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From the 1981 Sense and Sensibility: Irene Richards as Elinor is seen drawing and walks about with art materials (BBC, scripted by Alexander Baron)

Friends,

I found myself unable to go to the Jane Austen and the Arts conference held at Plattsburg, New York last week. I have told why in my life-writing Sylvia blog.
Happily for me, the conference organizer was so generous as to offer to read the paper herself, and had it not been for a fire drill, would have. Two of the sessions, one mine was supposed to be part of, were sandwiched together so she read from the paper and described. I was told there was a good discussion or at least comments afterward. Since I worked for a couple of months on it — reread all six of the famous fictions, skimmed a lot of the rest, went over the letters — and read much criticism on ekphrastic patterns in Austen and elsewhere, the picturesque in Austen, her use of visual description, not to omit related topics like enclosure, a gender faultline in the way discussions of art are presented, I’ve decided to add it to my papers at academia.edu.

Ekphrastic patterns in Austen.

I hope those reading it here will find my argument persuasive, and my suggestion for further work on Austen using her discussions of visual art and landscape useful.


From the 1983 Mansfield Park Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price gazes at the maps her brother, William has sent her as she sits down to answer his latest letter or just write herself (scripted by Ken Taylor) – her nest of comforts in her attic includes window transfers of illustrations

Ellen

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Varo, Harmony (1956)

Friends and readers,

Hers is a story of three women artists who formed strong bonds of friendship in Mexico during World War Two and flourished afterwards: her art has women at the center of pictures, fairytale like, archetypal, sometimes charming and comic, telling psychoanalytic & occult & melancholy tales …

Of the women surreal artists of the 20th century, Remedios Varo stands out for drawing full-bodied complete women more frequently than any of the others (sometimes in groups!):


Varo, Embroidering Earth’s Mantle

She is further unusual because many of her pictures can be characterized as pretty and pleasant to look at. One can even apply the word charming to her pictures, a word not appropriate for most of 20th century surreal school:


Varo, A Paradise of Cats

She catches attention because her pictures have a strong fairy tale or archetypal element which would at first seem susceptible to today well-known and once common Jungian or Freudian symbolic analysis (and for those of her paintings where you can find an explanation, you discover that after having recourse to Joseph Campbell’s allegoresis in Hero with a Thousand Faces, this is what the critic is doing). She stands out because she seriously read mystic, magical, astronomical and alchemical treatises:


Varo, Creation with Astral Rays


Varo, Creation of Birds (1958)

Joanna Moorhead and Teresa Arq have come to the conclusion that also unlike most of the women surreal artists, together with Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), and the photographer and Hungarian artist, Kati Horna (1912-2000), her two close friends, Varo was able to escape the misogynistic grip of the male repertoire of images, because the three women formed such close bonds in Mexica after 1943, and supported, companioned, and inspirited one another to carry on (see Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna: Essays by Stefan van Raay and Nicola Johnson; Joanna Moorhead, Teresa Arq, Michelle Suderman, Antonio Rodriguez-Rivera. London: Ashgate: Pallant House Gallery, 2010). All three had unusually supportive spouses or partners (most of the surreal women artists took a very much secondary place to the surreal male artists they lived with or married); they found themselves with a group of male supportive friends. All married (defying the surreal idea that marriage must destroy a woman’s creativity), two had children (Carrington and Hora), and the three women spent hours together in their homes. They would spend time together talking (often of political issues), in the kitchen, reading, and then paint scenes reflecting their lives together, as in this semi-comic scene:


Varo, Vegetarian Vampires –they are eating watermelons, tomatoes, strawberries, with a rose on the table, pet chickens nearby

When you look to see how Remedios Varo’s pictures are understood, you find a variety of allegoresis all of which cohere or come together to form a single encompassing vision. In a fascinating article bringing together Varo’s pictures with the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Elizabeth Sanchez finds that after both made a journey down the Orinooko in Venezuela (separately, they did not know one another), both positive analogous stories of self-discovery, creativity, and spiritual rebirth. Sanchez organizes a number of Varo’s paintings to follow a heroine’s successful happy adventures into the unknown in realms of art; the quest makes the artist become one with the natural world. It must be admitted the imagery is fantastical:


Varo, Exploration of the Sources of Orinooko


Varo, Cosmic Energy (1956)

Dino Comisarenco Mirkin finds that the paintings trace a maturation process, telling stories of rupture, process, journeys, escapes, wondrous acceptance:


Varo, Outside the Tower (1960)

By contrast, Janet Kaplan explains Varo’s paintings in a feminist vein (which allies them more to the work of Kay Sage and Frida Kahlo): this one reminds me of Bemelman’s Madeline books


Varo, A Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst’s Office (1960)

This is said to be a reverse Rapunzel:


Here a woman is kept passive and is unnerved by a male head, with glaring eyes, he licks her neck


Varo, Unexpected Presence

Still, Kaplan finds on the whole a progressive journey with different moments of insight.


Varo, Spiral Transit (1962)

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A photograph of Remedios Varo in Mexico (with a pet cat)

Maria de Los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Urango was born on 16 December 1908, in a small town in Girona, Spain. Her parents were middle class, educated, worked for liberal causes; her father, Rodrigo, worked as a hydraulic engineer, her mother a devout Catholic. Both influenced her but the father more: he encouraged her to read, to independent thinking, provided her with science and adventure books (including Edgar Allen Poe). His successful career (including working directly for the Spanish king) took the family to Cadiz and then Madrid. She studied for a BA in a college of arts and crafts and a Madrid Fine Arts Academy whose students included other later respected painters (and Kati Horna’s husband, Jose). She began to paint under the influence of modernist poets (Lorca) and surreal artists. She married a schoolmate, moved with him to Paris, but a year later returned to Barcelona on her own where she became a member of the artistic avant-gard. The Spanish civil war had begun, which changed her (and everyone else’s) life. Her brother, Luis, was killed.


Varo, The Souls of Mountains (1938)

She had fallen in love with the anti-Franco activist, Benjamin Peret, and the pair moved to France where they shared studios with others; she exhibited, collaborated, experimented. She went to the Louvre, other museums and began to read mystic treatises (occult, about Tarot cards), but the Nazis were closing in and Peret and Varo were both imprisoned, experienced traumatizing abuse, and somehow escaping, with the help of a New York rescue committee, managed to flee to Mexico.

I offer only an abbreviated general account (I list articles and books in the comments). There are numerous sites on the Net which recount the phases of her career (this from Spanish artists), some with more details. The central biography is Unexpected Journeys: The life and art of Remedios Varo by Janet Kaplan.. Surreal Friends is especially rich in citations of the books and artists’ work Varo studied,and of course are included many reproductions of Carrington and Horna’s work. All who have followed Varo’s life and work seem to be agreed that her art began to flourish when she moved to Mexico and formed her friendships with Carrington and Horna (see Guardian article). The patronage of Edward James, a rich Englishman who collected their works, and built a house in Mexico where they and other artists (not all surrealists) were welcomed. His close relationship was with Carrington and there are extant revealing letters.

The three women frequented meetings of the followers of German mystics Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff (who also influenced P.L. Travers, known today for her Mary Poppins stories, but also a poet). They were interested in the evolution of consciousness. The two painters read art history, and studied Renaissance artists, especially Paolo Ucello’s strange allegorical secular paintings. They followed his use of natural color. These two paintings show Varo combining some of the older surreal imagery with her new occult preoccupations:


Varo, Hibernation (1942)


Varo, Stealing the Essence (1955)

They were as a group outsiders, Europeans, both marginalized and privileged. One might say the three women had the best of all worlds: their apartness gave them time to be together, and to make art, and their experience of war made them hold together. Varo did however divorce Peret, and by 1948 married a comparatively wealthy man, Walter Gruen, who respected her work and encouraged her to paint. The personalities of the three special women friends were quite different (as is their art); Varo was known as “sharp as a knife, quick-witted, always ready to pick up on new ideas and trends. With Gruen by her side, she became the most ambitious of the three. When she died, apparently unexpectedly, of a heart attack in 1963 (in the same year Kati Horna’s husband died), Gruen dedicated part of his life to cataloguing her works (some 400) and administering a legacy she had inherited from her parents.

