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A portrait of Johnson’s biography of Richard Savage


Photo of Virginia Woolf and Roger Fry

“Could not biography produce something of the intensity of poetry, something of the excitement of drama, and yet keep also the peculiar virtue that belongs to fact — its suggestive reality, its own proper excitement ….” Woolf, “The Art of Biography”

Bayle’s Dictionary is a very useful work for those to consult who love the biographical part of literature, which is what I love most … Johnson, quoted by Boswell

Friends,

This past Thursday after reading away for weeks and weeks, I gave a working name for a paper for a volume of essays on Johnson: “Presences Among Us Imagining People: Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf’s Biographical Art.” Here is what I then came up with for tentative theses, plan or lines of argument. It’s a document to work from:

“Presences Among Us Imagining People: Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf’s Biographical Art.”

In histories, theoretical works on, and close readings of the art of biography, Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf have been credited with themselves writing, and having stirred others to write significant and transformative essays on and works of autobiographical and biographical art. The reactions of people who knew Johnson or Woolf or the circles of people in which they throve, or who read them early on, have been so strong that it has been a source of distress to scholars and fans alike that many readers’ perceptions of Johnson derive from Boswell’s Life of Johnson and not Johnson’s writing; or of Woolf from misogynist, politicized and ignorant distortions of Bloomsbury and not Woolf’s writing. As a presence among us, like many women and 19th century writers, Woolf has further suffered from the family biography and control (e..g., Quentin Bell’s biography), and films ranging from ambivalent to hostile towards a woman intellectual who killed herself (e.g., The Hours). The mission of this volume is to refute through his own writing the apparent misfit and caricatures of Johnson to post-modern, post-colonial minds.

Woolf’s biographies fall into the specifically modernist type of biography beginning most notably with Lytton Strachey’s ironic Eminent Victorians and Queen Victoria: a socio-psychoanalytic portrait written in aesthetically appropriate ethically invigorating forms true to the human experience of time. It need not follow the conventions for verisimilitude or literal documented supposed evidence, and her Flush and Orlando do not. The crucial feature of modernist biography is the recreation of convincingly particularized felt life in a documentable individual. Woolf was influenced by her father, Leslie Stephen’s interest in, writing about Johnson and the 18th century, and work as the editor and writer for the British Dictionary of National Biography. But in what Woolf writes in her life-writing and her journalism, it seems impossible to distinguish a sense of Johnson as a man apart from Boswell’s biography (especially “The Genius of Boswell,” “Saint Samuel of Fleet Street”). In his literary biographies, Johnson imagines their subjects through his encounter with his subject’s texts where time is irrelevant or timeless, while he takes what he can find out from others, from documents about their lived lives, and from specific political and cultural pressures, all to help account for the form these texts take. For Woolf also the life and personality of her subject is brought forth from their papers and environment, but she goes well beyond this consciously to take on board fictionalizing techniques and fantasy. Beyond this alignment and difference with and from Johnson, Woolf seems to have been influenced by Boswell and Johnson’s twin-tours to the Hebrides in her fiction; in To the Lighthouse Cornwall becomes the Hebrides.

Texts possibly to be discussed and examined: opening more general framing discussion from Johnson’s lives of Dryden, Pope, Milton, then for specific close reading The Life of Savage and the lesser known texts lives of Prior, Gray, and maybe Swift because there exist good modernist and portrait biographies for comparison; ending on how the lives as a whole cannot be regarded as literary history (too many important people left out), but can be seen as projecting the interconnection of politics in the era with poetry; maybe bring in fictional types in Johnson’s journalism in order to include women.

Turn to Woolf: texts possibly to be discussed and examined: opening more general framing discussion from her biography, Roger Fry, her Orlando (highly problematic as a literary life of Vita Sackville-West), then for specific close reading from Flush, her “Lives of the Obscure,” her Memoirs of Novelist (“Miss Joan Martyn,” “Mysterious Case of Miss V”). She argues fictional characters are more real and remembered more than non-fictional except in rare cases (like Boswell’s Life of Johnson) even if fiction is de-centered (Lighthouse, Jacob’s Room). We should read her fiction as autobiographical despite all the prejudice again this

[I’m not sure of the above: Maybe I’d do better in the central section just to analyze Life of Savage first and then her Roger Fry.]

Conclusion: Johnson alive, relevant to our age: his work can function as a good antidote against hagiography prevalent today despite all the supposed “interrogation:” he idolizes no one. He takes an ethical stand so often avoided in today’s academic literary study (candid talk about why this is so). Johnson keeps to strong standards of truth and is against acceptance of delusions & corruption (found in post-modern discussions of literary works, misled scholars, and fan groups). Woolf is crucial today, for she anticipates experiments in getting beyond impasses in biographical art: e.g., the aftermath life (Janet Malcolm on Sylvia Plath); the life made up of fragments; the quest biography; where the subject’s family or friends are obstacles and have held back letters. She is intensely aware how biography is a form of autobiography;he may be. Both respect serious literature of the past as a journey, an adventure, lending identity and meaning and distinguish it from trash, junk, and the mediocre.

Closure: She does seem very fond of him, and politically she is deeply of the left liberal anti-war anti-hierarchical, anti-colonial persuasion. A married lesbian. He seems to have great compassion for the marginalized, from a young boy who would have been a slave (whom he leaves his property to) and cats (much abused in the era), to at least an awareness (as a disabled person) of the place of disability in people’s lives, with affection for a number of women, e.g., Fanny Burney, Charlotte Lennox, Hill Boothby, Catherine Desmoulins (the latter two less well-known). He is fiercely anti-war (one of his Ramblers has a vulture teaching her young how to live by watching men slaughter one another), loathes debt-collectors and the unjust prison system of his age.

