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Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of inward nobility and sensitivity of Samuel Johnson

Dear friends and readers,

When at the first session of the class I was leading, The Enlightenment: At Risk? one of the people in the room remembered back to having had John Radner as “Study Guide Leader” (prof-teacher) twice for courses just on Johnson, and had clearly come for more, I felt I had made an effective choice of Samuel Johnson as the third of the writers we would read and discuss. Also when another man brought in his W.J. Bate biography of Johnson, an old battered and much read-looking book, and said how much he had enjoyed it, I felt vindicated. When someone had volunteered that he “liked” Johnson, after someone else said he much preferred Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, read aloud passages in which (it must be admitted) Boswell seemed the far more accessible, funny, vivid, concretely in an immediate way informative writer, while Johnson by contrast might seem so colorless and dull. Then the first man turned around to confess that Johnson in Boswell’s Life and A Tour seems a totally different person, not deep, not thoughtful, but a dense bully, by no means accurate in his pronounced assessments, coarse examples, stubborn, a contradictory egoistic, a religiously intolerant man. Were there two Johnsons? We had read Lisa Berglund’s essay on how Boswell’s presentation of Johnson’s cat-companion, Hodge, differs from Hester Thrale’s. Another man said he was reading John Wain’s biography of Johnson and agreed with me, that in some lines we seem to hear Johnson’s very tone, his meditative nobility of soul intermingling with Wain’s. Finally most of them read the supplementary reading by Johnson on line in the Ramblers, Idlers and prefaces.

Have I mentioned this is a group of highly intelligent adults more or less retired adults, have held positions of considerably responsibility in their lives? That made a huge difference in how the class went but I’m not sure how to talk about this. Also simply they seemed more able or willing to take Johnson’s point of view in than either Voltaire or Diderot’s.

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Colin Hunter (1841-1904); Good-Night to Skye (2895) (Glasgow Museums)

My second question to myself was, Did I chose the right text from among Johnson’s many? I avoided the Life of Savage because (like Boswell before me and I think Clarence Tracy too) I believe Johnson was deluded and that Savage was himself an imposter whose delusions grew to such a reinforced point, he believed them; similarly, as I couldn’t see how I could write about Johnson’s Life of Savage in as positive a vein as was wanted for a paper comparing his biographical art to Woolf’s, I couldn’t see how I could teach people over 60 that this text is a great biography even though its central information and even respectful sympathetic perspective of Savage is misleading. Johnson is obsessive in his understandable compassion and horror (because he believes that Anne Brett denied this child). In the biography Johnson believes the story that Anne Breet tried to have Savage hanged — and tries to justify his murder of someone in a violent brawl — Richard Holmes (Dr Johnson and Mr Savage as in Jekyll & Hyde) understands that one much more accurately. Apparently Anne Brett’s family had members willing to pay Savage off as long as he will agree to be silent (he wasn’t) and behave minimally decently in their houses — but he would not do that either, and after a while he was thrown out and the allowance stopped.  The key story is hers as much as Savage’s: she was subject to violence from more than one husband, hers as hard a life. What this material cries out for is a life of Anne Brett.

It turned out yes. Maybe even some chose the course because they had gone to the Hebrides! I counted four people in the class who had been to the Hebrides or at least northern Scotland. So I also showed Patrick Watkins’s stunning anti-war docudrama, Culloden, and they were gripped, or at last interested to ask questions after I sent three good essays on Patrick Watkins’s art, on its place in 20th century great films, on the problem of teaching history from written fragments, visits to relics and landscapes, from a lack of evidence, from inescapable biases and identifications I read aloud from John Lister-Kaye’s poetically brilliant The Song of the Rolling Earth.

I retold Johnson’s life, and had sent a review of a biography of Francis Barber. At the time of the death of Johnson’s wife, Tetty, Colonel Richard Bathurst whose estates in Jamaica failed came back with a white son and one black boy given apparently a common name: Quashey. Richard Bathurst the son strong abolitionist and friend to Johnson. Given name Francis Barber and sent to school for 2 years – about age 10, and then came to live with Johnson in London. At one point he ran away. A bid for freedom?but Johnson thought this choice not a good idea, and agitated to get Francis back and at age 26 sent him to Grammar school. Francis came home and became a sort of servant, married a white woman and was set up in a shop to sell books in Lichfield. It’s said he was given a generous legacy, but the shop failed. He died impoverished in 1801, a schoolmaster. He is said to have given details of intimate domestic life to Boswell.  He had a circle of African friends in London: there was a population of African black people living in London.

I also offered background on Scottish culture at the time, Jacobitism, Buchan’s Crowded with Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment: Edinburgh’s Moment of the Mind, and offered a narrative of Johnson’s life, and then we got down to going through Johnson and Boswell’s book. I found a number of the people also read a good deal of Boswell’s, which comes with most editions of Johnson’s.

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Johnson had desired to go to Scotland for a very long time, he says; he wanted to travel to another society and here was one close by, and now they were doing it: they spent about a hundred days in a place neither man was used to. Although Boswell had connections, once they crossed Inverness, he was essentially an Enlightenment lowlands city Scot whose rank and family, and father’s known position, made an opening wherever they went. This is not a package tour nor a comfortable one made very convenient and easy: they have to find accommodation where they can; they went through wildness, solitude, untamed, and as they go, Johnson repeatedly attempts to imagine the history of a object: why does a castle take the form it does? Or the landscape they are seeing.  What happened here to make this building look this way or that?  Johnson tries to analyze the economic activity that he sees and extrapolate from it to understand the economic and political systems of Scotland. His ideas about the tacksman could be applied to why communism failed as a system of exchange among people.

Johnson wanted to compare European society, to him modern, with what existed earlier; he wanted to discover a feudal society (so did Ann Radcliffe in her joural tour of a summer tour — she eventually went north too), but this was a society in the “agonies of change” to quote John Wain. Johnson was also observing two societies side-by-side — lowland modern Scotland and highlands older Scotland. Meanwhile the English were killing a way of life — and didn’t care who or what this affected. Again and again Johnson sees whole groups of people emigrating. How deeply sceptical Johnson was of claims of attribution and past glories and history. Yet he persists at each stop-over to read and write on – and at each turn Johnson is really describing what he sees, testing and verifying, an ethnography of a society in the throes of change, forced emigration and death and exploitation is what he describes to us.

To me it’s almost natural and understandable that Boswell’s book should be the one preferred by many readers as – to tell the accurate truth if like Johnson you really try to find out “which Johnson” the person is discussing – you discover often it’s Boswell’s Johnson, Johnson as described by Boswell and from Boswell’s book who is so well known or subject of fan groups not Johnson himself considered apart from Boswell. Boswell offers a comic, immediate, psychologized and prosaic talk-y language, going over the same incident with details nowhere to be found in Johnson but which support his point of view. Johnson’s is the tragic book: we see the tragedy of people’s lives, the difficulty of survival, and hard struggle each person makes to carry on. That’s the true emphasis of his book. By contrast, Boswell’s jovial filled with his real belief in hierarchy, enjoyment of good times, considerable self-esteem; he is continually name-dropping.