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Varo, The Escape

All who write of Varo emphasize the studied, careful and academic vigor of her approach. Early on she had supported herself working for Bayer Laboratories this way. Doubtless some of this came from her training by her father. She would visualize her idea, make precise sketches, trace them onto a panel, and then proceed to use oils. She preferred a limited range of color, linked to the natural world: earth tones, “raw umber,” blues, a monochromatic palette. Joanna Moorhead suggests the viewer remember Leonardo da Vini’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet it seems to me that what engages us are the sudden splashes of playful orange, red, yellows, in starry landscapes much blurred, with these child-like machines:


Varo, Roulette (1955)

My favorite of her paintings combine the marvelous with a style evocative of literary history —


Varo, Troubadour

She does show a real melancholy or depression occasionally, a deep disquiet with the way she is living her life, what she is reading:

Varo, Alchemy: A Useless Science


Varo, [Self-]Encounter

At her best she is tender, shows kindness, and her images seem could be fit into Shakespeare’s later romances


Varo, The Flutist

Ellen

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William Hodges (1744-97), An Indian Village with a Man seated in the Foreground

Dear friends and readers,

My report on the panels and papers given by the Burney society on 20 October 2016, the day before the “official” beginning of the JASNA (Jane Austen Society of America) meeting and on the panels and papers of the JASNA AGM has been much delayed, and I regret to say will be less specific and shorter than my previous conference reports. I got lost on the way to Trinity College where the Burney Society was holding its meeting, and missed much of the keynote address, and in any case (as I’ve said) my ability with stenography permit me only to record the gist of most of the papers; the JASNA group had but four (!) break-out sessions (astonishing) and two serious speeches on the Friday and Saturday (the 21st and 22nd) I was able to attend. There was one lecture mid-morning Sunday on an edition of Emma (1816, Philadelphia, by Juliette Wells) as part of a breakfast set-up and nothing else; since I wasn’t staying at the expensive hotel, and was teaching on Monday I could not take out the time for one book history talk. I’ve described the places and ambiance the two different societies met in when I came home lest I forget the experiences (scroll down; or read the material transferred to this blog in the comments section).

Here I cover two-thirds of papers on Burney. These papers placed Burney in contexts she claimed she didn’t wouldn’t talk about, but was in fact subject to all her life and is central to her books and life’s experience: the colonialist, patronage “system” and familial politics of her era.

I came in at the end of Tara Ghosal Wallace’s detailed talk on “Burney and the Politics of Empire,” which focused first on the hypocritical, corrupt, ferocious political in-fighting among factions in India, which through her male relatives, and attachment to George III’s court influenced Burney’s daily existence. Prof Wallace gave a history in detail of local English politics and office holders attached to and in India; she thought Warren Hastings caught between cross-fires (whom Burney obtusely absolved from any guilt or responsibility without ever giving any cogent details); she described the nuances of party politics (Indian and British individual and office alliances) amid the sexual courtship and humiliating scenes of Burney’s time at court; and the politics of empire in The Wanderer. Burney was under “intolerable psychological pressure from contradictory points of view, all of these personal to her.”

The first panel was called “The Stormy Sea of Politics,” and all three papers were on French and national politics. Geoffrey Sill discussed how Frances differed from her father’s arch-conservative reaction to the French revolution: Charles was for continuing absolute monarchy, saw the idea of the rights of men as absurd. Burney, as we know, lavished praise on her father, but we can see where she differed: she thought a king was as limited by law as any man; she was horrified by the misery she saw in France. She was not sceptical about the needs of people demonstrating. Anne-Claire Michoux discussed how the female body was represented in Burney’s diary-journals and The Wanderer. Burney’s work is deeply invested in social issues; she published a pamphlet on emigres, and admired Mme de Stael. In Evelina women are victims of physical violence, of psychological assault; in her fiction, her heroines are oppressed through their bodies, they have vulnerable incomes too. Brian McCrea seems to have received harsh reviews of his book on Burney where he presented her as a conservative: he argued that Burney was terrified of the French revolution. Burney writes wryly but also as apolitically as she can, and defends the patriarchal feudal world. Doody saw affinities with Wollstonecraft and Jacobin novels, and argued the character of Elinor in The Wanderer stands for the revolution as a noble flame. McCrea argued this is to misread; Burney’s Admiral Powell’s views are those validated.

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Hubert Robert (1733-1808), A servant brings papers to an aristocrat intent on renovating his garden with classical structures

After a coffee break, the second panel of the day was “Ruling Politics.” Lori Halvorsen Zerne discussed authoritarianism in The Wanderer. Juliette stands for “the other,” and is treated with hatred by some; many in the book are uncomfortable with the ambiguity of her identity. Good characters in the novel are cowardly while the bad are audacious. Hannah Messina’s paper title was “Politics at Home: Uncomfortable Domesticity in Cecilia.” Class, gender, charity and debt are among the novel’s topics; the conflict over last names confirms patriarchal tyranny. We learn that outside the home Cecilia is in danger; she needs a place to be secure. Her guardians interfere, her friends wreak personal catastrophe (the auction) on themselves. Cecilia had hoped for a quiet time with her friend, Mrs Harrell, but instead finds herself fleeced. One problem is it’s impossible for Cecilia to avoid or opt out of this society yet she herself can be thrown out and made a homeless beggar. After Delville’s uncertain and jealous treatment of her, she collapses. The novel shows the nature of a character’s domestic space is crucial to the development of an identity. Sara Tavela concentrated on Burney’s presentation of the medical and psychological sufferings of George III in her journals. Burney shows us there is no effective control over the king’s illness, and that the Queen is left without helpful information.

It was not quite lunch-time and so time for discussion of all we had heard up to then. Someone suggested that Burney created a template in her novels by which we can see how women are left without resources, are not listened to. Society dictates to them who they are. Women in authority are not granted full respect, find themselves in a liminal space.

There was a talk during lunch. Laura Rosenthal asked “what do we do with Sir Jaspar.” Laura saw the home as having theatrical spaces; commodities are props by which we construct our artificial selves. Burney resists desiring interiors and exteriors. Marilyn Francus suggested that in Cecilia we see how people talk to one another with the norms of social desires break down. Sociability crumbles in Cecilia; at the close the heroine crumbles too. Alex suggested that male characters also experience discomfort in their homes (e.g. Belfield).

the-sense-of-sight-philippe-mercier
Philippe Mercier (1689-1760), The Sense of Sight

After lunch, the third panel was on “Celebrity and Material Culture.” Laura Engel talked about the three best portraits of Burney: Edward Frances Burney (1782) where her hands are on her waist.

portrait_frances

Edward Francesco Burney’s portrait of her (1784) sporting an enormous hat

burneyhatted

and John Bogle’s miniature (1785) of her with a pinched face; it seems the truest to her features

fannyburneyjohnbogle
An enlargement so you can see her facial features

Portraits, Laura said, represent the remains of a life’s performance; we can see the exaggerations of her dress and hats; all three provide much insight. In the first and third she gazes at us, interacting with us. Croker, a hostile reviewer, described the way Burney looked late in life cruelly: she was an old coquette. Butterworth found another image said to be of Burney at 15, up-close, intimate somehow. Laura compared these images to verbal descriptions of the heroines in the novels; and then to other portraits by painters of famous actresses (Siddons, Robinson), duchesses (Georgiana Spenser). These gorgeous hats as props keep re-appearing. Laura felt Burney probably preferred the miniature.

