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Archive for the ‘heroines’ texts’ Category


Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) demands that Gerald Maretti, the busdriver (Mark Ruffalo) confess he is guilty (Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret)


Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) hiding from Officer Hawkins while she seeks Hawkins out (Jennifer Kent’s 2018 The Nightingale)

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport – a line spoken by an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) which he explicates as meaning infinite, varied, and unjust is human suffering …. (Margaret)

Gentle readers,

In this blog I suggest that in recent 21st century women’s films the old humiliation, self-berating girl learns a lesson scene is gone, but it is replaced by the demand for confrontation where the result is counterproductive frustration and anger. Rarely is mutual understanding or acceptance sought, much less reached, in the way you can find in earlier books from Austen through Eliot. I ask why this is; why this changeover, where this insistent demand demand as the crucial climactic scene comes from, how does it function?

This week I saw two remarkably powerful, complex and intelligent women’s films, both of which I urge you to go see — or more probably rent from Netflix, or stream into your computer. Don’t miss them.

To find words to capture and epitomize the achievement and absorption you will experience as you watch Lonergan’s long Margaret, one has to begin with how like a novel it is, how the characters come across as having real human depths. Lonergan’s ability to capture and convey a sense of life happening from and through so many people, the streets and skyline of New York City, seems uncanny: his use of a cinematographer moves from documentary style, to meditate lyricism, to staged dramatic encounters, group scenes, self-reflexive theater and school room scenes; these countless moments form the background to a “coming of age” story. His script is believable and yet subtly meaningful, suggestive all the time. The initiating event: Lisa Cohen (our “Margaret”) partly causes and is close witness to the killing of a woman, a dismembering of her (her leg is dissevered from her body) by a bus going through a red light as she was walking without looking around her, straight ahead. Lisa distracted the bus-driver by half-flirting with him to get his attention and get him to tell her where he bought his cowboy hat.


Lisa running alongside the bus

What happens is over the course of the movie, Lisa realizes that nothing has been done to redress the loss of life, to make clear a horrific event has occurred, a deep injustice to the woman who died. Unsure of herself, and afraid from what her mother, Joan [J. Smith-Cameron) warns (she could cause the driver to lose his job), she says the light was green when he drove through. We see it was red, but the truth is she cannot have clearly seen the light because her focus was the driver,  and the moving huge bus was in the way. She comes to the conclusion that life is going on just as if this did not happen, except for the woman’s grieving friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) who organizes a memorial service, which Lisa attends. She thin ks that nothing was done to somehow register this event because she, Lisa, lied about that light.

All around her much life happens: her mother is in a play, begins an affair with a wealthy Columbian businessman, Ramon (Jean Reno), Lisa herself de-virginalizes herself by inviting a high school boy, Paul (Kieran Culkin) to her house, into her bed, has a relationship with another boy, Darren (John Gallager) where he is very hurt; she and her mother fight (she is obnoxious to her mother), her father and she talk on the phone (he lives in California with another woman and has invited her to come horseback riding), school classes go on (we see how argumentative, aggressive, uncooperative she is), she almost develops a friendship with Emily. But like most relationships in the film, this pair of people never really listen to or understand one another’s point of view (though we the viewer are invited to). One of the many remarkably suggestive brilliant moments show Joan coming out of a bathroom, her chest naked as she finds herself having to go to bed with Ramon when she is not sure she likes him. A fleeting few seconds conveys so much.


Emily and her mother in typical side-by-side moments but without much communication (Margaret)

Jim Emerson on Roger Ebert’s site writes the best review of Margaret, the most generous, and it is her who thinks to print one of those many scenes where the story is not going forward, exactly, one of several mother-daughter fights: Lisa has begun to talk of opera as Ramon is taking her to Norma and asks Margaret if she would like to accompany them:

LISA: I don’t like that kind of singing.
JOAN But you like classical music.
LISA Yes. That’s true. But I don’t like opera singing.
JOAN But when have you —
LISA It’s like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be. I don’t really find that very interesting.
JOAN Yeah… I know what you mean. I don’t like that really loud opera singing either. But it’s not all like that… You like “The Magic Flute”…
LISA OK, I guess I’m wrong. I guess I do like opera singing. I just didn’t realize it.
JOAN What is the matter with you?
LISA Why are you pushing this? I don’t want to go to the opera!
JOAN Yes! OK! It’s called an invitation. I’m not pushing anything. All you have to say is “No thanks!”
LISA I did! And then you were like, “Why not?” So I told you, and then you like, started debating me, like you assume I’ve never thought this through for myself — which I really have. Many times!
JOAN OK, well, that was a really contemptuous assumption on my part. I don’t actually like opera that much myself, but I’m trying to expand my mind… Maybe that’s wrong. I’m sorry..


Matthew Broderick as the English teacher

Some of the most important scenes occur in the English classroom. Among other topics the students discuss the meaning of King Lear, and it’s evident the discussion is meant to be applied to the film. Here the Hopkins’ poem to Margaret (“Spring and Fall”), which gives the film its title, is read aloud.

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Margaret high on “weed” with her friend, not going to class, the English male teacher’s POV

The compelling thrust of the plot-design seems at first Lisa’s desire to soothe her conscience by telling the truth. When the adults and authorities recognize she lied, & the new evidence is given in, she is told that still the busdriver will carry on driving the bus, because the verdict is the death was an accident, & there was no criminality involved. This is not enough for her. What she wants is to confront the bus-driver and wrench out of him an admission he is guilty, that together they killed the woman.

The center of the film in time and structure is her visit to this man’s house and demand he confess to her. A confrontation. He won’t of course — he fears losing his job, and he begins to explain to her how this accident happened from his stance. She doesn’t realize a bus is a physical object hurtling through space and it was already too late for him to brake as he was going through the light just turned red. Of course he should have paid no attention to Lisa, and put his brakes on much earlier; he implies this was already past doing, and repeats it was an accident. As she gets more excited and angry, he begins to sense that she is out to get him — and by the end of the film she couches her demand in confronting others that she wants him fired, arrested, punished. But no one will do this.


With Emily, Lisa gets advice from a lawyer to hire another lawyer

What the refusal of this guy leads her to do is hire a lawyer to sue someone. She discovers the only “compensation” the law will offer is money for “damages” (or loss) done to a relative. The MTA she is told more than once is in a labor dispute with the union, and it is they who would be sued. She accuses the police of insufficiently interrogating the (now) unfortunate bus-driver. The relative hardly knew the woman but contacted, and having visited NYC, at the end she is demanding the $350,000 the MTA offers to settle out of court — and over the phone seems to feel that it would be unfair or unjust for the driver to lose his job. There are shots of Maretti looking as scared as she, even towards he end (a fleeting still of his second interrogation.

The most convenient thing to do is done: no one is declared guilty. No one ever says aloud the truth that the woman herself wasn’t looking carefully and alertly where she was going herself: we are told she had lost a 12 year old daughter to leukemia, and she calls for this child as she dies. Lisa becomes hysterical, angry, over-reacts with emotionalism as if she is grieving for this woman she never knew, with more and more strident demands the bus-driver be punished.

I did become frustrated myself until near the end of the film Lisa suddenly bursts out that she (not the bus-driver) killed this woman by her behavior. It was good to know she recognized her error, but beyond that all we see is a kind of controlled chaos. That recognition does not improve her behavior: she is as frivolous and obtuse as ever at times: she gets back at the teacher, Mr Aaron, she has seduced, by telling him she had an abortion. . A central theme, as David Edelstein of NPR writes, of the movie is no one fully connects ever.


Here we see Margaret deliberately starting a quest for Mr Aaron (the math teacher, played by Matt Demon) where she goes back to his sublet, and overtly seduces him — then when she tells him before another person, if she had an abortion, it is either he, Paul or maybe Darren who is the father, all she is doing is hurting or worrying him. How much this is a male point of view is worth considering, sometimes Margaret is treated as if she were an aggressive young man ….

There is no closure. The film ends with mother and daughter at the opera watching (a close-up of) Renee Fleming looking awful in over-heavy make-up and ludicrously lavish decorated gown singing expertly, and then mother-and-daughter crying and falling into one another’s arms. The music itself has so stirred them in their fraught lives.

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Clare


and Aidan from early in film

I would not have noticed the centrality of the scene where Margaret confronts the busdriver had I not the next day gone to see The Nightingale. This is a harrowing tale where we see what can be done to inflict pain, misery, humiliation, rape, beating, death (whatever) when a group of people are deprived all rights (convicts, aborigines) and subject to the will of a few men who are not held accountable to anyone else. Read Robert Hughes’s great and crucial book, The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia through convict transportation and settler colonialism (with ethnic cleansing too). The villain, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) begins by refusing to give Clare her earned ticket of leave, raping her nightly, abusing her. When her husband, Aiden (Michael Sheasby) also an Irish ex-convict, protests, Hawkins brings his man to their hut to beat them, gang-rape her; and when the baby begins to cry loudly, Hawkins bullies a soldier into killing the child.


Hawkins confronting Billy

Hawkins has been told he will not be promoted and leaves the camp for Launeston with five men to try to negotiate himself into a captaincy. At the same time Clare, in a state of stunned grief, after asking others to bury her husband and child, takes the husband’s horse and rides after him. She is persuaded to enlist an aborigine, Billy, to lead her to the town; without him she would die in the bush.

What emerges is a quest of the two parties across a deadly wasteland, where meeting one another is the greatest risk. We see another woman, aborigine, grabbed, raped, forced to leave her child to die by Hawkins and his vicious or obedient men. Clare has lied to Billy and told him she is seeking her husband in Launceston but gradually he learns she has lost her baby, the husband is dead, and her goal is to kill Hawkins — far from avoiding this pack of killers, she is trying to reach them. As with Margaret, other incidents happen, we see aborigine people living, we see convict gangs in chains, a rare white old man gives our pair of friends shelter and food, Billy performs rituals, helps Margaret repress her milk with some concoction, but the compelling thrust of the plot-design is her stubborn determined attempt to reach those who killed her beloveds. By this time too Hawkins has become in behavior a sadistic psychopathic killer, killing people on whims, including the elderly aborigine man who is his guide, and who is Billy’s uncle — they come from the same village.


