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Archive for the ‘jane austen novels’ Category


18th century writing-slope: sometimes called a writing-box, or writing-desk

Hans Mayer had written: “Identity is possible only through attachment.” Christa Wolf responds: “What he does not say in so many words but knows from experience is that identity is forged by resisting intolerable conditions, which means we must not allow attachments to deteriorate into dependency but must be able to dissolve them again if the case demands it (Wolf, Parting with Phantoms, 1990-1994)

Austen could not dissolve these attachments but resisted mightily and yet without admitting resistance. This idea can be also applied as a general summation of part of D W. Harding’s famous essay on Austen’s satiric comedy, “Regulated Hatred.”

Dear friends and readers,

You may be yourself in your own life tired of virtual life and longing to turn to in-person life: I am and am not. Over the past two weeks I had a number of wonderful experiences on-line, virtually, which I would not have been able to reach in person: a London Trollope society reading group, a musical concert at the Smithsonian, a good class at Politics and Prose, held at night when I cannot drive. I also longed to truly be with people too — it’s physical places as much as communicating directly with people, casually, seeing one another’s legs and feet, but for even most the alternative was nothing at all. I think I am enjoying these virtual experiences so because they are laid on a groundwork of memory (I’ve been there or with these people), imagination (extrapolation), much reading (shared with the other participants) and visual and aural media.

All this to say I’ve been attending the Bath250 conference, officially held or zoomed out from the University of Liverpool, for several late nights and for the past evening and two days I’ve attended a full virtual version of the EC/ASECS conference. I’ve gone to EC/ASECS almost every year since 2000, and since Jim died, every year. This is the second year in row we (they) have postponed the plan to go to the Winterthur Museum for our sessions, and stay by a nearby hotel. Our topic this year has been what’s called Material Culture: A virtual prelude, but there was nothing of the prelude about the papers and talks. I will be making a couple of blogs of these in order to remember what was said in general myself and to convey something of the interest, newness and occasional fascination (from the Educational Curator of Winterthur) of what was said — with one spell-binding Presidential talk by Joanne Myers, “My Journal of the Plague Year.”


18th century lined trunk

For tonight I thought I’d lead off with the one talk or paper I can given in full, my own, which I was surprised to find fit in so well with both what was said at Bath250 and the topics at EC/ASECS, from costumes in the theater as central to the experience, to libraries and buildings, to harpsichords and pianofortes now at Winterthur. This is not the first time I’ve mentioned this paper, but it has undergone real changes (see my discussion of early plan and inspiration), and is now seriously about how a study of groups of words for containers (boxes, chests, trunks, parcels, pockets) and meaning space shows the significance for Austen of her lack of control or even literally ownership of precious real and portable possessions and private space to write, to dream, simply to be in. I’ve a section on dispossessions and possessions in the Austen films now too.

I’ve put it on academia.edu

A Woman and Her Boxes: Space and Identity in Jane Austen


Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield) packing her writings away in the trunks in what was their Norland bedroom (2009 Sense and Sensibility, scripted Andrew Davies

At the last moment I added a section on women’s pockets and pocketbooks in the 18th century and as found in Austen’s novels.

And a bibliography.

Ellen

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“So you just assumed me to be ignorant.” [the servant James, who is a central consciousness in the book & reads serious history].
No, but — “[Sarah, our main heroine]
“But it never occurred to you that I might read more widely than, say you, for example?
“I read all the time! Don’t I, Mrs Hill?
“The housekeeper nodded sagely.
“MrB allows me books, and his newspapers, and Miss Elizabeth always gives me whatever novel she has borrowed from the circulating library.”
“Of course, yes. Miss Elizabeth’s novels. I’m sure they are very nice.”
“She set her jaw, her eyes narrowed. Then she turned to Mrs Hill.
“They have a black man at Netherfield, did you know? she announced triumphnty. “I was talking to him yesterday.”
James paused in his work, then tilted his head, and got on with his polishing.
“Well,” said Mrs Hill, “I expect Mrs Nicholls needs all the help that she can get.” (Longbourn, p 49)

Our family affairs are rather deranged at present, for Nanny has kept her bed these three or four days with a pain on her side and fever, and we are forced to have two charwomen which is not very comfortable. She is considerably better now, but it must be some time, I suppose, before she is able to do anything. You and Edward will be surprised when you know that Nanny Littlewart dresses my hair ….

Anna has not a chance of escape; her husband called here the other day, & said she was pretty well but not equal to “so long a walk; she must come in her “Donkey Carriage.”–Poor Animal, she will be worn out before she is thirty.—I am very sorry for her.–Mrs Clement too is in that way again. I am quite tired of so many Children.–Mrs Benn has a 13th… (Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. Le Faye 22, 336, Letters dated Sunday 25 November 1798; Sunday 23- Tuesday 25 March 1817)

Dear friends,

Another unusual kind of blog for me: I’m pointing out three other very good postings on three other blogs. The content or emphases in two of them are linked: these bring before us the direct underworld of Austen’s experience: the lives of servants all around her and her characters. The first by Rohen Maitzen, is valuable as an unusually long and serious review of an Austen sequel or post-text. Maitzen suggests that Longbourn is so much better than most sequels because Baker builds up her own imaginative world alongside Austen’s. It’s another way of expressing one of my central arguments in my blog on the novel. I also partly attributed the strength of the book to Baker’s developing these marginal (or outside the action) characters within Austen. Longbourn reminded me of Valerie Martin’s Mary Reilly or Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead : they too focus most of the action and intense subjectivities from within the marginalized characters. I thought Baker also used elements from the Austen film adaptations, and particularly owed a lot to Andrew Davies’ 1995 P&P; I wondered if she got the idea from the use made of the real house both in the film and companion book:

And this allegiance suggests why Longbourn does not rise above its status or type as a sequel, not a book quite in its own right: Baker’s research stays within the parameters of Austen’s own Pride and Prejudice except when she sends the mysterious footman (Mr Bennet’s illegitimate son by Mrs Hill) to the peninsular war. Had she developed this sequence much further, researched what happened in Portugal and Spain, Longbourn might have been a historical novel in its own right the way Mary Reilly and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is.

While I’m at it, here’s a good if short review from The Guardian‘s Hannah Rosefield of Longbourn. Baker has written another post-text kind of novel, A Country Road, A Tree: a biography of Samuel Beckett for the period leading up to and perhaps inspiring Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

And a note on The Jane Austen Book Club by Joy Fowler, film adaptation Robin Swicord, and link to an older blog-review.

Sylvia, our part Fanny Price, part Anne Elliot character reading for February


Jean Chardin’s Washerwoman and a Cat

Vic Sanbourn has written an excellent thorough blog called Unseen and Unnoticed Servants in the background of Jane Austen’s Novels & Life. Of course dedicated readers of Austen are aware of the not infrequent and sudden referrals in the texts to a servant right there all the time, ready to take a character’s horse away, there in the room to pick something up, to fetch someone, as someone one of Austen’s vivid characters refers to and may even quote; if you read her letters, especially those later in Bath, you find her referring (usually comically) to one of the servants. When it’s a question of discussing when a meal is to be served or some task accomplished a servant is mentioned. In her letters we hear of Mr Austen’s worry about a specific servant (real person)’s fate once the family leaves Steventon; Jane borrows a copy of the first volume of Robinson Crusoe for a male servant in Bath. Vic has carefully studied some of these references, and she provides an extensive bibliography for the reader to follow up with. She reprints Hogarth’s famous “Heads of Six Servants.”

I’ll add that some of Austen’s characters come near to being servants: Fanny Price, Jane Fairfax. We see Mrs Price struggling with her one regular servant, Rebecca, trying to get her to do all the hard or messy work, the continual provision of food. Austen was herself also friends with people who went out (as it were) to service. Martha Lloyd worked as a companion. Austen visited Highclere Castle (renamed Downton Abbey for the serial) to have tea with its housekeeper. A young woman we know Austen had a deep congenial relationship with, Anne Sharpe (“She is an excellent kind friend”, was governess for a time at Godmersham.


Elizabeth Poldark Warleggan (Jill Townsend) suffering badly after a early childbirth brought on by a doctor via a contemporary herb mixture she herself wanted, a puzzled Dr Enys (Michael Cadman) by her side (1978 BBC Poldark, Episode 13)

Lastly, while Diana Birchall’s blog on Austen’s mentions of confinement (the last weeks of a woman’s pregnancy, the time of self-withdrawal with people helping you to give birth, the immediate aftermath) is not on marginalized characters, it is itself a subject often marginalized when brought up at all in literary criticism and reviews. It is not a subject directly addressed in the novels, and it is a subject frequently brought up through irony, sarcasm, and sheer weariness and alienated mentions in Austen’s letters. Readers concentrate sometimes with horror over Austen’s raillery and mockery of women in parturition, grown so big that they must keep out of large public groups (by the 9th month), and her alienation from the continual pregnancies and real risks to life (as well as being all messy a lot) imposed on all women once they married. So this is a subject as much in need of treatment as distinguishing what makes a good post-text and servants in the era. From Diana’s blog we become aware that had Austen wanted or dared (she was a maiden lady and was not by mores allowed to write of topics that showed real knowledge of female sexuality) she could have written novels where we experience women giving birth. Diana shows the process also reinforced the social confinement of women of this genteel class in this era.

I gave a paper and put on academia.edu that her caustic way of describing parturition can be aligned with her wildly anti-pathetic way of coping with death and intense suffering: the more pain and risk, the more hilarity she creates — we see this in the mood of Sanditon, written by her when she too is very ill and dying. See my The Depiction of Widows and Widowers in the Austen Canon

It has become so common for recent critics and scholars to find “new approaches” by postulating preposterous ideas (about her supposed Catholic sympathies, her intense religiosity; see my review of Battigelli’s Art and Artefacts; Roger Moore has become quite explicit that in Mansfield Park we have a novel as religious sacred text) partly because there is still a strong inhibition against associating Jane Austen with bodily issues and people living on the edge of gentility dependent on a very few too hard-working servants. So issues right there, as yet untreated fully, staring at us in plain sight go unattended. In Downton Abbey she would not have associated with Lady Mary Crawley, but rather Mrs Hughes. Until recently many readers would not have wanted to know that or not have been able to (or thought to) comprehend that is where fringe genteel people also placed.

Ellen

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An Austen family tree

Dear friends and readers,

An article with new significant information about the Austen family and slavery has been published by the Times Literary Supplement for May 21, 2021: Devoney Looser’s “Breaking the Silence.” Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, and, as a TLS paper and digital subscriber, the only way I can access the online article is through an app on my ipad (which I have never succeeded in downloading). A complicated app arrangement effectively prevents me from reading, much less sharing the text (History Today plays the same game). I have read the paper version and so share the article by summarizing the content — and offering a few comments on the article and topic. I add material as well.


Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire; one of a number of country houses who are currently candidates as inspiration for Mansfield Park

It’s been long known that Jane Austen’s father, George had economic and social ties to a West Indian plantation through his familial relations and friendships. Looser sets out to correct misinformation, exaggeration, and confused muddles. Briefly, George Austen met James Langford Nibbs at Oxford where he may have been a tutor or proctor. Nibbs’s second son was sent home to be educated by George Austen among his other male pupils at Steventon. George married Nibbs to Barbara Langford (an heiress) in a London church; Nibbs chose the George Austen to educate his second son in the school set up in the parsonage; and George was co-trustee in a marriage settlement that involved disbursing legacies or funds for chosen relatives. The other co-trustee was Morris Robinson, brother to Elizabeth Montagu, a pivotal person among women intellectuals in Bath, London, and elsewhere. Looser suggests maybe we could find more connection between this famous bluestocking and Jane, at the same time as she dissociates George from direct economic activity and any personal gain from slavery. It was the tenant or owner who directly directed what happened on and to the property and it was probably Morris Robinson who managed the trust.

On Jane’s naval brothers: Looser goes on to Francis and Charles who it has been known for some time had abolitionist sympathies. She requotes the quotations usually cited. She does not mention that Francis was known as a severe flogger — pressing is a form of kidnapping and in effect enslaving white men for a period of time; flogging them to force them to do the work they were kidnapped to do is horrible. She also omits Francis’s awards from the imperialistic investments and insurers (part of what any captain who was successful in ventures would get); these Brian Southam tries to list and finds to have been modest (Jane Austen and the Navy, p 120-21).

As to Henry, it seems that late in life Henry Austen attended an 1840 anti-slavery convention in London and heard Thomas Clarkson, whose writings Jane in a letter said she admired so much, speak. He was not among those painted by Benjamin Robert Hayden in a well-known picture of the people who attended this convention, but he was one of two delegates for Colchester where he was a clergyman. We cannot know what if anything he actively did besides show up. I wrote a short life of Henry Austen for this blog (from research I did and articles I read before Clery’s book on Henry as a banker came out) and discovered that in his career as a military man he attended a court martial of men (again originally pressed) who had mutinied. So equally he publicly supported harsh cruel punishment of men kidnapped and in effect enslaved. Henry’s motives for attending public political spectacles seem to me problematic.