Kirsten Hall’s paper title was “Burney and Ciceronian Celebrity.” She talked about how celebrated Ciceronian ideals and how classical figures were depicted affected Burney’s fiction and attitudes. Cicero’s Moral Offices (obligations, duties) showed a world of reciprocal relationships, favors, and services. It was thought reading this book was good for people. we can see how widely deivergent rules for social behavior can be from what an individual may want or feel to be right. Kirsten then showed how the characters of Mortimer and Cecilia fit in; what she owes him, how they behave to one another (in an imagined bookshop). She also went over real behavior in a real library, and what we see suggested is Burney lived (like most of us) by compromise.

Since the last two papers took a somewhat different direction, I’ll stop here as this blog is long enough.

Ellen

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carringtonwhenyoung
Carrington when young (photo)

riverpangtidmarshcarrington
The river Pang, Tidmarsh

I long for the wings of an owl that I mighty FLY — Carrington,1930, “after a frusrating domestic crisis that kept her from painting” (Hill)

I see my paints and think it is no use to me, for Lytton will not see it now (quoted by Noel Carrington)

Dear friends and readers,

I return to a final two essays in this second series calling attention to women artists after I had gone to one too many exhibits of groups of artists under this or that rubric where there were either none or a token or one or two women, often the same couple of pictures. I managed twelve from the Renaissance into the 21st century for the first series, and Carrington is the eleventh of a second fifteen. I’ve found in this second group many great and beautiful and meaningful pictures and other forms of visual art; but also that even the better known women are hardly famous outside a narrow selection of people or only known for their connection with a man or notorious life event; and their art afterwards underestimated. In many individual or personal fulfillment was thwarted by gender expectations, at least two died young from childbirth. Their self-esteem as artists was battered; nonetheless, they developed female-inflected genres, made art different from that of their male counterparts, and succeeded wonderfully well as artists. Carrington’s life and art fits these patterns.

In Carrington’s case what she is famous for gets in the way of people seeking out and appreciating her art. First, for her devotion to Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and suicide soon after he died because, she asserted, she could not imagine or endure life without him.

stracheycarrington
Carrington’s Lytton Strachey (1916) — one of her finest characteristic portraits and one of the finest by anyone of him — it’s a study of sensitive hands, of meditative reading

Then there’s the still widely-assumed belief that she self-flagellatingly destroyed or painted over many of her pictures, and indulged herself in non-save-able non-prestigious immanent arts (on house walls, for signboards, craft-y things, book marks, covers, and illustrations), so that hardly anything truly fine and great and permanent survives. Her intense reluctance (refusal) to have an exhibition of her art reinforces the idea her pictures were not good enough.

themillattidmarshdcarrington
The Mill at Tidmarsh (Lytton and her first home together) — perhaps her most famous masterpiece

That she killed herself is out of doubt, but why is not so sure. Jane Hill’s reprinting of the ceaseless art-making Carrington did around Strachey in the last three chapters (phases) of Carrington’s life (in her The Art of Dora Carrington) to see to his every comfort argues a tender idolization (the above two black swans can be seen as standing in for herself and Strachey), but Carrington’s brother, Noel Carrington, (in his Carrington: Paintings, Drawings, and Decorations) makes a strong case for understanding that several factors beyond her adjustment to life through Strachey’s kindness and congenial intelligence led to her killing herself: she suffered a lifelong distress from her mother’s rejection of her, naturally vulnerable in relationships, sensitive, of a depressive temperament: she painted to make herself happy and her images show her reaching out for security, tranquility, stability.

carringtonanartistshomeandgarden
An Artist’s Home and Garden

She did wipe out and destroy many of her works (sometimes because she lacked money for paper, sheer supply problem), but since she seems to have made art as continuously as she breathed, as it were constantly, no task too trivial she produced as large a corpus as many a major artist and a lot survives.

carringtonurserydoorrosamundlehman-jpg

A giraffe scene Carrington created for the nursery door of Rosamund Lehmann’s children (John Lehmann her brother was a central editor at Hogarth Press — about which see below)

She would not allow exhibitions of her art (we glimpse a complex psychological disability), so her pieces did not begin the trail of circulation and discussion the way most artists become known, and given her inclusion (however marginally) in the elite English art and literary coteries of her era, much went into and remains in private hands. She did use unusual media:

harmonylabraorcoasttinselglasscarrington
Harmony: Labador Coast — made from painted tin foil on stained glass

You might say her marvelous letters are used against her as superior to her visual art instead of seen as another manifestation of her strong projection of her vividly perceptive experience of a self-chosen unconventional way of life that allowed her to create visual art continually.

carringtondavidgarnett
David Garnett — her portraits done as a matter of course of whoever visits capture inner qualities through color, line, shadow

drawingscomefromletters
The drawings of herself are in the letters

In the last twenty years three excellent ground-breaking books have been written about her: Hill’s, Noel’s and Gretchen Gerzina’s biography, Carrington. These and an exhibition (at last) prompted superb essays, three of which reprint pictures and enter the heart of her vision. Them there is Carrington, the film, based on Christopher Hampton’s screenplay (a kind of outline of Carrington’s life out of Holroyd’s and Gerzina’s book), with its virtuoso actors uncannily capturing the inner life of some of the people around Carrington (Samuel West as Gerald Brenan, Rufus Sewell as Mark Gertler) and inimitably Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce as Carrington and Lytton:

carringtonemmathompsonjonathanpryce

photolyttonshereading
A photo of Lytton reading to Carrington

It’s out of these I dared this blog. Genevieve Sanchis Morgan on Carrington’s art as “forms of masquerade” (Mosaic 31:4 [1998]) proves Carrington transferred her private life and most unspoken feelings, her transgressive attitudes (towards marriage, children, social performance as self-promotion, sexuality) into her pictures (landscapes especially and why she did not want to exhibit). She made for public consumption (as it were) the familiar images of herself as a devoted domestic servant and cook,

cookandcatcarrington
Cook and Cat

with her pets,

hamspraywithcatcarrington
At Ham Spray

walking talking sitting by the side of Strachey,

onawalkingtourwlyttoncarrington

Her innovative household art was her own real life giant dollhouse to hide in, and keep continually absorbed and busy in her private world shared with Lytton. She defflected her literary ambitions (and some satire) behind playful distractions (trompe d’oeil bookcase with titles that mocked contemporary and her associates’ books as well as Jane Austen), and found desperately needed loving reassurance in sexual partnerships with like-minded people. Gerald Brenan she loved, and returned his visits,going to Spain with Lytton and alone

geeraldbrenan28carrington

She created great pictures there, continually protecting herself through these social performances. These come from her times in Spain:

hilltownandalusiacarrington
A hill town in Andalusia

spanishwomancarrington
A Spanish woman, ink and silver foil on glass

Gillian Elinor’s essay on Carrington and Vanessa Bell (1879-1962) in Woman’s Art Journal (2016), as near contemporaries, working aesthetically and developing content in the same kinds of and actual domestic milieus (“Bloomsbury Painters” the title), argues their art is crucially like that of other women (tropes, themes, the relationship of their works to them and their lives)

vbellnursery-medium
Vanessa Bell, The Nursery

carringtonbedfordmarket1911
Carrington, Bedford Market (1911)

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Carrington, A Footbathing Party — much like Bell’s

