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From the National Bibliotheque: Marie-Jeanne Phlipon later Roland


Madame Roland, the last year of her life, a sketch from the life

Friends,

Marie-Jeanne or Manon Phlipon Roland (1754-93) was our fourth writer, witness, and in her case sufferer — egregiously unjustly imprisoned and executed woman — as a direct result of her public and powerful activity on behalf of her and husband’s political vision in the earliest phases of the French revolution. As I knew the probability was that none of the people in the room would ever have heard of Roland, I was very worried people wouldn’t even buy her book as too unfamiliar and therefore daunting. It turned out that Politics and Prose got in about 10 copies of the abridged Memoirs, chosen, arranged, introduced, translated by Evelyn Shuckburgh. And all 8 who stayed for the last 2 and 1/2 weeks read this book.


Paperback copy

She riveted people as she opened her book explaining how she came to be arrested, how she is treated (not with any particular respect to keep her separate form prostitutes to “great men”), and how she came to be there. And they kept reading the portraits of important French philosophes and politicians, the story line of being welcome into Paris to being pariah hunted down and out. Not omit the second half, her own private experience of life up to the time of her marriage to Marie-Jean Roland (they had the same name, backwards). More than one person declared what an irony that had she not been imprisoned, and not under threat of immediate execution, she would not have written this great masterpiece of a political autobiography. Perhaps the first one. She could not break through the taboo against women writing and publishing. Others agreed that it was more than a little naive) (insane) of her not to have fled as her husband, (chaste) lover and many others did once it was clear the Jacobins were going to arrest of them on charges of treason. She hoped people would admire her as an example, she’d be allowed to put her case forward publicly at the show trials at last. One memorable phrase was “Madame Roland sought all her life to be the author of her life.” Yes. Whatever it was, a deep determination to shape the conditions she lived in once her beloved mother died, together with luck or chance, and one older man, Jean-Marie Phlipon (1734-93), recognizing in her the deeply passionate reciprocating partner he had longed for — enabled her to become her best self and hold to that until the moment of death.

She came from the same artisan class Diderot and Johnson hailed from. Her father was a prosperous master engraver, her mother a fringe aristocrat, religious, had lost seven children before Marie-Jeanne was born and they lavished attention on her once they discovered how intelligent she was. She was studious, contemplative, a “blue-stocking” who ranged far and wide in the classics: from Plutarch’s Lives to Rousseau, devotional authors to poetry and plays, the 17th century French feminist women (Scudery, Lafayette), to D’Epinay and Madame de Genlis; in her later years Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and treatises, doubtless the English radicals in French translations. Since she never rebelled against the male hegemonic order in her writings (indeed never wanted to be published under her own name until she wrote her memoir), never tried for public office or recognition (she sat at the back of the room and did not talk in most sessions), the question asked is, how far was she feminist? She is not interested in women’s issues but in restructuring the gov’t (she would not put it this way) to redistribute education and wealth to reach far more people and bring prosperity. Not at all one might say except her whole life shows someone who given any chance dedicates herself to public service. She learns to loathe the social life imposed on a middle class woman seeking a husband, and puts off several candidates for her hand before she met Roland, a man 20 years older than she.


M. Roland from the Bibliotheque nationale

Her book is ostensibly divided into two parts: the first half, a political memoir, where she first wrote out her principles and gave a rigorous account of the revolution’s story before descending to particular people. Alas, when she smuggled that out, it was burnt — or so she was told. Can you imagine how she felt? It’s arguable she went into prison to be able to make an example of herself and she realized she needed to tell the story from her point of view. With astonishing fortitude, she rewrote this first half but this time just as portraits, anecdotes, an explanation of what went wrong so in the assembly’s early years (people refused to act, to agree, to be explicit, followed their own particular interests), her experience as the wife of a minister (visits from Danton whom she did not cultivate though he invited this), then her and her husband’s life during his first and then second term of office, ending on the dismal now of awaiting trial, execution; she begins with her first arrest, and ends with the fake release and her second arrest. This part is very immediate — both are. She recurs to the conditions she is living in again and again, the prostitutes, the debauchery, when she is interrupted, what she is eating, the weather. Originally the first half of our book book had a lot more particulars of politics, probably a treatise of sorts too.

