” of it he made. Caroline still dreams of moving back to Chawton with the present male Richard Knight as ambassador (of what it’s not clear). I’ve been to JASNAs where Richard Knight gave a talk about his family in the mid-morning Sunday breakfast slot of the JASNAs. Here is Arnie Perlstein’s reaction to one.

Devoney ends her review with suggesting how much this history might remind us of Persuasion and the Elliot family and quotes Darcy in P&P: “I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these.” Devoney does justice at her opening to a few of the immediate Austens who showed some literary ability and genuine interest and integrity towards their aunt: James, her brother was a minor but good poet; his three children include JEAL; Anne Austen Lefroy who tried to finish Sanditon and wrote a brief touching novel, Mary Hamilton; Caroline Austen wrote her Reminiscences; Catherine Hubback several novels, a travel book of letters, and a continuation of Austen’s The Watsons as The Younger Sister. Her son, grand-nephew, and granddaughter all wrote books to add to our knowledge of the family; Edward Knight’s grandson produced the first substantial edition of Austen’s letters. There the inspiration coming through and about the aunt seems to have ended.

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From Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her?, Jeffrey Palliser tells Alice, a visitor to this aristocratic family at their country mansion who wonders what there is to do all day, about what he as an example of his relatives’ lives does with his time:

“Do you shoot?”
“Shoot! What; with a gun?”
“Yes. I was staying in a house last week with a lady who shot a good deal.”
“No; I don’t shoot.”
“Do you ride?”
“No; I wish I did. I have never ridden because I’ve no one to ride with me.”
“Do you drive?”
“No; I don’t drive either.”
“Then what do you do?”
“I sit at home, and—”
“Mend your stockings?”
“No; I don’t do that, because it’s disagreeable; but I do work a good deal. Sometimes I have amused myself by reading.”
“Ah; they never do that here. I have heard that there is a library, but the clue to it has been lost, and nobody now knows the way …

None of this loss and mismanagement or lack of literary interest or ability as part of a family history is unexpected. In her discreet last chapter of her fine biography of Jane Austen, Claire Tomalin records the earliest phases of this decline, together with or amid the real attempts of Catherine Hubback’s part of the family and other descendants of Frank to publish respectable books about Jane Austen. I imagine the valuable library gathered since Chawton House Library became a functioning study center (a large room in the present Chawton house) will remain intact but nowadays (as some of us know) libraries filled with books are not valued by booksellers or even libraries or universities in the way they once were. I know people who found they could not even give away a particularly superb personal library, and others driven to sell theirs for very little in comparison say for what they would have gotten in 1980 or so and that would not have covered how much it cost them over a lifetime.

Ellen

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Mary, Queen of Scots: Ismael Cruz Cordova, Maria Dragus, Izuka Hoyle, and Saoirse Ronan in intimate flirting friendship scene

Don’t miss the latest Mary Queen of Scots: while it has its flaws, it is very much worth the watching. This is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of this icon once again. What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. … Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized. Elizabeth as icon is also traced. After being initially all pageant, the stories are effectively dramatized. I disagree with some of Guy’s interpretation (especially over Bothwell) and say why. Moray’s importance emerges. There are fine performances, wonderful color palates.

Friends and readers,

Quite a number of women, even queen-centered films this winter: two on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG, On the basis of sex), two on nannies, one poor and absurd, the other a masterpiece (Mary Poppins, Roma), the courageous reporter (A Private War), and the big budget costume drama variety updated to include what might seem to be uninhibited sex scenes: The Favourite, and Mary Queen of Scots. I’ve been nearly alone in calling out The Favourite for its repulsive, gut-level anti-feminism and have mentioned only in passing what makes Cauron’s Roma a compelling masterpiece. Josie Rourke’s Mary, Queen of Scots (the screenplay has as little complicated language as one could get away with so as to keep the film popular) shows some of the same obsessive masculinizing violence in women as The Favourite: Ronan as Mary is depicted on horse wherever possible; she’s as eager to shoot something as any of the crowd of men that crowd in, dominate the movie-screen. Still, I recommend going to see it, even if you are not fascinated and interested in this Tudor-Stuart Matter. If you are, this is a must-see to gauge the sharp changes in the depiction of these icon queens once again.

Mary is still or once again the victim; her downfall is once again (made explicit in this film) her erotic engagement with men, marrying, bedding, thinking she can rely on law and custom (towards divine rulers) to control rivals. Elizabeth has returned to her 19th century role as perhaps Machiavellian, and ghastly dried-up old maid by film’s end (because she must be this way since she never married, never had children).


Elizabeth with Dudley (also called Leicester)

During the film punctuating Mary’s story are swift suggestive moments of Elizabeth, now with Leicester (Joe Alwyn called Dudley), now Cecil (Guy Pearce); she gets small pox and looks just hideous for a time. Staring down at flowers because she hasn’t had children:

The scenes with Elizabeth are too stilted — popular depictions just don’t want to give Elizabeth I credit — in literary studies we have gone beyond choosing sides … but it is very rare for anyone to present her as the brilliant political success story. If people really wanted a heroine who made a success out of grim beginnings (including as a teenager harassment by her step-mother Catherine Parr’s husband, Thomas Howard, and accusations by Mary Tudor of plotting against her), it’s Elizabeth Boleyn Tudor.