Johnson analyses the basic constraints and history behind each human existence or type of life he comes across with real depth of understanding. He is seriously looking at a different way of life in its death-throes and the violent history behind it. He really describes the desolation before him. His language moves from quiet to brilliant uses of general terms which capture so much meaning to magnificence and deep emotionalism of gratitude or enjoyment. Johnson ends his book on a school for the deaf. Deaf people were treated as idiots until the 18th century when two French philosophes (Abbe Sicard one, discussed by Oliver Sacks in his Seeing Voices) invented sign language. I regret to have to report this was one of those schools where the teachers were to force deaf children to learn to speak so it was not kind place but it was backward step (still not gone) in a forward movement.

Boswell gives us a good time with individual justifications as we go along. We meet individuals and rejoice in them or help or listen to or just interact with them: the old woman and her goat is to Johnson an epitome of hard-scrabble life; how admirably she uses all her resources. To Boswell, she’s a merry joke; she thought one of them would want to go to bed with her, or rape her. She seems unaware that Boswell does not find her attractive. In a frightening tempest, Boswell shows us how frightened he was, what a fool he made out of himself, how he tried to help and appreciated all the captain did. Johnson barely notices this transitory if deeply (to them as frail human beings) ephemeral experience of life. What does Boswell end on their last agreeable days –- how Johnson was feted, what they saw, what they laughed about where they stayed and that he deserves the credit for having gotten Johnson to go, taken him through and so the existence of Johnson’s book. Boswell’s book is an advertisement for the coming biography which he was already diligently at work at.In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell — there are a number of such books, I brought in Israel Schenker.

I cited some months ago Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, with or without Boswell’s A Tour to the Hebrides, as one of ten that had the most influence on me in my life. I quoted a passage where Johnson tells us how he came to choose to want to travel to Scotland even now in his old age. Now I’ll emphasize Iona, which island experience (and others) we went over carefully in class. I read Henry Hitchings’s redaction in his The World in 38 Chapters:

An inscription over the door, to show what kind of a Book this is

A scrap of land, a speck in the sea’s breath. On an OctoTuesday, two travellers arrive after dark. The sea has been rough, and their craft’s four oarsmen can find no easy place to disembark; it seems they must carry the visitors to dry land, though one of them chooses to spring into the water and wade ashore. In the moonlight the two
figures embrace. It is late to be inspecting monuments, so they retire for the night — sleeping fully clothed in a barn, nestled in the hay, using their bags as pillows.

The next day they explore the island. Its buildings have been battered by storms and stripped by locals needing materials for their homes; now they are ruins, caked in filth. The old nunnery is a garden of weeds, and the chapel adjoining it is a cowshed. The two men walk along a broken causeway — once a street flanked by good houses — and arrive at a roofless abbey. Its altar is damaged; islanders have carried off chunks of the white marble, believing that they afford protection against fire and shipwreck. A few intricately carved stone crosses still stand.

Later, the visitors will write about what they saw. One will comment that the island used to be ‘the metropolis of of learning and piety’ and wonder if it ‘may be sometime the instructress of the Western Regions’. The other will reflect that ‘the solemn scenes of piety never lose their sanctity and influence’: ‘I hoped that, ever after having been in this holy place, I should maintain an exemplary conduct. One has a strange propensity to fix upon some point of time from whence a better course of life may begin.’

This is a sketch of Iona, where in AD 563 the energetic Irish exile St Columba founded a monastery. Today, the island’s great sites have been restored and are often mobbed with day trippers – a mix of Christian pilgrims and happy­snapping tourists. Yet in 1773, when Samuel Johnson and James Boswell visited, few people went there. It was Johnson who reflected on the island’s lost role as ‘the metropolis of learning and piety’, recalling how, as he experienced its decay but also its tranquillity, he was transported into the past — to a time when it was ‘the luminary of the Caledo­nian regions, whence savage clans and roving barbarians derived the benefits of knowledge and the blessings of religion’. This was a place where earth and heaven seemed only a finger’s width apart. Somehow it cheered the soul.

‘Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses,’ Johnson wrote, ‘and makes the past, the distant, or the future predominate over the present, advances us in the
dignity of thinking beings.’ This is a rallying cry, an appeal for historical understanding. He doesn’t mean that we should refuse to live in the moment, ignoring the pith of the present to spend our lives dwelling on how idyllic the past was or how ambrosial the future might be. Instead he is arguing that we are dignified by our ability, through the operations of our minds, to transcend our circumstances, to reach beyond the merely local, to appreciate difference. It is an insight typical of Samuel Johnson, a heroic thinker whose intelligence exerted itself in a startling number of directions. A poet and a novelist, a diarist and editor and translator, as well as the author of numerous prefaces and dedications, h produced the first really good dictionary of English, invented the genre of critical biography …


There is more than one edition of the original two copies as In the Footsteps of Johnson and Boswell (Israel Schenker from the NYTimes wrote one and now lives in Scotland).

Hitchings led to talk of  journeys people in the class had taken to the Hebrides and even  Iona and how “spiritual” it had felt. I used Matthew Arnold’s old touchstone method — I quoted Johnson: in the midst of telling how the Highlanders are fleeing the place, and that there are some “lairds of more prudence and less rapacity [who] have kept their vassals undiminished,” Johnson writes: “From Rasaay only one man has been seduced, and at Col there was no wish to go away” — because of the good man running the place. It’s that “at Col there was no wish to go away” that captures the dense concision of understanding in the man’s texts.

We then went over a number of individual passages. What Johnson is interested in? the past, meditation of what was, on generalization about humanity trying to survive in hard and various conditions: looking upon human life; passionate student of history, and of geology, geography, culture in general and that’s what he puts in his book. Sudden affection. Universities are decaying, on Canongate. Inch Kenneth, high point. How he spontaneously, inspired, wrote poetry in Latin. How he admires people: Col, so well educated trying to help his people, spends such time with them, drowns suddenly, Macquarry emigrating. Topics included his interest in castles and dungeons and the violent past they reveal. Mountainous people and their cultures. His Sardonic humor. But also merry and unself-conscious; can imitate a kangaroo. They spend a long time in Sky, Ostig: Johnson talks of what really corrodes people’s minds. Power overcomes law but money has power to abrogate law. When guns appear, non-human animals decrease. The fight over the Ossian poems: James Macpherson claimed to have found and just rewritten slightly these epic fragments in ancient gaelic and Johnson challenged him to produce the manuscripts. Of course there were none; people wanted ancient poems and unscrupulous writers produced them – it was a kind of watered down Miltonism style that appealed – tremendous international popularity but Johnson stubbornly held out. The man, thug-like threatened him, and Johnson said he’ll carry a big stick and protect himself Boswell often quotes Johnson, and works passages in, like this.