A passing scene of a house burned down — a war between the aborigines and the colonialists is said to be going on

What happens is ironically the man who killed her baby because he was forced to is left behind. When she comes upon him, and his apology is the morally imbecilic defense the baby was noisy, she begins frantically to stab him to death, beats him with the gun, takes an ax to him until her rage is gone. What neither she nor Billy realize is when they do finally have a chance to shoot the captain, she will now hesitate, and that gives Hawkins his chance to escape, get to town, and then, if he can, blacken her and turn her back to becoming a “convict whore” and simply kill Billy. Aborigines throughout are shot the way cats are said to have been shot in 18th century Europe.

Nonetheless, she again returns to her aggression and now drives Billy with a gun to carry on to Launceston, and then what does she do? at great risk to herself, to Billy (with whom she has now formed a touching friendship), she goes to the tavern where the captain is sitting with all the men, and just like Lisa before the bus-driver, she demands a confession of guilt, an admission he has done horrific wrong. Hawkins scorns her; we can see he is worried that the commanding officer is beginning to suspect him of evil-doing but before Hawkins can try to turn the situation around, she repeats her claim, says what he did, and flees back to Billy in hiding, and the back to the bush.

The striking thing is she appears gratified at having had the confrontation itself — though it is so unsatisfactory and dangerous — from the other white unenslaved, unconvicted people in the town.

The movie is a tragedy; Billy now understanding what has happened fully, and knowing Hawkins murdered his uncle, enacts another ritual, puts on war paint and goes to town and himself with a spear, using the technique of surprise, murders Hawkins and Hawkins’s cruel sidekick, but not before Billy is shot through the stomach. the last we see of Billy he is sitting looking out at the river as he dies; nearby him Clare stands by her horse. She seems to have no hope of any decent life unless she were somehow to return to Ireland.

The film is also extremely brutal, with the only character (besides the old man) seemingly capable of tenderness, caring for others, & real friendliness Billy.

Both films have received strong praise, if in both cases there is an accompanying chorus of doubt. Kent is too violent; Lonergan too self-indulgent and ruined his film’s chances for distribution by fighting with the studio. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post finds the Nightingale explores and questions its genre. What is not noticed is this central plot-design. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian finds the movie provocative and brilliant, a depiction of today’s life. What higher accolade than an essay in he latest issue of PMLA: Alicia Mireles Christoff, Margaret and The Victorians, 134:3 (May 2019):507-23.  Christoff argues that Margaret (this is why the title) is another Victorian afterlife film; it is finally dissatisfying because it is still mostly relying on Victorian film pleasures instead of seeking a new film aesthetic and patterns.

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Brianna (Sophie Skelton) walking along just after she is raped (Outlander Season 4, Episode 10)

And now I must confess that I noticed this new confrontation pattern in women’s movies recently because I’ve also been puzzled by just this demand for confrontation by wronged heroines in several other period and high quality video drama when the central characters are women, or the films are by women, or the expected audience is majority women. The Nightingale has a woman script-writer, director, and producers, and its central presence is Clare, its her POV except in a few places where it’s Billy watching for her. Margaret is a feminine counterpart to Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea; it is about a young girl-woman growing up, learning painfully her own insignificance. The secondary relationship is with her mother, a pattern seen in woman’s literature and movies. The difference is these more “pop” films make the confrontation explicitly central — and the anger, frustration, resentment.

However many men are writing, directing, producing the video adaptations of Outlander, many key roles of writer, director and other central functions (costume design, set) and the author herself are all women. Brianna (Sophia Skelton) is raped and possibly impregnated by a wantonly cruel criminal type-pirate, Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) in the fourth season. When she is finally brought to safety at her aunt Jocasta’s to have her baby, I was startled when Brianna not only at the risk of everyone else (a friend in jail, another friend who is being hunted down as a regulator [tax-avoider] and trouble-maker), and herself not only demands but is taken to the jail to do what? confront her rapist (now in chains) and demand he confess his guilt, admit to her he has done wrong and to her. He won’t of course.


Bonnet listening to Brianna’s demands

This time (Bonnet being a witty man), laughs at her, mocks her stance, parodies a rueful apology. She falls to scolding, and then the story takes a worse dive when he shows an interest in the coming baby and Brianna seems to think he has some right to. All is interrupted by the attempt of other friends to free those in the jail by throwing a fire-bomb in. They all escape, just, with their lives


Demelza remaining angry

But the central scene is this demand – and Brianna made this so explicit, and uselessly & causing risk to all, she seemed over-the-top.  What gratification could she imagine herself to get from this man? Even three swallows do not a summer make, so more briefly now: one reason Horsfield’s Demelza’s first response to Ross when he returns from bedding Elizabeth all night (after begging him not to go that night) is to slap him in the face so hard he falls to the ground.  (Brianna also slaps people : she is again explicit, crying out that no one has more right than she to be angry). Then utterly unlike Graham’s book/Demelza, Horsfield’s heroine turns snide, sarcastic, making nasty comments, with her face tight and resentful, each time she sees Ross. Yes he raped Elizabeth, but how is demanding that he confess his guilt, and repeatedly acknowledge he has wronged her help matters? She seeks revenge by going to bed with Captain MacNeil, but when she feels she cannot, she still seems incapable of reaching a mutual understanding by listening to him or talking herself openly of her hurt; instead she openly refuses to forgive when he does apologize and behaves embarrassingly abjectly (Poldark, 2017, the third season). She says all she wants is for him to say the truth, but the truth is complicated and that she does not concede at all.

Needless to demonstrate, June-Offred (Elizabeth Moss) of Handmaid’s Tale fame hungers for confrontation, and sometimes gets it — violently.


Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) and Darcy (Colin Firth) walking and talking together just as he proposes (1995 Pride and Prejudice, scripted Andrew Davies)

I thought back to Austen and to the woman writers of the 18th through 20th century and women’s films of the 20th century. I rue the repeated use of the humiliation scene (it’s there is Austen too) in films where the heroine either in front of others, or herself and the audience admits she has been all wrong, scourges or berates herself, vows to do better, but the “girl learns a lesson” is far more varied in the books.

As to confrontation, in Sense and Sensibility Austen’s Marianne is pulled away from Willoughby. Elinor worries about she and Marianne being shamed in public. Marianne likes to hear she was not altogether wrong in her judgement of him, but from afar. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth never writes back to Darcy. She reflects constantly about his letter, over and over, but she has no need to confront him when they finally meet. At the end of the novel, they discuss their relationship and attempt to come to terms with one another. So too in Persuasion Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth. In Emma Mr Knightley confronts Emma after she insults Miss Bates and it does have an effect — he says he has a need to but he is not asking for a confession or admission of guilt. He needs none. He is shaming her. And Emma becomes the young woman who has learnt a lesson.

Why do these 21st century women need this explicit admission of guilt or confession to them, why do they seek a mostly frustrating, often counterproductive, rarely useful confrontation? The counter-examples in Austen prompt me to realize how rarely the couples drive towards mutual explanation. When in the Poldark books Ross and Demelza try to explain their points of view usually towards or in the last chapter, what happens is they get angrier, and reconciliation comes from admitting there is a gender fault-line here, from exhaustion, and real need and love of one another and a mutual resolve to carry on with forgiveness quietly.

One couple do successfully explain themselves in these 21st century films: Jamie and Claire Fraser.  I’ve come across two reviews of these programs which make this their central argument for why they like Outlander, and why the love story and frank graphic sex are a good part of the shows – because before they have sex they have a mutual explanation, which sometimes begins as a shouting match but eventually they are listening and have recognized & acknowledged one another’s point of view as understandable. Before proceeding to a gratifying & tender sexual encounter …

In Austen, in Elizabeth Gaskell, in George Eliot, in other women authors I particularly like such scenes of reconciliation and acceptance come from more than kindness: it’s a belief in the ability of someone to care for someone else, to listen to them, and to respect (in Austen’s language, esteem) them without having to inflict on the good and mixed nature characters all around them more risk and pain.


This is called a mood piece from Margaret: but it is Margaret walking along in a hard kind of isolation

Ellen

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Latest version of Little Women opens with  a deeply intimate-feeling scene of adolescent girls in their bedroom privacy trimming and curling the long hair of one of them (2017 BBC, scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswell)


A version of this iconic scene, the four girls circled around the mother reading aloud the letter from the father away in the army Christmas time, is what usually opens the movie (this from the first 1931 George Cukor film)

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men) by mature women too …

Friends and readers,

It’s no wonder I feel as if I’ve been reading a good deal of Anne Boyd Rioux lately: I have! I did not mean to read her study of four 19th century American women novelists together with her study of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (by which throughout this blog I also mean Good Wives), but I ended doing so when TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io decided to read this book. I didn’t mind; Meg Jo Beth Amy seemed an extension, a particular case in point of the lines of thought of Writing for Immortality.


This is the outside of the edition of the book with just these illustrations that I read and gazed upon for hours at age 10-11

While the book is presented as another of a recent favored genre, the biography-of-a-book as autobiography of this author (remember Michael Gorra’s masterpiece study of James and The Portrait of a Lady; think Rebecca Mead on Eliot and Middlemarch), it is more a defense of the book, something neither Gorra or Mead could possibly find necessary. Rioux argues for the depth, maturity of understanding conveyed, and original creativity in Alcott’s Little Women, and for including it in the curriculum of junior high school good books for both boys and girls, and in women’s studies in college. Beyond telling how the book emerged from Louisa May Alcott as an individual and in the context of her life and era, of its extensive and profound influence on countless people, about the stage, film and post-text legacy, and offering an array of interconnected readings, and of course retelling her own and her daughter’s experiences with this book, Rioux goes about to seek and finds very rare even today another or other books dramatizing and exploring problems experienced by adolescent girls and young women. If it were that a woman’s powerful book of genius could receive the kind of serious on-going attention and respect that such books by men regularly do, it would be recognized that Little Women changed the expectations we come to great children and young adult literature with.