Why did I agree to do this? A friend asked me and for me this is not an unlikely pairing. I’ve loved both authors’ books and have been absorbed reading about them, their lives and work for many years now; like Johnson, the biographical part of literature is often what I love best.


Cover of the book I read in 2000s

First Johnson: as a graduate student I fell in love with Johnson as he presents himself in his writing. I took a course with Frank Brady (well-known scholar of Boswell, pupil of a once better-known scholar, Frederick Pottle), which turned out to be 3/4s Johnson and Boswell. My trip this past summer to the Scottish Highlands was partly prompted by reading more than 40 years ago now Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, together with its twin book, Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides. In my later 20s I used to solace myself reading to myself one a night of Johnson’s Ramblers, Idlers, Adventurers. They inspirited, strengthened, helped me to accept life because after seeing it fully, Johnson did — ironically.


Reynolds’s famous portrait of Johnson supposedly devouring a book — he seems to have become blind in one eye when a toddler

Jim liked Johnson too and when he took an undergraduate course in 18th century literature to finish his B.A. here in the states in the 1970s (in order to go to graduate school in math), he wrote a paper he called “The War of Johnson’s Ear.” He tried to demonstrate Johnson had a good ear for poetical rhythm. The professor was not impressed and gave him a B :(. Jim hadn’t like the course: he had looked forward to reading Johnson and Boswell (as I had), Burke, Paine, Reynolds, great poetry (Goldsmith but also women poets) and novels and memoirs. Maybe a couple originally in French (Voltaire). Admittedly his view of the great works were shaped by an old canon. He was appalled to be given the marginalia of Blake in Blake’s edition of Reynolds’s treatise on art. He found himself reading Eliza Fenwick whose texts Jim found beneath contempt. There was Goldsmith, Christopher Smart and early Wordsworth. Maybe Burns and Cowper. No Crabbe. And he probably let the professor know what he had felt. In the mid-1990s I taught a selection of Johnson in a Penguin book (edited by Patrick Cruttwell) for a literary survey course at George Mason university (British Literature first half): my representatives of the era were Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and this volume of Johnson. I didn’t use an anthology. I said we were reading intensively not extensively.

Then in the early 2000’s I and a friend opened a list for Eighteenth Century Worlds @Yahoo, and among the books that sustained it through the life it had, were Boswell’s Life of Johnson (there is apparently a fan group for Johnson as he appears in or with Boswell), the twin-tour books, then Johnson’s Ramblers, Idlers, Adventurers, and a single volume selection of Fanny Burney’s diary and journals (part of their circle). On my own, I turned to Hester Thrale Piozzi then, her travel book, Clifford’s biography of her, then just immersed myself in Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letters and poems — a member of a tangential world. I love to read and to write life-writing, letters, biographies. I would always go to the sessions on Johnson at ASECS and EC/ASECS. I’ve blogged on Johnson too.


The cover of the book I first read her in

That’s but one half of the diptych. My love for Virginia Woolf goes back to when Jim and I were first married and we used to take turns reading her letters and diaries aloud to one another in the evening (in Leeds where we didn’t even have a radio). Her Common Reader I read and remembered before that — in college. And before that for me in my later teens, The Voyage Out. He liked her too, and bought her essays and diaries — all the volumes, which I now possess in my library house. But even better or as much he read Leonard Woolf, the many volumed biography and novel — I read Glendinning’s magnificent biography on Leonard aloud to Jim on a long train trip. Teaching her brilliant anti-war, anti-patriarchal treatise, Three Guineas, in those same mid-1990s classes (the second half of British Literature where I also taught Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day) taught me so much.


Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Dalloway

It had been Woolf’s essays and life-writing that entranced me; but again in the 2000s, on another Yahoo list (Women Writers through the Ages) we had a Virginia Woolf summer and I listened to and read The Years and read her essays on early modern and 17th century people. Hooked once again. I went to Woolf sessions at all the MLAs I attended, even, with Jim by my side, a Virginia Woolf Society party — how daring of me. Since then I’ve belonged to the International Society, and get the yearly rich newsletter. For three years now I’ve been reading her on and off, begun again with on Wwtta, through Hermione Lee’s biography, posted about mostly on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two. I’d go off and read the shorter of the works she analyzed. A year and a half ago, an OLLI course at AU took me through Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, A Room of One’s Own, books, and wonderful films & YouTube (Eileen Atkins). I just joined a Virginia Woolf list.

I love the short and long works, and this summer listened to, skim-read Between the Acts, just now finishing the deeply life-filled Jacob’s Room. I listen as well as read, and find Wanda McCadden’s cadences (her other name, Nadia May) emphasizes the more outward or dramatic aspects of the work: she does lose its peculiar combination of poignancy and comedy. It ought to be read as often as Mrs Dalloway. Jacob is a lover of the Greek classics: they are what he escapes from the modern world to, what paradoxically help him to understand at least one skein of the complicated life all around him. The feel of the text is captured in the lines of Patricia Fargnoli in one of her poems: “Life moves on like shadows of the windblown willows/to other lives …” Jacob keeps these beloved books in his room.