The second her own story, and we get a depiction of a middle class girl’s early childhood, her admiration for her loving religious mother, for her grandmother, her sceptical analysis of her worldly, pragmatic, and (after her mother’s death she was to learn) superficial, incompetent, shallow father (he took a young mistress for a while, and the business began to fail badly). The happiest sections of the early part of her autobiography tell of her, her mother and father’s Sunday afternoons in the Paris parks. Then we learn a little of then engraving business and then an incident which in 1796 (when her book was first published in an early shorter form) caught the attention of the public: she was sexually harassed by her father’s apprentice. He took out his penis in front of her and attempted foreplay with her. She was profoundly shocked and also allured, but upon a second encounter, told her mother, who turned the incident into something far more traumatic than it had to be. Manon was persuaded to think herself intensely sinful, and put in a convent for her adolescent education. Her mother feared for her reputation, but what she did was make sex into an experience to be dreaded, a view she probably never got over. In the convent she did make two important friends who she stayed close to by visits and then letters for the rest of her life: Sophie and her sister, Henriette Cannett. She was not religious even then — and when we meet her seems to be a deist — and returned home. Then begins her this stifling snobbish social life she learns to detest; the courtships that go nowhere. She was probably intimidating, and the two young men who tried to get close (showing her love of reading and writing was known), one of whom promised to open a periodical and publish her (she rejected this offer vociferously — from afar there is a comedy in this scene) gradually realized she had not much of a dowry.

This facsimile of a 19th century scholarly study contains letter by Roland to Sophie and to Buzot — Charles Dauban is the 19th century scholar to whom we are indebted for this first collection of her correspondence: letters to and from her. An old fashioned biography: life and times, with insertions of letters and documents. Her best friend Sophie. The man she loved Buzot Unfortunately it does not contain the large book of essays that were published anonymously that she obviously wrote. There’s been no attempt to bring them together and publish as a single scholarly book. So I suppose Roland studies are in their infancy: this is not uncommon for women’s writing and women writers.

A devastating turning point is the death of her mother – who had become her world, her best companion, her meaning. A long section called bereavement is of deep interest for a mother-daughter relationship. Roland appealed as a father figure she needed, a substitute for this mother too, someone she can trust, look up to, admire, work with. He came from a higher echelon of the middle class and as a man was very well educated, especially on his own in the new technologies, sciences, arts: he held various local political positions: an inspector, assiduous and accurate, imagine him as an expert in industrial and agricultural matters. He had begun a distinguished public career in Amiens, just the type Trump hates and is slowly eradicating from all gov’t – tremendously competent in his areas, publishing learned tomes and articles on manufacturing processes, and trade. At first they courted, then he hesitated, her father resented him, and he disappeared for a while, only finally to return and then they married. She became his helpmate. She wrote the articles which appeared under his name in the Courrier de Lyon – gradually they were known to be by her. Again happy moments are the birth of her daughter, her years running the household, a trip to Switzerland and then England — in the footsteps of Rousseau and Voltaire. They return, and her husband had been active in questions of debt and was useful in Lyons, and came to the attention of prominent national politicians and was invited to come to the National Assembly — and of course took his wife, and a daughter who had been born to them, their whole household.