Jane Marcus (Women’s Review of Books, 12:1 [1994]) pays attention to Carrington’s loaded playful interiors and pictures an crockery as evoking a witty primitivism, working against mainstream (male) art to produce village-English delicate dreams and objects (recalling Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), as in this

carringtonrouenware
Rouen Ware

carringtonbeaniebagsjpjg
Beanie Bags — the paired figures are typical of lesbian art

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seelfportrait1910
Self-portrait (1910)

Her life can be told in terms of phases of her art. The fourth child of a Liverpool merchant who had spent decades in India, to bring back an easy competence, he married a narrow-thinking rigid woman and for Carrington this meant much conflict over the years. She loved her father, was tormented by her mother. There are no portraits of her mother:

carrington-dora-1893-1932-samuel-carrington-the-artists-father-19151-jpog
Her father (painted much later)

But her mother was artistic, valued art, and she and her siblings early on were encouraged to use their hands, and Dora (she later insisted on dropping this first name she regarded as too feminine, silly, like Dorcas, an archetypal shepherdess) learned to love to, spend hours drawing.

noelcarrington
Noel her brother — much later

After High School, there was her period at Slade where she made life-long girlfriends, with one of whom, Constance Lane, she completed a cycle of of three large frescos “on the library wall of Brownlow Hall” (Hill 23). She began to paint strongly colorist and cubist-like bucolic landscapes and scenes, won a scholarship, and came under the influence of Roger Fry and Mark Gertler (not just his art but as a sexual partner). Finding she could not live in a repressive Victorian-style home (only visit) and have a career and mature adult life, she moved and tried to support herself in London. This period is filled with marvelous small line portraits, comic cartoons

steviesmith
Very Stevie Smith like

and the earliest of the bucolic snow and tree landscapes with their high wide great bowl top areas.

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Hills in Snow at Hurst Tarrant (Hampshire), 1915

This is the time of her immersion in the Omega Workshops (1914-16): playful woodcut art, and riots of color and decorations of ordinary everyday things, which while they didn’t sell to the larger public, are the foundation for the way Carrington would later cover every inch of Ham Spray, her and Lytton’s second home. She didn’t do well at Lady Ottoline Garsington Manor (“I am out of favor now! completely!”), but met others who (if not as much, like Lytton) were important to her: Augustus John’s household (whom she turned to as easy companions); individual people whose character struck her favorably:

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920
E.M. Forster

Like Vanessa Bell, Carrington took to engravings and book illustrations

bookplate

Lytton she first met in 1916 at Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Asheham House — and to fast forward their Hogarth Press provided another place for her woodcuts small animal drawings, and remunerative work for Ralph Patridge, the first of her lovers whom she married to keep him near Lytton (and please Lytton). By 1917, she and Lytton were making a home for themselves at Tidmarsh, and by 1918 he achieved his first of several commercial successes, Eminent Victorians.

tidmarshmillsmeadowscarrington
Tidmarsh Mills, the meadows

The story of her life becomes a story with Lytton triangular sexual and working relationships with a series of men, and travel (to the continent, around England) and perpetual art-making (from pictures to bookcases, fake and real). Hampton’s movie dramatizes the pain Carrington knew when she felt she had to force herself to act out different selves, and when she felt Lytton did not reciprocate her loving care, efforts catering to his every whim, only to see him distance himself, become at times remote. At the same time her correspondence with Strachey, and especially over her decision to marry Partridge are among the most genuine openly confiding trusting letters I’ve read. They understood and supported one another in many other areas beyond the reading of books and living the larger routines of life. The pressure from the different worlds Carrington found herself in was also offset by the art-making: she repeatedly creates idyllic peaceful and playful beauty in personally felt landscapes (with funereal images)

carringtonanotherhouseinpastorallawrencecountry

and stuffing and covering every available inch of her literal surroundings, over and over:

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A fireplace tile design

dora-carringtonbirdsabovecornucopiaofflowers
Birds above a cornucopia of flowers

She made signs; this half of a Circus horses reminds me of Watteau’s famous shop sign of people examining pictures in an art shop:

circus
This is severe in its way: the horses are still and in a row

In her later years she allowed herself to be used by a rough sportsman type, Beakus Penrose (played by Jeremny Northam in the movie): she did love to sail with him (she writes of her “Shelley craving to sail & leave these quiet rural scenes for Greek islands), as witnessed by her remarkable tinsel on glass picture, the deliberately child-like Bon Voyage (1929):

bonvoyage

She became pregnant by Penrose, a (to her) deeply distressing because repulsive condition (she never adjusted to her female body), and Lytton stepped in to find and pay for an abortion. Her end is well-known: Strachey developed pancreatic cancer, and died, and within three months, despite many friends’ efforts to prevent this, Carrington shot herself through her mouth with a gun on a Friday, March 11, 1932. She meant it.

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Tulips in a Staffordshire Jug (1921) – she painted many flower still lifes

That Carrington’s gender was female played a central role in her difficult life, withdrawals, and long neglect. John Rothstein in the introduction to Noel Carrington’s book says rightly that Carrington’s “remoteness from he impulses which moved” most of her contemporaries (ambition for money, high rank, fame, fashionable luxury, admiration from the admired) set her apart (13). Carrington herself also said of participating in contemporary schools of artists to Gertler over post-impressionism that “this ‘culture’ and group system is partly the reason for the awful paintings produced” (35).

But what her mother couldn’t bear (perhaps where her overt troubled life started) was Carrington was not conventionally beautiful. When Carrington is hiding her pictures, or dressing like a boy, she is hiding her body. Gertler wanted her to give up her painting and devote herself wholly to him as his wife. She resisted this fiercely, but could only find a stable life with the daily rhythms and calm expectations that she needed for creation of her art on Lytton’s income.

In talking of a career, she repeated Frye’s warning early on about how hard it was going to be to practice great art as a woman. How she will be regarded by others. She wrote Gerald Brenan about “how difficult it was to be a ‘female creator'”

the few that did become artists, I think you will admit were never married or had children. Emily Bronte & her sisters, Jane Austen, Sappho. Lady Hester Stanhope. Queen Elizabeth and even lesser people like the French female artists Berthe Morissot [who did have a daughter], Le Brun [ditto], Julie de Lespinasse & Dudeffand [? is this a reference to George Sand whose legal name was Dudevant or Madame du Deffand?] … If when I am 38, I am not an artist, & think it is no good my persevering with my painting, I might have a child …

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Spanish Boy (1924) — in her two portraits of adolescent boys she captures their vulnerability

This is an important statement if we realize that she was also much influenced by painters no one else was, for example (according to Hill), the Renaissance painter, Joachim Patinir:

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The Hermit

Patinir’s Flight from Egypt does recall Carrington’s landscapes:

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Carrington’s candid utterances to Brenan about being a woman (“You know I always hated being a woman” [Elinor 31]) are so sad because she never was not an artist, always alive to the art of others, in groups or as individuals. She did hate being pregnant (and thus perhaps deprived herself of a raison d’etre once Lytton was diagnosed with inoperable cancer). When she painted Lady Strachey (Lytton’s mother) it’s said she caught the inner strong woman, but she also masculinized her, made her monumental in doctor’s robes:

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Of her depiction of a group of young girls marshalled by two female teachers, one a nun on a beach to play (On the Sands at Dawlish Warren), Carrington wrote: it was “a study of the misery of authorized fun” (110). She escaped the world’s invisible prisons but at great cost

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Annie Stiles — her servant whom Carrington depended upon and painted, and drew frequently — she describes herself as with two servants eating or by the fire when Lytton is gone away

Ellen

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Hardy, Under Beachy Head

Dear friends and readers,

This is the sixth and last of my reports on the the Charlotte Smith conference this October, to which I will add a lecture given by Carole Brown on the history of St John’s Church in Guildford where Charlotte Smith was baptized and lies buried. The first I told of of the building, grounds, the social world of the conference; the second, my paper on the post-colonial Ethelinde and Smith’s The Emigrants (as well as plans for women artist blogs, Anne Killigrew, Dora Carrington and Remedios Varo); the third was on the Elegiac Sonnets; the fourth on Smith’s poetry again, this time from the point of view of the marketplace, natural world, and the use of paintings in her novels; the fifth, Smith as a novelist and playwright. We began and ended the conference papers with her poetry. Desmond and the places of her birth, upbringing, wandering and burial were part of this last phase.