Jacob’s Room begins as a widow’s story. No where is this mentioned in the literature. Mrs Betty Flanders’ husband died in an accident years ago, leaving her with three children, one so young it cannot have been that many years. But we are made to feel her husband’s death happened a long while ago to her. She is in Cornwall for the holidays and writing a Captain friend, Barfoot (he’s married so safe) in Scarborough. There is a painter about whom Woolf writes in similar ways to what she says of Lily Briscoe, color, and lonely people who don’t fit in: Mr Steele. On the beach, a little later Mrs Flanders hears the waves, the ship — her husband died of an accident at sea. We are told he left her impoverished, but Woolf’s idea of poverty is different from some of us it seems. She has a nanny, doesn’t cook her own supper, doesn’t have to work for money. But she is at a great loss with these boy children, hanging from her….

She continually moves from inward presence to inward presence and by so doing uncovers a real feeling of living life which includes sex bought from prostitutes by our hero. Many of the presences come from utterly different classes in different areas of life. We also experiencing Jacob in a large variety of social worlds and deeds. Suddenly too the narrator will go into deep dream time on the place where the narrative has settled and allude way back in time so it becomes a movement through centuries, deep history embedded in people today One aristocratic lady likes such-and-such food because her ancestors have been enjoying it since their death, this partial recreation. The novel of manners or social life is left far behind.

Jacob’s Room is as decentered as unheroic as Roger Fry as de-centered as The Waves, Between the Acts. While we can believe in Jacob, he is just a center knob in a wheel where all the spokes — all the many living presences and places come out of. I just love how he loves and thinks in terms of the Greek classics. This morning I listened to how Woolf manages to bring in tandem a sense of a desperately homeless (near) prostitute trying to get into the house where Jacob lives and other street people and the people at a party he went to — when he came home he thought how delightful to be with 10 new people (themselves beautifully captured), and we find a long reverie on the books at the British library, all by men, Jacob is spending his evening’s reading.

3/4’s through I began to worry about Jacob. I’ve read somewhere that he dies at the end — perhaps that’s why people say (carelessly) this book is about her brother. Jacob is the central node of the book, but it is in space equally about many people whom he comes across and spends time with. Especially women who are vulnerable. I am so touched with those women Jacob goes to bed with — this is indicated discreetly. They are the models paid to strip naked by his friends or at the Slade: ignorant, even dumb, without a chance in the world for respect or security or comfort. Prostitutes. His mother, the widow, whom the book opened with hardly goes any where in her life, hardly meets anyone outside her narrow class sphere and local area.

By near the end of the book Jacob has fallen in love with a married woman he meet while touring, but he has not connected deeply with anyone (not her either). He is not married. It’s hinted people think he’s homosexual and he writes to a male friend Bonamy. I can’t see any other ending but death. Probably in World War One. The book takes place just earlier. At the end of The Voyage Out Rachel dies. In the middle of To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay dies, and in the last third we are told of three other deaths of characters who meant something. I wonder if anyone has written about this urge to death in Woolf’s novels — probably, this one seems the saddest of all. We cherish this character as we are told his close friends do. Others say he is the best person they ever met. He never hurts anyone. He has truly intelligent (sceptical) attitudes towards politics. Acts with compassion and courtesy. The book is about life itself as a stream of feeling; she feels equally intense over say a crab or some other creature endlessly trying to say jump over something and it cannot.

I even managed The Waves (just) using a reading aloud on CDs (I couldn’t have managed without Frances Geater). This morning I began a second reading of her biography of Roger Fry, this time in the superlative edition by Diane Gillespie.


Fry’s portrait of Virginia Woolf — they were at times very close

I’ve lots of wonderful reading ahead: other “modern biographies,” more on visual art, portraiture. I use the titles Dr and Mrs for fun — that’s how he is known popularly and what she was called, how addressed in her lifetime.

So now I will listen to Boswell’s Johnson read aloud (unabridged), from Librivox, which I have put here, with a hope of reading/listening to it late at night — if the MP3 of the same work there called The life of Samuel Johnson (unabridged) read by Bernard Mayes doestn’t work well in my car.

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

From her Tasso:

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

From Weil Englished:

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

And

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


My other Aeneid

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


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

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

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

Vice now in charge.

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

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

Ellen

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Ciarhan Hinds as Wentworth lifting Amanda Root as Anne Elliot into the carriage with the Crofts (1995 BBC Persuasion)

Henry: ‘Condemn’d in lonely Woods a banish’d Man to rove’
Emma: ‘That I, of all Mankind, will love but Thee alone’– Prior, Henry and Emma

Friends and readers,

Still on this question of how intertextuality’s layers deepen the meaning of a text (or film).

Last time I wrote of Persuasion, I traced the threads Austen wove therein from Charlotte Smith’s elegiac poems and Austen’s knowledge of Smith’s difficult life (betrayed by a husband, impoverished, crippled) in the context of other intensely romantic poets and texts (Byron, Shelley, Edmund Spenser): the characters from this angle in the novel present themselves as melancholy, plangent, drenched in irretrievable loss, with anecdotal counterparts presenting a prosaic buoyant hope in renewal.


Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot cracking under the strain of remembering what was (2007 ITV Persuasion)


Helen Schlesinger as the cheerful disabled Mrs Smith (1995 Persuasion)

Tonight I want to write of another briefer skein of allusion in Persuasion, which if examined turns out to reach across the novel, and offer readings about loyalty, male obduracy and suspicion of women, female abjection, constancy in love, sex, men and women’s natures and circumstances from Pride and Prejudice through to this last sixth full novel. This time it is a case of a text redolent with a cynical realistic disillusioned wit, which connects to the most plangent poignant moments of Persuasion and its comic-ironic, and burlesque elements too.