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men). One of her chapters (longish, the fifth) is simply a recounting of many famous people’s (mostly women’s) praise and precious memories of reading (and nowadays), seeing, acting it out. I admit that by the time I got half-way through that I was relieved to be told Hilary Mantel “hated” it, Camilla Paglia saw it as “poison,” and Edith Wharton “avoided” it. I began to wonder how many people were just repeating cant. Surely there must be something wrong when there is such a uniform chorus of praise. But no she persuaded me her witnesses meant it.

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The “prologue” where Rioux claims this is a book women share with their daughters just invites an autobiographical response so I’ll oblige again: yes Little Women is a book I shared with my daughters, and both read it. Laura went on to further Alcott and it turned out preferred Little Men mightily, identified with Dan (ever getting into trouble), but it was not given me by my mother as a book she cherished. She never read it, but gave it to me as an appropriate gift-looking book for an 11 year old girl; I went on to read Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, but began to balk at Rose in Bloom. Laura (at age 15) and I also shared Gone with the Wind, while Izzy took up Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion (before she was 13-14). I might as well get Rioux’s other assertion that comes up so quickly about Little Women (and she never quite leaves) over with: I never wanted to be tomboy or a boy; I was a reading girl. I also loved the romance of Prof Bhaer in New York City and when he comes to the March home to become Jo’s beloved partner, a tenderly loving older man seemed so perfect for her maturity. I did not want her to marry Laurie who seemed a boy in comparison, nor did I demand she remain unmarried since she did not seem happy up in her attic writing on alone.

The first part of the book (Chapter 1) offers a biography of Alcott in the context of portraits of her complex family members, their transcendental “high literary” milieu, and because of her father’s inability or refusal to conform to mainstream US norms to be able to make a living, hard poverty, strained physical existences, continuous work outside the home for all the daughters, but Lizzie (=Beth) who withdrew psychologically from what must have been an often silently traumatized scene and died young. As a group of readers, we hauled Bronson Alcott over the coals. Then Rioux recounts the extraordinary early and continual success (the “phenomenon”) of the book, the early editions, the re-printings, the way contemporaries talked of it, the two direct sequels (Little Men, Jo’s Boys), and the illustration history. This prompted several of us to describe the books we had read Little Women in and retell our favorite memories. Also what other children’s books we read: Elsie Dinsmore, What Katy Did. I talked of The Secret Garden and Nancy Drew.


Although of the elegant lady variety, Jessie Wilcox Smith’s pictures are felicitious


Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) and Jo (here Winona Ryder) have the iconic umbrella moment but I prefer this of them going over her story in the lodging house (1995 Miramax Little Women, directed by Gilliam Armstrong, scripted by Robin Swicord)

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June Allyson as Jo has some very real moments (1949 Mervyn LeRoy, directs — this one includes the girls putting on a play)

The second part of the book, “The Life of a Classic” offers a long chapter (4) on the stage plays and films made from the book from the very first up to the most recent, as well as an opera and Broadway musicals. As someone who has seen many of the films I found her analyses (the text is not soppy memories but genuine film study) enjoyable and accurate. It moved me to know the first stage production began with the words “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” and the performance had to stop to allow the “fervent applause” to finish itself out. She rightly goes on at length about the 1931 film, since it has been so influential and is still watchable; at the same time she’s right to say Katherine Hepburn (who is so paid attention to by critics) postures too much, jars as exaggerated, and we never forget the actress in the role. It was spoofed by Jack Benney as “Miniature Women” or “Small Dames.” The 1949 MGM film (June Allyson as Jo) and the 1995 again rightly take up much space (both genuinely thoughtful productions making of the characters evolving role models for adolescent and young women). I want to put in a good word for the old 1970 many episode BBC serial drama: for all its embarrassment at itself, it is the only film to give time to the later part of the story, Jo’s (Angela Downs) hard experience as the daughter left caring for two parents


Meg (JO Rowbottom) and John Brooke (Marvin Jarvis) were credible as young lovers in the 1970 BBC serial

The filmic artistry of all the films could have been paid more attention to; Rioux is rather interested to discuss whether the films convey the living power and emotions of the book, and both films are problematic: the MGM film is so lavish, the images highly magazine-commercialized, and women’s ambitions given short shrift; Armstrong and Co were so afraid to be seen as feminist, that the film is oddly bookish and stilted, too idealizing, no struggle, no anger, no gender ambiguities, to me recently it felt like a pretty Christmas card.

Of all I’ve seen (and not because it is the most contemporary) I find the BBC 2017 the closest to the spirit and themes of the book, and admire specifically how the women director and writer put Marmee on the scene re-experiencing her daughters raw emotions (as a kind of reflexive framing), and I’ve never seen Beth so empathized with as she tries repeatedly to get herself to come into the Laurence’s house and play on the piano as invited to.. Maya Hawke is not a celebrity so she has not been made a fetish of in the ads but she is pitch perfect as a sort of tomboy, as a girl who wishes she had been born a boy, as someone ambitious for a life outside being sexually a woman. At the movie’s end, we fast forward to see her running her school with Prof Bhaer (Mark Stanley) the one playing with their children.


She is Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter — why and how she got the role — as well as good acting, here her face has a convincing hard edge of understanding as she grows older

But the meat or core of Meg Jo Beth Amy — why we should read this one by Rioux and Little Women by Alcott — is in the sixth chapter of this part and the seventh and eighth of the third. Most of the films end in a romantic arch that makes marriage the center of all three living daughters’ lives; when we look at the debates over its meaning and how it has functioned in American and English-speaking and European cultures, we find a very different story. Rioux covers in details how different critics across the 20th century and intelligent readers have discussed the book. It emerges as a deeply feminist (l’ecriture-femme) book which explains and defends young women’s natures, and goals in taking on those of life’s burdens suitable to them. One of the people in our group, Nancy Gluck, directed us to a blog she had written when reading Little Women with others as a feminist classic: A Feminist Book. There are conformist and feminist strands in the text, and Nancy distinguishes her terms carefully to emphasize what is liberating and valuable about this book:

“These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

To me the absolute hallmark of masculinist and (one step further) misogynistic literature is this presentation of women as “noble and good” or “entirely” (or almost entirely) “evil and dangerous.” It so bothers me when I have to listen to exegeses (or just do read) of Poldark where the women lambast Elizabeth as almost entirely malign, ill-meaning, awful, with Demelza as an ideal close to that of Meg, Jo and Amy wrapped into one.

Another member of our group, Judith Cheney, wrote: “I am convinced that the Alcott’s aspirations for her Little Women are ones that young women today might still find helpful guideposts in their growing up out of girlhood years.” This is the chapter where Rioux goes over modern post-texts for Little Women.

Rioux looks at how far feminist and in what ways. She wants to defend the boo from the same modern thoughtful feminist point view that she uses in her Writing for Immortality and against the same wall of indifference by respected critics: a book can be sold widely, paid attention to by enormous numbers of people, made money off of and still not achieve the kind of recognition of (however temporary the earth) immortality (to use her words in the other book). By end she is discussing recent scholarly editions by Elaine Showalter the Library of America which printed the “Jo” trilogy (so to speak) and arguing for regarding all three together, even if the other two are not as central, as Alcott’s masterpieces. I found myself drawn to the sharper criticism: by Patricia Meyer Spaces: it’s a “glorification of altruism” – this would hit at the above as too soft, not telling the hardness of life and the people we must deal with and the money we must have to live. See Jill May’s “Feminism and Children’s Literature: Fitting Little Women into the American Canon,” CEA, 56 (1994):19-27.


This one has her novel, Work, about a young woman who during the civil war works as nurse, seamstress, governess, actress and companion
Alas it lacks Hospital Sketches and perhaps her short masterpiece, “The Brothers,” sometimes titled “Contraband,” which appears to be no longer available for free as a pdf on-line (it was for years, but greed never ceases).

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

The first two chapters of Part 3 are rousing — one can get excited and even angry reading them. “A Private Book for Girls: Can Boys read Little Women?” is about the truth that Little Women will not be assigned in junior high to high schools, it is about how endlessly the books chosen in high school for all sexes is either by a man or focused on a boy, or, in the rare cases by a woman, she has a pseudonym, and they are mostly about boys — rare, Hunger Games, it’s about violent aggressive girl. Rioux mounts a convincing demonstration of at the core of this is an insistence on instilling macho male values (one parent catching a boy reading Little Women screamed, someone is making a “faggot” of his son), and refusing to acknowledge the interior life of women counts — and yes this all leads directly to rape culture. There is an attempt to keep LW private again, hidden — women belong in the home where nothing matters. She makes an attempt to show if permitted (not shamed or bullied of this) many boys will like and appreciate Little Women she describes individuals. They have to cope with seeing boys put in the marginal position in the book. A reasonable list of well known men loving Little Women follows — it includes Orwell, who I would not have expected to like LW. The opera composer, Adamo feels that LW is about “balancing our fear of vulnerability with our need for love.” That’s one theme but I doubt the central one.

“Being Someone (Chapter 8) treats Little Women as this educational “courtesy”‘ book (what they used to call these kind of book in the Renaissance). The situation and character types are made to do the work of situations and people analogous to girls’ situations as they are becoming mature. Not little girls, not fully grown (already married) women, but in-between, that time that books apparently still mostly avoid.