Charlotte Haywood (Rose Williams) and Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) becoming friends in the ITV Sanditon

Of course the real interest in finding all this out is what were Jane Austen’s attitudes, and it seems from Looser’s account (on my own reading of the letters here on this blog over 3 years) on the whole Austen was quietly anti-slavery. The evidence consists of her admiration for Thomas Clarkson’s writings (not specified, it must be admitted, what she admires Clarkson for). In Mansfield Park there is Fanny Price’s famous question to her exhausted uncle home from Antigua where “the slave trade” was central to extracting wealth; his answer is not told but rather our attention is directed to how silent his children become, and we are to see them as arrogant, ignorant or indifferent about slavery or their father’s hard work, or uncomfortable that such a subject is brought up — or perhaps feeling Fanny is showing off in front of her uncle (a suspicion her girl cousins feel about her when younger). Looser also mentions Austen’s “mixed race West Indian heiress named Miss Lambe” in the unfinished Sanditon: this character gets a lot of attention nowadays since the TV serial adaptation.


Jane Fairfax (Laurie Pypher) telling Emma she has been “exhausted for a very long time” and needs to go back to her aunt’s small apartment (2009 BBC Emma, scripted Sandy Welch)

Alas, Looser is another critic who (to me) mysteriously overlooks Emma, where the amount of concrete specific reference to slavery is, if anything, far longer and interestingly complicated with women’s subjection than the single dramatic dialogue (a passage) in Mansfield Park. Jane Fairfax likens governessing to slavery, and employment offices to marketplaces dealing in selling human flesh (she does not allude to anything sexual in the masters of such houses, but rather the body and strength of the repressed hard-worked young woman who puts herself in service to caste-ridden households). Mrs Elton (an heiress herself) takes up Jane’s allusion to deny that her brother-in-law’s wealth (and Maple Grove, the mansion and estate she has so boasted about) owe anything to “the slave trade;” maybe not, but Bristol was one of the ports where enslaved people were brought, held, sold, and she and her family hail from there.

Looser concludes by addressing and also talking about those whom she suggests resist such discussions and says their silence is wrong, a form of erasure of the full context of Austen’s world and books. Silence today is collusion and complicity with enslavement — in the way the Bertrams’ cousins’ silence feels like in Mansfield Park.

Ellen

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From the East Central region, American Society of 18th century Studies site: Art and Rarity Cabinet c. 1630 by Hans III Jordaens


Cassandra’s portrait drawing of Jane Austen graces the JASNA home page

Dear friends and readers,

Since 2000 I have gone almost every year to the East Central (regional ASECS) meeting, and I have gone to a number of the JASNA meetings. In view of the covid pandemic (now having killed 223,000 people in the US, with the number rising frighteningly daily), this year EC/ASECS decided to postpone their plan to meet in the Winterthur museum to next year and instead do an abbreviated version of what they do yearly.

By contrast, the JASNA Cleveland group did everything they could to replicate everything that usually goes on at at JASNA, only virtually, through zooms, videos, websites. It was an ambitious effort, marred (unfortunately) because (why I don’t know) much didn’t go quite right (to get to somewhere you had to take other options). It was “rolled out” something like the usual JASNA, a part at a time, so you could not plan ahead or compare easily or beforehand; but now is onsite, all at once, everything (at long last) working perfectly. I visited (or attended or whatever you want to call these experiences) two nights ago and last night, and can testify that since I usually myself go to listen to the papers at the sessions or lectures, I probably enjoyed the JASNA more than I usually do at the usual conference. If you didn’t care for what you were seeing or hearing for whatever reason, it was very easy to click away; you could see what was available all at once, watch far more than one intended to be given at the same time. You can skim along using your cursor …

IN this blog I offer a brief review of both conferences.

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A detail from one of Canaletto’s paintings from around the Bacino Di San Marco, Venice: a lady and gentleman

In our “Brief Intermission,” for EC/ASECS, on Friday, in the evening we had our aural/oral experience, a couple of hours together where we read 18th century poetry and occasionally act out an abbreviated version of a play; during the later afternoon we had one panel of papers, this one about researching unusual subjects itself. Saturday morning, there was one panel of papers by graduate students competing for the Molin prize (given out for excellence to a paper by a graduate student each year); than at 1 pm there was the business meeting (sans lunch unless you were eating from wherever you were while you attended the zoom), and the Presidential Address: this year a splendid one, appropriate to the time, John Heins describing the creation, history and grounds of Dessau-Worlitz Park (Garden Realm) in Eastern Germany, a World Heritage site, with the theme of trying to experience a place fully although you are not literally there by its images, conjuring up in one’s mind, the place we might like to be but are not in. I didn’t count but my impression was we had anywhere from 25 (the aural/oral fun) to 37/40 people for the four sessions. I enjoyed all of it, as much (as other people said) to be back with friends, see familiar faces, talk as friends (chat before and after papers).

I will single out only a couple of papers from Friday’s panel. First, Jeremy Chow’s paper, “Snaking the Gothic” was in part about the way animals are portrayed in 18th century culture, focusing on snakes. It seems the identification as poisonous (fearful) led to their being frequently used erotically. I found this interesting because of an incident in one of the episodes of the fifth Season of Outlander where a bit from a poisonous snake threatens to make an amputation of Jamie’s lower leg necessary but a combination of 20th century knowhow, and 18th century customs, like cutting the snake’s head off, extracting the venom and using it as an antidote becomes part of the way his leg is saved. In other words, it is used medically. Ronald McColl, a special collections librarian, spoke on William Darlington, American physician, botanist and politician whose life was very interesting (but about whom it is difficult to find information).

People read from or recited a variety of texts in the evening; I read aloud one of my favorite poems by Anne Finch, The Goute and the Spider (which I’ve put on this blog in another posting). I love her closing lines of comforting conversation to her suffering husband.

For You, my Dear, whom late that pain did seize
Not rich enough to sooth the bad disease
By large expenses to engage his stay
Nor yett so poor to fright the Gout away:
May you but some unfrequent Visits find
To prove you patient, your Ardelia kind,
Who by a tender and officious care
Will ease that Grief or her proportion bear,
Since Heaven does in the Nuptial state admitt
Such cares but new endeaments ot begett,
And to allay the hard fatigues of life
Gave the first Maid a Husband, Him a Wife.

People read from novels too. This session everyone was relatively relaxed, and there was lots of chat and even self-reflexive talk about the zoom experience.

The high point and joy of the time to me was John Heins’ paper on Worlitz park: he had so many beautiful images take of this quintessentially Enlightenment picturesque park (where he and his wife had been it seems several times), as he told its history, the people involved in landscaping it, how it was intended to function inside the small state, and the houses and places the different regions and buildings in the park are based on. He ended on his own house built in 1947, called Colonial style, in an area of Washington, DC, from which he was regaling us. He brought home to me how much of my deep enjoyment of costume drama and BBC documentaries is how both genres immerse the viewer in landscapes, imagined as from the past, or really extant around the world (Mary Beard’s for example). He seemed to talk for a long time, but it could not have been too long for me.


Amalia’s Grotto in the gardens of Wörlitz

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Andrew Davies’s 2019 Sanditon: our heroine, Charlotte (Rose Williams) and hero, Sidney Parker (Theo James) walking on the beach …

I found three papers from the Breakout sessions, one talk from “Inside Jane Austen’s World,”, and one interview from the Special Events of special interest to me. (Gentle reader if you want to reach these pages, you must have registered and paid some $89 or so by about a week before the AGM was put online; now go to the general page, type in a user name and password [that takes setting up an account on the JASNA home page]). The first paper or talk I found common sensical and accurate (as well as insightful) was by Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield, on Andrew Davies’s Sanditon. They repeated Janet Todd’s thesis in a paper I heard a few months ago: that Austen’s Sanditon shows strong influence by Northanger Abbey, which Austen had been revising just the year before. Young girl leaves loving family, goes to spa, has adventures &c. They offered a thorough description of how Davies “filled in the gaps” left by what Austen both wrote and implied about how she intended to work her draft up into a comic novel. They presented the material as an effective realization and updating of Austen’s 12 chapter draft, ironically appropriately interrupted and fragmentary. I will provide full notes from their paper in my comments on my second blog-essay on this adaptation.

The second was Douglas Murray’s “The Female Rambler Novel & Austen’s Juvenilia, concluding with a comment on Pride & Prejudice. He did not persuade me Austen’s burlesque Love and Freindship was like the genuinely rambling (picaresque) novels he discussed, but the characteristics of these as he outlined them, and his descriptions of several of them (e.g., The History of Charlotte Summer, The History of Sophia Shakespeare – he had 35 titles), & James Dickie’s study of cruelty and laughter in 18th century fiction (Doug discussed this book too, with reference to Austen), were full of interesting details made sense of. Of course Austen’s heroine, Elizabeth, as we all remember, goes rambling with her aunt and uncle in Derbyshire and lands at Pemberley just as Darcy is returning to it.


There have been some attempts at good illustration for Catherine, or the Bower

Elaine Bander’s paper, “Reason and Romanticism, or Revolution: Jane Austen rewrites Charlotte Smith in Catherine, or The Bower” interested me because of my studies and work (papers, an edition of Ethelinde, or The Recluse of the Lake, many blogs) on Charlotte Smith. She did not persuade me that Austen seriously had in mind Smith for the parts of her story (was “re-composing” Smith’s novels). But hers is the first thorough accounting for this first and unfinished realistic courtship novel by Austen I’ve come across, and on this fragment’s relationship to an 18th century didactic work by Hannah More, to other of Austen’s novels (especially the idea of a bower as a sanctuary, a “nest of comforts”, character types, Edward Stanley a Wickham-Frank Churchill). I draw the line on the way Elaine found the aunt simply a well-meaning dominating presence: Mrs Perceval is one in a long line of cruel-tongued repressive bullying harridans found across Austen’s work. Austen is often made wholesome by commentators — I find her disquieting. Elaine suggested that Juliet McMaster (who gave a plenary lecture, and told an autobiographical story for the opening framing of the conference) in a previous Persuasions suggested a persuasive ending for the uncompleted book. Her talk was also insightful and accurate in her description of Smith’s novels, their mood, their revolutionary outlook and love of the wild natural world: “packed with romance and revolution, bitterly attacking the ancien regime, injustice, describing famous and momentous world events, including wars — quite different from Austen (I’d say) even if in this book Austen does homage to all Smith’s novels.

As to “Special Events,” I listened briefly to an interview of Joanna Trollope and her daughter, Louise Ansdell (someone high on a board at Chawton House – why am I not surprised?): Trollope, I thought, told the truth when she said young adult readers today, let’s say having reached young adulthood by 2000 find Jane Austen’s prose very hard to read. What I liked about these comments was they suggest why it is so easy to make movies today that are utter travesties of Austen’s novels (the recent Emma) where say 30 years ago movie-makers were obliged to convey something of the real mood, themes, and major turning points of Austen’s novels.

“Inside Jane Austen’s world included talks about cooking, what to put in your reticule (and so on). Sandy Lerner re-read a version of her paper on carriages in Austen’s time that I heard years ago (and have summarized elsewhere on this blog). Of interest to me was Mary Gaither Marshall’s discussion of her own collection of rare Austen books, including a first edition of Mansfield Park (she is a fine scholar): she told of how books were printed (laborious process), how the person who could afford them was expected to re-cover them fancily, the workings of the circulating library &c. She said her first acquisitions were two paperbacks which she bought when she was 10 year old.

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This last makes me remember how I first read Austen, which I’ve told too many times here already, but it is a fitting ending to this blog.

On Face-book I saw a question about just this, from the angle of what led someone to read Austen’s books in a “new” (or different way), without saying what was meant by these words — as in what was my “old” or previous way of reading her. I can’t answer such a question because my ways of reading Austen or eras do not divide up that way. But I like to talk of how I came to study Austen and keep a faith in the moral value of her books despite all that surrounds them today, which go a long way into producing many insistent untrue and corrupted (fundamental here is the commercialization, money- and career-making) framings.

So I wrote this and share it here: Years ago I loved Elizabeth Jenkins’s biography of Jane Austen, and that led me to read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I must have been in my late teens, and my guess is I found the Jenkins book in the Strand bookstore. I had already read (at age 12 or so) Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility; and at age 15, Mansfield Park. Nothing inspired me to read the first two (part of this person’s question), but that the first two were there in my father’s library among the good English classics. The third I found in a neighborhood drugstore and I was led to read it because I loved S&S and P&P. MP was not among my father’s classic libraries The first good critical book I remember is Mary Lascelles on the art of the books, then Tave’s Some Words of Jane Austen. So as to “new way of reading her” (intelligently), when Jim and I were in our thirties at a sale in a Northern Virginia library Jim bought a printing of the whole run of Scrutiny and I came across the seminal articles by DWHarding (a revelation) and QRLeavis. I do not remember when I found and read Murdock’s Irony as Defense and Discovery, but it was the first book to alert me to the problem of hagiography and downright lying (though Woolf very early on gently at that (“mendaciou”) about the Hill book on Austen’s houses and friends).