Margot Robbie as the aging Elizabeth: a clown-face of grief (very similar to the way Elizabeth appeared in a recent Metropolitan opera production of Donizetti’s trio)

What has changed to make this pair once again palatable to the 21st century female film-goer? Make no mistake this is a film intended for women: when I went the audience was all women, except the husbands who came along: it was playing alternatively in the same auditorium as On the Basis of Her Sex (even in local art cinemas women’s art ghettoized). Nothing much for Elizabeth. For a while it seemed she was becoming the sentimental queen, first in love with Leicester and then Essex (Helen Mirren’s film with first Jeremy Irons and then Hugh Dancy as Essex); but here we revert without even giving Elizabeth any Machiavellian traits. Mary has changed; she is now ceaselessly pro-active, aggressive, and free of conventional restraining conventions and beliefs (see anibundel’s accurate assessment for NBC), at moments fierce.

This is the new type heroine from Offred/June in the second season of Handmaid’s Tale, to Demelza Poldark in the rebooted version, to Brianna Fraser in Outlander. Feminism turns out to be doing what you want, and complaining when you can’t.


First impression

What makes the film intelligently different and interesting is it more or less follows the outline of a serious good biography of Mary by John Guy. So you can learn where the icon has moved now. Each phase of Mary’s career is dramatized: however briefly, her time in France and first husband, Francois. The nature of her relationship with Darnley (Jack Lowden, he was central to Dunkirk and can be seen in good BBC serial dramas), her second husband: at first she did fall in love with him, but when she saw what a dullard he was, and felt his attempts to domineer and control her, she turned to her musician, David Rizzio. Apparently nowadays Darnley is “accused” (the word is accused) of homosexuality and in this film has sex with Rizzio. That was not part of the narrative in the older books and the way it’s presented here shows homophobia is by no means gone from movie audiences. We have the two murders, first Rizzio, horrifically violent with Mary pregnant there. Time for touching scenes of her with a baby boy, and (much later) a poignant effective scene of her being forced to part from an older child and him crying for her.

and then Darnley in the courtyard. In this version Mary is not at all guilty of Darnley’s murder, not even complicit.

I’m someone who has been reading biographies of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots since I was 18, and I know in the older biographies Mary was either accused of plotting to kill Darnley (pretending just collusion) as revenge and also simply to get rid of a nuisance; or she allowed it to happen. So the film whitewashes her here. More importantly, it denies she was in love with Bothwell. I remember being thrilled by Stefan Zweig’s, and then disagreeing with Antonia Fraser’s first revisionist story. It was she who began the idea that the letters Mary is said to have written Bothwell, her third husband: these first surfaced, suspiciously enough in a casket after her death, and were used to damn her as a “harlot.” Alison Weir’s best-selling biography makes the case for them as basically false and forged, conceding only there seems enough reality in them from Mary that they might be a set of letters tampered with and re-written.

Here is one of Mary’s poems, whose provenance no one has doubted:

Que suis-je hélas? Et de quoi sert ma vie?
Je ne suis fors qu’un corps privé de coeur,
Une ombre vaine, un objet de malheur
Qui n’a plus rien que de mourir en vie.
Plus ne me portez, O ennemis, d’envie
A qui n’a plus l’esprit à la grandeur.
J’ai consommé d’excessive douleur
Votre ire en bref de voir assouvie.
Et vous, amis, qui m’avez tenue chère,
Souvenez-vous que sans coeur et sans santé
Je ne saurais aucune bonne oeuvre faire,
Souhaitez donc fin de calamité
Et que, ici-bas étant assez punie,
J’aie ma part en la joie infinie.

Then a good modern English translation:

Alas what am I? What use has my life?
I am but a body whose heart’s torn away,
A vain shadow, an object of misery
Who has nothing left but death-in-life.
O my enemies, set your envy all aside;
I’ve no more eagerness for high domain;
I’ve borne too long the burden of my pain
To see your anger swiftly satisfied.
And you, my friends who have loved me so true,
Remember, lacking health and heart and peace,
There is nothing worthwhile that I can do;
Ask only that my misery should cease
And that, being punished in a world like this,
I have my portion in eternal bliss
— from an excellent Mary Stuart site.

The denial of the letters depends on ignoring Mary’s poetry, a whole body of lyrics and sonnets in French, a number to a lover-husband who could be Darnley but it more likely Bothwell. The Casket letters come from the same mindset of self-doubt, self-berating, depression behind the French sonnets, both religious and of of enthralled love. Yet a third infatuation (the first Darnley, the second Rizzio) does fit Mary’s character and makes sense of events after the murder of Darnley — some time elapsed — and Mary’s flight to England. One of the sites (dungeon tower fort) I saw in the border country of England and Scotland (debatable land) is presented as famous for Mary coming there to meet with Bothwell. She probably did. Many feminists just don’t want to believe in the casket letters. Sophia Lee’s powerful Recess (early gothic novel, 1782) about Mary’s unacknowledged twins by Bothwell doesn’t help increase belief since this romance is as fantasy and erotically driven as Outlander.