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Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Demolition of the Bastille (1789)

On Saturday afternoon of the second day of panels, there were two papers on Smith’s Desmond. Grace Harvey presented a group of ideas she was working out. She talked of Desmond as the most important radical novel of the era; it was the first to present the French revolution, and in is earliest phases, and made a strong case for radical reform. She had trouble finding a publisher. An epistolary novel, it has two central voices in the dialogues about revolution, which are connected to Desmond’s choices in life and couched in terms of their friendship: Desmond is the idealist “voice of reason,” his arguments show William Godwin’s influence; Bethel, the older man, is the “voice of experience, primarily there insistently to counterbalance and modify Desmond’s arguments. Desmond is unable to embrace Bethel’s advice, which takes the form of warnings, his own idealism untempered will become a source of unhappiness for him. Smith’s later books for children show the double voice again but in different terms: Mrs Woodfield, the teacher urge repression of discontent, cheerful submission to what is, a sort of Bethel attitude; but she also checks flippancy and superficiality in Henrietta and Elizabeth, urging on them a kind of serious earnestness. Grace didn’t mention how strongly Smith was influenced by Rousseau in both all these books, especially Julie ou La Nouvelle Heloise (for the novel) and Emile (for pedagogy)

Katrin Roder contextualized Smith’s Celestina and Demond with a discussion of sensibility in the era: her radicalism is rooted in ideas associated with the feelingful character of sensibility. These novels centrally question unconditional obedience to authority. They show how social sympathy creates human bonds; how important concern for others, for one’s home,and the limits of interpersonal support. Desmond loves his house too. she quoted interesting passages where Celestina attempts to help her servant Jessie, and Desmond listens to Geraldine, whose husband has sought to sell her and whom he marries at the end of the novel, where both identify and sympathize with these intelligent victims. Typical patterns for the sentimental novel show a hero’s suffering rewarded, morally superior victims who obey patriarchal norms. In Smith’s novels suffering is not inevitable, there are salutary reward, but the happy ending is often an afterthought. The reflections of the characters and narrator and what happens during the fiction of more important. Characters endure internal and external exile. In the discussion afterward it was remarked that if you cut Smith’s endings off, stop say at a penultimate chapter, they are deeply pessimistic.

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Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Near Beachy Head — this feels so appropriate as until they grew older Smith would often have had her children with her

One could say the last part of the day was devoted to Charlotte Smith’s unfinished (it’s a long fragment) poetical masterpiece, Beachy Head. Three excellent papers dependent on close reading, followed by a recital in the nearby St Nicholas church. Melissa Cow began with how Beachy Head, Smith’s most ambitious poem, lacks clarity of vision. The poem shows the inadequacies of science, geology, history, paleontology which are difficult to assemble produces a sense of strangeness. She begins with a strong sense of locality: the narrator is at the top of Beachy Head, and looks to see what is buried under his feet. While in Gilbert White we feel nature is a system, a good one which can be comprehended, Smith’s questions complicate and upset what we know. She goes beyond her reading of Erasmus Darwin to anticipate modern ideas about extinction; 17th century ideas about the immensity of the earth, catastrophes that have occurred, fossils of mammoth elephants. Her poem works through a range of associative leaps. Samantha Botz suggested Beachy Head invites pivotal readings of history as well as implied politics. Wordsworth saw himself as a man speaking to men, someone with a more lively sensibility, led to create in his mind what he does not find in the world. Smith gives us wandering silent fugitive figures, a contemplative antiquary, a lively anecdotal voice, as well as a critically analystical one, with visible nature showing contingency, and the vanity of science’s boasts.

Amela Worsley’s “‘Death Alone: Charlotte Smith’s hermits” provided a fitting close to the conference and a lead-in to the musical setting of the poem. The idea of a poet as a lonely figure begins in the later 17th century, solitary introspective males in a landscape, to which the sublime is added in the later 18th. The lone woman is ever at risk of sexual assault. Her multiple solitaries are male hermits whose outlook she likened to that of Milton’s Comus, the unknown poet of the “Elegy written in a country churchyard,” Mary Robinson’s “Anselmo, hermit of the Alps. Amelia said Smith uses geology to de-familiarize the local. She offered a careful comparative readings. The figures seek safety and run great risk (psychological too), know intense suffering and rhapsody, and often end in the peace of death. This is one of the passages she dwelt upon:

    Then, of Solitude
And of his hermit life, still more enamour’d,
His home was in the forest; and wild fruits
And bread sustain’d him. There in early spring
The Barkmen found him, e’er the sun arose;
There at their daily toil, the Wedgecutters
Beheld him thro’ the distant thicket move.
The shaggy dog following the truffle hunter,
Bark’d at the loiterer; and perchance at night
Belated villagers from fair or wake,
While the fresh night-wind let the moonbeams in
Between the swaying boughs, just saw him pass,
And then in silence, gliding like a ghost
He vanish’d! Lost among the deepening gloom.—
But near one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots
Form’d a rude couch, love-songs and scatter’d rhymes,
Unfinish’d sentences, or half erased,
And rhapsodies like this, were sometimes found—

    Let us to woodland wilds repair
    While yet the glittering night-dews seem
    To wait the freshly-breathing air,
    Precursive of the morning beam …

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John Constable (175-1837), Derwentwater, Cumberland (where Ethelinde is set)

I can’t speak too highly of the music of Amanda Jacobs, singing of Janet Oates, and recitation of the poem by Elizabeth Dolan at St Nicholas Church. Amanda and Beth had divided the poem into several emotional sequences conforming to the phases of the day that the poem charts. We moved from morning to afternoon to evening, giving us the lines as songs of grief and happiness. As with Ned Bingham, Viscount Mersey’s setting of Smith’s Sonnet, “Written in Bignor Park in Sussex, August 1799,” Low murmurs creep along the woody vale the day before, Jacobs’s music was atonal, dissonant, each line of music fitted to each line of verse, with an overall patterning that was melancholy yet beautiful, and in this case finally uplifting. Very 21st century music. I felt I had understand parts of the poem for the first time, had seen the logic (so to speak) of how the poem was put together. Everyone in the church seemed so moved.

It was evening and time to return to the hotel.

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

Sunday was our day of trips, which I mentioned in my first blog. On Sunday we set off around 9:30 am in a chartered bus. The bus-driver was a tour guide himself and told us about some of the landscapes and towns we drove through. Ned Bingham was our generous gracious host in a visit to Bignor Park where we could wander where Smith had grown up, left to marry and later visited, and wandered to write her poetry more than a century ago; a tourist’s trip to Petworth House and Park. The house is now a hollow shell for tourists to wander through with the impressive objects in the house set up somewhat indiscriminately. I could see how the original Earl was determined to set a grand aristocratic framing for each aspect of his house and park too, notwithstanding the beauty of the park and some of the pictures.