When I came online (1990s and I was in my forties) of course I was able to find many books, but the one that stands out attached to Austen-l, is Ivor Morris’s Considering Mr Collins, brilliant sceptical reading. There are still many authors worth reading: John Wiltshire comes to mind, on Austen-l we read together a row of good critical scholarly books on Austen. Today of course you can say anything you want about Austen and it may get published.

I saw the movies only years after I had begun reading, and the first I saw was the 1979 Fay Weldon P&P, liked it well enough but it didn’t make much of an impression on me. The 1996 Sense and Sensibility (Ang Lee/Emma Thompson) was the first of several movies to change my outlook somewhat on Jane Austen’s novels, in this case her S&S.

Since Jane Austen has been with me much of my life, of course I welcomed a chance to experience some of the best of what a typical JASNA has to offer, since nowadays I & my daughter are regularly excluded from these conferences. After all those who have special “ins” of all sorts, I am put on the bottom of the list for what room is left. I regret to say she has quit the society because she loves to read Austen, is a fan-fiction writer of Austen sequels, enjoyed the more popular activities, especially the dance workshop and the Saturday evening ball. She is autistic and rarely gets to have social experiences. She had bought herself an 18th century dress and I got her a lovely hat. They are put away now.

When was I first aware there was an 18th century? when I watched the 1940s movie, Kitty, with Paulette Goddard — you might not believe me, but even then, at the age of 14-15 I went to the library to find the script-play and I did, and brought it home and read it. I fell in love with the century as a set of texts to study when I first read Dryden, Pope, and the descriptive poetry of the era — just the sort of writing that describes places like Worlitz Park.

Ellen

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Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood as she resolves to accept a future with her mother, where she on herself can live (she thinks Edward has married Lucy) (2009 BBC S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

“‘It is not every one,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves …

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition …

“‘We are all offending every moment of our lives’ … (Marianne Dashwood)

“‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing’ … (Elizabeth Bennet)

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

“‘We all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits. Mine, I confess, are exhausted’ … (Jane Fairfax)

“‘But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?’ … (Catherine Morland)

“‘One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering….’ (Anne Elliot)

Dear friends and readers,

Every once in a while it is good for me to remember why I’ve had two blogs dedicated to Jane Austen and art I connect to her and her books, and films made from these. Last night I was in a zoom group yesterday (a nowadays not unusual experience) where we were asked this question as a sort of topic for us to discuss and share; “Who’s inspired or guided you?”, and I was surprised to discover that most people either didn’t have or didn’t want to talk about a person or book or specific event(s) they could cite. All day long today that realization was reinforced when I threw the question out on face-book and my three listservs. Only now I feel it’s not that people don’t want to tell of such an experience, most people apparently don’t have one major intense experience or person who made such an impression. I know I am more intense than many about many things.

For myself upon my eyes reading the question, my answer came out in my mind almost before the words for it: my father and Jane Austen’s six novels.


This image of the RLS book is not the one my father read to me, but I cannot replicate a book cover from the old-fashioned sets of English classics he had on his shelf, often published by do-good organizations like the Left Book Club …

I know I have mentioned about my father here before, but not said much for real. Despite spending 44 years in close friendship-love-marriage with my late husband, Jim (whom you are tired of hearing about), the true core influence on what I am, how I came to have the stances I do, political, areligious, social, were the result of my relationship with my father: from my earliest memories, he was the person who understood, companioned me, yes mothered me. Like Edmund with Fanny, he read with me, and reasoned with me about what we read together, read aloud to me — some of my happiest memories of my girlhood come from when he read aloud to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maltroit’s Door” and “A Lodging for the Night:” since then I’ve been a reader/lover of Stevenson’s style, stance, pizzazz. My father took me to the library, told me of his boyhood during the 1930s depression, explained the politics of the 1950s and early 60s we were experiencing. I left home in 1963. But there was a year after Izzy was born where he phoned me every week on Sunday and we’d have a long satisfying talk.


Emma Thompson as Elinor writing to their mother to tell of what has happened in London to ask if they can come home (1995 Miramax S&S, scripted Emma Thompson, directed Ang Lee)

Then Jane Austen’s 6 famous novels. A couple of people in the zoom registered puzzlement. How could a book (maybe they meant also one so old) influence, guide or shape someone. To some extent this shows how for some people books mean nothing vital to their lives. I read today in one of the papers how public figure was influenced by a book or event — what was cited were famous people, widely know fairly recent books, fashionable, movies. So I tried to tell of how I had first read these books at age 12-13 (S&S & P&P), then 15 (MP), that as a teenager of 17 or so when I was in need of a way of responding to social life and the hard abrasions of people, I’d think of Elinor Dashwood and her stance in life, and how this character (an aspect of Austen herself I still believe) gave me a presence to emulate, to aspire to come up to to protect myself (self-control, prudence are strong themes in Austen embodied in Elinor). How often while I don’t say to myself, How would Elinor or Anne Elliot or Jane Fairfax, or even Fanny Price have acted in this situation, nevertheless parallel situations in the books come to mind when something is happening to me that have some meaning. They need not involve these central figures, but they often do – as well as some of the heroes. Lines from Austen’s books come into my mind unbidden — I remember (or half remember) what seems to crystallize or capture an aspect of the situation. What a given character said.

This is probably why I have so little patience with preposterous interpretations and some of the uses made of her text to forward careers or fill a fashionable niche, or turn her into a whipping post for someone’s feminist thwarted career, or even the hagiography which turns her into an unreal omnipotent presence, which leads to extravagant claims. And as to the solemn moralizing one comes across in some JASNA groups, how can they be so moronic to have missed the core continual anarchic ironies of the text.

To explain this to others I had to fall back on using words like role models — though that’s too crude; I know I don’t imitate these characters in literal close ways. It’s not quite the way I conceive of myself understanding how literature functions, but as a rough and ready analogy that others can understand from their own experience comes close enough. The deepest thing is  view of Austen herself that I feel throughout the novels.

By the way: My father did very much like Jane Austen. But there was no need for him to introduce the texts to me. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I identified my relationship with him with Elizabeth’s with her father. My sympathies have ever been with the father; and it’s clear to me Austen understands what pain and counterproductive humiliation Mrs Bennet puts both her older daughters through. He also was one of those who introduced Trollope to me, with words about The Vicar of Bullhampton to this effect: Trollope has much wisdom.

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But during the talk of the group, I was led to remember how in my first year of full time college I had a teacher for an introductory course in literature where we read Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and I was shocked to hear someone (a group of people) assert how boring the book had been, and I protested and defended my favorite book. (Something similar happened to my daughter, Izzy, in a summer night-time class she took (post graduate) where she gave a paper on Elizabeth Bowen’s Last September and astonished the class by talking about it as deeply sexual. Clinton F. Oliver, an elegant black man, Henry James scholar, born in one of the Carribean islands (he once said). When I came to his office one day he suddenly said to me, major in English literature and be a college teacher. I was so touched, the first teacher to pay attention to me — tellingly a black person.

One memory: we had one class in a big auditorium (the other two were break-out sessions where I was lucky enough to be in his). One day a student came with so many lollipops and gave them out to everyone but me. I was somewhat older than the others — not as much as they thought, dressed in a skirt, probably all in black, anorexic then, but harmless. Anyway he came from behind his lectern and secured two and gave me one and smiled and we both sucked on lollipops with everyone else. It was in his class I first read Henry James: The Princess Casamassima. Also Conrad’s “Secret Sharer.” He was the only black teacher I ever had in all my years in school — until now at OLLI at AU I’ve had a class in August Wilson’s plays taught by someone who is retired military and now a librarian at Howard University


This is an image of the copy I read in that class, edited by him, which I cherish the way I do my first copy of Dr Thorne (edited by Elizabeth Bowen)

One person in this zoom group told me I was lucky to have had an experience with a teacher like that. One experience I never had was of a mentor: by this is meant not only someone who is older, wiser, and counsels you on careers, but helps you create one. Izzy had that: a Mrs Kelly who hired her for her 1st gov’t job, and helped her transfer into the library where she is now (though working remotely from home). Mrs Kelly had real feeling for Izzy and Izzy still goes to Mrs K’s yearly Halloween parties.

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And then reversing perspective: eleven days ago, I came across a posting in that excellent blog, Kaggsby’s Bookish Ramblings, on Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story. Pray read what Kaggsby writes so eloquently, from which I quote her opening paragraph:

It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognize how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

As I wrote here, when I reviewed Anne Boyd Rioux’s book on Alcott’s Little Women, the problem with the books I was given, including Little Women, was this aspect of female adolescence and teenagehod, the experience of predatory punitive patriarchal sexuality that not only are boys encouraged to inflict on girls, but girls collude with, are complicit to, is omitted. It is at least hinted at in Sense and Sensibility, and in movies like Lee/Thompson and Davies brought out fully. I wish I had had as well Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, Naomi Wollf’s Promiscuities. Kaggsby does not see that Ernaux is Aspergers  but her description of Ernaux’s horrible time in camp and as a girl growing up is an Aspergers experience.  Kaggsby has her limits, but she often goes beyond what she consciously says or sees by the thoroughness of her analyses.  In France too although the medical community knows about autism and Aspergers, the general population is unfamiliar with the term. I’ve had a few close French friends and only one knew the term; the other two were uncomfortable with the idea of a disability. It may be Ernaux knows and doesn’t say aloud — but I doubt it. I likened the book to Reviving Ophelia because Mary Pipher at no point that I can recall talks of autism: her book is an expose of the predatory punitive patriarchy that not only many men inflict on us, but many women are complicit in.

This disability puts girls at a frightening disadvantage before boys in our predatory sexual culture. I feel so for her. I have read two others of her books, both life-writing, which I associated with gothic; another I don’t have is Englished as I remain in Darkness; now I think that’s because perhaps she has not been willing to move out into rational diagnosis – the next step would be a book like Annie LeBrun’s

.

I had not thought of Aspergers but now this Kaggsby’s blog provides a comprehensive perspective for all Ernaux’s work. Of course it’s possible she was just naive and inexperienced with no social skills and a very protected upbringing, but I doubt it. At any rate she was a ripe target for experienced and cruel others.

This past summer a woman in my Bloomsbury class at OLLI at AU startled me by in front of the whole group online (another zoom experience) revealing she is lesbian by saying how she wished she had known such Forster’s Maurice when she was girl, and how much it would have helped to know others who are LBGTQ. I responded in kind: that in the 1990s when I first read Reviving Ophelia, I just cried to realize there was a large world of women experiencing what I did. This woman is in her 60s and probably has far more friends and is far more effective in life (may have made real money) than I’ve ever been. Every single person who comes out helps the rest of us.

Not that I think Austen understood herself to be coming out with the depths of her own experiences to help others but rather she began with sharp satire, and revised and revised, until the tone of mind of her book was to some extent also the opposite of where she had begun so deep empathy becomes the mode towards the vulnerable heroine.


Ania Marson as Jane Fairfax, barely but firmly self-contained (BBC Emma 1972, scripted by Denis Constantduros)


Laurie Pypher as Jane Fairfax explaining to Emma that she needs to get away from this wonderful gathering at Donwell Abbey & losing self-control (BBC Emma 2009, scripted by Sandy Welch)

What was wonderful about Andrew Davies’s development of Sanditon was he brought out this paradigm in three of the heroines (see my exegesis of Episodes 1-4, By the Sea …; and Episodes 5-8, Zigzagging). It is central to why Jane Austen has meant so much to me. This is not all she offers, but this is the core.

Ellen

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. — Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)

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Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Isabella Thorpe (Carey Mulligan) in the circulating library at Bath (2008 NA, scripted Andrew Davies


Charlotte Heywood (Rose Williams) arriving near the sunny beach in Sanditon (2019 Sanditon, scripted by Andrew Davies, among others)

I would bring together Janet Todd’s talk and Georgina Newton’s to suggest that it is a sort of betrayal on Austen’s part to erase all details of books she read, and plays she went to, and not make any of her heroines serious readers or writers. I wish there were a heroine somewhere in her oeuvre who ends up happily without marriage. We will not have such heroines until the mid-20th century.

Friends and readers.

There is a sliver of a silver lining to this frightening pandemic and its necessary quarantining, many lectures and talks many could never reach, virtual conferences, plays operas concerts are turning up on-line. I’ve told how enjoyable I found the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival (Part One, Part Two). Chawton House has gone on to set up further talks over the summer, and this past week Jane Todd gave a quietly suggestive talk on Sanditon and Northanger Abbey: A Shared Pen, aka “On her first and last novel.” I spent a wonderful week in Bath in 2002, but never had time or occasion to go to one of the regular talks on Austen that occur there; this weekend the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute sponsored a second talk (I missed the first) on Jane Austen’s feminism and how it relates to girls today on-line. As the presenter said, hitherto they would get a small number of people who lived in and around Bath or made it their business to come from not too far off UK; now they had people a zoom session from literally around the world.

I took notes on both and am glad to record what was said for my memory’s sake and share what I remember for others who are interested. Remember my hands can no longer taken down stenography in the precise way and with the quickness I once did, so these summaries and comments are meant to be only suggestive, the gist of what was said. Both were thoughtful, stimulating talks

Janet Todd: Her first and her last, Northanger Abbey and Sanditon.