Nonetheless, there is credible evidence of a late miscarriage (or some illness) — from Bothwell (Martin Compston here), because who else? She was not promiscuous. In the time after Darnley’s murder, and Mary’s imprisonment, Mary did enter into the civil wars that her presence and poor (non-)diplomatic acts (like trying to get Catholicism accepted by showing herself tolerant of protestantism) engendered. She did fight with Bothwell too. In the film she is forced to marry him. But who would do that? it was not in her step-brother, James Moray’s interest (yes that’s James McArdle inside all that hair and beard). In the film she is (confusedly forced) and we see Bothwell rape her; this moves rapidly and the man we remember (rightly too) is Moray.

The film moves rapidly into Mary and Bothwell’s defeat by Moray. All along we’ve seen Knox inveigh against her: she is not legitimately the monarch because no woman can rule, because she’s Catholic (Mary tried to use the “toleration” card — she would tolerate all Protestanism but as this did not work for James Stuart II more than a hundred years later, it did not work for her) and anyway is a “harlot.” David Tennant offers a fierce old man (he too almost unrecognizable because of flowing hair and beard). Now the two sets of armies converge, and we fast forward to a council which in effect de-thrones her, gives her son to Murray, and leaves her isolated.

Next her on the shore with what ladies are left; cross to England and incarceration awaits her. Montage takes us through uncounted years (during which we see the aging Elizabeth grieve over her lack of child, writhe over the demands she execute Mary) and we have the confrontation, which never took place, first invented by Schiller. It is done at length in this film, and Mary (somewhat improbably) is driven at last to insult Elizabeth by telling her she Mary is the rightful queen. I agree that Mary Stuart thought Elizabeth a worthless bastard when it came to rank or illegitimacy but even she never would have thrown this idea in Elizabeth’s face.

The film opened up with the execution scene, and we revert back, re-see some of it, but this time are taken through the beheading and gruesome carrying of a head. Saoirse Ronan is accurately dressed: Mary did get herself up in black with white lace, pull the outer gown to reveal a martyr’s red shift. And so it ends with Elizabeth sitting there hollowly: this icon goes back to Scott, but in the 20th century was first realized by Bette Davies her film of Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex (recently re-done with Helen Mirren in the parts as a sympathetic sentimental queen first loving Leicester and then the treacherous Essex).

All that said the movie is worth it. The music is good, the color palates fascinating and effective.  Grey and blue for Mary except when happy, then warm reds, oranges, golden light; garish red and greens for Elizabeth, cool white light. (Too much computer enhancement on Scottish scenery.) We see how Mary as a young woman could not realize all the pretense of respect when she first arrived in Scotland was fragile veneer. We see how Knox’s fierce anti-feminism was her first obstacle, which she failed even to address. The film however indirectly and as a sort of bye-blow of what’s happening that it was James Moray, her step-brother, who played the pivotal role at important moments and ends up inheriting the throne as regent and the boy as his ward. The film begins as grim and then luxurious pageant and progresses to dramatic effectiveness, with many effecive performances, e.g., Brendan Coyle as Darnley’s father; a couple of the actresses as one of the four Marys. The two queens are juxtaposed repeatedly, twinned

I would like now to read John Guy.

Ellen

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Steventon, a modern photo of the pump (inside the enclosing fence)


Ellen Hill’s picturesque illustration of the pump at Steventon, JA: Her home and Her Friends by Constance Hill, illus. Ellen Hill

I think that knowing where Jane lived can tell us who Jane really was — Lucy Worsley, opening to the film

Houses have their own way of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others — …. the spirit slips before the body perishes … E.M.Forster, Howards End (Chapter 31)

Friends and readers,

Lucy Worsley’s Jane Austen: At Home may be regarded replacing the fantasy idyll the Constance and Ellen Hill biography offered the Janeite at the turn of the early 20th century. Worsley’s book is, like the Hills’ book, a biography of Jane Austen seen from the angle of the houses & places she lived in, visited, or just dreamed of ever after. Worsley works hard to recreate Austen’s world by providing a cornucopia of the tiniest concrete details of where and after that (sparser) how they lived nuanced into an almost subjective novelistic discourse. For the Hill combination of nostalgia for what never was, with visits to houses and places Austen lived in, Worsley substitutes hard scholarship, modern photography, and unassailable house and grounds information for what is known about Austen from herself through her letters, her novels, through hearsay, and through James Edward Austen-Leigh’s biography of his aunt.