Dancing at Uppercross (1995 Persuasion) — one of the lighter moments in the film

I move to the first half of the 18th century, to Matthew Prior whose forte in lighter verse, tales and narratives, and lyrics was ironical sentiment. Once very well-known, to 18th century audiences and perhaps into the early 19th (I surmise Byron could have enjoyed his poetry, and his more serious philosophical metaphysics continued to be read), technically speaking, Prior is said by some to be the best male poet between Dryden and Pope. His Poems on Several Occasions (1709) appears to have been well-known until late in the century, and printed there are the two poems we will deal with, The Nut-Brown Maid (1503?), followed by Henry and Emma (by Prior), as an imitation (an invitation to the reader to compare), frequently alluded to.


Prior’s Collected Poems (1719), with featured frontispiece an imagined moment from Henry and Emma

There is another edition of Prior that Austen could have read these two poems in. At the close of an honorable career as a diplomat (if competence and producing useful treatises hard to negotiate means anything), in 1719 underpaid, undervalued partly because of his original low rank, Prior found himself near broke. His many influential political and poetic friends, Pope, Swift, Harley, Bathurst, Arbuthnot (see Ripply, Matthew Prior, a Twayne Life, Chapter 1), using Tonson as publisher, helped him produce an immense volume of poetry by subscription (a large handsome folio, 500 pages long, 1,445 people subscribing for 1,786 copies). The sale made Prior independently secure (it’s thought he may have made as much as 4,000 guineas at 2 guineas each volume). Prior’s poems were reprinted in the 18th century and Austen could have read his poem elsewhere (the type of thing is exemplified by Dodsley, A collection of Poems in Six Volumes by Several Hands with notes, 1748, reprinted and enlarged numerous times, which however does not contain these poems). She probably read Prior in the 1709 edition where the medieval poem is included, but the 1719 reprint is as much a possibility.

Austen mentions Prior twice, both times in the posthumous sister volumes of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published by her brother and sister after her death. In the famous Chapter 5 of NA she inveighs against the over-valuation of male pseudo-scholarly texts over novels:

… while the abilities of the nine–hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.

If by chance a female reader is found reading a novel, she is shamed into self-deprecation and condescension:

‘It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is onlyCecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;’ or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of The Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it (1:5).

Not a very high recommendation. In his “Life of Prior,” Samuel Johnson is not keen on Prior’s comic and witty poetry about sex and love either. By this time in the century what was wanted in a lyric was something emotionally deep, and the libertine and pessimistic are never openly popular. Prior’s verse linsk to the vein of John Gay’s insouciant wit. Austen might have concurred as the poetry of sensibility was apparently her preference too: Cowper, Johnson himself, Crabbe, Charlotte Smith.


Louisa has just fallen and Wentworth and Anne are the first there (1995 Persuasion)

The second reference is in Persuasion. Louisa Musgrove has just fallen on her head and all are gathered around her, at first fearing a death from concussion. When Louisa is seen to be still breathing, everyone around her appears in a state of distress about her mental faculties, motor skills, general health from here on in. Anne has just felt rapture at overhearing Captain Wentworth describe her value as a nurse and organizer over Louisa (“No one so proper, so capable as Anne!”), but when Mary Musgrove, pettily meanly ceaselessly actively jealous insists on taking Anne’s place, and Anne observes Wentworth so crestfallen and indifferent to her, Anne; caring intently about Louisa it seems above all, the “mortifying” conviction arises in Anne’s mind that she was “valued only as she could be useful to Louisa.” Prior again comes to Austen’s mind as partly narrator partly Anne:

She endeavoured to be composed, and to be just. Without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry, she would have attended on Louisa with a zeal above the common claims of regard, for his sake; and she hoped he would not long be so unjust as to suppose she would shrink unnecessarily from the office of a friend (1:12).

Anne is intensely conflicted but the parallel makes plain that while (as is implied) not quite as fanatically in love as Emma towards “her Henry” (it is clearly a case of love), Anne would have done everything she could for this girl that Wentworth seems to love so — in place of her whom he was once so devoted to.

The matter alluded to is, as I’ve suggested, Matthew Prior’s rewrite or sophisticated ironic imitation of a medieval ballad, The Nut-brown Maid turned into Henry and Emma, one of the more popular poems of the 18th century. Prior rewrites the medieval enigmatic narrative fully, adding all sorts of concrete circumstances in a spirit of part ironic mockery part sweet love tone. Both versions of the poem are stanzaic. In both Henry tests Emma: they have fallen in love and maybe have had sex (unclear in both medieval and Prior’s poem) and in the 18th century poem have hunted, danced, and courted to their heart’s content. It is over-time to marry.