Prof Todd began by saying it’s not clear that NA is finished (see my calendar) and Sanditon is an unfinished fragment (no precise calendar is possible).

Austen, she felt, puts all her novels into dialogues with one another: S&S with P&P, the title shows a clear pair; MP with Emma), and the sister-Bath books, NA and Persuasion. Then we have heroines teasing each other across the volumes, themes and types contrasting and paralleling, with heroines within the novels further patterned. Northanger Abbey is far fuller than Sanditon, but Austen was not satisfied with it in 1816 when she put Miss Catherine “on the shelf” and felt she might not take it off again. I add Austen in her letters has a way of identifying a novel with its chief heroine as she sometimes refers to the novel by the heroine’s name.

First of NA draft began in 1794; she returned to it and wrote full length book after or during her second Bath visit of 1797-98. Coming to live in Bath, she starts writing in 1802, and sends it to Crosby to publish as Susan in 1803. It may have taken her a while to realize the book was not coming out from this man’s press. So in 1809 they are moving to Chawton, and she wants to procure ms of Susan to work on it; sneered at by his son, she does not pay the £10 asked back. In a preface written in 1813 she worried parts of this book had become obsolete. She had much admired Burney’s Camilla, mentioned in extant NA, and the heroine finds a copy in a bookshop lending books in ,Sanditon 1817.

Todd also felt Austen revised her manuscripts continually (I agree), and that they all had far more literary allusion and specifics than they had when published. These were pruned away in all but NA and Sanditon. They all also seemed to have had names which connected them to her family, to Austen’s life: The Watsons was The Younger. Well Sanditon was The Brothers. We may imagine (from the dates on the calenders and extant manuscripts) that Sanditon was written not long after Emma, which had been followed by a revision of NA as a similarly satiric text (heroine a romancer). I suspect (Todd did not say this) that Persuasion existed in some draft form earlier on, as that would be the only way to account for its extraordinary depth and suggestive detail (squeezed in between NA and Sanditon). Henry Austen said all her novels were gradual performances.


Henry Tilney (J.J. Feilds) dancing with Catherine at their first ball together


Sidney Parker (Theo James) meeting Charlotte at their first ball together

Some strong over-lappings: Both NA and Sanditon are rich in material items. We have a common sense heroine with parents who say put and are sensible prudent people (contrast the Bennets who are not). The Haywoods and Morlands economize; they have dowries for their daughters, the Morlands a sizable sum to set James up with. They are both off places associated with holiday and fanciful time: an Abbey, a spa town. If it was Henry who gave NA its name; it is a tale of a place, and ditto for James Edward Austen-Leigh’s naming of Sanditon (if he did name it) There is in both a comical sense of adventure; there is no abduction in Austen (though there is one in Marie Dobbs, and also now in Andrew Davies’s TV series, of Miss Georgina Lambe). Davies makes Sidney into useless guardian for Miss Lamb, but from what we are told of Sidney in Austen, it seems that he may have the same kind of slightly jaundiced witty, a teacher. Inadequate chaperons for both heroines in both books.

Some differences, with other novels brought in: Charlotte & Catherine have good hearts and thinking minds, but after that they differ. Catherine is the butt of the NA narrator, at times the naif and does not satirize others; by contrast, Charlotte is capable of he ironic put down, but gives people want they want, supports nutty people with a quietly thinking satiric voice. Austen wants us to take Charlotte’s presence seriously throughout; for Catherine, she is mocked in the first chapter of NA, a heroine device and we are back to that in the penultimate chapter. In Sanditon it’s Charlotte who keeps seeing Clara Brereton as a sentimental victim-heroine type, while Catherine has to be prodded by Isabella into seeing Isabella or the Tilneys into romance figures. Emma, on the other hand, has dangerous ideas about Jane Fairfax (dangerous for Jane) Todd felt that Emma protested too much how comfortable she was seeing so little from her window, while Charlotte is a realist. She does not need to read books to calm her mind the way (say) Anne Elliot does

In all Austen’s novels she works up anxiety for heroine; nasty domineering older woman throughout the fiction is still seen in Sanditon. (I suggest that Mrs Elton is an upstart younger version of this kind of bully.)

I felt that Prof Todd was most interested in showing that Austen is aware that fiction is an interpretive tool; the misreadings of reality by many of her characters bring out a core of rottenness at the heart of this society. I thought she was interested in the alienated eye in the books (sometimes the heroine’s, sometimes from other characters, e.g., Mr Bennet, sometimes Mr Knightley, Mr Darcy, more ironically Henry Tilney (who allows his sister to be left lonely and bullied). There is no one to over-ride the heroines in some of the books; Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Jane Fairfax (however weak her position), Anne Eliot. The narrative voice is important here. Intrusive in NA. She pointed out how at the end of NA, Mrs Tilney is a felt ghost (I feel that is true of Lady Eliot). So there some things do turn into the tragic.

Todd saw hardly any darkness in Austen’s vision in these books (or across the whole of Austen’s vision). I cannot agree and think there are enough intelligent characters dissatisfied with their lot, and these reflect Austen herself. Remember the Juvenilia. Remember the anguish several of her heroines experience, how much chance is made to be on their side.  I am of the D.W. Harding school, and he has had many critics and readers like myself. Austen had limited material to work with, the conventions of the realistic novel. Only by these could she justify what she was doing to her family. Remember how worried she was about their approval, and how dependent she was on that for publication and the family for an allowance.  Lady Susan remained unpublished; The Watsons was left in a strangely high polished state for the 1st volume; how two of the published novels are not truly finished (NA and Persuasion). That Austen lost her fight with time and illness.

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Darcy (Colin Firth) meeting Elizabeth Jennifer Ehle) and Mr and Mrs Gardner at Pemberley, he greets them as equals (1995 P&P, scripted Andrew Davies)


Edmund Bertam (Nicholas Farrell) consulting Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel), an equal relationship from the beginning (1983 MP, scripted Ken Taylor)

While Janet Todd is a well-established scholar and professor, with many books and articles, an editor of important volumes, retired head of Cavendish College, Cambridge; Georgina Newton is a younger scholar, finished her Ph.D not long ago, with her specialty more sociological, and works as a university lecturer and primary school teacher. She is interested in the education of girls from poorer backgrounds. What she has seen in life makes her passionate to help them. Her Ph.D. consisted of studying working class girls and girlhood, looking at how they imagine their future. She discovered they have a feminist tone and attitudes but don’t know how to articulate their desire, how to vocalize their criticism of their place and given futures in society. What she did was divide Austen’s novels as a group into broad themes and look to see how these girls related to what is found in Austen.

First Ms Newton discussed Austen’s novels seen as a comment on society. Austen was once seen as wholly conservative; since the 1970s some see that she challenges partriarchal structures. Some of her heroines attempt to take charge of their own world. That is seen as feminist by girls today. Life today for girls is a battle with obstacles including class, rank, money, their roles as mothers, sisters, wives, daughters. What choices are they given. In books there was a limitation on what a woman could write. Ms Newton did her research from a socialist feminist perspective, and sees Austen as having a limited subject matter and personal experience. She shows us the restrictions of women’s lives; we see how confined they are, hemmed in, put into the interior of a home. The male goes out far more freely into the world of public work. The girls she studied (asked questions of) fully expected to make sacrifices to be able to do work commensurate with their education. They do not like that they cannot or it is hard to fulfill their personal goals; they don’t like the situation and yet accept it.


Emma (Kate Beckinsale) painting Harriet (Samantha Morton) (1996, scripted Andrew Davies) — Emma a book susceptible of lesbian reading, is relentlessly made heteronormative

Then heteronormative marriage is a key theme for Austen’s books, knitting everything together. Marriage gave the man almost total power over his wife, he could abuse her, take away her children, isolate, imprison her. The choice a woman was given was who to marry, the pressure hidden but ever there. In P&P it’s not that the man needs a wife, but a woman needs a husband. MP Lady Bertram got a far better prize than her dowry merited (ironic openings). Girls 12-13 will deny they are interested in boys; they say they want an education, to get a job before marriage. Marriage has still the fantasy element Beauvoir discussed; the man will take care of you. They could be scathing towards individual boys, bu they assume he will support them when they have children. Yet they seek independence.

The seeking of equal relationships in Austen and her heroines. Elizabeth is looking for a equal partner. This idea is found in Wollstonecraft. Not just equal in their relationship as people, but commanding respect, responsibility. Girls did not want to be “stay-at-home” “mums,” but do something for and by themselves. The girls she was with often talked about their parents’ relationship. Some girls said the father and mother juggled care for the children together; others became cross about how a father or brother left the women in the family to do the work needed at home.

The virgin/whore dichotomy still operative in Austen’s world.  This binary still forms typology; the girls were quite critical of one another or themselves for behaving in an open sexually inviting manner; they dress to escape blame. Ms. Newton did not say this but look at how Lydia Bennet, the two Eliza Williamses, when Jane Fairfax is clandestinely engaged, when Maria Bertram runs away, at the scorn for Isabella Thorpe when betrayed by Captain Tilney — how these characters are treated.


Where Elinor Dashwood (Emma Thompson) tells Edward Ferrars (Hugh Grant) that men can work for a living, women are not allowed (1995 S&S, scripted Emma Thompson)

Economic Power in Austen. Men can get jobs, rise in the world through their work; women are impotent. Emma Thompson’s script for S&S brings this out. Only by marrying can a woman move up in the world. Women today make 24% less at similar jobs (she said). The girls were very aware of this economic inequality, and saw the lower salary and positions as defining the limits of what they can do – on top of the sacrifice for those at home.


Colonel Brandon (here David Morrisey) given much authority, respect in S&S (2008, scripted by Andrew Davies)


Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) talking to his sister, Sophia Crofts (Fiona Shaw) who challenged on his authority (1995 Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear)

Figures of authority in Austen. Very few authority figures given real respect are women. Women left out of history (NA), literally confined, small spaces and given no or miseducation. Anne Eliot talked of how at home they are preyed upon by their inward selves. Space is provided by a man, and women must accommodate themselves to what he can make or decides. Here they talked of how femininity is a public performance, to be “lady-like” or respectably feminine is the default setting. The girls said it mattered how society saw them; they were angry at the injustice of having to play these roles. Patriarchal structure continues in Austen and men as figures of authority. The girls had felt the experience of being subject to men or seeing women subject to men. Catherine de Bourgh is powerful but within the domestic home and over what patronage she inherited from her husband.

In general, the teenage girls she studied spent a lot of time talking about what makes a strong woman and the finale in books & movies where she is nonetheless married off to a man at the end. They saw that women with the least rank and money had the least economic power unless they marry a powerful man then and now. Marriage nonetheless assumed, heterosexuality assumed in Austen and their spoken lives. Newton suggested that in the 1970s an important theme, an attempt was made to enable women to support other women. Austen offers us a shrewd take on women’s worlds, a world not that far from ours in some essentials. Sisterhood a powerful theme through Austen – what women owe other women. She ended on the thought she had never expected the girls she studied to be as feminist as they were, and to read Austen with them in these ways brings out wonderful insights.

Some thoughts: I did feel there was condescension in some of what Ms Newton said, that she was too aware the girls were “working class” and she “upper middle” as constituting this big difference between her and them. “Their” statements/attitudes show how they are under terrific pressure to marry and to have children. Perhaps Ms Newton is too. We know what huge obstacles these acts will make if they want to have a thorough education and succeed in a job outside their homes. She might have emphasized that more. That Austen does not see marriage and family in that light because Austen sees no opportunity to “get out there” in the first place. That there are other ways of gaining fulfillment — individual self-cultivation (as we see glimpsingly in Lady Russell).

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I would bring together Janet Todd’s talk and Georgina Newton’s to suggest that it is a sort of betrayal on Austen’s part to erase all details of books she read, and plays she went to, and not make any of her heroines serious readers or writers. It is painful how she makes her one reading girl, Mary Bennet, a fool and plain to boot (as if that were why a girl might read a good deal of the time).  I wish there were a heroine somewhere in Austen’s oeuvre who ends up happily without marriage. We will not have such heroines until the mid-20th century.


A rare sympathetic portrayal of Mary Bennet (Tessa Peake Jones) is found in Fay Weldon’s 1979 BBC P&P

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Both sessions had a question and answer period. In the case of Janet Todd, it was a zoom meeting and there was real conversation. People knew or recognized one another. Alas, I had to leave early. I had so appreciated the quiet tone, the measured delivery of the talk but there is no way to convey that so I say it here. At the Bath Institute, the mode was to read aloud the Q&A in chat, with occasionally people voicing their comments or questions. Everyone seemed lively and interested; they were many more observations than there was time for. I can’t remember any to be as feminist as the working class girls Georgina Newton interviewed.

But there will be other sessions this summer from both institutions. I’ll add to that if you donated to Chawton House during the Lockdown festival, you were given a chance to re-see and re-listen to Todd as often as you like until it’s pulled down.  The Bath Institute had trouble with its zoom and everyone who paid for a ticket can now re-see it on the site for a while.