There’s been a TV movie and there is even a 25th anniversary Audio reading — on CDS, MP3s, downloads and you can find the audiocassettes too

But there is a problem with using Little Women this way — and it comes down to sex. None of the March girls is attacked sexually, harassed, none of them sexually shamed — I would maintain these are central experiences for all girls — probably then once they were allowed away from chaperons. Fanny Burney and various French women writers of the 18th century show incidents of harassment, mortification and rape.. Madame Roland shows how the aftermath can be as bad as the experience: her mother harrowed her with guilt and put her in a convent for a while and her sex life with a man never recovered: it took her years to marry.  Jenny Diski was raped at 14 and the way she describes this is just so usual. That does not mean she got over it or forgot. The experience shaped the way she behaved thereafter. I was raped at age 12-13 and can vouch for the experience shaping the rest of my life.

Rioux admits that sex is left out and “For girls, maturation has … always been closely tied to sexuality or the loss of purity or innocence.” Girls were preyed upon by masters, bosses, and yes (she omits this) family members. So how can Little Women be a central text? it can’t as despite dealing with other issues admirably (if too upbeat I’d say) it omits sex.

Rioux then deals with a second text whose popularity in the 1990s and continued sales power surprises her: Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. I read it for the first time in the 1990s and I cried. Had this book been written in the 1960s, given me to read, what a difference in my life it might have made. It is the first book I ever read which tells the truth about girls’ sexual experience in their teens. Rioux dislikes it because it shows girls to be victims. I’ve got news for her: they are. Rioux admits that ours is rape, misogynistic, stereotyping culture but not that Pipher does all she can — by telling the truth so we shall not be alone — about what happens to girls who complain and how they cope. Has Rioux never had such an experience? how about her daughters? her students, have they never written of this? Jo’s time in NYC cannot be a version of college or modern girl working because there is no sexual threat anytime anywhere in any way.

A side issue: I object to the idea in Beth we have an anorexic, or party an anorexic. First off, anorexia is not just a response to sex, to sexual maturation, it’s not just an avoidance though it is that. It is a response to a high pressure culture and family life. Why shouldn’t girls “want out,” as Hilary Mantel has written. Rioux does not know anything for real or fully about anorexia and she treats it and Beth as fundamentally very strange. Well in the book she is – because she is presented as super-religious and since Alcott dare not question that, she can’t make sense of Beth Apparently Louisa did not understand what was going on with Lizzie – it was more than a wasting disease like TB.

I suggest it might have been a hysterical response to living with a man (Bronson Alcott) who insists you drink water and eat bread, wear inadequate clothes, worship God all the time, and a mother who obeyed this nonsense. She was punishing herself because she was taught punishing was good – she needs to read books about the centrality of the family and what goes on in schools to the development of anorexia. I recommend to her and anyone coming to this blog Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Self-Starvation: from Individual to Family Therapy in the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa.  Very bad are the way sports are conducted: coaches humiliate, girls are mocked who are the least bit chubby and not competitive. To ask that this be forbidden is like asking a group American cultural norms to reverse themselves right now. And perhaps Lizzie was autistic – I’ve a hunch Bronson Alcott was – and suffered badly from misunderstanding.


Marmee (Emily Watson) watching over the daughter Beth (Annes Elwy) who cannot bear to go to school

I’d say if you gave a girl Little Women as an adequate educational treatise, you had better back it up by Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and tell for real what girls experience in adolescence. Rioux is not willing to do this. Is the fundamental conflict of a girls life “how to love and be loved without losing oneself? What ideal world did Rioux grow up in? Girls are pressured into making money, having a career and this presented as easy – Jo has no problem getting a flat, writing away – this is unreal. Add some Naomi Wolf on beauty and Promiscuities and don’t omit Anne Oakley on Subject Women (in colleges, offices). Rioux appears sheltered, an emotional conservative, and disingenuous: only once does she remark that Jo is a comfort to lesbian girls. And then she leaves the remark there. She’s not telling a crucial destructive truth that matters about adolescence and young womanhood for women today.

Her last chapter “Little Women and Girls’ Stories Today” (9) is weak again. We are in the area of popular wide readership and popular literature, and to me it’s no surprise (if a matter of regret) that the genre of serious domestic tale investigating real lives of girls has been replaced for most or many girls by fantasy tales, action adventure dystopias. Genre analysis of fantasy and science fiction as such shows that this is an optimistic genre where good people win out (however good is defined).  Hunger Games is so different from LW I cannot take seriously her allegoresis. Girls are also offered easy reading chick lit and mean girl books.

She then (in effect) forgets she has male readers (or has already forgotten) and moves to TV shows where she finds comparisons: I never saw The Gilmore Girls; after the second episode of Girls I tired of it– it was too much about how dismaying real sex is, and the startle and energy gotten by the expedient of suggesting fellatio and other practices dims quickly (for me at any rate). The girls needle each other towards the end of the series (HBO), and we see how (in Rioux’s own words at the opening of this last chapter) how maturation is seen as “walking the line between being sexy and being taken for a whore.” Until near the end the situations depend on ideas about how privileged girls are sheltered by parents.

Rioux seems to want books for girls growing up which teach companionate marriage and sisterhood as an ideal and “how to connect selflessly with another human being.” She wasn’t so keen on companionate marriage in Writing for Immortality. Maybe she is assuming most girls readers will not go on to be writers, but does that mean the self-sacrificing social life ideal that under-girds modern norms of motherhood are primary makers of a good life? Tertium non est?

Rioux also needs to read Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.. Traister argues mature women have always had long periods alone, not with a man, they just had no way to support themselves, no validation from the culture whatsoever (“redundant”! was the outcry when they came out of their closet in the mid-19th century) and thus live a life an individual person who happens to be a woman might want.

Ellen

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Friends,

This eloquent and persuasive study of four women writers’ work: — Elizabeth Stoddard, Louisa May Alcott, Constance Fennimore Woolson, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps — is the fifth of several general books on women who spent long periods of time unmarried that I have been reading towards my project for a collection of essays in a book with the working title: Not an Anomaly. I recently produced an outline for myself, singling out the specific women I’d focus on over three chapters (widow, pariah, spinster). See At the Crossroads of this life (scroll down). One of my choices will be Constance Fennimore Woolson, (lesbian?) spinster about whom I’ve written here before: Hours of Good Reading: a 19th century woman of letters.


A drawing by Constance Fennimore Woolson

The unusual argument in the introduction (and throughout) is this: Just about all women who wrote about artists or women making money until the 20th century do not themselves say they are ambitious for power or fame (Stael is an exception), or they take their art seriously and want to be respected as artists: no, they are writing for money, they are writing because they have to, they have a family they must help support. Rioux argues that these four women by telling stories of women who aspired to make permanent remarkable works of art, genius, are breaking an important taboo and behaving in a radical way: affirming the value of a woman’s life for what she as an individual can create, for what she can experience as an individual and convey, for having gifts equal to or superior to men.

Rioux insists that it is important to understand this presentation of one’s book as primarily there as a great art, great vision and the real goal of the woman as creating great art (not for supporting herself) as radical and important in building esteem and validation for women as a group. We are so used to valuing things for the money, book history as turned into a branch of let’s study how capitalism, fame, and industry worked and the idea of writing as a vocation becomes something we scorn people for: what? they must be hypocrites and just say that because their books don’t sell. We are so corrupted to the folds of our minds — today unless a book wins a prize, becomes social capital for the writer, we doubt it can be any good. We see up a relationship between a book and money as the first and foremost measurement of value. So this is quite a radical book. Vocational behavior is what we find at the core of great writers and Rioux finds it among her subjects.

The book then divides into four long chapters: first, we learn how the four women when young discovered themselves to be artists, to have singular talents and conceived a desire to fulfill them in family contexts where it seemed this desire could be realized; we read how they expressed this. Aspiration towards high ideals and values is found in the works of these four women and those who encouraged them — Margaret Fuller comes in here. In the second chapter we see them experience adult and later mature life as what thwarts them, and presents obstacles they sometimes overcome but usually not wholly and sometimes not at all, and we read the stories of women artists they tell which narrate such experiences in particular ways. They are all to some extent crippled in their ambition or fame or even what they were able to achieve or write because of the demand they be conventional heterosexual and marry. One of them did: Stoddard and that stopped her producing any more than two good novels.


Elizabeth Stoddard — The Morgesons

Stoddard’s work combines the narrative style of the popular nineteenth-century male-centered bildungsroman with the conventions of women’s romantic fiction in this revolutionary exploration of the conflict between a woman’s instinct, passion, and will, and the social taboos, family allegiances, and traditional New England restraint that inhibit her. Her most studied work, The Morgesons is set in a small seaport town, and is the dramatic story of Cassandra Morgeson’s fight against social and religious norms in a quest for sexual, spiritual, and economic autonomy. An indomitable heroine, Cassandra not only achieves an equal and complete love with her husband and ownership of her family’s property, but also masters the skills and accomplishments expected of women. Counterpointed with the stultified lives of her aunt, mother, and sister, Cassandra’s success is a striking and radical affirmation of women’s power to shape their own destinies. Embodying the convergence of the melodrama and sexual undercurrents of gothic romance and Victorian social realism. But to read Rioux’s very inward account of Stoddard her writing shows intense doubts about herself and the value of what she wrote; Rioux says she stopped writing well before she had to, defeated as it were by her household duties -1866 when she died in 1902; a story she tells after she stopped writing, “Collected by a Valetudinarian” is about Alicia Raymond who keeps a diary, she is a woman of genius and finds herself isolated, lonely, finding no understanding; she refuses a suitor whom she says had the best of her, and slowly dies as her brother marries; her works are forgotten.

The others fought and produced and led a life they found satisfactory but to do so took tremendous energies which weakened them in other ways. I’d say this is even true of Alcott — fine as her achievement in children’s books is and here and there in adult fiction, it’s not what she could have done.