Johnson provides somber, Boswell the prosaic thought. The two of them talking, different perspectives, Johnson goes about to show us how different the re-tellings of history and concludes how little Boswell’s tour he just complains he can’t learn anything from oral tradition. In the mornings Boswell would bring what he wrote to Johnson and Johnson fix what he had written, rewrite, plan in his mind. They were making books together.

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The Yale edition of Johnson is now complete and online, open to the public

I assigned a few other texts found online. We went on to the Rambler and Idler, etexts online. We read the history of Misella (Nos 170-71) How she was drawn from her parents’ house with promises, never given the advantages claimed; then seduced by the benefactor, removed from the house when pregnant and gradually abandoned and her life as a prostitute now. Then Idler No 22 the mother vulture teaching her children — how 18th century readers liked allegory of this type in the period – an outgrowth of Aesop’s Fables. The vulture thinks man made for them and Johnson approaches Voltairian satire. We turned for an example of Johnson at his most witheringly sardonic: the review of Soames Jenyns. The malevolence in the idea that extending education to all is dangerous, will make people discontented, rebellious. The notion that human and animal sufferings produce good effects made Soames imagine that immortal beings enjoy watching us for their diversion and those in heaven derive satisfaction from those in hell. Unforgettable. Idler 22 similarly against debtors’ prisons. Idler No 81: native Americans discussing behavior of European armies and how they can use these killers.

Lives of the poets: constitutes a history of English poetry across the long 18th century, a discussion of the nature of poetry, even in this different style, lives of writers, and he is at his personally involved or make political points. He chooses some of subjects because booksellers told him to (they had the man’s works – no woman I regret to say) and others because he knew the man. Great compassion for some: William Collins. He added names he thought should be included, but one can be very disappointed because a poet today thought important isn’t there: Christopher Smart who died raving in a prison when he should have not been put in their in the first place.. Famous for a long poem on his cat Jeffrey who kept him company. I went briefly over Boswell’s, Hawkins, Thrale’s and Murphy’s biographies of Johnson himself. His letters. I read a couple to Warton, one to Mrs Thrale, part of the one to Chesterfield.

As editor of Shakespeare’s works: he did not idolize the man and some students reading the preface are surprised to find critical and evaluative comments. He puts Shakespeare in the context of his time, looks at his ultimate vision. His observations on passages are like close readings of Shakespeare’s texts. From Measure for Meausre. They did not have novels the way we do and what they read often were bound up groups of plays sold as books. Shakespeare’s plays could be read as realistic novels, so on Macbeth …

Lastly I offered a bit on Johnson’s politics. I recommended Donald Greene’s Twayne book. Thoughts on the Falkland Islands is his most anti-colonialist. But he supports gov’t sometimes because he fears chaos and who might rise to power. Oddly it has been rumored and whole essays written to show Johnson as Jacobite because he supported the Tory party and in context, from Boswell he seems sympathetic but anyone who knows the realities of Jacobitism and he did would be hard put to go that far. In his own day some accused him of this — he was often corrosive over the Hanoverian gov’t – more anti-whig than pro-Tory. Wrote Swiftian parodies. He did support expulsion of John Wilkes seen as this ultimate patriot at the time. England had the right to tax the colonialists without their permission – because they defended the colonialists against the Native Americans (but why did they so?), he attacked the anonymous Junius – a kind of Deep Throat writing eloquent diatribes exposing corruption.

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Another depiction of Johnson by Reynolds — a more familiar one

Every spirit passing through the world fingers the tangible and mars the mutable, and finally has come to look and not to buy. As shoes are worn and hassocks are sat upon … finally everything is left where it was and the spirit passes on — Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping

I had assigned Isobel Grundy’s irreplaceable essay on Johnson’s depiction of death in his biographies. She says he shows both the older views and the modern towards death: it’s a rounding off and leaving a meaning, but also confusing, ambiguous, making one feel that the life had no significance beyond for the person and for most of us the few people who we’ve been meaningful to. We still see the older attitude in churches and religious places, and in people who plan their death, care about their will, make due preparations. Pope did. She says that Johnson repeatedly fails to find this significance or meaning in the deaths he recounts or describes, asked what he felt while dying: he wanted to live” deaths ironic, horrifying, show a lack of concern in reality; jarring and shocking. Did they die as they had lived? He again and again refuses to draw a moral. More: he deliberately puts before us the ironies, casual comedy, inappropriateness of what happens, the grotesqueries. In his essays we find death is the great leveller, what is the case for common humanity, avoids religious talk or judgement; early lives he does offer exemplary deaths; he looks into legends: Hermione Lee who has written a number of even great biographies says the most problematic of chapters is often the last because so many lies, distortions, agendas come in – we hear what the survivors of the scene want to tell us – yet you can’t avoid it and so recent biographies tend to scant it. He moves from seeing death as a kind of testing to part of common humanity – ridiculous, frailty of human body, not dignified not in control. The person or people comforting the dying can try to help the dying person feel he or she has that control over the last if that’s what the person wants or cares about.

Grundy’s was the last text I talked about and then I did wish I had assigned the Oxford Authors volume of Johnson, edited by Donald Greene, because we could have read some of the Lives of the Poets as then the people in the room would have read some of these texts.

The three to four sessions were about as successful as I’ve ever been with a “older” more difficult author. More successful than the Voltaire and Diderot sessions I felt. I asked if I tried to do this theme again, did they think it was a good idea? They said they did. I said I would try to substitute other authors: Jean-Jacques Rousseau for Voltaire (Reveries of a Solitary Walker as it needs to be a shorter text), Goethe (either The Sorrows of Werther or Elective Affinities). Mary Wolstonecraft for Madame Roland (The Rights of Women, Residence in Sweden), but I thought to myself I can probably not find an analogous substitute.

Ellen

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


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

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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


Austen’s earliest world


Sydney Place, Bath — today a Holiday rental

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


The most dismal of the houses

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


One of the photos from Lyme, by the cobb

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

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

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

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

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


The two women filmed from on high

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

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


Enjoying the seashore


Contemporary tourist book

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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Kate Winslet as as Myrtle (Tillie) Dunnage sewing (The Dressmaker, written & directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)


Annie Starke as the young Joan Castlemain “helping” her professor husband, Joe, writer (The Wife, directed Bjorn Runge, script Jane Anderson, 2018)

Friends and readers,

Finally at the end of summer, four good women’s films. Two weeks ago The Bookshop and Puzzle, where in each a heroine seeks a new life, and now, The Dressmaker (based on a novel by Rosalie Ham) and The Wife (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer), where in each two heroines wrest back what they have lost. They were gripping because was kept happening next was unexpected as women broke through taboos to become or take back herself after a long endurance. I recommend going to The Wife and renting or streaming (or buying) The Dressmaker as strongly as I did seeing The Bookshop before it leaves the theaters. In order to convey why they are rivetingly or quirkily surprising as we move along, I tell the stories but it’s the acting out as each turn comes that will hold you.