Ellen

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Anna Bouverie (Lindsay Duncan) waiting for Flora, her daughter’s school bus to arrive


Rev Peter Bouverie (Jonathan Coy) waiting to be called in to be told whether he’s to be promoted or not

“the suffering spirit cannot descend from its dignity of reticence. It has a nobility of its own, made sacred by many tears, by the flowing of streams of blood from unseen wounds, which cannot descend from its dais to receive pity and kindness” (Trollope of Mrs Crawley, in Last Chronicle of Barset, “Lady Lufton’s Proposition,” Ch 50)

Dear friends and readers,

I was first riveted by this tale, Joanna Trollope’s first strong success (in every way) when, as I read, I realized she was re-creating two of her renowned ancestor’s most powerful characters, the Rev Josiah Crawley and his wife, Mrs Mary Crawley.  Joanna recreates a closely analogous pair of troubled lives in the story of the highly intelligent and well-meaning but underpaid, mildly disrespected, and therefore deeply humiliated, proud, inwardly raging the Rev Peter Bouverie, and his (up to this point) selfless, compliant, overworked and not paid at all wife, an equally intelligent talented and loving wife, Anna Bouverie.  Change the vowel sounds and you have Emma Bovary.  The allusions underline the idea this kind of story — the wife seeking independence is bored and what she needs is titillating erotic romance and seduction is misogynistic.  What Anna craves is liberty, time and energy to be and find herself. My latest re-reading of The Last Chronicle of Barset left me with a newly aroused-to-anger and hurt-for Mrs Crawley. To me she was the disregarded tragic figure (all the worse since she bought into her obedient enslavement to a will and decisions against her own) and I thought to myself, this is how Joanna Trollope saw Anthony Trollope’s frequently silenced, half-starved wife.

Joanna Trollope has given some very disingenuous interviews where she says when she began to write, Anthony Trollope (she found) meant nothing to her (Trollope, Joanna, and David Finkle. “Joanna Trollope: Family Plots with Untidy Endings.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 186, Gale, 2004. Gale Literature Resource Center).  The plot of her first novel, published with a pseudonym, Caroline Harvey, Parson’s Harding’s Daughter, and other of her early historical romance pastiche novels (using the same pseudonym), the literal happenings are very different from anything her ancestor wrote (Joanna’s colonialist, taking place in India); but names, character situations, motifs are taken from Anthony Trollope’s Barcestershire. In this one of her break-away from Harvey books we meet a Miss Dunstable, are in the familiar clerical world with caste and money problems.  I have to wonder what is gained by such denials.

To me much is lost. By reading the book as a re-write ( or post-text or sequel), Anna’s quest not just to be independent, but to stop being defined and controlled in her behavior by a category (the rector’s wife), or (generalizing out) one of many women supporting a male institution with work & a life no male would do or live — makes more sense. Joanna is objecting to the patriarchy. In the most searing and startling moments in the emotionally effective TV series (written by Hugh Whitemore, directed by Giles Forster), Anna is told she is not seeking individual liberty, to find herself, to carve out space for her to achieve some time for an identity apart from Rector’s wife & a mother). If she wanted that she would take a job more commensurate with her abilities  — as she does at the end of the book & TV series when she becomes a German & French teacher in the private Catholic school that has taken her daughter in.

No, she chooses to be a clerk in a supermarket to reveal to the world that the church establishment is refusing to pay her husband adequately, exploiting and preying on his silenced loyal family. Her closest friendship is with a woman deacon, Isobel Thomson (Gabrielle Lloyd) who confronts her with disloyalty to the church and God. Joanna’s book is a commentary on Anthony’s books & characters as her Sense and Sensibility is a commentary on Austen’s novel. It is a seriously intended depiction of people who take religious faith and their church seriously — if talking to God, discussing and acting for the church’s interests, trying to identify these are not just filler – and they are not.


Anna pushes back hard against the Deacon Isobel Thomson

It is also until near the end a defense of Trollope’s much distressed and half-maddened Josiah. We study or follow Peter becoming more and more rigid, more destructive of his own marriage, as he demands his own way and obedience to his will. He requires that Anna quit the job, refuses to because there is nothing to discuss.  He enlists sycophantic women to show Anna up. Finally he takes the extraordinary step of quitting for her.  He offends the people who work in the supermarket by implying the work his wife does is demeaning,somehow disgraceful distasteful work. Still as acted by Jonathan Coy he is suffering so strongly, aching with hurt and disappointment.  (A major theme for Joanna Trollope.)  We feel for him when he realizes he need not write a sermon this week for this is now the new Archdeacon’s job.


Anna with Jonathan (Stephan Dillane) on a bench near the Archdeacon’s home

I say until near the end, for in the close both book & movie go off the rails of a proto-feminist Trollopian fable: after all Anna falls into an adulterous love affair with the new archdeacon’s younger brother, a sexy idle university student (or lecturer), Jonathan (Stephan Dillane looking like a rock star from the 1970s), grief over which drives Peter to a half-suicide. Anna goes along with the church ceremonies but these over, professes herself so quickly (& to the archdeacon too) much relieved; it’s easier to be fonder of Peter now! She now assume her attitude, the choice of boyfriend will have little effect on her relationship with her children or their memories of their father. The last scene but one of book and movie has her sitting on her husband’s grave telling him it has all been for the best, and if he doesn’t think so he needs to be in paradise longer. The last phrase precludes the idea she is getting back at him for taking it upon himself to hand in her resignation. But there is a disconcerting lack of remorse.


Eleanor confiding in Anna during a visit, after a dinner party


Later that morning, Anne back home, waiting (again) for the bus, thinking

She now becomes a kind of guru or model to emulate for her friend, Eleanor Ramsey (Pam Ferris), a successful but bitter novelist who leaves her much berated despised husband. Brutish insensitivity characterizes other characters early on (her female rivals, her friend’s bullying ways); a kind of hard shell forms around the by this time over-serene Anna. As with her novel on adoption, Next of Kin, I felt embarrassed by the seeming unself-conciousness lack of shame with which her characters talk so explicitly and casually about their hitherto unthinkable hurtful behavior. People may think these things, but don’t often say them. I felt a oblivious selfishness and complacency in Anna’s behavior. How else escape? I don’t know.  I agree that Peter would not talk to her or respond to her overtures. I liked Anna thrusting a glass of water over Peter’s head when he continues to refuse to talk, to compromise, but can feel why so many critics and thinking readers are made uneasy by events in her novels.

Joanna Trollope has a Don Juan character, Patrick O’Sullivan (Miles Anderson) who mistakes her for an Emma Bovary and Anna lashes out more than once at him (as he does not give up easily) as arrogant and indifferently playing with her and other women. Trollope’s is a apt concise analysis of the cold egoism of the traditional rake. But her Anna is disconcerting too as she slipped very quickly into finding a lover in Jonathan. Peter is now dismissed facilely by all as having been sick — the community is let off the hook. Trollope registers her awareness that she has undermined her own book by having a comically cheerful singing rector and inflexibly bounce-y new Rector’s Wife take over after the funeral.

All this said, there is another aspect to this novel and the film adaptation that makes me want to read and see more of Joanna Trollope. The woman at the center of this novel and the film, as so beautifully enacted by Lindsay Duncan, embodied a reality and feel for a woman’s life with an unconscious self-enriched on-goingness I loved entering into. She is essentially good-natured, loving (which is why she has become the go-to person for everything in the parish and her home). The character does not look down on, is amused by what is different from her even when she sees it is someone living from a limited point of view or absurd behaviors (like the way she must stack cans on a shelf). In the film Duncan adds a sense of comfortableness in nature, with the things of society. She is so beautiful too.  I wanted to re-watch her the way I do Caitronia Balfe (in Outlander) and re-read scenes.

Joanna Trollope’s aim to give her female reader a character and experience to revel in vicariously is expressed reflexively in the character of Marjorie Richardson (played pitch perfectly by Prunella Scales), wife of a Major who has spent with him much time “in the colonies.”  Marjorie is seen by Anna as a snob, as critical of Anna, and superficially condescending from what Marjorie says and does — taken aback by finding Anna working as a clerk in a supermarket (!), saying aloud how glad she is that Peter doesn’t mind not being promoted (of course he will say that). But I noticed how the camera continually captures her standing behind Anna in church, near her here and there. After Peter’s death, she has her husband offer Anna a cottage to live in for free — a puzzling offer since it’s deep in the country, away from the town where the children go to school and lively social life goes on. Anna does not have a car after Peter totals his. This is never satisfactorily explained since when Anna comes to say no, Marjorie only says she wouldn’t want it either.


Marjorie (Prunella Scales) opening up to tell of her life


Again, after now renting her own flat — for herself and children

It functions as an excuse to provide Marjorie with an opportunity to open up to Anna for the first time. Anna learns that Marjorie gets through the day by drinking the occasional gin, and has led a frustrated non-life of the type Anne was trapped in as the novel opened. Marjorie was a category, a follower of male institutions, and now it’s too late for her to build her own life. Marjorie tells of her daughter, Julia, who, after giving her all for years during the war while her husband was away, found herself deserted and with no money when he came back and went off with another woman – and his salary. Marjorie wants Anna to meet Julia (or the other way round) and tells Anna she will be watching her in her new job and new flat enjoying from afar what she didn’t dare.

There is also some personal self-reflexivity in the film in the way Eleanor Ramsay’s books are marketed. Her name across the top, a cartoon figure of an over-feminized woman at the center, her picture at the back. In the book Anna has two girlfriends who became successful professionals, and details there suggest Joanna Trollope.

Yes it is a fantasy, wish-fulfillment, comfort novel. At the same time it is accurate to see the book and its heroine as in the tradition of 19th century domestic realism novels. Sarah Rigby writes of Anna Bouverie that she

takes a supermarket job because she needs money for her children. She could, more respectably, have chosen to teach, but the shop job seems less burdensome. The entire village (including her husband, the vicar) sees this as an act of betrayal and defiance; she neglects the church flower rota and her parish duties, and is no longer considered capable of ministering to her family’s needs. Alienated, she succumbs to one of many fascinated men, and by doing so precipitates a chain of events which leads to the death of her husband. She makes some money, moves to a smaller house, refuses all offers of help, and reconstructs her identity, to the frustration of her lover, who wants to rescue her himself, and who, ‘when he looked back … saw … her standing in a cage surrounded by people who were either longing to rescue her or determined that she should not escape’. Literature has many such heroines, trapped in stasis and admired as symbols all the subjects of male rescue attempts. Isabel Archer is one, with her sense of marriage as a safety net which would nevertheless trap her as ‘some wild, caught creature in a vast cage’.

It goes without saying that Trollope’s view of the world is not nearly as complicated as James’s, but the attraction to that security and the simultaneous reaction against it is one of her main preoccupations. As her own use of the cage image is developed, it is also subverted: ‘And then suddenly … the cage was empty and Anna had eluded all those people and had run ahead of them. … It was almost, now, as if she were in hiding, and they were all looking for her, guided only by bursts of slightly mocking laughter from her hiding place’ (Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 186, Gale, 2004)

Trollope does break taboos, while keeping her heroines safe by placing them in anachronistic environments. I don’t know if the religious belief in this one is common; there is another good mother superior nun to provide a place for her daughter, a job for her (reminding me of Mother Hildegarde in Outlander). Her heroine’s struggle is that of other heroines of women’s novels, of her readership, and dramatizes their compromised solutions too. In The Rector’s Wife, Trollope is at her best in wry undramatic dramatized moments, as we feel for her characters and ourselves getting through the anxious hard moments of our lives. In this TV series the material is the strongest in the confrontational scenes, and evocative in including shots of landscapes of southeastern England. We are meant also to revel in the loveliness of rural suburban worlds, small towns, with a sense of embedded histories of which this story is just one.


Concluding stills — Anna leaning down in the grass over her husband’s grave, and then walking back to her flat in town

I had wanted to read a book by Joanna Trollope for ever so long; her talk for the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival got me to do it. I have her Other People’s Children, Next of Kin, and Sense and Sensibility (which I tried and now want to try gain), all picked up at used book library sales, and have now put Other People’s Children on my nightstand – next to Artemis Cooper’s biography of Elizabeth Jane Howard, another novelist who I may now be able to find time and room for as I have stopped spending hours driving places in my car. Middle of the night reading when I need easy company. Have I mentioned what an deft writer Joanna is, concise effective, putting us into the situations she imagines before we are at the bottom of the first page.

Ellen

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Drawing Room at John Murray, 50 Albemarle Street, London


Bee Rowlatt, Dear Mary, In Search of Mary Wollstonecraft

Dear friends and readers,

I continue my account of the talks and interviews variously recorded at the Chawton House Lockdown Literary Festival last weekend. We’ve covered Friday and half of Saturday, May 15th and 16th; today we’ll have the second part of Saturday and Sunday, the 16th through 17th.

I have a new observation to apply to all the proceedings: as I watched and listened I began to notice that almost all the women (all the speakers but two were women) had remarkably similar backdrops. At first, the tasteful cream-white room with its bookcase on one side, perhaps a window on the other seemed real, but a while, it could not be that all the people would be in a room with a bookcase to the side, all the rooms of a light creamy-white.