In the medieval and then 18th century poem Henry tells Emma (a lot more is made concrete in the later poem) and the narrator provides believable background that, Emma’s father has rejected him. He is now “Condemn’d in a lonely Woods a banish’d Man to rove.” She will have immediately to elope with him if they are not to be parted and if they are to marry. He tells her they will have nothing if they wed. He outlines a series of terrible deprivations: she will have to live in forests, go hungry, be despised for running away with him. In both poems, Emma says nothing of this matters. She throws all caution to the winds and trusts to him and time. She of “all mankind” will “love him alone.” That’s the dual refrain. He keeps at it and names sacrifice after sacrifice, and at the last says he has another mistress and loves her too. Is that all right? Will she still come? She will have this other woman as rival. Well, she’s up to each turn of the screw: she will herself care for this other woman. At that Henry is satisfied and tells her in fact they will be okay; there has been no such forbidding, he has no other mistress. The reader the first time through is fooled too (rather like Austen’s novels at first often leaving out information). Henry had decided to test Emma’s loyalty to him, her resolve, her faithfulness, chastity, if you will. She has proved herself faithful and worthy of him. In the medieval tale he had pretended to be a peasant and now reveals himself as a prince. Of interest is Prior’s tone. Unlike the melancholy wildness of the ballad, it’s sort of tongue-in-cheek.


Anne musing climbing the stairs (1995 Persuasion)

Is Austen likening Anne Elliot to Prior’s Emma and that original nut-brown maid? If so, because the Prior poem is satiric, is she partly mocking Anne Elliot. One critic, Galperin (The Historical Austen) argues the whole novel is burlesque, and we have been misreading it. The cancelled ending is in fact the true and better one, and there we see how comic it was supposed to be. Galperin insinuates not only did Henry and Cassandra misname the books, but they chose a different text than Austen intended. Persuasion was supposed to be a send-up of the serious issue that Crabbe had a closely analogous poem about in his Tales: in’Procrastination’ (and other tales too) a young couple are made to wait prudently and in this one never get together and live out their lives apart in grief and desolation. I think Persuasion is not burlesque (though there is much comedy and one ribald moment, oddly enough over death), but Austen does make gentle fun of Anne’s high musings of constancy and romance as she walks the streets of Bath. All the while (as in Mansfield Park and Austen’s treatment of Fanny Price) on my pulses I know it’s deeply felt.

Is Austen then at least saying Anne over-does it? Anne Elliot is not quite an Emma but she is coming close because she is so in love, so desperate and so abject. Now Wentworth is not deliberately testing Anne: Persuasion is no literary stereotypical non-serious text. In the 18th century this testing theme is used in mostly misogynistic texts where the assumption is woman are fickle, promiscuous, can be turned like weathercocks. Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte (thus do all females) is only the best known. These are misogynistic texts about women and Austen is concerned to defeat the whole idea of the test.

The misogynistic perspective is one Austen may be eager to counter. This is confirmed in a long dialogue at the close Persuasion that links to the theme of inconstancy, using the 18th century language we find in Persuasion, loyalty to an attachment after the person has died. All will recall how at the White Hart Inn, Anne finds Wentworth’s friend, the disabled Captain Harville grieving openly for the death of his sister, Phoebe, because he is hurt for her: “Poor Fanny! she would not have forgotten him so soon!” Captain Benwick had claimed he would never forget Phoebe, or know another love, but has nonetheless within a very few weeks fallen in love with Louisa Musgrove. Where was his vaunted depth if he could forget so soon? Harville has not forgotten his sister. One could say (were one privy to scenes not dramatized in the book) Benwick took advantage of Louisa, however half-unconsciousy in his own need. Louisa was susceptible because she was emotionally and physically weak and vulnerable after falling from a stone stairway. Harville explains that Wentworth is taking the framed miniature of Benwick that had been meant for Phoebe, and having it re-framed it for Louisa so Harville need not do this (Persuasion, 2:11).


Robert Glenister as Captain Harville and Anne having their talk over the re-framed miniature

The word used is “inconstancy:” Benwick has not remained in grief, and out of this incident Harville and Anne debate over who is the most inconstant: men or women. Paradoxically, in the face of his assertion that Fanny Harville would have been more faithful, Harville insists men are most constant, most in need of their families and emotional support because they must sail far away and spend so much alone (it seems) on a ship. All literature proves this. Anne objects that literature proves nothing of the sort as it is written by men and eloquently protests that precisely because women don’t go out and endure wracking and dangerous adventures in the world, but stay at home, they are “preyed upon” by their feelings. They have no other outlet, cannot forget, as they are given no other object. Still Harville is not convinced and she not contented with defending women based on the idea they have no way to be inconstant, pivots on the idea on the need for an object. She has not read Donald Winnicott but she knows how central to women the need to feel attached and needed:

‘I believe you [men in general] equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as — if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone! (2:11 or 24).

This extraordinary compelling moment of Anne asserting the privilege of something self-destructive, deeply hurtful to the personality structure shows Austen has moved full circle. Are we to value that which has ravaged Anne? Austen began with alluding to Prior comically over abject love to finding something deeply disquieting in the pains of unreciprocated love which still holds out. Constancy is not a matter for misogynistic testing, and if it truly exists in women (quite contrary to what men claim), it’s because they are given nothing else.


Joseph Mawle as Harville and Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth half-discussing Wentworth’s change of heart (2007 Persuasion)

Why Anne does not use the instance before them of an inconstant man (Benwick) and probable constant woman (Fanny) I do not know.