Glenn Close as the aging Joan Castlemaine reading The Walnut, a novel attributed to her husband as fiction, but one she wrote about her life with him

The Guardian says Glenn Close delivers the best performance of her career. She does make the movie the emotionally affecting experience it is, but I can think of other movies I’ve seen her in where it was she who made them extraordinary (Alfred Nobbs, with John Malkovitch, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Paradise Road, the box office winner Fatal Attraction).

It’s done through flashbacks with two sets of actors: we begin in present time with Joe Castlemaine (the character somewhat based on Saul Bellows) played by Jonathan Pryce, winning the Nobel Prize, and the couple going with their son to Stockholm for the award ceremony. They seem to be joyous over this crowning recognition, but have an intensely strained relationship as a couple. Through irritants, and promptings of memories at her husband’s bad behavior He denigrates and treats with mild contempt the son’s, (Max Iron as David Castlemain) writing; he incessantly controls her eating, drinking, smoking, being by herself at all, when he is the one who is ill, taking pills to stay alive, and (as we see) promiscuous with young women wherever he can be. Joan’s mind moves back to how they met (Harry Lloyd as the young professor and Starke as student at Smith College), how he seduced her while he was married, and their first successes: she is working as a secretary at a firm seeking good authors and brings his (it seems) books in. The cyclical weaving is very much a woman’s structure and we gradually realize we are seeing and feeling everything out of her older mind.


On the plane Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone, biographer, approaches the Castlemains

The real story is also dragged out because the couple is stalked by Nathaniel a young man determined to write a truthful biography, to make a career out of exposing this celebrated author. He follows the Castlemains on the train, and begs for permission and is rejected, told to go away. He remains at the bar of the hotel they are staying at and when she escapes Joe for an afternoon she is lured into drinking and smoking with him, as we listen to him ask her to tell him the truth that she wrote the books, not Joe. Joe (we have seen) doesn’t even know central characters in the stories. Then when the son escapes, Bone insinuates himself into being a companion, telling the young man who then startled with this explanation for his bad memories, confirms Bone’s theory.


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

Unfolded before is a Laura Ingalls and Rose Wilder story: what began as the husband writing poor novels and the wife being taught (perhaps wrongly) that women’s novels are ignored, not read, will not sell, or if they do, not be respected. This is conveyed by Elizabeth McGovern as the embittered women writer:


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

It at first seems the writing turns into collaboration and then (since he does not know what makes a good book, is dishonest about himself, superficial) an acted out lie: she hides away from children and world writing the novels while he takes (less than adequate) care of the children, cooks, makes money as a teacher, and takes all the credit for the books. What we see at first grating is the way he thanks her for enabling him to find time to work, devoting and giving up herself to his art, his creativity. The incessant gratitude as a cover-up drives her wild; it’s about as much as she can endure on top of his continual domineering demanding (he wants sex when she doesn’t) condescending ways. She has to smile and smile at the phony admiration, the adulation he receives so ecstatically.


In the car alone her face frozen, the husband trying to make up to her

Lying is at the core of this woman’s life, lying as an enabling and silencing mode of being. The movie made me think about what Rose Wilder might have felt because her books were attributed to her mother. The situation was so different: Rose Wilder chose to re-write and then write her mother’s books to project an Ayn Rand reactionary vision, to cover up the abysmal poverty of her childhood in rural America, and she got away with this because her publishers did all they could (as much of the media at the time) to castigate FDR’s turning the US into a more decent society for all (the New Deal, now in its death throes), to tell the false myth that anything is possible in individualistic uncontrolled capitalism. Closer are the faculty wives who spend years next to their husbands in libraries taking notes, typing his manuscript, perhaps “helping” him collaborating, who knows writing for him, and then thanked in a concluding line of acknowledgements. We see at first hand what pain this can be for such a woman, especially if he is someone who has affairs with his students or other faculty.

But there is continual ambiguity, different valid angles. The situation was more complicated than merely a bad husband, all self-sacrificing wife. As the days wear on, and she finally explodes and says she has had enough and is leaving him, they quarrel fiercely and it emerges she was complicit; he is accurate when he charges her with having liked being hidden, having liked getting rid of the children, of being rich (which as a woman writer and without a professorship she would have been), of him caring for the children, cooking and doing everything they pretended that she did. We see the beautiful houses they had.


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

We have seen how complacent she can be, and again how fierce in anger. How pained. She weeps at the end hysterically because when he suddenly as a heart attack. She is so persuasive and strong at that moment, I found the falling snow in the window behind her a false overdone note. Yet in the last scene on the plane with her son she tells the biographer if he tells the story of who wrote the books she will sue him as malevolent, and then turns with a look in her eye we see she is at the same time at long last free. She turns to her son and promises to tell him the truth of her life and the books when they get home. Will she? She fingers a notebook. Will she begin to publish under her own? or carry on writing producing books she will say were unfinished and are now coming out posthumously. She was ferocious with the biographer on the plane.

It’s arguable though that The Wife is a conventional movie in comparison with The Dressmaker. At the time it was in the theaters while it garnered many awards, non-professional and many professional critics alike lambasted it as peculiar, not making sense, erratic, unbelievable, and yes improbable and meandering (the last two charges commonly hurled at women’s movies). And at first I was startled and felt an urge to turn it off: why should this super-successive costume designer return to a filthy impoverished shack of a home with her hateful aging sick mother, Molly Dunnage played brilliantly by Judy Davis (a persistently fine actress, ever in good movies, unrecognized because not iconic).


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

Why go to a small town picnic dressed for the Oscars? What could be the point? Well give it a chance and you begin to see and then are on her side, wanting to see her get revenge on what was done to her and to her mother.

It’s a strange film, bizarre: Tillie begins to gain power because these dowdy jealous women want her to dress them the way she dresses, and she begins to make money as she determinedly ignores or over-rides her mother’s protests and cleans the house, her mother, and sets up a daily decent routine of life for them. What women seem to want, what they dream of themselves looking like is when seen startlingly artificial and grotesque


The movie ends with an album of all the actresses in all the (a cornucopia) dresses made and worn over the film (costume design Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce)

What emerges, in jarringly odd scenes is a female gothic story. When Tillie was small, she was bullied cruelly by a Evan Pettyman’s (Shane Bourne) mean stupid son, Stewart, and she was accused of murdering him in retaliation. She was hounded out of town and her mother disgraced. What gradually emerges is Tillie is Everyman’s illegitimate daughter by Molly; that Pettyman’s present wife has spent her life drugged by this husband before and worse after the son died. In flashbacks we see how the child was ostracized and harassed and when the boy tried to smash her head, she stepped aside and he rammed his head into a brick wall. Another reason she has returned, is she does not know what happened and is determined to discover how the boy died. The town is exposed as bigoted, hypocritical and brutally indifferent to anything but each person’s own ego pleasure. Tillie had a young man who was liked her; grown up now, Liam Helmsorth as Teddy McSwiney slowly reveals he has a mentally retarded brother whom the town despises and mocks, a mother who (like Molly) is impoverished and they live apart, in a tin shack with him making what money they have as a mechanic.