What fools you at first is they are not exactly alike. Some women seemed to be sitting and looking down at notes from time to time; others seemed to be standing up. Some people didn’t have it — Caroline Jane Knight didn’t — she came across appealingly in the way upper class Brits know how – she can tell seemingly charming/frank stories of this house as she grew up in it, and perhaps it was thought more piquant to give her as background a room in Chawton House; Devoney Looser didn’t conform either. But most did.

I now also add the titles of fiction and a brief description of one of the talks about fiction that were part of this festival in the comments to this blog — as I can see people are reading these blogs.

I began with Alison Daniells, whose YouTube went on line at 3 pm British summer time. She talked of Elizabeth Knight, who, very unusually for a woman, owned Chawton House and the surrounding properties in the earlier 18th century. She was not the elderly Knight woman who was kind to Jane Austen, but an ancestress (1674-1737) who, unlike most women at the time, inherited a vast property and its income. Despite the law of coverture (explained by Daniells) and primogeniture, sometimes a woman could end up owning a family’s property – basically when there were no direct sons or sons-in-law and when there was no entail put on the property (as became popular in the later 18th century).

We were told of Knight’s two marriages and then her pro-active behavior on behalf of controlling her property, doing with it as she wanted, and also exercising a right to vote. Apparently a woman could vote in some circumstances in the later part of the 17th and early 18th century.


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) by John Opie

Louisa Albani. 5:00 pm British summer time, is an artist who created a short video where she expressed through visual pictures Mary Wollstonecraft’s experience of Paris and during a visit to Versailles in 1792. She was directly followed by Bee Rowlatt, interviewed by Clio O’Sullivan.

Rowlatt has written imitation of Richard Holmes (who literally followed in the footsteps of his biographical subjects in a book called Footsteps): In Search of Mary Wollstonecraft Rowlatt tells of her trip following Wollstonecraft as Wollstonecraft reports in her brilliant travel book, Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Rowlatt did some research (though she said that was not her emphasis) and her book includes why Mary was there –- not clearly told in the superb, melancholy, and picturesque book; Mary was working for her ex-lover, Gilbert Imlay. American, then smuggling silver and goods stolen perhaps from aristocrats. She had had a baby by him, which baby she took with her, and also a maid (whose name is never mentioned). She had tried to kill herself when Imlay left her and her baby, took up with another mistress and resumed his amoral peripatetic existence. She was partly trying to maintain contact with him, but also trying to build a new life for herself, to rescue a relationship, and to explore Scandinavia, which Rowlatt did too and describes. Mary never found the silver (which had, ironically justly) been in turn stolen; the captain won a legal battle in court. Imlay was also smuggling arms out of Paris – working all ends this unscrupulous man.

Rowlatt read aloud some of the beautiful pieces of peaceful description in the book. Mary did recover her health. Rowlatt talked of Godwin’s biography, how it functioned to hurt Mary’s reputation for a couple of hundred years – myself I think she would have been erased altogether if not vilified so that Godwin’s book is not what was to blame. Rowlatt remarked that the suffragette Millicent Fawcett was the first person publicly to defend Wollstonecraft after a century of sustained vituperative misogynistic attack. Men & the upper classes in general (she was a socialist for her time, very like Paine in her outlook) must’ve seen in her book real danger.


A Valancourt book

Devoney Looser, a Professor of English at Arizona State, at 6:00 pm, “All the Janes.” She is writing a dual biography of Jane West (1758-1852) and Jane Porter (1774-50). Looser pointed out that in Austen’s era thousands of books were published and hundreds of them by women, who often wrote novels, but not that much fewer than men (men 300 to women 295). Women more prolific than men. She did not say if all these were in English.

Everyone knows about West’s A Gossip’s Story, where one of the dual heroines is called Marianne. What was interesting to me was that Jane West may also have written a another novel influencing Austen’s beyond Sense and Sensibility. (Looser never mentioned Caroline de Lichtfield, but I didn’t expect it – she may have mentioned de Stael). West though also wrote a novel called Ringrove (1827), which seems to be an imitation of Emma, the motherless rich heroine. Devoney has published an essay with someone else “Admiration and Disapproval before Jane Austen: Jane West’s Ringrove, Essays in Romanticism, 26 (2019): 41-54.

Jane Porter was much better known than Austen during Austen’s lifetime and since, especially for her children’s books and for adults The Scottish Chiefs (1810). Where she lived is now crumbling down or flattened altogether. Her sister, Anna Maria Porter (1778-1832) wrote historical fiction too. Jane Austen wrote her brother Edward about this sister’s book, The Lake of Killarney. Stainer Clarke, the librarian (the one so easy to despise for presuming to encourage Jane Austen) encouraged Jane Porter to write the same romance for the royal family and she did, Duke Christian of Luneberg.

Looser suggested had Austen lived maybe she would have changed her mind, because she liked money (the pewter comment was trotted out). To me to say this is to misunderstand the source and nature of Austen’s art. She couldn’t write such a romance as her whole stance towards life, towards what kinds of writing she could do that was valuable and she enjoyed doing, her determination to ground herself in moral comic truth by writing of what she knew, precluded such book.

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On the third night I started earlier in the evening (US EST time). Perhaps it is well to recall here that research in this library and museum from a scholarly standpoint is far more about 18th century women writers or the 18th century matters affecting women in general. For fans it’s a shrine for Austen but in the library room she is rightly and naturally among dozens of women.


A promotional photo

Caroline Jane Knight, 11 am 4th great granddaughter of Edward, 5th great niece of JA, began the day. She is probably the present heir to the house, and seems (since Sandy Lerner pulled out) to be shaping what the house will become — much more popular in orientation. She told us of how she grew up in the house, its rituals; she stressed that her family didn’t feel rich, and many branches of the Knights lived in the house at one time, each with its own living quarters, rather like a rabbit warren. Since the opening of this house to the public after the Jane Austen Society became involved and Sandy Lerner endowed it so richly for many years (herself paying for the hugely expensive restoration), the house is becoming a local community and British public community space as well as place for AGMs, Austenian and other 18th century women.  There was little about Austen’s books —  I wondered if she had read them much until lately.

In her talk she made it clear she knows she lived a privileged life. Nonetheless, the house as described by her sounded like some castle where there’s a court and everyone in lives in little crowded corners. It is true that these mansions were at times turned into the equivalent of hotels or apartment houses. She looked very strongly made, and I wondered if she rides? (is a horsewoman). She was very upbeat. See my blog on Devoney Looser’s review of her book, Jane and Me.

Caroline Knight was followed by Martin Chaddick, at noon, telling us of the supposed secrets of Chawton House –- he had photographs of the house before it was restored. First built in 1583-1590; the Knight family failed to provide an heir after Sir Richard Knight; it was passed to other branches of the family where the owner would change his named to Knight as did Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Austen, after he was adopted. He said he was researching house and its actual occupants, and started with how many had this first name and that; his work was that of a genealogist. You can read the literal history of the place at wikipedia.

In a third connected talk (about the neighborhood), at 1:20 Katie Childs and Lizzy Dunford discussed the village around the house in a similar practical local history fashion.

To turn to Austen’s contemporaries and other women writers, Kimberley James, began at 1 pm; she is the Collector and Manager at Gilbert White house. She spoke about the friendship of Hester Chapone and Gilbert White as seen through their letters. We learned of how they met through Hester’s brother, John Mulso, who was at Oxford when Gilbert White arrived. All three very intelligent people; White trained as a barrister. The two men became very close and from ages 20-70 Mulso wrote letters to White and there we find the history of this pair of people as friends. In 1745 Mulso brought White to meet the Mulso family, and Hecky and White hit it off. Gilbert tried to pursue a career at Oriel, Oxford and gardened. Hester married in 1760 but her husband (Chapone) died soon after, and she had the liberty and desire to live in London middling society where she met Elizabeth Carter who introduced her to Elizabeth Montagu; she became part of several circles of learned ladies, among them one surrounding Samuel Richardson, author of Clarissa and Grandison. Mulso died in 1790 and until then his letters describe these groups of people as Hester and Gilbert interacted with them. Then there is silence.

Chapone’s Letters on the Improvement of the Mind went through 6 editions; his Selbourne is a nature writing classic. I was disappointed in this talk because there was little on the content of either book, not even any quotations from White’s delightful poetry-in-science.

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We come now to the two best talks of the last day: first, with no pictures: EJ Clery, 2 pm. Professor at Uppsala and author of a biography of Henry Austen. Clery said she had come to discuss literary societies. “All great writers need a gang” she began. Literary societies are about nostalgia, purpose conservation, they have archives, a shared love of books. The Jane Austen Society (of Britain), however, began 80 years ago, with the aim of restoring the small house Jane Austen lived in with her mother, sister, and friend, Martha Lloyd, and the throwing out of a grate from a fireplace. In 1949, we find an inscription on Chawton, which commemorates when the society and hopes for restoration began. Basically we owe the existence of the house still to Dorothy Darnell (1877-1953), who founded the society in 1940; it was at first a small gathering. Dorothy Darnell was also an artist (1904-1922), studied with Nicolson and exhibited in Royal Academy of Paris; she painted portraits; Emily, a sister, married (1856-1949), went to the Royal College of Music. We are in the period of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Dorothy’s sister, Alice Beatrix Darnell (1873-1995) was made chairman. A Rev Darnell was involved too. Carpenter who paid for an estimation; the Duke of Wellington at the time agreed to have his name used in the restoration of the small building.

Clery gave portraits of other early members of the JA British Society. Dorothy knew the writer Elizabeth Jenkins (1905-2010), Cambridge educated, wrote novels, 6 biographies, a very retiring, who destroyed her first novels. Elizabeth the Great is her best known book; she worked for Victor Gollancz during the war years, and chronicles her society in her writing and editing. She had no money, but was connected to upper class people and in Oxford, Mary Lascelles (1900-1995), one of the first scholars to produce a solid close reading of Austen, involved herself, RW Chapman (1881-1960) worked with Jenkins; they wrote Catherine Mecalf, that they need trustees, wanted to give prize, to produce annual reports In 1950 came the first one: 8 pages. 1938 appeared the first published articles about Jane Austen that became the traditional article in the journals (edited by Jenkins). At some point, Edward Knight agreed to sell his house for 3000£. The rooms became shrines, but meticulous research went into the making of them.

As to the Jane Austen Society journal reports, it is regularly published, each on average 100 pages, 10 articles, reports of talk (with much solid antiquarian research), reports from groups. David Selwyn edited them at first, and slowly a house of research was built: it’s from these reports Clery’s first information about Henry Austen> TABCorley and Clive Kaplan: Corley was an economic historian, had 4 children, a widower; Caplan involved with founding of JASNA. (My biography of Henry Austen as a blog is based on these men’s essays). Then Brian Southam and LeFaye built and expanded the society more to become what it is today. She told us where we may access the volumes nowadays: http://www.janeaustensocietyfreeuk.com/index.html and memsec@jasoc.org.uk

Now a YouTube of Gillian Dow, where she speaks for herself, but I’ll add a description too in case you want some notes:

Gillian Dow, who used to be the manager of Chawton House, has returned to Southampton University, and is writing a book on John Murray II (1778-1843) and his female authors, supporters, his networks. The Office at 50 Albemarle Street is above (the top of this blog). Bryon’s memoirs were burnt in that fireplace. She went there where literary gatherings once held (and Byron’s Memoirs deliberately burnt, Germaine de Stael once there, Scott too); also did research at the National Library of Scotland. She calls these women his 4 o’clock friends. JM2 was the son of John Murray I, who started the business in 1763. Gillian Dow read the letters of the women whose books he published or who tried to be published. David McClay published a good book just on Murray in 2018.

The story: 1793 JM2 inherited the business; he established The Quarterly Review in 1809, published landmark works, among them Byron and Austen. Egerton had published Austen’s first 3 novels; 1815 she resolved to go to Murray (much more prestigious, a publisher of literary books), and was offered 450£ for Emma with copyrights for S&S and MP; she and Henry refused (calling Murray a “rogue” in one letter), and published on commission, paying for production and distribution costs. Murray also published (1804) Genlis’s Duchess de la Valliere; radical women’s books, novels, listened to Caroline Lamb; went on with travel books, Heman’s poetry, an early woman scientist’s books; Susan Fevrier, Frankenstein; he was a supportive man. So it turns out Murray was no rogue (and Henry not such a good businessman); they made much less than 450£; 530 were remaindered at 2 shillings. The women he was involved with include Maria Graham (1785-1842), Sarah Austin (1793-1867), who followed her husband to Germany, kept in touch, provided Murray with a sort of readers’ reports, for example on someone she is asked to translate (1830). A third woman, Louis Swanton Belloc (1796-18881), who wrote a 2 volume biography of Byron; she was a translator, turned Cranford into French, Maria Edgeworth. She supported her husband and 3 children, was aggressive asking Murray to support this or that woman.