As it turns out, in fact Wentworth by seeing everyone’s response to what happened to Louisa after she falls, and that he is now expected to behave like a bethrothed, realizes he has gone too far. He wakes up to feel he is not in love with a girl who had such a simplistic understanding of what he was getting at in his lectures on not being persuaded away from what you had determined upon. He does not want to spend his life with her, but is now in too deep. When he leaves Anna off at Uppercross and returns to Bath, he wants out. We never see the scenes of his return and realization. Anne finds out only much later that he visited his brother — leaving the field open to Benwick. Anne is not quite an Emma. Anne (and Lady Russell) had been hoping for Benwick to come to her as he seemed about to propose to her. Benwick for reasons that remain unexplained until this later time says he cannot come. Louisa not deeply committed to Wentworth (as her nature is not to be) cannot be accused of inconstancy. The attachment was superficial and she easily moves to Benwick. Wentworth’s removal of himself succeeds.

What is the gain of this layering of meaning interwoven here? The first allusion provides a hard edge to the text: in this November fall Wentworth has been flirting with Louisa and holding dialogues over people who are over-persuaded from seizing their heart’s desires. He has Anne in mind during these. Then when Louisa takes this too seriously and has an accident as she attempts to proving her determination, uses Anne as nurse without truly thinking of her as a person. Anne is overly abject, but pulls up just in time as she feels resentment (however slight) for being valued only for what she can do for Louisa. Anne is also conflicted, wanting to do what Wentworth wants, for him and for Louisa. Again, strikingly the example of constancy for Harville is the dead Fanny (so we cannot know), and we see how Wentworth torments Anne and almost marries Louisa, and yet Harville argues men are the most loyal to an attachment.


A scene from the BBC 1971 Persuasion: Anne not strong almost falls (early in this not-well-known film)

The second makes us look more deeply into this notion of constancy: why is it not true what Harville contends (and the medieval and Prior Henry assumed), i.e., that women are inconstant. Not, according to Austen, because they manipulatively make themselves over to men as possessions for male pride to show off. No. Their circumstances and psychology makes them vulnerable to emotional attachments, however painful and potentially destructive to them. After 8 years of Wentworth’s absence, Anne has aged and became haggard. She has been given no adequate substitute our narrator says. She rightly does not like the superficial Bath, and Charles (offered as an appropriate partner at age 22) is not an adequate partner for her.

The novel does not discount the harm that may be done by marrying someone unfitted to our temperament — without saying there can be only one partner. Charles is much the worse as a character for having married Mary. So constancy as an ideal has also to be questioned. We are given enough to suggest that in future Benwick and Louisa will be another of the many mismatches in Austen. For the moment sex, love, emotionalism takes both over but as time goes on, Wentworth says, Benwick is a thinking man and (it’s implied) will be bored and Louisa will want someone far less sensitive, and show she cares little for books for real. It’s the non-thinking Charles who mistakes his sister to think she’ll change her nature and they’ll be ever so happy. In the assembly rooms in the spring Wentworth of course is also thinking of himself and Anne as he speaks to her, trying to reach her:

‘I confess that I do think there is a disparity, too great a disparity, and in a point no less essential than mind. I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man; and I confess that I do consider his attaching himself to her with some surprise. Had it been the effect of gratitude, had he learnt to love her, because he believed her to be preferring him, it would have been another thing.'(2:8 or 20)

Eventually, not so long as a few years from now Louisa and Benwick will be another of Austen’s several mismatched couples who were drawn together originally by sexual attraction and over-emotionalism and youth: from Mr and Mrs Bennet, the Palmers, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to perhaps Mr and Mrs Woodhouse, Admiral Tilney and poor Miss Drummond that was (Mrs Tilney’s birth or maiden family name), and Sir Walter and Lady Elliot. In the earlier novels the intelligent men mismarry; in the later, the women. We never do see Benwick and Louisa together after we leave them at Lyme.

Not only are there these complications of very different nuances coming out of this intertextual embedding of Prior, but the novel has another whole skein, which I began with, of very different sources and memories. The poems of Charlotte Smith, the story of her life, the poetry of Byron, of Scott, and if we want to extapolate what is not specifically alluded to, but in the 18th century grain: Crabbe’s stories of struggling poorer and middling couple who are deprived of joy altogether out of too much prudence. We all remember the famous marginalia of Cassandra scratched out next to Austen’s line: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning:”

‘Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold’ (quoted in Tomalin, JA: A Life, 260)

Not that the intertextualities take precedence over the naturalistic art in the book and how it mirrors Austen’s own self. The book does not stay autumnal, nor is it called Melancholy, Abjection nor Constancy, but Persuasion. Persuasion opens the book up to wider themes than erotic passion: it includes Austen herself as someone over-persuaded. It is limiting to see this as her remembering her youth when she was deprived of Tom Lefroy, or say remembering her own decision not to marry Brook Bridges (if Nokes is right and this romance as played out in Miss Austen Regrets was a second serious possibility), or give herself utterly to some other partner, we don’t know about, man or woman, for example, the mysterious romance by the seacoast Cassandra dreamt of, or Martha Lloyd. The cancelled manuscript reveals that her mother had given her a hard time over how she presented authority in the person of Lady Russell.