Needless to predict, Tillie and Teddy fall in love and become lovers, Molly emerges from her shell to show she loves her daughter after all, or can love her. They sew together:

There are wonderfully comic moments where Molly calls herself a hag and her daughter a spinster in need of such a man:

The three go to the movies and make fun of what they see: there is an older movie shown which probably is meant as an allusion but I couldn’t make out which one it was.

Wedding scenes, church, as the story is exposed, scenes of intense anger, scene where Pettyman hires another woman as a dressmaker to rival Tillie, only this dressmaker is nowhere as daring, bold, good a seamstress. But colluding and frightened people are exposed as knowing and hiding the truth, Pettyman’s wife awakened to the truth tries to cut his feet off (this reminded me of how Stella Gibbons’s mocked the gothic), and just as we think the evil people who hid everything will get their comeuppance and our trio (Teddy, Tillie and Molly) live happily ever after, Teddy too full of himself, slips down a man hole, gets caught in a vise and is killed. There is a moving funeral. This means his brother and mother can escape the town’s obloquy only by leaving. Molly determines to help her daughter and now dressed respectably, sets forth for help from those townspeople with hearts (they are some):

But in a tense tiring public scene, recalling or anticipating what happens to Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish assailing the witch power-center of the town in The Bookshop, Molly has a heart attack and dies before she can see justice begin to be done. So we have another funeral. The heart attack of the aging weakened person who sallies forth to help the heroine is not the only parallel with Fitzgerald’s tale as filmed by Coixet. In a final scene of rage, while the mostly indifferent town is caught up in another social public event, all of the women now dressed by Tillie, Tillie sets fire to the old cabin she and her mother had lived in, and takes a long red carpet and fills that with lighter fluid, hurling it out towards the town, where it slowly sets the central streets of the town on fire. The movie ends with Tillie re-dressed as the Parisian dressmaker she had become and leaving:

An important character in the drama is Australia itself. The film is made by an Australian film company and was filmed there. It’s filled with stunning shots of the bare and hard landscape, which the camera nonetheless seems to have a love affair with. We first see Tillie against this hard backdrop:

One of the good or remorseful characters, Hugo Weaver as Sergeant Farrat takes blame for Tillie as policeman, seen against the same landscape at another time of day:

A townspeople scene: they look up at Tillie and Mollie’s ruined home:

It is as deeply satisfying a film as one can hope to see, and it uses the power of a woman through one of her most characteristic skills: sewing. Moorhouse is unashamed to both caricature and celebrate high fashion and sexy dressing. It is also unsentimental in just the way of The Bookshop.

Two more women’s films not to miss, to revel in.

Ellen

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot walking among the autumn leaves (1995 BBC Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am chuffed (proud, happy) to say two new essays on Charlotte Smith by me are now available from the power and liberty of the Internet. The first is my essay for Sarah Emsley’s new series of blogs, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion,” due to start December 16th. Mine is one of two previews;

“For there is nothing lost that may be found: Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

The other is by William Hutchings, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK, “A Sense of An Ending: Persuasion and Keats’s “Ode to Autumn.”

It will be seen both of us chose to dwell on the autumnal aspects of Austen’s Persuasion and how she uses or provides an analogy for autumnal poetry by two contemporary or near contemporary poets. Thus Sarah put ours on her blog before Austen’s birthday in order to be seasonally on time.

I am writing this separate linked-in blog since I want to make sure there is no misapprehension about the four years worth of blogs on this site about Jane Austen’s letters and the Austen papers. The blogs came out of a group read we did on the two Austen lists (Austen-l and Janeites) several years. It was my idea to do the letters slowly, one a week. However, what insights emerged were a “hive” effect, the result of all of us putting our collective heads together to close read and add our own bits of knowledge and insight—and sometimes clashing on who Austen was as a person. It was a wonderful experience.

The second is on Charlotte Smith in a different or wider vein: I’ve decided to put my paper on “The Global Charlotte Smith: migrancy and women in Ethelinde and The Emigrants on academia.edu where it may be read now. It is also timely in a different way: for its political perspective on women and emigration.


A photograph taken in Oxford, Wytham Woods this November 19, 2017 by a friend

Ellen

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Emma (Doran Goodwin) and Mr Knightley (John Carsons) genuinely talking to one another — the eye contact shows this (1972 Emma, scripted Denis Constantduros)

Friends,

It is the fate of someone who is trying to do too many things at one time, that she seems never to finish any particular task or book sufficiently to blog regularly. One of my readers has asked why I am not blogging as much and to resume regularity once again. Partly too by a piece of my own crass honesty (never a good thing) I’ve found myself cut off from Mason’s vast databases for at least two weeks and then I will have only campus access. So much for my women artists series. I’ve also been depressed, lost heart. Finally, I’ve not been reading Jane Austen of late, though I much admired many of the essays on Emma in the most recent issue of Persuasions (38:2016). I had lamented how in last year’s AGM on Emma, there had been but four sessions of panels and I had not been able to hear enough of the presentations. Well Persuasions more than made up for this emptiness. I sometimes think all the new fashionable — from the sequel or fan point of view to the academic deconstruction post-modern, we erase Austen’s own text. Not in this Persuasions.

To begin with Austen (this being an Austen blog), Juliet McMaster on “The Critics of Talk in Emma“, and Maria McClintock Folsom’s “Emma Knowing Her Own Mind” — the length of the latter signifies its subtle nuanced close reading analysis is very worth the reading. Both articles discussed the talk in Emma. Folsom begins with how Emma’s trauma over leaving Hartfield reflects Austen’s own trauma at leaving Steventon; Emma has the security of a home, the problem is the home is stultifying in every sense of the word, including irresistible (to Emma) flattery, that closes her mind that anything that will enable her to see her real faults. Folsom builds up to how Emma needs intelligent companionship in every way and how Mr Knightley provides it by going over the conversations across the novel between Emma and others and then Emma and Mr Knightley. It exonerates (my love of film adaptations comes out here) the 1972 Emma which focuses on just this growing importance of conversation between Mr Knightley and Emma. Juliet McMaster says words not deeds are the action of Emma and looks at how Emma perceives the truth that is in front of us (rather like Fanny Price), but interprets it out of her own blindness — which could lead to serious harm — it’s in the nuances of the conversations and what they mean that McMaster says tells us why we as a group keep reading this book, what we learn from and about life. Elaine Bander’s is first and asks why Austen chose an heroine who is given very unlikable traits, some of which never go away. It’s here she sees Austen fighting against novel conventions (which reminds me of brilliant French book on Austen against romance as its first impulse); the way Elizabeth behaves is at first very like her father: both see, but both see to critique and laugh mostly. I find Elaine’s less satisfying I admit as there’s a tendency to excuse and usually take a thoroughly upbeat view. Lorraine Clark on “The Ethics of Attention,” I especially liked Anita Solway on “The darkness in Emma:” about Austen’s deeply melancholy outlook once you begin to look , so many vulnerable people …