He was ambitious and gradually rose to have a position of authority in the new Parliament formed in 1789 May; which became the National Assembly in June 1789, promulgated the Declaration of the Rights of Man, August. He was not humanely that astute and she was; she could write far more eloquently, more talented; she held a weekly salon and gradually it was understood she was in herself powerful through him. She wrote in the Sentinelle. Madame Roland never had an official position; she didn’t want it. She never published anything. Her husband attended the Jacobin Club and she sat in the back; Tuesday evenings became her night to have politicians over and gradually a Girondist group, for constitutional monarchy, for gradual revolution but real emerged. It was almost inevitable that she should find herself in the centre of political aspirations and presiding over a company of the most talented men of progress. She ends her story of herself with her present time in prison: her disillusion, her waiting to die, her attempt at self-starvation, how she was taken to a hospital and then brought back. The book ends on a justification of herself, eloquent and passionate.

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Women’s march on Versailles … Modern rendition of original caricature

The first question to ask of the book and what I went over is, What happened that went wrong? We returned to 1788 when the overt events began to pile up.

In 1788 Louis XVI forced to call the Estates-General for the first time in nearly a couple of hundred years. There had been an absolute mismanagement of budget – court extravagances were horrendous but they needed a minister to reorganize the national debt; the way business was conducted in many phases of life was utterly corrupt patronage system. Several ministers brought in to re-organize and to reform and failed. I’ll name Jacques Necker, sometimes today referred to as Madame de Stael’s father; banker of Genevan origin. Bread riots were common in the 18th century: price of bread kept artificially high; the gov’t had overspent helping the Americans in their war. Necker made the budget pubic in 1781 – shock and horror, hitherto it had been kept secret. He was dismissed. Within a few years of his dismissal and other failed attempts, there is a devastating fiscal crisis, he is recalled but it doesn’t help. The truth was the King did not want to change the system.

Storming of Bastille July 11, 1789 is a symbol. The estates-general had convened in May and it became immediately apparent nothing could be passed when nobles had 300 votes, clergy 300 (a tiny percentage of population) and everyone else 600. So they reconvened without nobles and clergy (except those who broke away) in the tennis court, and took a oath they would not be suspended. August 26 Declaration of Rights of Man – extraordinary document. Drafted by Abbe Sieyes and Lafayette in consultation with Thomas Jefferson: based on idea “self-evident” that human beings have certain natural rights. Born free, and only those social distinctions should exist which are for the common good. Inalienable rights: liberty, property, safety, right to resistance against oppression. Law has right to forbid only actions harmful to society. Free communication of thoughts and opinions. State expenditures should be taken from people only in accordance with their ability to pay. If you think about these, you begin to see definitions must make all this more precise. There was a women’s march to Versailles where they forced the royal family to come and live in Paris, 5-6 October 1789. 1790 monasteries dissolved; nobility abolished.


Hubert Robert imagining the demolition of the Bastille prison

Height might be the famous Fete de Federation, July 14, 1790 – a vast public spectacle where everyone professed great principles – at the site of the current Eiffel Tower – pavilion with king and queen, people were joyous, much gaiety – big picnic for the nation.

But then the push-back began: from emigres fleeing and forming armies, and wanting to return to overturn this new order; in the countryside outbreaks of mixed violence –- it was a many sided civil war. Servants revolted and got back after years of oppression; those who had been deprived of the common for the master to drain his land, took back their land or tried to. They fought among themselves. Civilian armies emerged called People’s armies formed by the national assembly to go out into the provinces and get money and supplies. Many peasants were loyal to the church and while the poorest curates might be revolutionary, the church was not and had firm grip on people’s outlook. Counter-revolutions begin. Austria, the UK began to form armies to invade France on behalf of their order.

In the assembly, there were ruptures as they argued over what to do or were just vague and held out. Madame Roland is sardonic over how people dithered, did nothing because while they were for a principle, they were never for giving anything up of their own or their friends. King used his veto power again and again. June 21-22, 1791 he and his wife fled to Varennes and bought back. They were to meet with armies across the border. In 1792 March, Roland had been made minister of interior, he had a very brusque manner and she was writing decrees and suggestions that were very radical economically and politically. March 1792, Madame Roland wrote a letter addressing the question of the king’s vetoes, he read it aloud and it was judged so disrespectful that he was dismissed from his office. There were very conservative people among Girondins and constitutional monarchs. August 10th 1792 the National Guard stormed the Tuileries where the royal family lived and the monarchy was considered to have fallen. Roland is reinstated but liked by no one. A group of Jacobins tired of the stalling began to meet separately; Montagnards they were called as they sat high up. Roland and other moderate Girondists opposed the formation of a sort of rump to rule the capital and country called the Paris Commune which began to exclude the Girondists. The Commune was in charge of the army and took over.