Worsley is very clever, has read alertly, and has picked up the reality of Austen’s life as opposed to what she herself and her Janeite and other (often commercially minded) optimistic readers have stressed, so that her disillusion frequently jars us out of complacency. I finished the book convinced Worsley could have written much more in the vein of Austen’s justified bitterness, melancholy and hurt, acid jokes and deliberately flat reportage, but that Worsley is determined to maintain a light cheerful upbeat tone. Her book moves hurriedly now and again too. The result is an uneven book, sometimes feelingly so accurate and useful, at others simply repeating parrot-like a going consensus (about the librarian clark, an easy target). I was reminded of the crispness of Claire Tomalin combined with the empathetic tone of Claire Harman. Worsley tries to channel through herself the vivacity of Austen’s texts: he same attempts at suspense, allurement and quiet confiding, like our friend, without quite Harman’s subversive feminist point of view. In a nutshell, an entertaining, frequently absorbing book that feels like light reading, but isn’t quite because when Worsley gets down to the reality of Jane’s life’s circumstances and limitations from these Worsley shows us deprivation, frustration, powerlessness, but also in Austen bright determination to experience what she could of pleasure, fun.


We watch Worsley go through the process of creating ink to write with


Joanna David as the displaced Elinor Dashwood (1971 BBC Sense and Sensibility, scripted Denis Constantduros) — the first BBC film adaptation of an Austen novel, among the first scenes ….

I write this blog to advise seeing Worsley’s TV documentary movie, The Houses of Jane Austen, alongside, before or just after reading the book. At the end of the book’s first chapter, Worsley concludes that Austen’s was a “sad life, and a struggle.” Worsley’s relentlessly cheery tone, the grinning face (sort of half-frozen with too much powder) may get on your nerves, yet the story she plots by moving house to house, and taking us there, show a chart of a few high points (when a girl dancing, when on holiday, when arriving at Chawton and beginning to write), but generally a downward spiral with Trim Street, Bath, and the castle Southampton, Austen’s nadir. She was then rescued (in effect) by the offer of Chawton cottage to live in, their own space, time and just enough money to write in peace with. It turns out once Austen readies a ms for publication, she wants as many people to read it as possible. Crucial help from her brother Henry enables her to publish four of her books and revise two more to the point of near publication (while truncated, Persuasion is enough finished; and Northanger Abbey too). Then the darkness closes in despite all Jane’s best efforts, and we watch her decline into her last days.

What follows is an attempt to convey what makes her book & film interesting and enjoyable beyond the information and occasional new insights she offers: the quality of Worsley’s mixed tones.

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We picture Jane Austen mostly indoors, and writing — here we see her writing desk

Some examples and points made from JA: At Home. Worsley begins with the 1833 publisher Bentley’s assertion that Jane Austen is emphatically the novelist of home. Now while we nowadays imagine her very cosy in Chawton cottage in our imagination, in fact for Austen home was a problem. Not only as an unmarried woman with no livable-upon income of her own or earned, she was always at risk for homelessness, the perpetual visitor who has somehow to keep earning her welcome. At the same time her home for Austen was a problem. She was given no private space of her own. If not for Cassandra, and even with, only a small part of the day she would have preferred to be at home all day writing & reading, had to be given over to socializing, homemaking. Not only finding the time & privacy to write. Where could she keep her ms’s safe. She carried some around in a mahogany writing desk (precursor of the modern laptop; see above, a gift from her father), which on one trip in carriage, became separated from her, headed for an entirely different destination, and there was a frantic search backwards to retrieve it, which luckily succeeded.


How important her father’s library and reading aloud — Worsley quotes Austen’s letters

So, says Worsley, the search for a home is an idea central to Jane Austen’s fiction. A permanent happy home is what a number of her heroines don’t have; they are many of them displaced from family or physical home. It is hard to secure a place of safety, of quiet …  in which one can be understood and loved. S&S death in the family forces heroines out of childhood home; P&P our heroines will be expelled; MP Fanny Price sent away twice, and the moderately wealthy and physical strong Mary Crawford is a female wanderer. Jane Fairfax will have to earn her keep and place as a governess. Anne Elliot packed off to relative or lodgings.


Jane Austen — the Abbey School, Reading, which she attended around age 8

We meet the women of her generation with whom she spoke frankly: Ann Sharp, governess; Martha Lloyd, the nearby beloved neighbor who works as a companion and by Southampton had come to live with the three Austens. Worsley does omit (and this would be part of her theme of housing, houses), that in Southampton Jane formulates a scheme for just herself, Cassandra and Catherine and Althea Bigg to go out on their own. But she needs her brothers’ money for help and the proposal is squashed. We may guess her desire to free herself of her mother’s continual supervision even when older. This is the sort of personal pain Worsley skims over.

As Austen grows older and is forced to move about, sees her family lack funds to obtain the housing they want, and especially when her father died, Worsley suggests Austen saw how women alone were impoverished, how the structures of their society and laws forced women to marry and then submit to men for endless pregnancies — in her family two sisters-in-law died of 11 childbirths. In her ending the only one of all the women Austen knew well or closely beyond Ann Sharp who never married was Cassandra, for Frank married Martha Lloyd — a surrogate for Jane? Worsley feels that absent from Austen’s fiction and letters is the idea that women alone are also held apart from the society — as widows avoided. This comes in the last section where Worsley points out that in her death for all the talk of her family’s kindness and her gratitude, the only people who came to see Austen were women. She catches on to Martha Lloyd as special but no more. None of her family or other friends came to stay during the three months of dying.