The second woman, Elizabeth Phelps (Ward) spent a good deal of her life unmarried but she finally did marry (a man 17 years younger than herself) and was prolific; in the wikipedia article we are told of 57 volumes, that she depicted women suceeding in non-traditional careers (physician, minister, artist) and like Frances Power Cobbe, wrote polemics against vivisection and on behalf of animal rights. But her novel, The Story of Avis (is about a woman whose talent is extinguished because she finds that supporting herself and her child and writing are by no means satisfying; she is said to have two inward natures, she feels it goes against women’s nature to become a great artist and her life leaves no room for it; she does have a daughter and the daughter it seems will have a career. In life Phelps had a mother Elizabeth Wooster Phelps, who wrote about the repressive lives of women; her career as a writer was cut short when she became a prominent minister’s wife; apparently the mother became ill, mentally and physically with this attempt to break out. The mother’s one short story, “The Angel Over the Right Shoulder”, illustrates the repressive burdens frustrating a wife’s creative ambitions and need to “cultivate her own mind and heart”. The story is notable as “one of the rare woman’s fictions of this time to recognize the phenomenon of domestic schizophrenia”, says literary critic Nina Baym. What her mothr is famous for is a book that sold widely, The Sunny Side; or, The Country Minister’s Wife. The novel sold 100,000 copies in its first year, eventually more than 500,000, and garnered international recognition. She died the next year and the daughter Phelps Ward said her mother died of this struggle.

The central enemies of promise are what allured women and did give them happiness: to marry and have children. So these are hard complex conflicts we read about.

In a third chapter Rioux goes over carefully stories they told as they imagined women artists creating art and their lives. In these stories we find women who do not married (and have children) are regarded as unfulfilled failures no matter what books they write. Her book is dismissed as irrelevant and besides the point of her existence – while it’s what the heroine wants to pour all her existence into. So the question becomes how can one combine the two sets of activities, two different roles. I thought of how Gaskell’s Life of Bronte is really an apology for the woman artist and that while Gaskell was determined to normalize Bronte and her family, and show Charlotte involving herself in what was considered suitable for women, she still presented Bronte’s father (and I think rightly) as domineering, her marriage as simply getting in the way, isolating her, and destroying Bronte in childbirth. Phelps by the way allowed herself “aspiration” but not ambition, saw deeper satisfaction in love relationships for women than writing. I also omitted how another escape route from the conflict of career and personal artistic fulfillment and what their life circumstances demanded and what everyone around them probably said was to choose a male narrator at the center. Emma Lazarus had male artist figures at the center of her fictions. Another ploy was to have a maternal narrator – a mother figure. I don’t mind the mother figure or stance but know I prefer the daughter one. I know I often find very frustrating (even angering) the choice of a male in the center. That’s why I’ve not read DuMaurier’s later novels. To me it seems a betrayal. Somehow using the disguise of a male in Wolf Hall made me accept Mantel’s use of the ploy — this earlier era (unless you have a time-traveling heroine, pro-active from the 20th century) precludes active heroines.


Louisa May Alcott

Alcott as we all know strove to be a “dutiful daughter” and that is the phrase used here — it’s echoed in Beauvoir. Alcott wrote a novel she never finished Diana and Persis, which mirrors what happened to her and her sister May. May went to live in Europe, helped to get there by Louisa, and then lived a satisfying life (like Amy, except as an artist) but Louisa had to return home. In the novel Persis (May) at first has this satisfying life as both mother and artist, but soon she stops painting because she has had a child, and in an outburst (like Romney) it emerges despite her husband’s encouragement of her and saying if a woman will have courage and strength she can both, he berates her over her choice of her child when the child almost dies. It is a wish fulfillment book in that Diana (Louisa) becomes a sculptor, falls in love sort of with another (male) sculptor, Stafford, finds how wonderful it is to have this support, and then the novel breaks off. Rioux discusses her Hospital Sketches and Moods too. Rioux’s own Meg Jo Beth Amy, a kind of biography of a book is the one to read here.

Of the four Rioux concentrates on Woolson is the woman most pessimistic about this combination: Woolson’s register intense grief — as in “Miss Grief.” Woolson derided woman’s books which were “pretty and pleasant’ (idealized) romances, and writes about writing a story about a woman artist, Mrs B, that she never wrote out but the idea is she seeks to compete with men; Woolson has a male writer who realizes he cannot compete with the “power of a woman’s gifts of the heart” and a woman artist who feels she lacks the culture, learning, intellect of a man — this seems to mirror her idea of herself and Henry James. Alas she is best know for her relationship with James; late in life she went to live in Europe and didn’t return to the US, and apparently (I do think this is the truth) killed herself. Did she jump out a window or fall? Rioux stays on the fence but I feel thought she did kill herself. Woolson appears to have been bisexual.


Constance Fennimore Woolston

Grief is also central to these women artists; they grieve that they cannot come up to what men are granted as having achieved; they feel only unhappy women take to writing, they cannot sustain the achievement and eventually they die, killed by neglect, by exhaustion, live lives of quiet desperation. A less common theme (in both Woolson and Stoddard) is the need for women to have a belief in their own powers. She feels that their poses (however grating) could and maybe should be see as them finding authorial identities with which they are comfortable. Many of their heroines (or enough) really do aspire to be great artists, and they manage in different ways to circumvent the impasse they are confronted with by their culture, and how pessimistic they are, we see that in fact they had much success and real careers

Alcott seems single minded in her avoidance of courtship for herself, and intense grief in her novels. She was not unwilling to write uplifting girls’ stories. Phelps and Alcott openly advocate the single life — George Eliot could get away with the best of all worlds (she avoided time-wasting visitors is how I’d see it) because she had Lewes as her businessman. (Not mentioned by Rioux but Margaret Oliphant was envious and found that having to cope with the business end of her profession and support herself and family decreased her time and ability to produce the masterpieces she actually yearned to create. In Rioux’s re-telling, Stoddard emerges as the most poignant figure, for after her serious masterpiece, The Morgesons, still in print, the pressure of marriage and childre made her give up writing.


Mary Cassatt — Lydia at the Tapestry Loom (1881)

It’s not a story of what was not achieved though but of eloquent poems and life-writing, of great books, fascinating heroines and their stories, moving life achievements which at first gain an audience and respect or now and again gain these as if for the first time, but finally are placed in unknown and isolated limbos of neglect and disparagement, or just not valued for real. It’s a story of heroic struggle, of almost making it or making it for a while and then being stifled. I enjoyed reading the summaries and analyses of their books; Rioux makes these come alive with issues that women today who aspired to writing as a career (or any career) will face. I found myself indignant at the way particular editors and male writers and critics put these women down, refused to acknowledge their value, made fun of them, heaped withering scorn and resentment on them, would never give them equal respect — from Howells, Hawthorne and James to lesser known men (but powerful at the time) and the treatment the men and family members the women lived with did not sympathize, understand, and corroded their abilities. What differentiates American from English women was when in Europe they had the sense of being perpetually watched — paradoxically, the idea found in Henry James’s Daisy Miller, led to journalists and ordinary people in letters trying to watch and write about American women writers to see if they led moral as well as successful lives

Along the way Rioux brings in other women writers, especially those whose works did achieve longer lasting fame and recognition at least as first, as influential on our four. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a narrative poem about a woman trying to live the life of a woman writer. Phelps is quoted saying of Aurora Leigh: “I owe to her, distinctly, the first visible aspiration (ambition is too low a word) to do some honest, hard work of my own in the world beautiful, and for it.” Germane de Stael’s Corinne, or Italy, a tragic novel of a woman whose muse creates this beautiful poetic book, at the end of which she is rejected as a woman and artist. She also treats of Eliot’s Armgart, a poem about a singer I have read, a narrative novel where by the end the heroine loses her voice. This is so common in 19th century novels for women artists — it’s a punishment (like the scenes of confession and humiliation for heroines in many American movies still today). There is a typology of writing or artist heroines in the novels of this era: in the US a sentimental artist heroine who can and does marry and we see her troubles; in the UK and Europe, the woman of Romantic poetic genius, who most of the time comes to a tragic end. They also turned to real women they knew or knew of: Charlotte Bronte as presented in Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of her; George Eliot as the model they all yearned to be as novelists. There are explicit intersections Phelps’s novel, The Story of Avis by Phelps and both Corinne and Aurora Leigh – Avis, who becomes an artist is engulfed by her husband and her gifts lost. Phelps does not think that the conflict is a society-imposed one but inherent in women’s nature — she also refuses to give her heroine genuine ambition.


Emma Lazarus

Rioux also (or along the way) discusses Rebecca Harding Davies, Helen Hunt Jackson, Emma Lazarus, one black woman who was never enslaved and lived a middle class life, Charlotte Forten Grimke, as women who either wrote less, or what they wrote did not achieve the same level, or who did not deal openly with the issues of their own lives and those of women from a woman’s point of view, but whose work placed in the same context emerges as similarly unfairly marginalized. She excludes Sarah Orne Jewett and Emily Dickinson because they did not seek careers and in a sense validated the idea that women should stay in some private retreat.

The last chapter is a convincing demonstration that the male white academy of the 20th century excluded all but white males like themselves in a canon they invented and taught; that the four were similarly dissed in the marketplace, pushed into writing less aspirant books (children’s books for example) and how they never were able to reach the status and receive the recognition their work deserved. One must admit an oddity here: these four women did write prolifically, all were in print and had careers, one now still famous, Alcott, and one now still respected for her artistry, if not well known (Woolson) and one respected as achieving something beyond a historically important still readable book (Phelps). Still, this is the saddest chapter of the book. I found myself embarrassed as I read: Rioux is showing that these women chased after males; they wanted recognition so badly, that they kowtowed before them, behaved in deferrent and self-humiliating ways. I know I have done this and wish I could altogether stop. What really hurts is the situation described in the early and mid-20th century history of the Atlantic Monthly obtains today. Yes the women’s page and their normative heroines are different from mid-century but underlying it all is the same non-valuing of literature by and for women. Maybe it’s that I’ve experienced editors “losing” the attachment, never writing back. The part of the chapter about how critics treat women’s books rings loud still. It’s a masculinization of taste.