In the zoom period answers to questions included: unlike Austen most of these women did not work with brothers or come with male relatives on their behalf; yes, women are more likely to be translators. Very fashionable French readers liked to read English. Yes the women knew one another.

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Joshua Reynolds, The Ladies Waldegrave (sewing), 1780

Janine Barchas, 5 pm. The lost books of JA. Prof Barchas went over cheap reprints, embarrassing covers, lousy translations (mostly French, Italian and Spanish), and unreliable texts of Jane Austen’s novels. She presented herself as caring for these books and this readership but her tone was one of laughter. She showed mawkish covers and titles, saying we should regard these books as beacons in the darkness to readers left out, readers who need a chance to rebel. She was implying ideas about the readership of such books about which we know very little. The covers amused her, as did small grotesque female dolls called bobble heads (almost memorably ugly they are so distasteful) which she interspersed with the covers. I thought about her book on Northanger Abbey from where she claims to unearth as places she argues central to NA for which there is no evidence in the book, none; they are described as seriously chilling gothic places though are in fact highly problematic sensationalized tourist attractions.

Jennie Bachelor 6:00 pm, who was the first Chawton House fellow, and is now a professor of English at Kent University. Together with Alison Larkin, she has published a part craft, part critical and historical reading book on Jane Austen and Embroidery. Wollstonecraft regarded the perpetual sewing activity by women as oppressive, but many women (she said) did and do not. Austen appears to have taken pride in her sewing, and showed an avid interest in clothes.

Bachelor went over the kinds of materials you find in (considered as a type) Ladies Magazines: novels reviews, foreign news, advertisements, fashions, plates, poetry, but also frequently patterns for embroidery, but endlessly cut out for use (with no instructions — you were expected to know what to do). Her dissertation and an article she published includes some of the kinds of fiction found in these books: in one from 1790s, tale of shipwreck, we read of a Mrs Brandon attached to a Mr Willoughby; in 1802 a Case of Conscience has a Mr Knightley who marries an obscure orphan boarding at a school. Charlotte Bronte one of the later subscribers. These issues would be bound up (rather like single plays) – they were never meant to be kept.

Bachelor said she was very frustrated because she could find so few patterns, hunted for them, and then one day came across an issue with six. She started a Great British Stitch-in –- devised craft projects for all levels of ability, skill, some patterns for historically minded, others mixed media. She showed us a reticule made from embroidery. Among those who contacted her was Alison Larkin, from Yorkshire, they met and dreamed of a book. Sections organized with histories, biography, novels – an embroidery muff makes her think of Tom Jones. Well the book happened and she was here to show it to us.

The festival for me concluded with Hilary Davidson, at 7:00 pm, telling us of her Dress in the Age of Jane Austen. She traced the changes from exaggerated fashions of mid- to later 18th to a new apparent simplicity of dress for a while, until again a new set of exaggerations emerged (1830s). Sewing was very important; these were social acts. She studied women’s account books. They bought and wore differently textured clothing. How did women keep warm: they wore flannel underwear, a riding habit, woolen dress and habit, shawls, mantles, a pelisse, a spenser. Cossack trousers came in 1810 as armies crossed Russia and vice versa. From India lace-making, net machines, silk slips. She looked at Edgeworth’s Belinda’s depiction of assembly carefully. She showed us and analysed one of the covers on Margaret Drabble’s many women’s novels of our own era.

How did people use clothes in the Regency period and just after was the kind of question she asked herself and tried to answer. What exactly was stylish and why? What is meant by vulgar? Were you self-creating or ludicrous? Clothes represent complex identities are represented: she wanted to know how women experience these identities and the clothes that projected them?

And so it ended.

Ellen

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Emma (Autumn de Wilde, 2020, Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma)


Wendy Moore, Endell Street, The Suffragette Surgeons of World War One

Dear friends and readers,

Last week I was able to attend a series of mostly enjoyable and instructive lectures, talks, discussions from Chawton House for three long nights. I did not have to get on a crowded plane (for oodles of money), travel to Chawton, obtain lodging nearby (ditto), nor did I need to have a paper accepted, which to my mind for years has been a sina qua non for deciding whether to go to a conference, as I want not to wander about belonging to no one. Now I could skip that too.

It’s not that I would not have preferred to experience the place, some of the events and talk that would have gone on all around, but I have once been to Chawton, for three days, for a Charlotte Smith conference (about as perfect an experience as I’ve ever had), with Izzy, and feel I know it from years of reading, not to omit following a Future Learn on Jane Austen done at Chawton House a couple of years ago now.

Further, for me the core of what I go to these conferences for are the papers, the sessions. You see above, two of the delightful books I heard described, and the one Austen film that, together with the history of illustrations for Emma and earlier film visualizations that was included in the three day program. For today I will cover the best of the first day in England (which I experienced at night) and part of the second (ditto). At the end I’ve a video of a thoughtful revealing talk by Joanna Trollope about what actuates her when she writes her novels. I did not listen to all the talks on any of the days: there was too much to take in. You can find videos for many of those I describe below on YouTube. Don’t just skip these, if you love Austen or women’s writing and are fired into enthusiasm or (sometimes) despair at studying women’s lives.

Lockdown Literary Festival

On the first day there were 6 YouTubes, some twitter Q&As, and one or more zoom groups either for a presentation or an afterwards.
Telling hard truth: they are desperate: they lost 80% of their regular funding a couple of years ago now when Sandy Lerner in a huff (angry over something and not justifiably for real) left and took her money with her; now closed, the first speaker tells you their income is down 60%. So this is by way of showing their stuff — their place — there is a place to donate. They showed the strengths of what is available at Chawton House Museum, house, and libraries.

First, very early in the day, the Executive Director of Chawton, Katie Childs, telling briefly all about Chawton House, what she does, and their financial straits. There were two of these creative writing workshops where people are supposedly teaching those who paid for this (limited space) how to write poetry (Clair Thurlow, and Sinead Keegan). She came back later to tell of how hard the job is, about caring for this historical house (once owned by Edward Austen Knight, Austen’s luck brother, adopted by rich relatives, the Knights), the estate, the museum, the library, the events … All that was left out was the grounds.

Then Emma Yandel — All About Emma. Ms Yandel began by telling the viewer that the recent Emma is interesting for its use of costuming, for the visual presentation which breaks with traditions yet yet brings new meanings &c&c. About 16 minutes were filled with information and insight about the history of illustration: the earliest, 1833, Bentley’s edition, very sentimental, normalizing, especially revealing is the choice of scene: Mr Knightley proposing to Emma. Emma is not primarily or even at all a conventional emotional heterosexual romance; with Hugh Thomson’s comic illustrations are the first to break away into real scenes of women (which the novel is filled with), with some irony, then the 20th century took the reader somewhat further. She talked of a 1946 a stage play in London, which was all sentiment and unreality and then was moving on to the most conventional Emma (1996, McGrath, with Gweneth Paltrow) and one of the break-aways, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, when, aargh!, the YouTube broke off and some other YouTube managed to block the rest of this talk …. I have seen the new Emma, and analyzed and described it as a hollow parody in the first half, and emotionally drenched heterosexual romance in the second.

Then a superb talk by Kim Simpson, she takes care of the two libraries and teaches at Southampton University. She told of the early women’s books the Chawton House owns, showed the two rooms of 1000s of books, and then gave a talk on the development of women’s rights as a concept and reality through focusing on seven women writers whose books she curated an exhibit in 2019 about — and including their associates, books they were responding to, and other books along the way. Each of these women that she chose was carefully selected and her work presented intelligently: Jane Austen, Persuasion was quoted (the pen has been in men’s hands), Bathsua Makin (a midwife), An Essay to Revive the Ancient Education of Gentlewomen (1673), Sarah Fyge Egerton, The Female Advocate, written when she was just 14; Mary Astell, Reflections on Marriage (1700, though she wrote a lot about setting up a college for women, on behalf of educating women, Mary Chudleigh (1655-1700), A Defense of Women; Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800) for her letters and for founding a sort of society of bluestockings, Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall, A Journey through every stage of life (1754), Madame de Genlis (1746-1830), the books that Jane Austen read or mentioned; Catherine Macaulay (1731-91, Her Letters on Education (1790).

The intellectual treat of the day was Wendy Moore whose books I have read and admired: especially Wedlock about the abusive marriage Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore endured. Moore writes eloquently, insightfully, passionately. Her talk was on the first women’s hospital at Endell Street, which was created by two courageous women doctors during the first world War in London. At first rejected, then after much struggle and using what connections they had from their education and background, they were allowed to set up a hospital that became one of the best hospitals in London — staffed entirely by women. They were there for the Spanish flu. Then in 1818 ruthlessly disbanded, the women driven away back to their homes. A tragic waste after their heroic admirable successful endeavour. She has been interested in all her work in the history of medicine and exposing violence inflicted on, and exclusions of women from any money, power, ability to choose a life. The suffragettes were done justice to — ironically no longer done in many accountings of suffragettes. They were violent! how could they? only suffragists are nowadays spoken of as acceptable. A rare spirit pushing back is Lucy Worseley. Moore provides the solid research. I quote from Anne Kennedy Smith’s review of the book in The Guardian:

In 1920, as part of an exhibition on women’s war work, the Imperial War Museum planned to display a sketch of a busy operating theatre at Endell Street Military Hospital in London. The hospital’s commanding officers, Flora Murray and Louisa Garrett Anderson, were furious, convinced that the depiction of a discarded splint and other clutter would damage the future professional reputation of women in medicine. “We would rather have no record of our work than a false record,” they raged.

One hundred years on, this compelling book at last gives Endell Street its due. It’s the story of the remarkable wartime contribution of two medical women who, as active suffragettes, had previously been enemies of the state. Life partners Murray and Anderson were qualified doctors who met while waging a women’s war against the British government. Anderson refused to pay tax and spent four weeks at Holloway prison after smashing a window in a smart part of London in 1912. Murray risked her medical career by speaking out against the force-feeding of suffragette prisoners.

The outbreak of war in August 1914 gave them the opportunity to take a different sort of radical action. Together they organised the Women’s Hospital Corps and set up a hospital in a luxury Paris hotel. There, amid the chandeliers and marble, they operated on wounds caused by shell fire, used primitive x-rays to locate bullets and shrapnel, and treated gas gangrene and trench foot. The taboo on female doctors treating men vanished overnight. Reports of the women’s success reached the War Office, and in early 1915 Murray and Anderson were invited to establish a large new military hospital in central London.

There was a comedienne, Alison Larkin, who made me laugh; then a writer of Austen post-texts, Natalie Jenner. It was too late at night to listen to her; I’ve since read about her book and discuss Jenner in the comments to my second blog.

Last Joanna Trollope — I’d never seen her before. How personable she is, how she knows how to make herself appealing, I thought. She tells of her motives and what more deeply actuates her in writing the kind of realistic domestic romances of family life in contemporary life that she has for some 30 years. Her first commercial success was apparently The Rector’s Wife (which I am now reading, as a result of listening to this talk). She did real justice to the genre she writes in. I so appreciated this. She then told of her most recent novel, Mum and Dad.

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On the second night I meant to watch or listen just to two talks, and I ended up listening to almost all of them – though not in the order they were put online. In my judgement there were several highlights as talks and for the content in this earlier part of the second set of talks, especially Rebecca James and Julia Wheelwright. At the end of the day/night Devoney Looser (like Gillian Dow), as something of a Janeite star, I’ll save for the second blog. For entertainment and charm on the second day, I’ll focus pick Bee Rowlatt “following in the footsteps of Mary Wollstonecraft.” So here I’ll stop at Wheelwright, moving for the second blog to the later sessions of the second day featuring both Rowlatt and Looser; and for the third day Gillian Dow and Emma Clery. This time I got the time down they spoke.

Theresa Kiergan, a Northern Irish poet, and Lisa Andrews, a journalist who has worked in TV. 11:0 am British summer time. They met while both were working on 26’s 100 Armistice Project. This was about poetry inspired by women refugees, and Kiergan’s has researched and written about the exodus of Belgian into Northern Ireland in the 1940s. 16,000 people, and they were welcomed (a far cry from today). KIergan singled out one woman who did embroidery; one piece of this material she did has survived. Many of the women would have been lace makers

Clio O’Sullivan, communications and publications manager at Chawton, noon British summer time. She told of an exhibit she curated, which she was heart-broken over when it was about to be made public and all was locked down (March): “Man Up! Women who Stepped into a Man’s World.” The title and the way it was described would have put me off but she was such a good interviewer that I was curious to begin her talk. It turns out it is an excellent exhibit and they have done all they can to make it available online. She researched and produced materials (books and other artefacts) about “Miss Betsy Warwick, the Female Rambler,” the “Narrative of the Life of Charlotte Charke” (daughter of Collie Cibber who disowned her – O’Sullivan did not bring in her family), Hannah Snell who joined the army and navy by dressing as a man. Elizabeth Knight (see below – a property owner), George Sand (O’Sullivan has an interesting image of Sand I’d never seen before – very austere, man-like but yet a woman), Mary Ann Talbot, who joined the navy (another cross dresser), the Brontes, Mary Wollstonecraft and a reverse case where a man, Chevalier d’Eon dressed as a woman, Mademoiselle de Beaumont. Hers were stories of soldiering, piracy (!), duelling, acting, ballooning, — and writing. Without the writing we would not know of them. She showed pink as a background to defuse or change the stigmata surrounding the colors.