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St John the Evangelist, Stoke, Guildford

The last place felt most like a revelation to me, mostly because I had not known anything about Charlotte Smith’s actual birthplace, Stoke House where her mother grew up, the history of the local community at the time (and before and since), as well as the problem of where she’s buried (no one knows the exact spot in the church or grounds). All this and more was covered by Carole Brown, a local church activist, conservationist, and historian, who seemed delighted to be able to inform us of all this and whatever else we wanted to know with as much detail as she could get in in the half-hour walking and sitting tour. The site of the church goes back to pre-Christian times, the building itself (renovated countless times) to the pre-Reformation. She was able to inform us especially some of the other (and more) famous people who attended this church, philanthropists, a good deal about the church in World War One, and the most recent art in the church (Pre-Raphaelie glass windows) and how it is the center of a community of people of all ages doing all sorts of things in the church today.

It was a splendid conference.

Ellen

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Furness Abbey, Cumbria (modern photo)

Dear friends and readers,

A third conference report, our subject this time Smith’s novels, tales and her one play, What Is She?. I’ve described Friday morning and middle afternoon. This time I cover more papers, with some briefer summaries: starting late Friday afternoon, to lunchtime Saturday and early afternoon, the papers were mostly on Smith’s prose fiction. I begin with those where the speaker concentrated on the actual space, places in Smith’s novels and end on her unknown trips to (use of Wales), her use of dialect, and her vampiric lawyer in Marchmont.

Emilee Morrall talked of female identity, interior spaces and narratives of travel in Ethelinde, Celestina and The Old Manor House. She looked at how Smith situated her characters, literally their relationship to windows and doorways, and metaphorically, at liminality in the novel; how characters cross threshelds, when characters remain between two places. Women seem to lack secure access to their own space, we find them at thresholds, standing still. The outside world is dangerous: Ethelinde seeks to return to privacy repeatedly, Celestina shows a better disposition towards independence, showing an ability to move about in the UK (including the Hebrides). Leanne Cane discussed the relationship of Smith’s novels to history (e.g., of Magdalenes in the century), to education as real world solutions to problems (for Orlando in The Old Manor House, for example). Smith shows to read well you must become passionately involved. We can see that in the era readers often did not read through a novel to the end, could break off while being read aloud too. Books were a kind of platforms for conversation with the mother. The following morning I gave my paper on Smith as a post-colonial writer: we see this in her Ethelinde, comparable to Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love; I compared her Emigrants to the poetry of exile and displacement in her contemporary Anne Grant, and in our own time Dahlia Ravikovitch, the Israeli poet, and Margaret Atwood in her Journals of Susanna Moodie.

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An eighteenth century map of Wales

Elizabeth Edwards talked of Smith’s probable (mostly unknown because barely recorded) trips into Wales. Elizabeth described Wales as the place Smith’s fiction begins with: it’s a place of hidden rocks, remote places, mountains and cliffs; Emmeline moves to Swansea, walked along the shore (the passages describing Wales are based on concrete experience), meets Mrs Staffordshire; Delamere hounds her and she flees to the Isle of Wight, then she returns to Mowbray Castle. Desmond too goes to Wales as a borde space, it provides shifting perspectives and moods. In a pre-railway world Wales being by the sea figures escape. In Smith’s letters there are suggestive hints of her going to Wales to flee creditors or to be without her children. Her play, What is She? is set in Wales (a woman is living there mysteriously): a male makes a Welsh maid his mistress, calling his wife a harridan (this reflect Smith’s husband’s behavior). The characters end up in Wales at the close of The Banished Man, and you can map the place. Montalbert they flee to Sicily; in The Young Philosopher to northern Scotland. If you look at the places in her work, they tell you more about her life than is supposed.

In the later morning, Jenny McAuley presented her research into the archives in libraries and registry offices. In her early married life, Smith lived near Hinton Ampner around which swirled stories of ghosts, hauntings, revenge taken. Mary Ricketts gave testimony the place was haunted but the authorities didn’t seem to care whether people read the originals. Her manuscript provides rare pictures of life in and around such a place, an alienated claustrophobic atmosphere. Women live there alone, the men’s activities link them to the West Indies, well outside England. The mansion was demolished in 1793; the Old Manor House and Marchmont have anything even nearly a ghost story. It may have been a place where smugglers met to distribute the profits and decide what they are going to do next. Elizabeth had researched the particulars of smuggling; at Hinton Ampner there was a hidden passageway. A Female servant was caught faking a ghost incident. If we look into the incidents at Rayland Hall in Old Manor House these point to smuggling among the servants and can be aligned with what is known of Hinton Ampner. The subtext of this is equally interesting: poaching went on, the land was being eroded. The Rickets family were related to slave owners in Jamaica, family members there bored and waiting for the old man to die. People include the notorious sadist Thomas Thistlewood (he left a diary of his vile cruelty). You can trace the family from 1760, which houses occupied the site. In this case the local is truly the global.

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A photograph of Hinton Ampner today (cared for by the National Trust)

Orianne Smith talked of the politics of gender and “black” magic in “The Story of Henrietta” (in the Solitary Wanderer). She discussed slave narratives and popular fiction based on these: Obi, or Three Fingered Jack. Henrietta, the daughter of a slave-owner is taken to Jamaica where she discovers she is to be sold (in effect) in marriage, and ends up relying on the help of Obeah women (described as like the Macbeth witches and discussed by Orianne at length), a young African man, her father’s daughters made slaves because the mother is black and a slave. W Orianne found much subversive political content in the witches’ stories. We can see Smith’s attitudes towards black people evolve from Desmond (1792) who looks upon “Negroes” as ontologically different from white Europeans; the Wanderings of Warwick has a kind of dissertation on Negro slavery embedded in it. We are to see how women are reduced to the condition of slaves. Orianne said the Radcliffean gothic in Smith is much influenced by Wollstonecraft’s Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman here: magical power then combines with slavery and Christian and revolutionary thought. In the book Edouardo studies superstition; the characters become part of the Anglo-Carribean world (whose written political history Orianne also surveyed). There is no attempt at consolidation of male authority; instead Smith connects with the “other” and European women.

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John Constable (1776-1837), Dedham Vale from Langham

The two papers not connected to specific places in Smith: Jane Hodson is a literary linguist who has been studying the use of dialect in British fiction. British literature is obsessed with culture, history, and class and you can trace all three of these in Smith’s novels to show: who the character is ethically, what kind of self they inhabit. She said that until the 1860s there was little use of genuinely mimetic dialect in Smith’s or anyone else’s novels. Dialect is a sign that the novel is set in the place or among the milieu of people who speak this language. She suggested that Smith is one of the earliest users of dialect. Such utterances are a form of hybrid language. One problem is often the dialect is too stereotypical or cliched. She focused on The Letters of a Solitary Wanderer as these are set in exotic, remote, colonialist spaces. In “Edouarda” the gothic is imported into Yorkshire; his ancestral home is inherited by his mad father who is controlled by a tyrannial priest. Henrietta’s father is a slave owner in Jamaica and she travels there to discover his enslaved daughters, and is helped by a slave who speaks in dialect.

Mary Going discussed the lawyer-extortionist Mr Vampyre (“His empoisoned fangs”) in Smith’s Marchmont. Her thesis was that the vicious lawyer in the novel is both nearly literally a vampire, but seen by Smith as the blood-thirsty money-lender Shylock. She suggested the first literary vampire works and rumor go back to 1739; slightly later Polidori, Byron and Mary Shelley were all writing ghost and vampire stories. We know that Smith read Shakespeare exhaustively and never tires of any of the plays. Mary felt seeing these parallels added a meaningful gothic extension to the novel’s story. Marchmont is a harassed and hounded young man who is in heavy debt when we first see him, and lands in debtor’s prison for a while. She pointed to how Jewish people are linked to early capitalism, an enemy of Smith’s. Edgeworth did read Obi, Kotzebue’s radical play, The Grateful Negro and she was familiar with self-serving texts and plays by and for the plantation owning tax.