Rioux’s last topic is the canon. Brigid Brophy was a breath of fresh air, among the first of the 1970s feminist books on women writers. Brophy’s contribution was to agree these are “dreadful” books and because they are dreadful they are masterpieces. She turns the charge of sentimentalism on its head — the sentimentalism is what makes them great – they are morbid, complaining, sad, emotional, say things matter that in life “adults”‘ learn (so it’s implied) to get past, slide over, ignore. In short, they are powerful great grapplings with life in art. Rioux returns to her four women in the end and tells of their later years — betrayed by “new” women replacing them, so Edith Wharton never acknowledged their real influence on her work. Then a marvelous bibliographical essay, which takes the reader through the important cited books a history of feminist scholarship in the last quarter century.


An early important book, which meant a lot to me when I was young

Rioux’s book is so rich in details, in retellings of stories by so many American women writers, of the circumstances of their lives, in quotation (how shocked women were when they sought the vote and discovered males were violently hostile … ), I can’t begin to do justice to it. Read it yourself, and then do like me, turn to read at least some of the literature Rioux has digested for us. I’ve also got myself a good biography of Alcott as a reformist, written in an intriguing way: Kit Bakke, Miss Alcott’s Email: Yours for reforms of all Kinds.

Ellen

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Those who come to this blog regularly know I’ve written about Chris Brindle’s musical play of Jane Austen’s Sanditon completed by way of Anna Lefroy’s extension before, and of an available DVD. Well here is a reminder that the performance is now 11 days away (!) in London, at the “other place,” Victoria, in London, Friday, July 26th, 8 pm.

Once again the poster:

Just below (as prelude) the song “Dishonoured’ in rehearsal. In this version of events Mr Tracy manages to bring down the Bank of Eastbourne, from which Tom Parker is borrowing money to pay for the land he is buying from Lady Denham, and where Lady Denham has all her money on deposit. Because of this Lady Denham is outraged that she cannot afford to buy a new coach. Thus

A narrated concert version of a proposed full stage production. They are using a small stage in a cabaret like environment. Lovely and rousing songs, a remarkable contemporary story, intriguing colorful characters, some originally invented by Austen. See also for more information, pictures, music https://twitter.com/brindle_chris

I wish I could go …

Ellen

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Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, 1995)


Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson (Hampstead, 2017)

“I have nothing of value to offer anyone,” she said to her faintly condescending adult son who seems to imply she should get a paying job … “I have no [sellable] skills”

He: “You think my mother birthed a complete half-wit?”
She: “Is there such a thing as a COMPLETE half-wit?”

Gentle reader,

If, like me, you retain fond memories of Delpy and Hawk endlessly talking during a long day in Paris after they have mutually agreed to get off a train together, you will like this romantic comedy, done in something of the same vein, the walking and talking,

the sitting about

the doing things, like putting back together a shack which has been assaulted, reading, going to bed together,

eating, drinking, fishing for their food …

you will find this movie wonderfully enjoyable.

If, like me, you loathe super-rich phony people who pretend to be your friend, pressure you, undermine you, especially when they are making oodles of money more from connections to corporations, in this case, one that is pulling down a hospital, evicting a squatter (there for 17 years), and when he is gone wrecking his place

and want to feel for all endangered species (even salmon) — the young actor on the right spends his existence handing out petitions and helping other people


you will find this movie wonderfully enjoyable.

Our hero wins out against a dastardly priggish barrister seeking to humiliate and to remove him by having a decent judge (Simon Callow), wise lawyer (Adeel Akhtar), and supportive petitioning demonstrating friends (Hugh Skinner). Unexpectedly he can be allowed to stay in the park and even given the property under a medieval ordinance, as long as he can produce documentary proof he’s been there more than 12 years. He does — with a little help from Emily (and Phil Davis — see below). It is just wonderfully enjoyable to triumph once in a while.

The movie opens up with a cheerful scene in one of the meadows of Hampstead: we see a kite, children playing, adult joining in, lovers kissing. Emily (Diane Keaton) is meeting in her building with her women friends, and being told she has an enormous upkeep bill. We watch her go off to her volunteer work at a charity shop, upstairs to her attic to rummage, find a binoculars and glimpse and keeping watching “a tramp” (Brendan Gleeson) whose lifestyle is improbably picturesque, cunningly achieved, and comfortable. At moments of high and low comedy, poignancy (she and her son, played so warmly by James Norton), the score inspirits us — light, easy, life as dance. Lots of photography of Hampstead, a pretty place where elite activities go on all the time

People fly kites; they spoil their children. Emily and Donald even take time out visit a museum (as did Harvey and Kate — see below)

Towards the end of the movie, we worry our new found couple have broken up: when he gains ownership of the property, and she has to leave her flat, she wants him to sell the his house and property, and when she sells her condom, they can start “a new life” comfortably together. He says, they have a life already; a big explosion and protesting quarrel ensues. Switch to another shot and she is, with the help of her son, selling all her stuff in an auction, paying her last bills, and settling into a another picturesque place. Time passes and she has acquired a new companion, a hen (Claude). But lo and behold Donald is passing by in a houseboat, his house moved onto a moving barge and before you know it they are drifting down the stream together

The director, Joel Hopkins, has made only four films in the relatively longer time (for making more films than that) he has been working. They are original and quirky, draw on depth of feeling and thought and improvisation. This one is actually some two years old, and has only come over to the US recently, and while it may have a movie run, like other recent films, the place to find it is Amazon Prime. The one by by Hopkins closest in outline is the movie about a day-long exquisitely moving walk of Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson: Last Chance Harvey.


Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson (Last Chance Harvey, 2000)

Like Harvey Shine and Kate Walker, Emily and Donald have had long lives and real troubles; all three sets of couples (I include Delpy and Hawke) are meditations on the troubled private lives of people, intelligently put before us. What’s different here is the troubles are more probable — money. Emily’s husband has left her badly in debt; and she is at risk of being thrown out of her apartment unless she kowtows to her great friend (played by Lesley Manville) who gets through life by obeying her stealthy real estate developer husband; and unless Emily goes to bed with a creepy predatory lawyer (Jason Watkins) obtained for her by said friend. Donald’s life seems to have been rocky in different phases and he first achieved some stability when he built his shack and determined to live as modest a life as possible (grows some of his own food). The movie does not convey how Harry Hallowes supported himself sufficiently nor tell us the true ending of the saga.

The film does mean to have a serious political topic: homelessness, paradoxical because of the perpetual photography of this elite looking area. In fact in our society elite areas contain many desperate people. Emily prompts Donald to find the man (Phil Davis) who produced built his fireplace.  And Davis has saved (!) the miraculous 17 year old document to prove that Donald has been on that property all those years; he says he helped install a fireplace and has come to court because he was once homeless and knows what this condition is like to live out. Now he keeps body and soul together as a handyman.

Our central characters are a couple coming round to be more honest with themselves and one another, more tolerant and forgiving he, more assertive she. So it’s Last Chance Harvey all over again. They have witty conversations, explore how each reacts to society at large, and to one another. So it’s Before Sunrise all over again. But I think another different note is struck, one consonant the theme of homelessness and the power of a hegemonic real estate order. We find it in how they both meet with enough kind people along the way to keep them going — James Norton conveys the warmest affection as her son: it’s he who helps her sell her stuff at an auction, helps her find another apartment and is generally there around the edges of existence, on call.

As for Diane Keaton, she is channeling as they say Annie Hall in costume especially.


Brendan Gleeson is our aging Irish man who has hard some hard knocks but holds out for his dignity. The actor has a way of standing or sitting there so stalwartly you know he will not be abused beyond a certain point. As a man, you may lean on him.

I admit this movie is flawed; it is far more than treacly;there are not enough good individual lines and too much cliche; t is a long way shy from the art film that Before Sunrise is. I would say another summer movie, one from a couple of years ago, Mr Holmes was better because its underlying melancholy and bizarre wild underlife was more genuine.

Still, we have a couple coming round to be more honest with themselves and one another, more tolerant and forgiving he, more assertive she.  What distinguishes this film is its fundamental tone of kindliness. Even toward a hen. And that’s why it is appropriate for this year. I suggest we all be kind to ourselves this hot July 4th and to one another and revel in this gently humane part fantasy story, a summer movie. Let us not ask too much of one another for just now.

Ellen

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Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers appealing to Victoria


Victoria herself angry, impoverished, resentful

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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

I waited until I got hold of and read the book, David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog. Why? No one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you. I’m told Get Out is a crucial recent film about black life in America. It’s next on my Netflix queue.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Joseph as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of Daphnis and Chloe, Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Suggestive of giving birth: actually Tish’s mother is helping her bath the new born baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more.  At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I’ve placed it in this Reveries under the Sign of Austen because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. But much more (on the whole) she. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.

Ellen

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Abbreviated subtitle in Italian translates as Youth


Abbreviated subtitle in Italian translates as Middle Time

Friends and readers,

It’s been five months since I wrote my second blog on Elena Ferrante’s work: in February I wrote about the issue of her choice to remain anonymous (now pseudonymous), a few of her novellas, her supposed child’s picture book, and the first of her quartet of Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, and the 8 part film adaptation of the book that was shown on HBO. Its abbreviated three subtitles translate into Prologue, Childhood and Adolescence. (My first blog was me being stunned by her Days of Abandonment, about which beyond what I could get from the book itself I knew nothing at all.) Since then I’ve read the second and third volume of this quartet as I think the whole group are intended as a retelling of the life of a woman in a fascist European society for and about woman by a compelling truth-telling self-consciously female novelist of our era.