Rebecca James, at 20 after 12 British summer time. Hers and the next talk were the two best of the whole of the second day. I am so glad that I did listen to O’Sullivan or I might not have gone on to these two. They are not frivolous or silly or popular unrealities. James’s topic was titled: “Women Warriors of the Waves.” The actual subject was the literature of piracy in the 18th century, which she has been studying (half a century ago Richetti wrote about the popular literature on this topic, with no women mentioned). Her two central women are Mary Read and Ann Bonny. There are printed books about these women and documents which repay study: She first discussed The Tryals of Jack Rackam and Other Pirates (printed in Jamaica 1721). In this book the woman are described as disguised like men, but clearly women in disguise, the pictures show their bodies, their breasts. They are presented as fierce, ruthless, violent, unafraid. Then, A General History of Pirates, 1724, with the central characters being “the remarkable Actions and Adventures of Mary Read and Anne Bonny. It’s said to be by Charles Johnstone, perhaps a pseudonym. She talked of the subsections in which we find the stories of these two women. In these the women are really trying to pass as men and behave as men and today one can read these stories about as about women who wanted to have sex with other women. Mary’s story (as told) begins with her entering the male world, but Anne Bonny’s with her in childhood; both story matters emphasize that the girls were when young dressed as boys, and to an extent it is implied they cross-dressed at first due to the circumstances of their families. They were arrested and accused of enough crimes so they could be executed, but both successfully pled their “bellies” (they were pregnant?) and escaped the gallows. She cited one article, Sally O’Driscoll, “The Pirate Breast,” The Eighteenth Century, 53:3 (?):357-79.


Claire in The Search (Season 1, Episode 12, Outlander), one of my favorite sequences where she dresses like a man and sings and dances and rides through the Highlands in her search for Jamie with Murtagh (his best friend, a father-figure) by her side

One of the most striking things about James’s illustrations is how the women were depicted reminds me of the way women in action-adventure costume dramas are depicted today. She showed pictures from a series called Assassins Creed IV: Black Flag on Starz. This is the first time I’ve seen any show that resembles Outlander in any way also on Starz. On a channel called Ubisot, the women are deadly and fierce. Since I’m an addict of Outlander it fascinated me to see that for the first two seasons and part of the second when Claire (Caitriona) dresses as a man it is always clear she is a woman and the way she is costumed recalls some of the images James showed; she is disguising herself for protection; she can be violent and fierce in self protection but by the end of the second season she is working as a nurse caring for all people. By contrast, although in the last episode of the 5th season of Poldark, where Debbie Horsfield has no source whatsoever she attempts to turn Graham’s far more “womanly” heroine Demelza into violent male-dressed woman (it doesn’t work) until then Demelza never looks like any of this material although the circumstances of the costume drama include scenes at sea, and violent scenes of class warfare.

Julia Wheelwright at 2:00 pm British summer time. Her topic was “Masquerade: women of the 18th century dressed up for profit, adventure, liberty.” This too was not the actual theme. Her book is titled Sisters in Arms, and it covers women’s history from classical times past the 18th century. I can’t begin to include all she said or suggested. She too made central use of the lives and stories told about Mary Read and Anne Bonny. I was very interested in her accounting for the myth of the Amazons: she suggested it was a result of Greeks whose writings were transmitted to Western culture, coming upon tribes of peoples (Scythians) where the women did have male fighting roles, and so astonished were they made the stories into something supernatural, glamorous. She told of how Mary Read was Irish originally; not only did she dress as a boy, but she eventually married, had children, went to Jamaica. Mary Read we know died many years later, but Anny Bonny just disappears from history. Hannah Snell was a real woman, she was on the stage for some time, she had brother-in-law names James Grey, she seems to have dressed as a male to escape the roles she was given as well as her family; she would desert after a while. Her biographer, Martha Steevens (?) says the Duke of Cumberland pensioned Hannah; she was married 3 times, had children, but ended in mental illness, in Bedlam, died a pauper in its hospital. Mary Anne Talbot, another told stories about: her details are not born out by documents Best documented from the 18th century is one Mary Lacy, a female shipwright,and chandler.

I donated $50, bought a used copy of Endell Street, and found (with a friend’s help) the 1990s BBC series on YouTube, The Rector’s Wife, with one of my favorite actresses when she was young, Lindsay Duncan in the role of heroine, Anna Bouverie.

(To be cont’d & concluded in my next blog)

Ellen

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Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) curled up with Pride and Prejudice (2008 Dan Zeff, Guy Andrews, Lost in Austen)

It is a truth generally acknowledged that we are all longing to escape. I escape always to my favorite book Pride and Prejudice. I’ve read it [turning of pages heard] so many times now, the words just say themselves in my head, and it is like a window opening. It’s like I’m actually there … It’s become a place I know so intimately I can see that world I can … I see Mr Darcy …. [vanishes, back to present time] … Now where was I? …. (2008 Lost in Austen)

Friends and readers of Jane Austen,

I’ve not written anything on the present COVID-19 pandemic because I was trying to counter the topic; everywhere else just now we are just all COVID-19 all the time; I had in mind one of the marvelous utterances of Robin Swicord’s The Jane Austen Book Club, when asked by a joining member if they ever read anything other than Austen, Bernadette (Kathy Baker) replies, “oh no, we are just all Jane Austen all the time!” What I wanted to do was dramatically read aloud, the first chapter and the 34th (where Darcy proposes, and Elizabeth refuses him) of Pride and Prejudice, to make a speaking video of myself. I thought of it as a playful, fun things to do & for me a new experience to hear my voice aloud on the Net.

But alas, I am so old & ugly (all wrinkled skin) but when I tried to reverse the camera, & hold a copy of the book behind the screen at the same time as reading in front of it, I found I had not enough hands. No place in the house, including a piano where I could prop up what I needed to. And then, though I’ve been much praised when I’ve done reading from Austen (recently in a dramatic reading class), the thought occurred that in all cases there were real people in the room, who were themselves reading, who knew me, and might be inclined to be kinder. I might be taken as wanting more praise than I do — I know I’m no professional. My idea was to amuse in a new more distinctly felt human way — what more appealing than human voices (as Penelope Fitzgerald ironically says in her book of that title). And then I felt the question (the prejudice against as not sufficiently middle class) of my ineradicable New York City accent …


March — Prudie (Emily Blunt) wisely reading silently to herself Mansfield Park (2007 Robin Swicord, The Jane Austen Book Club)

So what to do? I turned to see what Austen had to say about illness. Worse yet. Not much solace here. It’s not just that in Persuasion we learn sickrooms are not places for heroism, places where people are seen far from their best, and in Sanditon, the way to cope with illness and death (as in a number of Austen’s letters) is to be wildly antipathetic, as in Jane to Cassandra: “I believe I never told you that Mrs Coulthard and Ann, late of Manydown, are both dead, and both died in childbed. We have not regaled Mary [James’s wife, nine months pregnant] with the news” (Letter 11). This is a mild joke. She most often refuses to believe people are ill; confronted with mental suffering, she spits out caustic or wry references. Mockery of hypocrisy (as with Mrs Norris) or forgiving people is her stance. Mrs Smith, near destitute, utterly crippled, is so egregious an example of unwellness, she cannot dismiss her — and what seems to make Austen tolerant is Mrs Smith (most unusually implies Austen) has a buoyant spirit, much fortitude and patience. (See my “Depiction of Widows and Widowers.”)

Perhaps as this is supposed a blog about women in art, followers in some sense of Austen perhaps, if I turned to other writers. Susan Sontag’s Illness as a Metaphor sprung to mind. Won’t do, because quite rightly much of the energy of the piece is devoted to ripping the metaphors away and making us recognize the real miseries of sickness and death, and shearing away hypocrisies to lay bare before us how people withdraw from the ill person, stigmatize the condition, give it a moral meaning (including fantasies about who gets sick and who doesn’t as if your attitude of mind makes you blameable). Sound, I admit, and with its rock bottom disillusion, reminiscent of Austen.

On a listserv I’m on for Virginia Woolf, someone suggested her “One Being Ill” is peculiarly a propos. I can link the text in, and agree with her that illness can alter consciousness, give us new insights into ourselves and other people, enable us to read texts in new ways. Here I felt her moving onto these insights was taking us dangerously into the territory of turning illness into a metaphor. When you are truly sick, it is hard to read, but again I found myself back with Austen from a different direction. Woolf finds the idea that people are linked together from illness an illusion; each person she suggests is in a “virgin forest” of isolation (perhaps she is thinking of a first severe illness). And Nature indifferent.


There is a good reading aloud of a translation of an unabridged text (and used Audio CDS may be found)

Eighteenth century texts will neither counter illness or offer much cheer — it was an age of satire. Of course the one everyone thinks of is Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year (1666 is the year imagined), and it is just such a calamitous situation that our present social distancing is desperately trying to avoid. This is a not atypical moment:

“He was going along the Street, raving mad to be sure, and singing, the People only said, he was drunk; but he himself said, he had the Plague upon him, which, it seems, was true; and meeting this Gentlewoman, he would kiss her; she was terribly frighted as he was only a rude Fellow, and she run from him, but the Street being very thin of People, there was no body near enough to help her: When she see he would overtake her, she turn’d, and gave him a Thrust so forcibly, he being but weak, and push’d him down backward: But very unhappily, she being so near, he caught hold of her, and pull’d her down also; and getting up first, master’d her, and kiss’d her; and which was worst of all, when he had done, told her he had the Plague, and why should not she have it as well as he. She was frighted enough before, being also young with Child; but when she heard him say, he had the Plague, she scream’d out and fell down in a Swoon, or in a Fit, which tho’ she recover’d a little, yet kill’d her in a very few Days, and I never heard whether she had the Plague or no.” Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year (1722), p. 184.

I came across a qualification from a member of another listserv: “Defoe does all he can to “challenge … the inhuman behavior in all the sources. Scandals told of the buriers, doctors, watchmen, nurses, he is unable to accept.The refusal to condemn, the tempering of any adverse judgment of the population and the authorities, is the most characteristic quality of the “Journal.” In almost every case the participants are exonerated from any charge of cruel behavior or offensive conduct. Reminding us of the charity and benevolence of London’s citizenry in the past, and given our moment in time, Defoe’s Plague Year might be a saner and more supportive and even reassuring read than Camus” (whose La Peste likens those rats to fascists, a worrying topic for us today)

I thought of Manzoni’s I Promessi Sposi, written in the 19th century, imitative in some ways of Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, is a novel set in the 17th, in Milan (Lombardy is today not a lucky place), plague appeared in 1630 and (it’s said) half the population died, and a crazy paranoia arose whereby it was thought evil people were spreading the Black Plague by smearing oily substances about; suspects were hanged. I recommend this book, but for the purposes of this blog I was just not getting anywhere.

And then I thought of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1660-1720), whose work I spent so many years on: she had probably more than one nervous breakdown, suffered badly from depression, and none of this helped her physical well-being. Like Woolf I suppose, but Finch wrote much more about distressed and distraught states of mind, analyzing depression itself (the first attempt to do so without blaming anyone, without attributing the state to God’s intervention). Her verses which have been seen as proto-romantic, where she immerses herself in the natural world, are deeply-felt moments of healing in retirement, and then of taking back control and finding comfort and fortitude.

And so now I do have something, not too heavy, lovely  to share, offering good humor, beauty and strength out of disaster, Finch’s poem to a “Fair Tree,” in an early form not in print (so it’s a text you will not read in the new standard edition), from a manuscript:

Fair Tree! for thy delightfull shade
‘Tis just that some return be made;
Sure some return, is due from me
To thy cool shadows, and to thee.
When thou to birds doest shelter give,
Thou musick doest from them receive;
If Travellers beneath thee stay
‘Till storms have worn themselves away,
That time in praising thee, they spend
And thy protecting pow’r, commend.
The Shepheard here, from scorching freed,
Tunes to thy daancing leaves, his reed;
Whilst his lov’d nymph, in thanks bestows
Here flow’ry Chaplets on thy boughs.
Shall I then, only silent be,
And no return be made by me?
No, lett this wish upon thee waite,
And still to florish, be thy fate.
To future ages may’st thou stand
Untoutch’d by the rash workmans hand,
Till that large stock of sap is spent,
Which gives thy somers ornament;
Till the feirce winds, that vainly strive
To shock thy greatnesse, whilst alive,
Shall on thy lifelesse hour attend,
Prevent the axe, and grace thy end,
Their scatter’d strength together call,
And to the clouds proclaim thy fall,
Who then their evening dews, may spare
When thou no longer art their care,
But shalt, like Ancient Hero’s, burn,
And some bright hearth be made thy Urn.

Here it is, read aloud accompanied by “Epping Forest” from John Playford’s “The English Dancing Master 1670, 11th Edition,” the painting which emerges, “The Oak Tree”, isby Joseph Farrington, 1747-1821.

Ellen

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