William Gilpin, Picturesque Beauty, Travel, Sketches

In the latter part of the volume the essays departed from Emma. James Evan suggests a different source for the Northern Tour than the Gilpin volume usually cited (by Mavis Batey I know) and another house, Keedlestone, in that area for Pemberley. It’s not alternate source finding that is so valuable but how Evan finds real idiosyncratic phases in the source which enriches our sense of the novel’s (dare I say this) subtext (he mentions how many source studies are not convincing). One of my favorite recent appropriations, Lost in Austen by Paige Pinto is not yet on-line — it appears to be about how this film replaces Austen’s Persuasions.


Fanny (Sylvestre Le Tousel) humiliated into trying to act by Mrs Norris (1983 Mansfield Park, scripted Ken Taylor)

I wish I had enjoyed the recent BBC radio “The spirituality of Austen” more than I did: It’s misnamed. This modern concept of religious feeling divorced from doctrine is anachronistic. But they understandably did not turn to the three prayers once attributed to Jane (now they are thought to be by Charles) where perhaps what a modern person would call Austen’s spirituality is in evidence. For Austen’s generation and type of Anglicanism ethics are a function of religion, and they did turn to the moral compass (so to speak) of the characters.But they became enamoured of their own talk and wanted to entertain and say what they thought listeners might bond with. A new idea of religion was spreading through Methodism, but it was combined with radicalism. Evangelism as in our time was a growth and spread of narrowing attitudes, repression — Austen did not like Hannah More’s Caleb in search of a Wife which is a version of these Evangelical attitudes dramatized through novel conventions. But without actually connecting MP to More’s novel, soon they were talking of Fanny Price (as self-evidently a prig), ending on the far-fetched assertion most of her readers dislike most of her “good” characters — Austen’s comic and witty characters are supposed to be good people. It’s the Mrs Norris’s, Ferrars, bullies, people with malicious tongues, who say hurtful things we don’t like and they represent very poor ethics. They kept veering into Mary Bennet for similar reasons, with the outrageous assertion that Mary Bennet would make a good dinner companion, that’s nuts – the point is she wouldn’t and doesn’t; she’s too stressed — not that Austen feels for her — and that’s why they wanted to support her. I tend to think of her as a reading girl and so Austen is into self-flagellation but Austen sees her simply as without understanding of what she reads. She’s not a real character so to talk of how she is not forgiven doesn’t make sense. She’s used to make satiric points, write a satiric scene. I liked the idea that Mr Knightley represents strongly ethical views and behavior — they didn’t use that term.


Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768), Alnwick Castle (1747)


Elizabeth Percy, Duchess of Northumberland, responsible for the conception and 18th century work done in this famous country castle

I did complete a study of the achievements of intellectual women in the 18th century — in areas like science, theology, medicine, architecture. It will be published by ECCB; in the meantime a longer copy of a review of Teresa Barnard’s British Women and the Intellectual World in the eighteenth century is at my site at Academia.edu. I’ve not been neglecting the 18th century but working away on material connected to the Poldark world, where I now I have permission from the copyright holder to write a book on (working title), “Winston Graham, Cornwall and the Poldark matter.” Soon I hope to be writing and to be introduced to an editor at one of the publishing companies closely associated.


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (from Poldark, Season 2)

Paradoxically I have least to say on “the Cornish Gothic,” precisely because I’ve been reading a good deal, from Claude Berry’s inimitable Portrait of Cornwall (he evokes the feeling and landscape, and culture of the place), to histories of Cornwall (F. E. Halliday), to discussions of how Cornwall has figured so strongly in the imaginations of those who visited (more than those who grew up), which include Daphne DuMaurier, Graham, Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse), the poet Betjeman, Thomas Hardy. Cornwall is one of these periphery places, offering liberty, space, a chance to be an authentic self, to choose one’s life (as Verity Poldark tells her father she has a right to). It’s a psychological landscape which frees the imagination. Historical fiction enables a break with temporality, especially when there is time-traveling too (as in Gabaldon’s Outlander which uses the highlands as its Cornwall): we can escape gender limitations, time-bound identities.


The latest film adaptation of DuMaurier: that’s Rachel Weisz as the (we see) strangely weakened central heroine (her name fits My cousin Rachel)

Last year I wrote about DuMaurier’s Vanishing Cornwall and Enchanted Cornwall: I’ve just finished reading her The King’s General, set in an accurate historical retelling of the King’s armies’ last stand against the Parliamentarians in Cornwall. Menabilly which DuMaurier so loved was sacked completely during this time (a depiction included in the novel). It opens the way so many of DuMaurier’s do: at the end of the story, in the bleak melancholy aftermath of the story (this is true of My Cousin Rachel, Rebecca) which opening is fully explained only when we read story’s end so we then have to re-read the book because what we learn makes us see what went before and our narrator quite differently. The villain-hero, Richard Grenville is another of these amoral brutal men at the center of so many of DuMaurier’s fiction (again Rebecca, Max de Winter; Jamaica Inn, Joss Merlyn; the male narrator of My Cousin Rachel). Its heroine is literally crippled, cannot walk soon after its prologue-like; and is another of the pro-active, strong yet abject central women. But Cornwall: they fought one another to the sea, over the cliffs, in bricked-up hiding spaces.


Photo of Cornish sea by Simon McBride

Ellen

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John Martin (1789-1854), The last Man (1849), a later painting illustrating Shelley’s novel, he was a friend

Friends,

This past November I blogged (at length) about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which I had just finished reading with a class of people at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University (on 19th century women of letters); last week I finished reading with a group of people on-line here The Last Man and thought I’d say a few words about it. I thought of Frankenstein as ever present because it seems as relevant and alive today (no museum-piece, not a classic which although set in contemporary times in its era reads like a historical novel) as when it was first written in 1818. I can’t say this third novel of Mary’s (she had also written Matilda, a novel in the tradition of her mother’s Maria; or the Wrongs of Women) is as alive: The Last Man is often a weak book: prolix inert style for too many stretches, the characters faery tale unbelievable except when we can recognize in them Mary’s memories of Byron, Shelley, Clair Clarmont and others as well as herself, or when seen as caught up in nightmares and idyllic sequences. Its strength is its memorable dystopian vision which is elaborated over hundreds of pages. Dystopias right now are what everyone is reading or watching — as in The Handmaid’s Tale. I watched the fifth episode tonight (whence this blog).