Nonetheless, in this book Jane Austen is no lesbian. Worsley like many shows Austen to have become a spinster by choice at the same time as locating no less than six suitors. I disagree with her that Tom Lefroy had not meant a great deal — Worsley believes Austen’s guardedness  as the whole state of the case. Not in the others. We learn of Samuel Backall, William Digweed, Edward Bridges (this was the most serious after Lefroy), Harris Bigg-Wither, the unnamed seaside wooer, William Seymour (her brother Henry’s partner), William Gifford. Charles-Thomas Haden, who looked after Henry Austen in London when Henry became quite ill, and whom Jane teases herself about as an apothecary is however slighted.


Hugh Bonneville as Edward Bridges and Oliva Williams as the older Jane Austen (Miss Austen Regrets, 2008, script Gwyneth Hughes based largely on David Nokes’s biography and Austen’s letters)

Much of this comes from the letters, which Worsley has mined carefully and is inclined to take as serious evidence of Austen’s attitudes and feelings, desires.  She takes my view the letters are a crucial resource. The convention structuring of Austen’s novels prevents her from presenting significant usual outcomes in characters’ lives so we are thrown back upon the letters and we read the novels mining them for Austen’s criticism, letters, poetry.


Austen’s earliest world


Sydney Place, Bath — today a Holiday rental

The book and film move through Austen’s life more or less chronologically, following Austen from her long period growing up in Steventon and then when the house is given over to James, from lodging to lodging, house to house in Bath, the damp Green Park Buildings, and after her father died ever more poorer, darker,


The most dismal of the houses

and then in the later years, seaside resort to seaside resort, at Southampton with Frank, and finally landing at Chawton. I found much new information about Jane Austen’s time in London with her brother, Henry: like EJ Clery (Jane Austen, The Banker’s Sister), Worsley finds Henry to be Jane’s closest brother, and especially important in her first two publications. She is careful to describe all the places Henry lived in, house and gardens. I appreciated how she kept careful track of where Austen visited in a given morning or afternoon and where at the same time another relative or friend (whose movements were important to Austen) was, so we get a sense of simultaneity in Austen’s world; she makes this cohere with what Austen is writing at a given time (starting in Bath especially) or negotiating for, where traveling and what she is reading. What plays are going on, what nights Austen went, and who and what was playing. This was where Worsley was at her best in the book; in the film showing the images of places, well picked angles.


One of the photos from Lyme, by the cobb

Worsley does adhere to the contemporary feminist desire to discover in Austen an entrepreneurial businesswoman but is more honest about this. She sees how Austen herself as well as Henry made the wrong decision in refusing Murray’s offer on reasonable terms to publish her four novels once he had the copyright. Murray’s experience showed him what Austen’s novels would fetch as to readership and money. She had a lot more trouble and make a lot less money by her distrust. Worsley does not see that Austen’s letter to the publisher of Northanger Abbey was naive. Austen needed her brother, Henry, to begin with, and needed Eliza as a knowing person in society; she learned through them and had to followed their advice too. In 1815 She sent her brothers to retrieve Northanger Abbey. All from a intensely careful scrutiny of Austen’s and other contemporary diaries and letters.

I think more than anything Worsley’s held-to thesis about Austen seeking a home for herself a place she controls and how this is reflected in the frustrations of her heroines in the novels is spot on. Read her books from this perspective and remember Fanny Price quoting Cowper: “With what intense desire she wants her home”. Perhaps the book is a bit too bright. Worsley’s mode of discretion is omission. Her worst moments for me were when she made assumptions about all readers. So she suggests we all see Sense and Sensibilityy as crude; Mansfield Park is her least liked book by everyone, and so on.

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By contrast, her hour long TV show, The Houses of Jane Austen opens with driving into the grounds of Stoneleigh Abbey, and thus gives an impression of Austen as an heiress. Perhaps inevitably since the houses still standing are the larger mansions. There is a comfortable friendly tone and appealing music. She can’t provide much detail but the experience is visceral. What the camera sees, Worsley as our surrogate going from house to house, place to place, revealing where Austen lived and her journey across the years: from small (wretched) lodgings on Trim Street, to large comfortable places like Godmersham. We these places, also the countryside, the seashores, the city of Bath, Southampton, the use of the maps including when the buildings are no longer there, the world that was is no longer there. Sometimes she has found a painting (like of the castle in Southampton) that substitutes.

She opens with the statement that where you were born and who born to for most 18th century people delimited where you ended up. Austen’s father was unusual for having the gentlemanly background and education and yet small income; this was matched by his wife, a fringe aristocrat. She goes with an archeaologist to where Steventon was and a dig is going on.