Fiona Shaw as Mrs Crofts (1995 Persuasion)

The book’s deepest theme and its grief is over allowing oneself to be thwarted, to be repressed: how bad it has been for Austen to stay at home and have her feelings preyed upon. Austen herself as a writer and woman is involved, how she has allowed herself to be over-persuaded, and now that she is ill (for that is felt in the novel too) longs to have had or have more from life than has been granted her as a woman. She could have written more. She dreams of going to sea in the figure of Mrs Crofts (so beautifully acted by Fiona Shaw in the 1995 film). I find the final moments of the 1995 Persuasion with Amanda Root as Anne in the sun on the bridge of the ship pitch perfect


Amanda Root as Anne looking out to sea aboard a ship with Wentworth (1995 Persuasion)

Ellen

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Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen reading and writing outside a cottage (Becoming Jane, 2007, scripted Kevin Hood, Susan Williams, directed Julian Jarrod)

Dear friends and readers,

I have over the years written several blogs on Christmas, mentions and uses by Austen in her novels (see especially her perception of Christmas in the novels) and the films adapted from them. In brief here is a sample:

Sense and Sensibility: The Miss Steeles “were prevailed on to stay nearly two months at the park, and to assist in the due celebration of that festival which requires a more than ordinary share of private balls and large dinner parties to proclaim its importance.”

Pride and Prejudice: Caroline Bingley’s cruel letter to Jane ends: “I sincerely hope your Christmas in Hertfordshire may abound in the gaieties which that season generally brings.”

Mansfield Park: Mary Crawford : “Is it Christmas gaieties that he is staying for?” (she doesn’t believe that for a minute)

Emma (chosen from the long sequence): Mr. Weston: “At Christmas every body invites their friends about them, and people think little of even the worst weather.” (Mr Weston’s benign unsubtle view is not agreed with …)

Northanger Abbey: ‘Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim. Catherine knew all this very well; her great aunt had read her a lecture on the subject only the Christmas before; and yet she lay awake ten minutes on Wednesday night debating between her spotted and her tamboured muslin, and nothing but the shortness of the time prevented her buying a new one for the evening.’

Persuasion: “Immediately surrounding Mrs. Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them. On one side was a table occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper … the whole completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be heard, in spite of all the noise of the others. Charles and Mary also came in, of course … Mr. Musgrove made a point of paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the children on his knees, generally in vain …”

You may skim the whole lot swiftly here.


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth supposed reading Jane’s letters the winter after the Christmas visit of the Gardeners (who took Jane off to cheer her up, 1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies, directed Simon Langton)

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Tonight I went through her letters and an overview for the first time in a couple of years brings home to me once again, how much is missing. For some years and phases of the year we see a regular rhythm to the letters, say two or three journal-style over two or three days will repeat itself, and then nothing. Major events not noted because they don’t occur on the days of the letters left to us. As to mentions of Christmas or the weather, one can conjecture that if a group of balls, dances, parties, dinners are all occurring between the last week of December and first of January they might be related to a holiday and there is a feel of regularity of occurrence at this time of year, but I found but no mention of Christmas itself (the word) and it is itself a reference to a general time when someone is expected to return to where the Austens are living (Southampton). It’s almost surprising this lack of reference to Christmas in the letters; yes a majority were destroyed, even so if you read what’s there I could find but two mentions specifically.

This is the slim matter I gleaned; there is much more matter in these letters but I pulled only that which could conceivably relate:


Anna Maxwell Martin as Cassandra reading one of Jane’s letters (2007 Becoming Jane)

No 14, Dec 18-19, 1798, Tues-Wed; Tues, Dec 18, Steventon: “I enjoyed the hard black Frosts of last week very much, & one day while they lasted walked to Deane by myself.” (4th ed, p 27)

No 15, Dec 24-26, 1798, Mon-Wed; Dec 24, Mon, Steventon: Frank is in Gibaltar, she has returned from Manydown, her mother “does not like the cold Weather, but that we cannot help,” there has been a ball, but that it was for Christmas is never said. She does write: “I wish you a merry Christmas but no compliments of the Season.” Cassandra has danced away at Ashford, there was to have been a dinner at Deane the night she is writing this sentence, “but the weather is so cold that I am not sorry to be kept at home by the appearance of Snow.” There is no other mention of the holiday or weather (4th ed, pp 31-32)

No 17, Jan 8-9, Tues-Wed, 1799; Tues, Jan 8, Steventon: “a Ball at Kempshott this evening” … she had told Cassandra that “Monday was to be the Ball Night,” but no such thing.” Elizabeth has been very cruel about my writing Music; — & as a punishment for her, I should insist upon always writing out all hers and for her in future.” “I love Martha better than ever, & I mean to go & see her if I can when she gets home.” How there was a dinner at “Harwoods on Thursday, & the party broke up the next morning,” she shall be “such a proficient in Music by the time I have got rid of my cold, that I shall be perfectly qualified in that science at least to take Mr Roope’s office at Eastwell this summer … of my Talent in Drawing I have given specimens in my letters to you, & I have nothing to do but invent a few hard names for the Stars … ” Of a party at Manydown, “There was the same kind of party as last year, & the same want of chairs. — there were more Dancers than the Room could conveniently hold, which is enough to constitute a good Ball at any time.” She was not “very much in request –. People were rather apt not to ask me till they could not help it” … But no mention any of this specifically for Christmas nor the weather (4th ed, pp 34-36)

No 29, Jan 3-5, Sun-Mon, 1801; Sat, Jan 3, Steventon: What is “uppermost in my mind” is “you often wore a white gown in the morning, at the time of all the gay party’s being with you.” They visited Ash Park last Wednesday, “went off in a come-ca way; we met Mr Lefroy & Tom Chute, played at cards & came home again … ” This is letter is about what is happening at home because they are moving to Bath (providing for servants) and all the plans and doings about where they will live … (4th ed, p 69)