The Mayor of the town coming down from apologetic visit to the King and Queen, now going to be arrested by the People’s Army (Ettore Scuola)

An army under the Duke of Brunswick invaded in August and captured Verdun.

Then a wave of killings, hysterical massacres of people in prison, September 9, 1792 – as traitors, as non-juring clergy, as against the revolution. Who fomented this? Madame Roland blamed Danton. She saw him as a hard vulgar man, corrupt yes, but radical and he did try to win her over in the early days and she didn’t like him. No manners, very working class. Never tried for a “de” in his name. Alas, had she joined him, she might not have ended up dead. Much like say when in Charlottesville two summers ago Trump did not call out national guard to stop the violence or protect people, or closer, Selma Alabama (I recently saw that film) where Johnson did not call out National Guard to protect black people or anyone demonstrating or marching — Georges-Jacques Danton and Maximillian de Robespierre did not call for any protection of the people in the prisons. Just the opposite: Jean-Paul Marot whipped up feeling. He was a very effective journalist, vehement invective against people, and exerted power through his newspaper, The Friend of the People, L’ami du peuple. She saw him as a monster and he attacked her vehemently, deeply misogynistic accusations of her as sex-mad (promiscuous) and power-hungry. Marot is still recognized by a wider audience today because of a painting by David made of him in his bathtub after the unhinged Charlotte Corday murdered him – he had caught some terrible skin disease from living in sewers. He was at times very poor.

M Roland was accused of hiding documents showing the king’s relationship with corrupt politicians. They now put the king on trial — they felt he couldn’t be trusted and was a site around which counter-revolutionaries would form movements. During the trial of the king, Roland and the Girondists demanded that the sentence should be decided by a poll of the French people rather than the new National Convention. After the king was executed in January 1793 Roland and others were denounced. He among others fled.

So on June 3, 1793 a group of Girondists were arrested (all her friends), her husband and others flee, and 21 days she is arrested. In truth she had the whole winter and spring to flee. She arranged for her daughter to stay with people who would take permanent responsibility for the girl if necessary. The charges were seen as trumped up, she was released and re-arrested before she could flee – she should have immediately upon getting out. And she tells of all this in part one. She is interrogated and her judges and the court insinuate she was part of a wide conspiracy to overthrow the republic and replace it with a monarchy. 8 November she is killed. Sophie Cannett was there at the front of the crowd. I said that last time. Courageous to do that – reminds me of how Thomas Wyatt, English poet, friend and protected by Thomas Cromwell in 1533 was on the scaffold when Cromwell was murdered. These are all murders. Cannett described the scene and her death but I am not sure who presented the scene of her with sufficient presence of mind to say as she mounted the scaffold: “O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”

So why didn’t she get out when she had time? Was she so disillusioned that she wanted to escape the reality of what her life would be in hiding? depressed? She had fallen in love with another Girondist, Francois Buzot was his name. I don’t see that. She had had a number of close male friends though – all politicians and local people –- Brissot with his followers called Brissotins. Almost no women. There was great guilt after she died — her husband killed himself two days after she died. Buzot killed himself in June. She says she wanted to be an example. She learnt that this was naive, and to be grateful to the prison keeper’s wife in the earlier part of her imprisonment when she was given a room apart, permitted to leave her cell and come to the woman’s space to read and to write. Why didn’t she try to escape since she had real flexibility until her second arrest? Was she more than a little insane by that time? she says she went on a hunger strike but couldn’t keep it up? As a class we hashed this out thoroughly.