The two women filmed from on high

It was a packed house with 6 boys, 2 girls, boys boarding in a school; servants included dairy maids, footman, and outside ducks, cows, chickens outside. Mr Austens study was in the back but he had three occupations (clergyman, tutor, farmer). Austen walked to and with friends; she played the piano. We see Ashe rectory, Deane House (where she danced), watch Worsley and a professor act out one of Austen’s playlets.

Worsley thinks Godmersham had the greatest influence on Austen’s writing. She didn’t like Bath but Worsley or the camera does or Austen’s behalf. We are shown Lyme Regis and Weymouth by the sea — Austen did like the sea, could envy the itinerant life, loved Wales and landscape poetry. Even when the places are no longer there that she lived, what we see there now is suggestive.


Enjoying the seashore


Contemporary tourist book

Southampton another level down from Trim Street, and cramped — here it was 8 women and Frank Austen. No prospects at all was what Austen must’ve felt, Worsley suggests. Then the wheel turns and Chawton House is on display and Chawton Cottage on offer, and Jane comes into her own, for however short a time. 1809. Worsley reads from the four women’s thrifty cookbook. We move to Austen’s life with Henry and Eliza and just Henry and Madame Bigeon at Hans Place, Knightbridge. The film ends on a visit to Winchester where she died. It’s poignant

If I have repeated the story trajectory, that’s because it controls Worsley’s discourse in both mediums. What she adds to the Austen corpus is this singularly mixed braid, doing justice to the ordeals of Austen’s life as well as the enjoyment and achievements she knew. As I thought it over, I realized a linking sub-thread was Austen contemplative, and writing throughout.

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.”


Worsley acting out one of Austen’s texts (her presence and “costumes” important to her film’s effect)

Ellen

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Watteau, The Serenade

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

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

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


An engraving said to represent Madame du Deffand

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


Engraving representation of Julie

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


On the vast first floor

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

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


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

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


Watteau, Iris (detail inside much wider vaster mural)

Ellen

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Cattle Watering perhaps by John Glover (1767-1849)

Gentle readers,

I’ve had some troubles over the past two weeks: my PC Dell Desktop computer died, and it has taken two weeks to replace it with a new one (Windows 20); alas while I was promised that all my files would be retrieved and put back into my new computer for reasons that remain unexplained, the IT people did not manage to do that. So I’ve lost many of the stills I gathered over the past five years and worse yet some of my more precious files in my 18th and 19th century folders: the material for Charlotte Smith that became the Global Charlotte Smith, much of my recent notes and work on Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell. Very unlucky.

There is a silver lining: I paid to have the material said to have been backed up in the hard drive put into a commercial “icloud” set up called Carbonite and that has now been put on desktop and I was shown how to retrieve these lost files individually. It is arduous but can be done, one by one as I need them. Or so it’s said. I’ve yet to try alone but I believe I will as the need arises — or before when I have time.

Thus my usual work came to a stop for a while. I read on and for communication used my now beloved Macbook Pro (apple). It has been my savior twice, as this is the second time since Jim died a computer died on me. I wear them out 🙂 It also has the files as they were 5 years ago and this Friday I have promised myself at long last I will again contact the IT company I use for Macbook Pro and have them update and “clean it out.” Fix my icloud so that all that is in that computer will be in the icloud. I have learned new things about computers and coping with technology these past two weeks.

In the meantime from my laptop I am carrying on as best I can — as in Carry On, Cleo!  I don’t like to leave this blog with nothing. I study and read Virginia Woolf and am reading about Vanessa Bell still and the art of the Bloomsbury circle. Soon I will be able to post a syllabus for reading Woolf with a group of retired adults this summer. Tonight I am sharing a proposal for a paper that was accepted for the coming EC/ASECS (Eastern Region, American Society for 18th century studies) in Staunton, Virginia. This is a mid-Virginia town where Mary Baldwin college is located and the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company, a repertoire going for many years which Jim and I used to attend regularly. We’d make a day of it as it is a three hour drive from Alexandria, Va. There are two blocks of restaurants and tourist-y places, historical sites, a lovely landscape all around.

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in the scene from the novel where Anne remembers Smith’s poem (1995 BBC Persuasion)

How to perform Charlotte Smith and Mathew Prior in the same novel: Intertextuality in Austen’s Persuasion

A proposal for the EC/ASECS conference in Staunton, Virginia, this October 2018.

In this paper I propose to explicate two diametrically opposed moods and points of view on the human experience of profound loss in Austen’s Persuasion. Pervasively and across the novel Austen alludes to Charlotte Smith’s plangent and despairing poetry of loss, embedding into the novel also the romantic poetry of Byron and Scott. Arguably the crippled, bankrupt and betrayed Mrs Smith is both the genius loci of the novel and a surrogate for Smith herself, whose life Mrs Smith channels. At the same time, it is of Mrs Smith’s apparent cheerfulness when she is with other people that Anne Elliot declares: “Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (Volume 2, Chapter 5). Reinforcing this “other” point of view, Austen is careful to contradict Anne Elliot’s despondent musings as she walks alone in the autumn: through allusion Anne is thinking: Ah! why has happiness—no second spring? (the last line of Smith’s second sonnet in her much reprinted and ever enlarged Elegiac Sonnets).