One of the ways this is mainsteamed book and has been able to capture a large audience as Ferrante’s powerful novellas have not: like Sense and Sensibility, where the point of view is Elinor’s and Marianne is the one we watch, so here the point of view is Lenu remembering and so everything is softened, seen from afar or guessed at based on these notebooks that Lenu has dropped in the river. In the second and middle book Lenu (rightly for safety and some fulfillment of her gifts) buys into the same middle class life Nino manages to establish a better place in (on his own right, not through marriage). This also has the effect of not having to show us the pain, humiliation, difficulty that Lenu too has with her manners, lack of clothes, who she has to kowtow to. The earlier novels gave us Lila’s kind of experience raw and angry or nightmarish; or (The Il figlia oscura, the Lost Daughter), a quiet interlude of a Lenu kind of character at the beach contemplating the fraught experience from afar but only talking of what is happening now — as she steals a doll say, or marks papers. Imagine Sense and Sensibility from Marianne’s point of view. That is Ferrante’s novellas. Ferrante permitted herself to write an introduction to an edition of Sense and Sensibility, so important is this book to her; so too, apparently, Alcott’s Little Women.


From an add for the film adaptation of My Brilliant Friend


A still from Andrew Davies’s Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: he has framed the talk so that we concentrate on Elinor’s taking in of what Marianne has to say; Austen’s book and all the films are from Elinor’s POV

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

The Story of a New Name begins and ends in medias res. My Brilliant Friend ended with Lila’s wedding, and Stefano’s first betrayal of some promises he made to her. The storyline itself begins with their “honeymoon” where we get as graphic and disillusioned an account of forced graphic sex (Stefano continually beats Lila who appears to dislike sex — justifiably) as I’ve ever read. Lenu (Elena Greco) has dropped out of school so confused and frightened is she by how she is treated at Lila’s wedding, her mother’s behavior to her, what she doesn’t see as the result of hard study, and only gradually is she being brought back to study by Lila who buys her books (Lenu’s parents have no money for books or clothes for her, or even a private space) and gives Lenu a room of her own to study in within the elegant large apartment Lila has to live in as Stefano’s wife. Then Lenu attracts a mentor while Lila begins to thrive as a businesswoman for the Caracci and Solari groceries and shoestores: both displease their relatives, Lenu for seemingly doing nothing that will lead to money or the world’s respect, Lila for not getting pregnant and then having miscarriages (she is 17).

Lila is taken to a modern doctor and oh did this resonate with me. Room filled with customers, everyone in awe of this man. From Lila’s point of view, he gets to invade her with his metal instruments. She feels violated. And he says (I have heard a male doctor say this of me after examining me): “it’s all there” in this satisfied voice. I don’t know why I didn’t report him to Kaiser, but suspect it was because he was a black doctor (I’m really honest here) and was worried I wouldn’t be believed and be thought racist. There you go. But after that I never went to any male gynecologist ever. When I was 16 I was taken to just such a prestigious place and was violated similarly — or felt so. And given this “down from the throne advice” in this disdainful manner. I think the same things go on today in the US – clearly they go on in Italy. I never went to a male gynecologist in the British national health but remember the woman I got contraception from also treated me with a lack of respect because at the time I was not married.

This is the youth of these young women. What stands out? All sorts of passionate incidents where the underlying values of the society are exposed in the most raw ways. Early in Lila’s married life how important are having expensive things and much money. The acceptance of the infliction of violence upon women by men in the women’s families. I was struck by how Lila ignorantly insists on going to a party with Lenu to which Lenu’s mentor has invited Lenu and Lila doesn’t realize until afterwards how she cannot and never will fit in again. How I bonded with her.

Before going, Lenu becomes intensely anxious over — in just the ways I would. What shall I wear? she has no money either. How shall I appear? what say? her problem is not solved by Lila offering to come with her. Lila does dress right (blouse and skirt, nice ones with heels) but does not at all fit in. It’s a devastating lesson for Lila which we see only from the outside. Lenu fits in because she is known for her good work and people talk to her of it (like I remember people talking to me of my blogs). On the way home Lila is malicious and does all she can to hurt Lenu: we have seen Lila walks around with bruises from that husband of hers, who himself had hoped to be let in. How they have no idea.

While there Lenu learns that Nino is being published in much more prestigious journals than her mentor: this is the kind of thing that now passes Lila by. The title of the book points us to how the story line of the book is the depiction of the life of Lila (Raffaella Cerullo) as long as she stays married to Stefano Carracci.

The storyline has them then both going to Ischia, because the doctor recommended rest and relaxation — but with Lila’s mother, Nunzia, as chaperon and guard-dog and sister-in-law, Pinuccia Caracci who has married Lila’s brother, Rino, and become spiteful under his mistreatment of her and Lenu as Lila’s paid servant. It is there the two girls re-meet Nino and fall in love with him. Lila and Pinuccia are utterly subject to their husband’s weekend visits (sex is demanded continually when the men want it).

About 3/4s the way through the novel Lila does the astonishingly brave act of leaving Stefano in the early stages of an ecstatic love affair with Nino Sarratore; he tires quickly of her, partly based on her working class manners which will prevent him from going on with his middle class academic-writer career, and she is rescued from destitution first by the faithful Pasquale Peluso (now a construction worker and communist), and then (becoming his live-in but not sex partner) Enzo Scanno (a peddlar of fruit and vegetables who under Lila’s influence studies mathematics, engineering, computer science. She has had a baby and believes it to be Nino’s — who takes no interest whatsoever in this boy. She lives in squalor because Enzo and Pasquale make very little money. All three become involved in violent working class politics against the fascist regime.

At the same time interwoven in by Lenu (Elena Greco) as the central narrator, is Lenu’s life as college student, her very hard work, and then (having been noticed and picked up by an important female mentor, a professor Galiani), first experience as a published novelist, and political journalist (very briefly). It seems that in this era it is very difficult for any woman to sustain a money-paying position in university. Both girls have by the end of the novel had at least two lovers — Lenu moves from an engagement with a neighborhood working class boy, Antonio, to a potentially high academic, Franco Mario. Lenu has learned the manners of the middling to upper class and has been betrayed by Nino twice: after he stood up for her novel at the close of My Brilliant Friend, he again thwarts her publication in one of the journals he writes for; he choses Lila over her without letting her know this until Lila exposes everything by flight; meanwhile he has gotten another girl pregnant and ignored girl and child. By the end of the book Lenu has become bethrothed to a male academic student, Pietro Airota, whose family connections, especially his mother, Adele, just about guarantee him a lucrative career in university. he is a kindly unaggressive man attracted to her body and mind.

The framing of this book must not be left out. My Brilliant Friend began with the disappearance of the 66 year old Lila. The Story of a New Name begins with Lila again near present time (in her sixties), who we are told is no longer close to Lenu, giving Lenu a large metal box with 8 — need I say precious – notebooks of her life story in it. Fat important unrepeatable diaries. After reading them, Lenu dumps them in a river. I had to stand up, walk about and then sit down for a while before I could take that cruel an act in. Since Alcott’s Little Women is again alluded to in this book let e say I thought about thow Jo could recreate a novel after Amy destroyed the manuscript. No one can re-create 8 volumes of daily & nightly record-keeping. Towards the end of the book Lenu recurs to this diary and says the suddenly inserted narrative she has of Lila’s life with Stefano after she went back to him briefly after Nino left her and now her life with Enzo comes from there. I should say the book is crudely put together at times.

I like this part where we learn of her studying, her trying to pass exams, finally the books she read, one young man she gets involved with and they fuck. But she says that she and Lila somehow came together in the old intense way and now she must tell of how wrong she was about what was going on. We are told how she surprised people by bringing together unexpected books, themes, characters, What is not surprising is Lila carries on with a torrid mad affair with Nino — reminding me of the 18th century Paul and Virginie only this time there is a husband. But in her notebooks (which we know after the first sequence Lenu unforgivably has dumped into the sea) what Lila exulted in was not so much the sex as what they read and talked about

Nor should I omit the art — or lack of it. Ferrante’s book is not polished and smooth, and unlike say Austen (whom Ferrante appears to admire and regard as a predecessor) Ferrante does not try to imitate the passing of time so as to give us a sense of long time for years passing and short time for quick events; she will leap suddenly forward and then turn back to tell what she had not brought in before. The Italian itself is far more demotic than the register for elegant concise English Ann Goldstein uses. At the same time unlike My Brilliant Friend where very few of the characters become alive and distinctive beyond our two heroines, by the end of this novel all the major players in Lenu and Lila’s life have become complex living presences.

Unexpectedly Nunzia is one of these. She emerges for the first time as a woman with a brain and a heart. She hardly ever leaves the house — so shy — but she loves being there and does walk out to the beach. She says how Lila should have gone to school and be going now but they hadn’t the money and her husband wouldn’t hear of it. She says they are far too young to be married. She likes Lenu — but we know were she alerted to what’s really happening on the island of Ischia (Nino’s affair with Lila, his pretended love for Lenu, and Pinuccia’s having an affair with Nino’s friend, Bruno), Nunzia would tell their husbands (paradoxically out of fear she backs the patriarchy that has destroyed her life’s chances, become the girls’ enemy.

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

The irony of the title, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is there is no leaving. Don’t kid yourself. You cannot escape the all encompassing mindset filth of the corrupt deteriorating world of 21st century Italy.

As the third novel of the quartet opens, Lila and Lenu are walking through the old neighborhood together. Lila is now living in her parents’ old apartment with her son, for now clearly identified as Nino’s. So her child has not a moron for a parent. Lenu is about to married to Pietro Airota, his mother Adele, has become her mentor, but because she did not go to the right university, she has a lower level teaching job and until she marries lives with her parents – not enough money. Lila has lost whatever conventional beauty she had, her thin hair is white, her face lined from exhaustion and worry, she is bitter. Lenu fights fat. As they walk they come across a horrifying corpse, it’s the remains of a suicide, one of the girls familiar from the previous novel, her face and body ruined, her mind devastated — it reminds me of Troubled Love, which is about the suicide of the heroine’s mother and the heroine’s attempt to cope with burying her.