In the question period afterward people pointed to the use of dialect in a number of 18th century novels (Edgeworth, Burns, Scott) well before or around the time of Smith, Loraine Fletcher said in Shakespeare especially. Stuart Curran felt that Smith was breaking new ground in her poetry as well as her novels: her lawyers sound like lawyers; she uses Sussex dialect frequently. There is a problem with her use of Negro or African English: it is too generalized and condescending at moments. Still the point holds: Smith experiments using voice among her characters. Jane was interested in how nationalities emerge, how politicized the representation of speech is and by whom. On the depiction of Vampyre in Marchmont, I asked Mary if she thought Charlotte Smith was anti-semitic; she said no. Smith mentions Jews in her letters (mildly unfavorably). I then asked if many lawyers were Jewish people as in the UK since no Jew could go to the universities or hold remunerative public office. It emerged that few lawyers were Jews. The argument was made in another thread that people can be in a culture but not “of” it, and some of the characters in her novels and Smith herself is such a person.

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The Tiber at San Giovanni dei Fiorenti by Van Wittel (an 18th century fantasy in the manner of Hubert Robert only much grimmer)

There was another excellent paper on place in Smith’s novels after lunch: Jeremy Davidheiser on Smith’s “Wandering Lover:” Chivalry, Geography and Gender relations in Smith’s Political novels. Smith repeatedly has idealist young men who transcend worldly considerations and rescues the heroine. In Desmond the type becomes part of her discourse on political and romantic passion; they are drawn to complicated women whose intellectual and moral development sets them apart from others. The men are expressive but they are also intensely possessive. A dynamic of chivalry can moderate this, as in Desmond whose generosity leads him to seek the good of others he cares for first. His generous friendship provides a way out for Geraldine to escape her aristocratic dissolute husband who would literally sell her. In The Young Philosopher when the heroine is parted from her husband and taken to a place outside society, she cannot cope with predatory people. In this novel Glenmorris wants to protect but not control his wife and daughter but when he is out of the way men who behave ruthlessly aggressively win out. His wife Laura is shattered, and indefatible tenderness cannot bring her back to real strength. In the novel women need protection once they move into places controlled by predatory men and women who isolate them. In this novel too lawyers often make life more dangerous. This is a bleak novel where the characters resign themselves to living in a refuge periphery where if they hold together they can protect one another.

Of his paper’s content, it was said afterwards that if you ignore the happy ending that is often tacked on to the novels you find how limited is the strength of even super-good interpersonal relationships. As in her poems, nothing can repair the suffering. In the novels there is a continuing argument for radical transformation of values to bring about social change.

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George Morland (1763-1804) — in the history of cat depiction one of the earlier anatomically accurate depictions

Ellen

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Charlotte Smith in 1792 by George Romney

Dear friends and readers,

In the second week of October a second Charlotte Smith conference was held for three days: the first two at mostly at the Chawton House Library (a musical recital was in St Nicholas’s church on the grounds); the third, a Sunday, a tour to Bignor Park, a place not far off where Charlotte Smith lived out for her formative years, and loved very much (she would visit her brother and then sister there as an adult); the nearby Petworth House, the seat of her erstwhile patron, George O’Brien Wyndham, Earl of Egremon;, and St John’s Church, in Guilford, where she was baptized, near which her mother’s home was, and where she was buried. I’ve already described the human dimensions (the social life, conversations, what Chawton House looks like) in a diary of trips blog. Valerie Derbyshire has provided a concise conference report: Placing Charlotte Smith, 14th – 16th October, Chawton House. Here I intend to give the gist of the richly informed insightful papers and then describe the places we saw, and the informal and formal lectures we had on Charlotte Smith’s relationship to them.

So, the three days were crowded with richly informed insightful papers. Beth Dolan began the conference by telling us how the statistics of studies and editions of Charlotte Smith show she is at last attracting the serious attention her work deserves. The first ever Charlotte Smith conference was held in 2006 and lasted for a day. The Plenary address was given by Judith Stanton who achieved the 800+ page edition of her letters (2003), chaired by Loraine Fletcher who wrote the indispensable literary biography (1998). There were panels on Smith’s poetry, The Letters of a Solitary Wanderer, political acts at the time, Desmond, her fellow women poets and friends, Desmond, The Old Manor House, and her one play, What is She? Lunch, tea, a dinner to launch the volumes of Smith’s works published by Pickering and Chatto. I have myself gone to two panels on Smith’s poetry and two on her novels in three different ASECS conferences since. Beth surveyed the history of scholarship. Since Walter Scott’s assessment of Smith’s life and work (1827), before the 1960s there was the one magisterial dissertation biography-study by Florence Hilbish (which I own in the forms of xeroxes and have read), and a few skant thin commentaries on Smith’s writing; then starting in 1969-75 five articles appeared, 13 more publications before 1990, and suddenly 54 articles in the next nine years. Stuart Curran’s Complete Poems appeared in 1993; Carroll Fry’s Twayne biography 1996. The first six years of the 21st century saw 45 publications, the last ten years there have been 82. Beth kindly named my edition of Ethelinde for Valancourt Press this year, and talked of the novel’s erotic sensibility, its presentation of debtor’s prison (connecting plot-point in it to Dickens’s Little Dorrit). The conference had begun. This blog will cover just the first morning.

The morning panel was on Smith’s seminal Elegiac Sonnets: it was these which put her on the literary map of her age, and arguably makes her a mother of romanticism more original than Wordsworth (the thesis of Jacqueline Labbe’s Writing Romanticism: Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth, 1784-1807). Rich Ness gave a paper on “Lyric Afflictions: Apostrophes and Opiates in Smith’s poetry.” He explored her frequent use of the apostrophe, using Jonathan Culler’s explanatory work on how apostrophes function (manipulative, emotion performing, solipsistic, embarrassing in artificiality, a kind of ventriloquism). Smith seeks oblivion, cannot forget her suffering, takes over suicidal motifs from Shakespeare (sleep and death are cures). Rich saw a connection between her poetry and that of the Greeks. He emphasized other poets like Smith, using Freud’s ideas about melancholy. Modern witnesses included Hannah Arendt who saw a retreat from the social in the arts with a public invasion of the intimate. Poems gone over included her “To the Moon” and “To the South Downs.”

Samuel Rowe’s paper was called “The Negative Turn: Smith, the sonnet revival and dissociative form.” Sam’s basic thesis was that Smith refuses to establish communication. We find in her poetry a quiet denial of the horrors she has seen or known while maintaining a strong silence on the actual objects of her loss. Unexpectedly (he did not use this word), given the sentimentality of her heroines, Smith’s poetry is unsentimental when it comes to events or people. A real object she names is her daughter, Anna Augusta, who died so young of consumption after a hard childbirth. The light does not shine on Smith; when she opens her inner space it remains unilluminated. Her most famous sonnet (44, “Written in the church-yard at Middleton in Sussex”) offers an extreme scene of tempestuous flux; she affiliates herself with the dead who are excluded from the war of life. Sam thought it was a strange poem, where these bones are excluded from the earth’s movements on the shore where and in the waters while she is doomed to stay or live on. He compared these poems to Wordsworth’s “Composed after a Journey across the Hamilton Hills, Yorkshire,” “Ere we had reached the wished-for place, night fell,” and Keats’s famous “When I have fears that I may cease to be.” (As I read these Wordsworth finds peace by pushing disappointment from his mind; Keats wants to live on.)