Max Minghella as Nick and Elizabeth Moss as Offred at the close of Episode 5: she and Mrs Waterford have decided the way to impregnate her is use Nick’s genitals — but cold sex is not working, so Offred visits Nick; not unimportant detail is that around his hips he wears much hardware as if to link his penis with guns, nails, iron, whips …

In genre or type like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Last Man is not science fiction — if we require that newly invented or fantastical technology play a key role. To my mind Shelley’s book is very like the Northanger Abbey novels cited in Austen’s famous satire. Shelley’s opening reminded me of Eleanor Sleath’s The Orphan of the Rhine, with its Paul et Virginie (or Daphnis and Chloe) love affair between central characters, Perdita and Lionel when they are adolesents. (Full disclosure: I wrote the introduction for the Valancourt edition of the novel.) I’d call The Last Man also gothic and very much coming out of the mode of Radcliffe, except no happy ending: it’s a dark vision in which all but one character die. The central characters are seen through the peculiar idiom of high idealistic sentimental romance, the tone intensely melancholy. It’s Shelley’s grief-work as she enacts and re-enacts the events of her life with these romantic poets in Italy. Mary Shelley’s deep trauma in reaction to PBS’s behavior (endless affairs and children with other women, her babies dying) is processed over and over. Lionel the narrator (a faux male like we find in George Sand’s novels) is mostly Mary herself; Adrian, this idealistic powerful leader is Shelley; Lord Raymond (a libertine) is Lord Byron. Idris is Clair Clarmont at times. There’s an Evadne, straight out of a Beaumont-and-Fletcher Jacobean tragedy. The politics is deeply conservative although what’s professed is deep humanity towards everyone. It’s Anglo-centric (everything occurs in places clearly versions of England or Scotland when we are not in a dream or nightmare version of Italy). War seems to be the only way to obtain peace (when all are dead); Mary resorts to emperors, kings, dukes, Protectors. The women all take traditional roles of wife, mother, daughter, or mistress.

I can refer the reader to a few essays offering interpretations of this novel (it has attracted a lot of scholarly attention in recent years), much of it predictable (alas), e.g., this is a realistic plague-story a la Defoe (Journal of the Plague Year) or visionary Camus (La peste), a horror piece in the mode of Charles Brockden Brown, apocalyptic in its spectacles; haunted by the nightmares of history Mary has read and the ghosts of people she cannot get herself to analyse accurately (and without false idealism). One problem with the scholarly essays is where is her book is situated, contextualized by male dystopias. Another is the autobiographical is ignored or denied as not interesting.

A third is left out is anger Mary cannot get herself to admit it. That’s the strain that unites it to The Handmaid’s Tale (or Charlotte Perkins’s Herland – she also wrote “The Yellow Wallpaper”. I was alerted to this by Rebecca Mead’s essay in the New Yorker after interviewing Margaret Atwood. Atwood remarked that in a number of her dystopias she kills nearly everyone off. Or she was asked about this and replied yes. She then said that she usually saves a few people, a remnant to start again. We need hope. Well is this not Shelley? then I thought to myself, is this typical say of women’s dystopias? In Perkins’s Herland the whole community as as community is destroyed.


Herland

I know of another: Suzy McKee Charnas wrote a trilogy of dark dystopias in the 1980s, strongly feminist: Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines. I don’t usually read science fiction (or allegorical fantasies) and have only skim-read these. The series begins in a dystopic post-holocaust America where men keep women as slaves. The women rebel lead by one woman, Aldera. By the second volume Aldera has joined a culture of free women who live a nomadic life and reproduce without men. It ends in a violent war where the two sides nearly destroy one another. Sixteen years later she wrote The Furies (1994), in which the women take back the male-ruled Holdfast and turn men into slaves. The first two books won awards; the second was written during the backlash (Susan Faludi covers that) and was daring for staying with strong feminism. Charnas is a fine writer: her Vampire Tapestry I’ve taught twice and even love: she gets rid of all the Christianizng and substitutes geology and sympathizes to some extent with our vampire turned professor; her memoir of her father, My Father’s Ghost is deeply moving; he deserted her and her mother when she was small, but now she takes the broken man and his cat in, very truthful about her ambivalent feelings.

A very great one I’ve written about here is Marlen Haushofen’s The Wall, adapted by Julian Polser.
The Wall: the heroine makes it on her own with a group of animals

I am wondering how far a deep anger in women as a group underlies their dystopias/utopias. For countless centuries we have died in childbirth, until recently were subjected to endless childbirth. Made into servants who could not make any money, own any property, by law could be beaten. Raped we were blamed. It seems at the end of WW2 there was a free-for-all of rape in Germany by all men. I suggest that these dystopias come out of the reality that Marta Hiller’s Women in Berlin dramatizes and explores (still often attributed something to Anonyma).


Nina Hoss as the woman haunted by continual rape

There is a gender faultline in all the genres I’ve ever studied and it makes sense to me there would be gender faultline for women’s dystopias. I distrust the idea that a utopia is a dystopia in disguise (which I’ve come across over Thomas More’s Utopia, a veiled attack on its communism). That’s to confound terms, perhaps mystify. Maybe a male would see any utopia as a dystopia because he is to be controlled and as a group wouldn’t want that. In More’s Utopia if an older man separates himself from his wife and marries or goes to live with a younger one, he is put in jail and then enslaved. Thomas More says this predilection of many older males to do this and the willingness of unattached young females to agree makes this punitive law necessary. For older women whose partners have left them for younger women this this parable would not seen dystopic at all.

On Trollope19thCStudies Tyler Tichelaar had this explanatory analysis of yet another dystopian book, not by a woman but written by a man in drag, as a woman:

I’m not sure I can speak to women’s dystopias in general, but I mentioned that I had recently read Robert O’Brien’s Z is for Zachariah – although a novel by a male author, I would place it with women’s dystopias since the narrator is a woman. She is all alone in her valley after a catastrophe and thinks she may be the only person left until a man in a space suit to protect him from radiation enters the valley. She spies on him until he hurts himself and then she cares for him. When he is better, he tries to rape her, she runs and then they are at war until in the end she steals the space suit so she can leave the valley and leave him behind. The idea according to critics is that she refuses to start the whole Adam and Eve story again. I think Shelley may feel something similar and that may be the reason for the drawn out Perdita and Raymond plot. Men do not support the domestic circle but end up working against it, and in the end, the woman is just too tired and sick of dealing with men’s behavior to try to start that cycle all over again. The continuance of the human race is just not worth the pain and frustration it brings its members.