Dancing at Upper Cross — one of the lighter moments in this film (the same Persuasion)

As if in mischievous larger contradiction to all this powerful passionate protest and investment in grief in the novel, Austen also alludes across the novel explicitly to a very different kind of poet and poem: Matthew Prior’s semi-burlesque rewriting of an older ballad, The Nut-Brown Maid as Henry and Emma. The novel is braced (so to speak) with a  questioning out of the medieval poem and Prior’s implied cynical disillusionment. In the poems two males demands abjection from the female to prove that she is in reality irrecoverably in love with him. Emma is up to each turn of a screw Henry inflicts on her. The parallels with Wentworth and Anne present a serious critique of Wentworth’s behavior, with her usually much-praised new independence severely undercut. Austen seems concerned to undercut the misogynistic theme of testing a woman so prevalent in literature, among other texts in the era Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

Beyond these the grim realism of parallel tales in Crabbe are here.

There’s evidence to show that Austen knew Smith, Scott and Byron, Prior and Crabbe very well. The novel unites these disparate veins as variations on reaching an authentic self.  In her famous dialogue with Captain Harville Anne asserts as her right a burden of knowledge of ravaged grief and permanent desolation as strong as any man’s. She should be respected for this. We have reached Northrop Frye’s once well known last phase of irony and satire, only instead of winter, Wentworth breaks through with a letter and we tumble back into romance, with even Mrs Smith knowing retrieval at novel’s end — as the real Mrs Smith never did, quite.

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The attentive regular reader of this blog will recognize I’ve put together two previous blogs and drawn on my knowledge of Smith, Scott, and Prior. I never tire of Austen’s Persuasion nor the many film adaptations made from the text since the first in 1971 (click and scroll down to reach 6 blogs & essays on 5 Persuasion movies).


Anne lending herself to be lifted into a carriage by Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds)

Ellen

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Isak Dinesen’s hard-won house in Africa

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

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

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

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

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

From “Biography from Seventy-Four” by Patricia Fargnoli

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

Ellen

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Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), A drawing of a girl reading her writing

Friends,

I’ve not written a foremother poet blog since I went to a Sylvia Plath exhibit last fall. For Wom-po Annie Finch and Pratibha Kelapure have revived the corner of the list’s website to begin to post brief essays on earlier women poets. They need not be very far back in time. And the first fine one was about Leonie Adams. I thought if I can contribute one this week perhaps that will stir others to pony up, and that community of poets might supply themselves with a foremother poet posting every week to inspirit and teach them, to enjoy.

Two nights ago in my continuing quest to explore the biographical art of Virginia Woolf as modernist and recently as by a woman, I came across a fine book by Caroline Breashears, Eighteenth Century Women’s Writing and the ‘Scandalous Memoir”, one chapter of which discusses the memoir startling for its candour and honesty of an 18th century women poet whom I was therefore drawn to a number of years ago: Catherine Jemmat.

These past couple of evenings I found Jemmat is more successful in prose than verse and presents herself first as a memoirist and then writer of verse and prose miscellanies. Reading over her poetry, her ardent and strident Memoir, and some of the essays she had printed in Miscellanies, in prose and verse (1765 edition), I see her ever struggling to justify herself, and obsessively retelling a paradigmatic story. Again and again she or her subject is mistreated by a relative. Sometimes the angle is ironic: an aunt writes a niece now fallen and in trouble to berate her. A clergyman’s family loses all their money and their father and when they expect to be supported emotionally and financially by an uncle, they are rejected and humiliated. Most horrifying is a story by a animal treated with great cruelty by a family who continually maim the creature (it opens with the master demanding her ears and tail be removed); she morphs into a smaller and smaller animal (finally a worm) each time treated harshly and without mercy. Jemmat says the purpose of this tale is to teach children to be more humane. She certainly does expose the false sentimentalization of family life as a haven. According to Breashears, this is precisely the myth presented in Eliza Haywood’s work (to cite a contemporary woman writer).

Jemmat’s best poems are short columns of verse, and refer to writing, to print. There are some longer prologues or epistles that read well. Lines here and there come alive. There are epistles to friends.  Two suggest that her brother was lost at sea, or died on board a ship. Numbers are addressed to titled male, someone in a position of power, a known artist or professional in Dublin. She is in a friendless state.  She is seeking patrons. Two exultant epistles are to Peg Woffington; one much quieter to Thomas Sheridan. There are poems on simple objects and stanzaic tales, some ironic. Moralizing verse on behalf of prudence. There is one in praise of science. She offers ironic advice to someone on her very latest marriage. She says because she has been saddened by her own life, she cries over stories in newspapers. One touching Prologue is for a benefit play for a hospital: “With sympathetic warmth to feel the throws,/And racking anguish of another’s woes.” She often personates an imagined character. The prosody and aesthetics of her verse are simply centrally 18th century Popian (there is one Miltonic imitation).