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John Thelwall (1764-1834)

Mary Ann Myers placed Smith’s sonnets in the context of John Thelwall’s writing. Kenneth Johnston has a sympathetic informative chapter on Thelwall in his Unusual Suspects. Thelwall is one of the many gifted reformists whom Pitt’s policies and gov’t destroyed: “against Thelwall the state acted directly by arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, trial, conviction, punishment and later also unusual suspect; he found how difficult it was to get out of political catchment, how the distinction between personal and political is non-existent … Thelwall was arrested, put on trial for treason. His speeches revealed (among other things) the absurdity of sending send peasantry to be annihilated in a crusade to restore the fallen despotism of France. Treason now means telling the truth to the shame and confusion of ministers. Thelwall presented himself as a target – let him be prosecuted; but after the acquittal, the way he was kept from any success was through means like a petty illegal smashing of a hall, frightening others who welcomed him, beating him up – all he could get was laughter at his plight.

Well Thelwall defended Smith from attacks inflicted on her for her radical politics, for revealing the truth about how she was abused by lawyers and her husband. She never mentioned him so what prompted the passionate defense? Mary Ann concentrated on Thelwall’s defense of patriotism — rightly understood. A patriot is someone willing to fight for liberty and devote himself to principles in spite of oppression. Mary Ann found an “uncanny intersection” between Thelwall’s principled patriotism, attitudes towards rebellion, and Smith’s sonnet 76 (not well known so I print it here):

Go now, ingenious youth! — The trying hour
Is come: The world demands that thou shouldst go
To active life: There titles, wealth, and power,
May all be purchased–Yet I joy to know
Thou wilt not pay their price. The base control
Of petty despots in their pedant reign
Already hast thou felt; — and high disdain
Of tyrants is imprinted on thy soul —
Not, where mistaken Glory, in the field
Rears her red banner, be thou ever found:
But, against proud Oppression raise the shield
Of patriot daring — So shalt thou renown’d
For the best virtues live ; or that denied
May’st die, as Hampden or as Sydney died!

Smith included a note to her sonnet telling the reader she did not intend to allude to her sons; we know that she was actively opposed to her sons seeking a military career as dangerous as well as amoral (the trade of blood she called it), but the context for this sonnet is the hero, Marchmont in the novel named after him, who comes from a long line of patriotic cavaliers, but himself inveighs against the European wars (the Siege of Toulon is included in the novel), and is politically pro-Revolutionary ideals (whence the citing of Hampden and Sidney). Mary Ann called it an “unusually manly sonnet” for Smith, with its central male presence, and patriot martyred again tyrants who destroy principled constitutions. She then discussed Thelwall’s “The Feelings of a Parent” who is willing to sacrifice a child and himself to “the cause of sacred Freedom.”

Ah ! who yet conscious of the social glow
Of Nature—or whose generous breast can feel
An offspring’s future woe or future weal,
The cause of sacred Freedom would forego,
For aught luxurious Grandeur can bestow,
Or Tyranny inflict? Who that can view
In Meditation’s glass the scenes of woe
The darling issue of his loins must know
Beneath the Despot’s rod, but would pursue
(To Nature, and to Patriot virtue true)
The glorious chace of Liberty, and scorn
Each fierce opposing danger—the fell steel
Of ruthless Janissaries—the stern Bastille—
Its bars, its iron doors, and caves forlorn,
Ere leave a trampled Realm in chains to mourn?

The poem comes from Thelwall’s volume Poems Written in Close Confinement in the Tower and Newgate Under a Charge of High Treason (London, 1795). He saw Smith as sharing his values. He recognized a writer who shared his pain, who was not impressed by evil laws. Mary Ann quoted a number of philosophical critics (including Benedict Anderson’s famous book on imagined communities which are “not the less real for being imagined”): Mary Ann’s implication is that Thelwall took heart from Smith’s existence as part of a world he belonged to and had struggled in. To defend Smith was to explain and defend himself.

These extraordinary papers (and poems) elicited rich conversation from the audience. I could only get snatches down, and didn’t know everyone’s names (thus name no one). Sam Rowe had talked about William Lyles Bowles’s poetry, which Coleridge’s discussions linked to Smith, and someone suggested Bowles was a kind of mainstream alternative to Smith. The internet came up and it was asked if people on the internet are speaking into nothingness. (I hope not.) This was a comment sceptical about Smith’s retreat, not sympathetic to an emphasis on this as central to her poetry. I spoke my wish that Smith had named the concrete sources, or described the experiences that she refused to communicate; the lack of an objective correlative, and her obsessive repetition leads to adverse criticism of her poems. Readers retreat from the continual sadness without justification. One person suggested that Keats’s poem deconstructed itself, Shelley is ironic in his “Ode to the West Wind,” that the point of Coleridge’s “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison” was to imagine himself with his friends, to bring them in effect (especially the gentle Charles Lamb) into his bower, and that there is frequently much alienation in romantic poetry. We ought to deconstruct Smith’s retreat more. This was then another somewhat sceptical response to being so openly sympathetic to (bonding with) Smith’s dissociation. I liked how Sam Rowe defended Smith’s stance of non-communication by saying it was essential for mental health and a way she could be in public with others and remain authentically her. (She refused to cheer up, to snap out of it, to pretend to live in the same emotional world as her critics or non-readers.) Someone said she refused to be consoled; she will not let the reader or world off the hook. She does not want to be shut down and protests out of her true self which she holds on to.

landscape
From the grounds of Bignor Park

The morning concluded with a video and podcast of Ned Bigham, Viscount Mersey’s setting of Smith’s “Written in Bignor Park in Sussex, in August, 1799,” from a performance that had occurred some time ago

Low murmurs creep along the woody vale,
The tremulous Aspens shudder in the breeze,
Slow o’er the downs the leaden vapours sail,
While I, beneath these old paternal trees,
Mark the dark shadows of the threaten’d storm,
As gathering clouds o’erveil the morning sun;
They pass! — But oh! ye visions bright and warm
With which even here my sanguine youth begun,
Ye are obscured for ever! — And too late
The poor Slave shakes the unworthy bonds away
Which crush’d her! — Lo! the radiant star of day
Lights up this lovely scene anew — My fate
Nor hope nor joy illumines — Nor for me
Return those rosy hours which here I used to see!

The music was very beautiful (to match the imagined landscape), and very sad (for the mood), set to express the lines and words of the poem. Viscount Mersey (to give him his title) showed us the score and went over some of what he had done and then replayed the video, slowing down over specific lines. It made me pay close attention to images and words, see them differently. The image of the slave had especially discordant music. He mentioned his admiration for Mahler, an Orpheus poem by Rilke (where Eurydice has to look back) as influential in his choices.

It was Ned (he appeared to prefer this address) who invited the Smith conference people to Bignor Park on Sunday; he is a composer, musician, and the present owner of the estate and lives there; his family have lived in Bignor Park for about 100 years. So, anticipating our visit, he also gave us a brief sketch of the history of the estate and especially the gardens. Records go back to the medieval period; in 1632 a mansion house was built. At times the land was poorly managed and in 1750 when Charlotte’s father, Nicholas Turner inherited, his profligate ways further depleted the estate. The Viscount seemed to suggest that when John Hawkins, Cornish geologist and writer, bought the property and developed it as part of a larger estate, despite expense and setbacks over the century; the house was renovated, and landscape improved, supported, cared for. You can tour the gardens and landscape as a paying visitor, and there is a pamphlet describing all that you see and how it came to be there (wildlife, flora, small buildings like a temple and loggia, ancient trees). The pamphlet includes a lovely line drawing of the house, stables, zen pond, overlook, and a keyed map. (We were given copies.) When we walked there on Sunday I saw a ha-ha for the first time.

underneath
Another part of the gardens

It was then more than time for lunch. My next blog will be on the afternoon panels.

Ellen

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