A man in drag (as a woman character at the center, its consciousness) can produce l’ecriture-femme. Arguably the structure of Richardson’s Clarissa and Grandison are just that. Z sounds like Charnas’s dystopias. Women have been as unwilling as men to repudiate the reproduction function and that has given the patriarchal structures an advantage. And we see this in Mary Shelley in The Last Man and Frankenstein: where the creature longs for a mother and has been repudiated by his father. But Haushofen, Hiller’s, Charnas finds nothing sexy or attractive about rape (see Diane Reynolds’s blog on the dysfunctional and impotent males in The Handmaid’s Tale:: subversive TV), neither do they think the ends of their being to make babies.

I came the conclusion Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is courageous grief-work; she is exhausted but refuses to fall silent about what she has experienced, sees around her (the wastelands she saw in Italy too), and prophesizes: she is herself a muted Cassandra (bound not to offend father-in-law, not to hurt her chances as a professional woman writer).

I hope this blog gives my readers some new perspectives for thought as you watch The Handmaid’s Tale and if you should attempt Mary Shelley’s first and third novels.


This is another illustration by Martin (found on a site that discusses Shelley’s novel in context with other dystopias)

Ellen

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Stories of 25 Dundee women

Friends,

Since part of the “mission” of my blog is to call attention to women artists and writers, feminists, and forgotten women’s real lives, I thought I’d alert my readers here to a new book on Scottish women written and arranged by the Lothian Women´s Forum of the WEA (Workers Educational Association). I was told about it by a German friend, Andrea Schwedler, who lived in Scotland for 16 years, now mourning the severance from the EU of the United Kingdom (itself possibly breaking up now that the Tories want to take Henry 8 powers and the Scottish and perhaps a majority of the Northern Irish voted to remain). While living there, Andrea was belonged to this forum. They asked themselves how do women want to be remembered when we are dead? — as opposed to how they are remembered (wives, mothers, sisters, nieces). What should be written on women’s graves? What are the differences in remembering women and men. They researched the different graveyards in Edinburgh — it all sounds very gloomy but it was an inspiring time for women working with other women, for meeting women from all walks of life.

Here is the day they launched their project:


Click to learn their names

Here are fourteen women whose lives and work the Lothian Association discovered and wrote about. Click on each of the gravestones and you’ll discover much information and insight into the individual woman’s life, e.g., Isabella Lucy Bird (who made Caryl Churchill’s table in Top Girls). Much less well-known is Agnes White Miller by Andrea, the struggle of an unmarried woman to live a fulfilled professional and personal life in the 19th century. Andrea also covered Mary Syme Boyd, a sculptor.


A carved dog

I can’t resist showing how after a day-long session on Scottish women writers, Excuse My Dust (a Dorothy Parker epitaph), they included one of my favorite 19th century writers, Margaret Oliphant

Four of the women on this page are women whose books I’ve read and liked, some I’ve discussed here, and six 18th century: Susan Ferrier, Elizabeth Hamilton, Chistian Isobel Johnstone, Mary Brunton, Charlotte Lennox, Jane Porter (Austen we know read Hamilton, Brunton and Lennox).


Said by Merryn Williams to be a highly original novel about the pains of marriage Agnes experiences (and deteriorate her character), how she is done in by a jealous upper class sister-in-law Beatrice, a single woman:

[Life is] full of broken threads and illogical conclusions, and lacks altogether the unity of a regularly constructed fiction, which confines itself to the graceful task of conducting two virtuous persons through a labyrinth of difficulties to a happy marriage … Yet at the same time everybody knows that there are many lives which only begin after that first fair chapter of youthful existence is completed ….

Reading the Dundee and Scottish women website has re-energized me to write a third series of women artists blogs. This series will not try to cover early modern through the 21st century but be tilted towards the 19th and 20th century. I’ll begin with Anna Dorothea Therbush (1721-82),


1762, Self-portrait

of course include Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825, a Scottish woman letter-writer and diarist, known for her time in South Africa, and water-colors from India), about whom a new biography has come out,

and conclude a third year and round on Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945).

I close this blog on a pair of poems by a Scottish poet of the early 20th century, Olive Fraser (1909-77)

Lines Written after a Nervous Breakdown.1

I’ve forgotten how to be
A bird upon a dawn-lit tree,
A happy bird that has no care
Beyond the leaf, the golden air.
I have forgotten moon and sun,
And songs concluded and undone,
And hope and ruth and all things save
The broken wit, the waiting grave.

Where is that mountain I must climb
To gain again some common time,
Not this stayed clock-hand that must be
Some foretaste of eternity?
Where is that task or terror that
Will wake a slow magnificat
From this dead sense, from these dull eyes,
That see no more to Paradise?

There is no night so deep as this
Inevitable mind’s abyss,
Where I now dwell with foes alone.
Feather and wing and breathing bone
And blessed creatures come not here,
But the long dead, the aguish fear
Of never breaking from this hold,
Encapsuled, rapt, and eras old.

There is no second of escape.
As with some forest-wandering ape
Whose sad intelligence may go
So far and nevermore may grow,
I am enchained most subtly by
A thousand dendrons ’til I die,
Or find my mountain, storm and shock
This graven hour and start the clock.

September 1964

Lines Written After a Nervous Breakdown.2

Come, lamefoot brain, and dance and be
A merry carnival for me.
We are alive in spite of all
Hobgoblins who our wits did call.
With ghosts and gallowsbirds we went
Hundreds of leagues ’til, fiercely spent,
We laid ourselves to weep and cry
Beyond the house of memory.

We have been lepers, and now run
To sit again within the sun,
And smile upon some country fair
With Punch and poor dog Toby there.
We, who did only think to die,
Now laugh and mock the revelry.
Up, barefoot brain, and fill your hall
With flags as for a festival.

Yet you are poor and slow to do
The blessed things I ask of you .
Haunting with spectres still and still
Remembering your dungeon’s chill.
Where you did cower and aye did grow
A frenzied circus for your foe,
Who sought you in the blood’s dim arc,
And in the night-time, in the dark.

Peace, friend, and think how we are here
Through dangers, desolations, fear.
We two alone, now all is o’er,
Will never move from pleasure more.
We two will sit like birds i’ the sun
And preen and pipe while others run
And straddle in the world’s proud play.
We have been night, who now are day.
October 1964

Olive Fraser was born in Kincadineshire, lived in Redburn, Nairn, graduated from Aberdeen University in 1927, Honors English degree, an award for most distinguished graduate in the arts; attended Girton College, Cambridge, Chancellor’s Gold medal for poetry 1935. She served in WRNS in World War II, and after was librarian at Bodleian. In 1956 she was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic, put in an asylum from which she did not emerge until 1961 when a woman physician correctly diagnosed her problem as hypothyroidism. Helen M Shire has edited a volume of her poetry: The Wrong Music: the Poems of Olive Fraser (1909-77). Here is a much fuller biography with more poems, some in Scots.

(from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed. Catherine Kerrigan


Early 20th century Scottish Impressionism (found on-line in gallery of Scottish artists)

Ellen

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