No 61, Nov 20, Sun, 1808; Sun Nov 3, Castle Square (Southampton): Mary Jane Fowle will “return at Christmas” with her brother.” Second and last use of the word in the collection that I found (4th ed, p 161)

No 63, Dec 2-28, Tues-Wed; Tues Dec 27, Castle Square: Eliza “keeping her bed with a cold … Our Evening party on Thursday, produced nothing more remarkable than Miss Murden’s coming too …. ” she “sitting very ungracious and silent with us … The last hour, spent in yawning & shivering in a wide circle round thefirst, was dull enough — but the Tray had admirable success.” She is talking of the food they ate, which by association leads to “Black Butter do not decoy anybody to Southampton.” No mention of any of this having anything to do with Christmas (4th ed, p 166)

A truly sparse amount of references. The novels give a sense of traditional parties, dances, festivities, rituals — as if in writing to the world she had to give such references and notice. Everything we read in other documents shows there were such, and from the early 16th century on we find such descriptions in diaries, journals, verse, documentary records. In the 1790s we begin to find references to Christmas a ritual of family getting together and a feeling of deep missing out if you don’t have such, if you live far from home (see for Southey’s Written on Christmas Day, 1795), from which I quote a passage here

I do remember when I was a child
How my young heart, a stranger then to care,
With transport leap’d upon this holy-day,
As o’er the house, all gay with evergreens,
From friend to friend with joyful speed I ran,
Bidding a merry Christmas to them all.
Those years are past; their pleasures and their pains
Are now like yonder covent-crested hill
That bounds the distant prospect, indistinct,
Yet pictured upon memory’s mystic glass
In faint fair hues. A weary traveller now
I journey o’er the desert mountain tracks
Of Leon, wilds all drear and comfortless,
Where the grey lizards in the noontide sun
Sport on the rocks, and where the goatherd starts,
Roused from his sleep at midnight when he hears
The prowling wolf, and falters as he calls
On Saints to save. Here of the friends I think
Who now, I ween, remember me, and fill
The glass of votive friendship …
Thus I beguile the solitary hours
With many a day-dream, picturing scenes as fair
Of peace, and comfort, and domestic bliss
As ever to the youthful poet’s eye …

And since in her novels, Austen characteristically tells only as much as is needful for her story in her novels, except for the scenes around Christmas in Emma, which themselves occur because the Knightley family gets together at Christmas (the way people do today), what emerges is the satiric nature of her work: most of the references are half-mocking, fatuous hypocritical meretricious behavior at Christmas is what she registered first just the way she registers this for musical concerts (when people pretend to understand and be ravished by music) or romantic poetry, except this time in the few cases of characters who can really feel sincerely: Marianne for music and poetry, Elinor for drawing, Fanny for pictures, Jane Fairfax for music, Mr Knightley for sitting over a fire, Anne Elliot music and poetry, Catherine Morland reading, but nothing for Christmas. Perhaps she did have distaste for what she saw come out of the holiday customs specifically, humanely speaking.

Comparatively, to cite a few other authors, while Trollope also dislikes all the hypocrisy and commercialism arising from Christmas, he has stories where there is quiet thematic use of Christmas attaching to it true charity or kindliness of spirit when rightly observed. Because of the strong distaste for ceremonies of lies here (and elsewhere in his fiction), I have never made a Christmas blog about his work that I can recall, but perhaps this year I’ll break that non-pattern and write about the nature of what Christmas stories he gets himself to write, and the ones that work well. A 20th century novelist who wrote a famous series of novel set in the 18th century uses Christmas regularly: the close of the Poldark books show Christmas as practiced in the 18th century Cornwall had a meaning for him. Tonight I quote Tennyson from In Memoriam where he has grieved so for the loss of a beloved friend expresses feelings somewhat like mine this morning:

Again at Christmas did we weave
The holly round the Christmas hearth;
The silent snow possess’d the earth,
And calmly fell our Christmas-eve:

The yule-log sparkled keen with frost,
No wing of wind the region swept,
But over all things brooding slept
The quiet sense of something lost.

As in the winters left behind,
Again our ancient games had place,
The mimic picture’s breathing grace,
And dance and song and hoodman-blind.

Who show’d a token of distress?
No single tear, no mark of pain:
O sorrow, then can sorrow wane?
O grief, can grief be changed to less?

O last regret, regret can die!
No -– mixt with all this mystic frame,
Her deep relations are the same,
But with long use her tears are dry.

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In going over Austen’s letters and then my blogs on the novels, and in context of the eras nearby, what I am again impressed with, is what is easy to find in the novels registered through many pictures in the films is Austen writing of letters, reading, writing, and dramatic uses of letters (far more than books). As my four stills chosen quickly and somewhat at random revealed — from a supposed biographical movie I have discussed hardly at all here.


Olivia Williams as a mature Austen writing Persuasion (Miss Austen Regrets, 2009, scripted Gweneth Hughes, directed Jeremy Lovering)

Ellen

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John Radner (1939-2017)

Friends,

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

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


Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson (intensely reading)

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


Fanny Burney by John Bogle (detail)

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

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


William Hogarth, The Graham family (children)

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

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


Charlotte Ramsay Lennox (1730-1804)

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

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


Arthur Miller when young (photograph found on the Net)

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1534)

As a historical novel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey (2015 Wolf Hall)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Said to be Mary Boleyn (reprinted in Alison Weir)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As erotic historical romance


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

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

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

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

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

Aliste Considers Her Position

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The Library Window”

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

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

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

Ellen

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