We gradually move back to the scene we left off at where Nino had stood defending Lenu’s book, and now Ferrante makes this believable because she adds all the nasty politics of real university life. I have not read such a raw depiction of this milieu and from a lower class woman’s point of view (fringe person) before. I find such writing down of truth exhilarating. She includes the perniciousness of fights over theory (sexual and class oriented). She’s very good at how the language is used to exclude and protect, intimidate anyone not using it as inferior (stupid). Lila has not gotten to the first base to understand quite how she is shut out and why — or even that to help Enzo it is not enough that he should understand skills and content.

After Lenu dramatizes her fiancee’s meeting with her parent and his parents with hers, we see that Pietro is a man with considerable social gifts; I begin to get nervous because nonetheless the wedding is put off again; now his mother insists on using her influenced to get them a lovely apartment inexpensively in the part of Florence where high cultural people reside and an interesting life may be had. I fear Lenu will not marry him. Then we switch to Lila whose tragic hard story — not that she sees it quite that way — Lenu feels we must know — it’s happening at the same time

What I want to report is both girls are often sexually harassed. We get so many casual scenes of these male academics, old and younger, trying to get into bed or use Lenu. It rings so true. Similary in the horrible sausage factory Lila is assailed by the boss and others. Lila tries to soothe Enzo and Pasquale Peluso (who remains with her in effect as a loving friend) by saying she fends them off or they have stopped. But it’s not so. The book is so true to life — yet I want to say that for myself after my wretched teenagehood, when I went out to work by then married to Jim I was never so assailed. I’d catch a male looking at me, but no approach. I begin to wonder if I was ugly — or, what I do think, is I was so traumatized by what had happened to me as a teenager that I let off signals to the males in these universities, offices &c that this is the last thing in the world I’d want.

The narrative has switched to tell Lila’s story from her point of view as if we had an omniscient narrator — but we don’t. This is part of the book’s rawness. Lila’s life has become unbearably desolating: from the hard wretched work in the factory, the terrible conditions, how she right away understands that when she feeds information to the union, they have no idea how to act effectively. Her relationship with Enzo is troubled: he cannot understand that she wants no sex with anyone. When the book opens she is neglected looking,here we felt that she has developed a murmur in her heart so stressful is her inward existence …

Suddenly (as I wrote) Ferrante switches back to Lenu living with Pietro. In spurts going back and forth, she marries him and says she remembers nothing. So we get no description. In a couple of paragraphs she has a baby girl and insists on breast-feeding at first it goes well but quickly the child is biting, wailing and both just miserable. The mother-in-law moves in but Lenu remains fixated, she does not clean of keep the house. Her writing degenerates, no spirit in it. Ferrante is exploring motherhood again and trying to show how a mother can seem a monster but can’t get herself quite to pull this off clearly and sophisticatedly.

Lenu’s younger sister goes to live with Marcello Solaro, much older than she, a thug, fascist, and there has been no marriage. Lenu rushes with family and husband back to Naples to try to stop this relationship and finds she cannot. She is treated with envy and a sense of alienation and a false respect as is her husband. She has tried to have real communication with Lila but Lila remains at a distance, half mocking and we learn that along with her great prowess as a programmer she has something to do with the people who run around shooting politicians — from the side of the radical left.

I am puzzled with Lenu she is treated — there is so little respect with such a pretense of respect. She is forced into visiting her sister, and then finds a party set up and an insistence she and her husband and her children stay with the sister instead of escaping to a hotel.

Lila’s part of the novel (also Pasquale) are a series of newspaper reports (in effect) of who murdered who, who destroyed whose legs, face, business.

The last quarter: “life goes on.” The details told about Lenu’s life especially mirror those we find as central to the lives of her heroines in other of her novels. In The Lost Daughter, the woman who has left her husband, gotten a job teaching (in a college of some sort) has had two daughters who sided with the father. Lenu now has two daughters: Adele and Elsa, and she has not been getting along with Pietro for all sorts of reasons for quite some time. At one point Again Lila unloads her son, now called Gennaro, on Lenu one summer and Lenu is really expected to take this child on because Lila is busy with her spectacular managing and pre-computerizing of companies. Lenu does balk and finally send the boy back (he is a Stefano) but she is breaking an understood demand

Just about all the characters who came alive at the end of the second volume are part of her story and there is a frightening acknowledged class war going on with people who are socialists murdering the fascists after the fascists have murdered or imprisoned them. Pasquale and Nadia (Galiani’s daughter) are part of this. So too Lila is a participant on the side. Grim horrible working conditions and poverty are part of this.

In the last part Nino insinuates himself into the home of Pietro and Lenu, and after first seducing Pietro to become a best friend, Nino insults and alienates him, and simply takes Lenu as a lover. Against the anger, will power, hurt of Eleanora, Nino’s dull uneducated but rich wife, Nino is leaving with Elena. She just drops, or abandons her two daughters; by leaving Pietro in this way Elena’s publications (the product of Pietro’s mother’s influence, and the influence of his sister) are in danger. Nino too is casting aside many of his relationships that he needs as a successful professor.

At first I felt that wrongly Ferrante was on the side of Lenu as striking out for whatever gives her joy, leads her to write. She has long been bored by Pietro, but the parallel with what Nino did to Lila at the opening of the book is so explicit. We are told Lenu and Nino especially are dazzled by this mad relationship of frantic love making; he is leading her into the same act as he led Lila, but we know he left Lila one month later.. Said he couldn’t stand her or it, and many years later bad mouthed Lila to the point of scorning her way of giving herself sexually to him. He is promiscuous; cared nothing for Gennaro (turned out he is Stefano’s son but that’s not why Nino didn’t care); he has another son he pays no attention to. A page before the end Lila calls to tell of yet more political murders and when Lenu tells Lila what she is going to do Lila vehemently reproaches her for leaving her good husband, home, educational position. Has she learned nothing from what Nino did to Lila (she was rescued by Pasquale and Enzo from the brutality of Stefano)?

For myself I found Lenu’s behavior to Pietro ugly and so utterly selfish — so he seems dull and cautious; she uses him and abuses him emotionally. She grows angry at him when he will not countenance students who are violent revolutionaries and wants to turn them over to police. Ferrante leaves tones and nuances that suggest the stance towards Lenu’s behavior she expects Is Lenu is utterly unfair to her husband here. His mother and sister are also doing all they can at this juncture to publish a third book she has written. Will they carry on?

Lenu is also deserting her daughters – in the earlier novella, The lost daughter, there are two daughters and one like Dede (Lenu’s older daughter) who sides with Pietro though longs for her mother to stay. Lenu goes on about how she is now leaving, not staying but in fact she is repeating the ruthless behavior of everyone around her. The third book ends in the maddened muddle the second book ended with, only this time it’s Lenu fleeing with Nino, who we now is not worth it. His father was a better man in many ways: he stayed with his wife, supported his family well, took them on holidays to Ischia.

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Victoria Crowe, November Window (a 21st century woman artist)

Last thoughts for now:

The Lila story suffers from continual spectacular idealization: we are really expected to believe she at home conquers pre-computer machines and teaches Enzo to and they are offered super-high salaries to make whole companies efficient. I just don’t believe it. Ferrante has persisted in this idea that this girl is a genius and can do anything if she sets her mind to it — only lacks upper class manners, ways, and an academic style. Lila for example liked the second novel or appeared to but hadn’t the language to say why (or so she said).

Concrete circumstances are significant. Lenu does not get a job teaching at a university. I am startled by this as Professor Galiani is a woman — so women taught in upper level schools. It could be that in the 1960s or 70s women were still very rare in universities but Lenu does not say this. Her husband has a high position as a professor in Florence. Instead her choices are stay home and immerse herself in domesticity or get her mother or mother-in-law to do this while she writes a book or articles for magazines. It seems almost common, nothing out of the ordinary for these grandmothers to leave their lives and in effect work for Lenu. A third choice is what? none is given beyond that she makes Pietro socialize and becomes the center of a networking academic world as a faculty wife and one book author.

She’s deeply dissatisfied at times by this life but the lurching element makes jumps and sometimes she is satisfied. She writes a second novel which is never published because her mother-in-law detests it as does her husband. It mirrors the radical leftist politics at the time. Is not a romance at all. They say it’s crude and vulgar. She takes the content from stories Lila tells her of what’s happening in Naples and to some of her old friends. Her articles are also rejected — she says they are no good but doesn’t quite say why.

I know by our era there are many or as many women academics as males in Italian universities but my experience has shown me they are usually of very upper class background. Without that you end up a person with a vocation, teaching adult ed, teaching in lower schools, writing for various magazines but rarely without another full time job. There are not enough paid positions in universities in Italy to begin to provide real jobs for a wide range of people teaching. Ferrante may want her story to be universal or of general application but often it is rooted in Italian norms and customs.

The over-all scheme of the three books is to expose to us the horrors of patriarchy and class-inflected capitalism. All the men ruthless, beating their wives, everyone twisted. A fascist society no one gets to leave from – when Lenu went to live in Florence she found herself in a society very like the one she grew up in in Naples; the richer quarters of Naples are not much different in culture and attitude from the poorer.  It is still crude as the use of irony is not clear; there is a lack of proportion in the parts, some ought to be developed slower and others contradictory.


Another cover illustration — the book read aloud on CDs

I can see why the key book remains Alcott’s Little Woman, and also Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (the double heroine), but want also to remark (as part of the general anti-intellectualism of Italian culture in general) that Ferrante is another novelist unwilling to cite other important Italian books and authors. Does she fear being too bookish? And she does not cite her modern predecessors.  Where for example is Elsa Morante? Natalie Ginzsburg? Grazia Deledda? Christa Wolff. I wish she were franker, used her real name. It would be a great help in understanding her books if she could be brave enough to withstand what will probably at first be resentful reproach.

So I end where I began my very first and second blogs: the problem of the author’s stance and identity (as bound together).

Ellen

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