An epigram:

Three times I took, for better and for worse,
A bed-fellow, a fortune, and a nurse.
How bless’d the state, which such good things produce,
How dear that sex, which serves such various use!

This stands out:

Question, on the Art of Writing
Tell me what genius did the art invent,
The lively image of a voice to paint?
Who first the secret how to colour found,
And to give shape to reason, wisely found?
With bodies how to cloathe ideas taught,
And how to draw the pictures of a thought?
Who taught the hand to speak, the eye to hear,
A silent language roving far and near?
Whose softest notes out-strip loud thunder’s sound,
And spread their accents thro’ the world’s vast round?
Yet with kind secrecy securely roll,
Whispers of absent friends from pole to pole.
A speech heard by the deaf, spoke by the dumb,
Whose echo reaches far in time to come;
Which dead men speak as well as those that live:
Tell me what genius did this art contrive?

The story of her life indeed is (as retold and commented on by Breashears too) of someone betrayed by the family and relatives and friends she was was brought up to count upon.

Her father, Admiral John Yeo of Plymouther, is the worst of her family to her (when he should be the kindest she says). Her mother, his first wife, died when she was 5; he remarried a girl of nineteen who of course could not relate to another child.  As this second wife becomes a woman she becomes mean to Catherine. The father was often at sea. She was sent to boarding school. Then deeply disappointed of a love match: a young surgeon was going to marry her and died. She rejected the son of a tradesman. She doesn’t  want to marry for money.

She finally marries a silk mercer named Jemmat by whom she has a daughter, but he turns out to be cruel, accusing her of adultery, bullying her, making her fear him through violent behavior. She has a miscarriage. Her father will not give up the dowry, so the husband beats her, and her family actually refuses to pressure her husband to behave differently. She and her husband’s sister fight over power and space. She does “fall” at one point (sexually), but she does not tell much of that — rather we hear of the sisters-in-law fight over property and who will live where. So the escape from her nuclear family was far worse than the original sentence. Jemmat, abusive, often drunk, goes bankrupt. So Catherine was (according to her memoir) “thrown upon the wide world for support.”

We may imagine what this means, but she did survive and wrote a 2 volume book of Memoirs (1st ed, 1762. She became dependent on aristocratic patrons who had known her father. She must have lived in Ireland for a while and frequented the Dublin theater. She published a Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766), which includes an essay called “In Vindication of the Female Sex.”  She protests against the scapegoating meted out to women who may be said to have sexual relationships with anyone outside marriage (no matter when or how this is written or talked about).

Catherine Jemmat is not presenting herself as a fallen woman but someone brought low by cultural and financial circumstances and norms. She finds no forgiveness anywhere for just about anything. She flees to her family for succour and they only make things worse, especially her father. Breashears says her memoir is about a woman seeking a home, unable to find or create one for herself. Lonsdale says there are “mysteries” surrounding her — but there are about so many women writers. In Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist, two of the book’s memoirs demonstrate how little we know of women’s lives because quite deliberately their relatives and friends will say nothing truthful; so she slips from our grasp only glimpsed in a phrase here or there.

In her excellent book, Vita & Virginia: The work and friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Suzanne Raitt argues that the function of life writing when written by women is to restore to them their mother. Like other writers on biography, she collapses the distinction between biography and autobiography. Autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely, the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Raitt suggests when a woman writes of herself or another woman, she is working at restoring her inward health, to put together a new identity out of the fractured one.

Bell Gale Chevigny in an essay in Feminist Studies: Daughters Writing: Towards a theory of women’s biography that women write the life of another woman — who is usually younger than them, or perhaps now dead, from a daughter’s vantage point. Gaskell writes as a daughter of Charlotte. Woolf writes Orlando as a daughter of Vita Sackville-West. I know Elena Ferrante writes as a lost daughter, child, doll. As a mother rejected by her daughters. Jemmat was then fractured at age 5, then again by a step-mother, then by sister-rivals. Hers is an absent mother she cannot reach.

Here is what Jemmat writes to Peg Woffington “on seeing her in several characters:”

In silent wonder sunk, in rapture bound,
My captivated thoght no utt’rance found;
Each faculty o’ewhelm’d, its vigour lost,
And all my soul from theme to theme was tost.
Whate’er the heart canfeel, the tongue express,
The springs of joy, the floods of deep distress,
The passions utmost pow’r, o’er-rul’d by laws,
Which genius dictates, and which judgment draws,
Subdu’d thsu long my bosom’s grateful fire,
Silent to gaze, and with the crowd admire.
Stand forth confest, unrivall’d, and alone,
And view the human passions all your own,
Reign o’er the heart with unresisted sway,
The heart must beauty, and must power obey;
Each muse hath plac’d her sceptre in your hand,
And ready rapture waits on your command …

A second addressed to Woffington makes her into a goddess adorning the very earth and all the seas. She “moves obedient to the air like “bright Venus in the midst of spring,/Sports with the graces in the verdant ring,/The nymphs, the fawns, the sylvan crowd admire …


Peg Woffington as painted by F. Haytley in her role as Mistress Ford in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor

Ellen

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