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Then I talked of the aftermath of the book’s reception, the earliest publications and the woman’s context. It was first published in 1796 so it’s possible Jane Austen read it. The passages about sexual harassment were the ones that made the most scandal, and in some 19th century notices she is criticized severely for telling of this incident.

I brought in the unabridged 19th century facsimile edition of Roland’s Memoirs supervised by her daughter. This so people could get a feel for what the book is. Nowadays there is a multi-volume edition of Roland’s Memoirs and letters from a French university, the kind with full introductions, annotations, notes and expensive abridgements you can buy of these. Published by her loving daughter who she didn’t give enough credit to: the first part is her autobiography of her life, and the second part the political story. It’s a facsimile and not that easy to read because it uses a “o” where modern French has an “A.” But that is how I read it. This is the fine recent biography in English that I by Gita May: it sets her in context and tells of phases of her existence. Hardships of courting. Also a trip she and her husband took to England and saw all the important sites pointed out by Voltaire. A deeply psychologically insightful account by Francoise Kermina, Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1977). Kermina shows Roland shows to have been intensely ambitious, and bitter at her failure. Her writing hides her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and “une amertume terrible.” Her writings reveal a woman who valued the few friendships she managed to sustain intensely; she argues that Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed (angry). When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.

I had thought I would talk about the early phases of the French revolution, but one you can find this on wikipedia, and two we have two periods so I’d like first to talk about early feminism. There is no doubt in my mind that Roland, Olympe de Gouges were guillotined partly because they were women and taking power; Charlotte Corday is famous for being guillotined; let us say she was not a well person. A couple of people read the (not very good) pair of essays I sent by attachment: two different women writers argue over whether we can consider Roland’s apparently complete obliviousness to women’s issues at the time (divorce based on incompatibility, the right to custody of her children) and her refusal to publish under her own name a sure sign she was no feminist and therefore only of historical interest. So I decided to try to tell of the early history of feminism and the two good chapters in English from two books I know that deal fairly with Roland.

Roland is seen as this great souled woman and unfortunately that prompts discussions of her character: how far was she feminist or what kind of feminism did she practice? Well, none except her whole life shows a person who given any chance dedicates herself to public service. She is not interested in women’s issues but in restructuring the gov’t (she would not put it this way) to redistribute education and wealth to reach far more people and bring prosperity. Many women weren’t. My other example I’ll talk a bit about: Helen Maria Williams did not write about women’s issues particularly – though she got closer. You might look upon writing about women not as inferior, not in condemnatory ways – there were hundreds of anti-feminist tracts from the time books have been printed on – as a whole new outlook.

There were poems written about the need for liberty, education and a whole new attitude towards in the early modern period; it’s arguable that novels written by women in the 18th century implicitly carve out this new area of discourse: they have realistic heroines at the center. Such a writer was Henry Fielding’s sister, Sarah Fielding. Diderot’s La Religieuse is part of this conversation: how women mistreated. Sarah Scott, Millenium Hall: about a community of women to which abused women can flee, where you are educated and helped to find a new life. Jane Austen’s books are indirect, but not Fanny Burney’s.

The first writer though to carve out this area, but in an ambiguous way was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. People reading him can be perplexed on why his works meant so much to women, why they read him and imitated: his Emile, a book on education, has Sophie educated to be his good wife not on her own account; his exaltation of breast-feeding and motherhood has had mixed results: but he cared, he wrote about women as women separately and said what they do in private and public life too matters.

They take off from him, books correcting him, Louise D’Epinay, books arguing with him: a long section of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women is about how women are mis-educated. It’s a beginning. Another step she took was to show that when women became mothers they were not well treated, not helped. A later step was to stop tethering what a woman’s life could be from the biological – her as a mother. That comes later after a fight over rights: to custody, to separation and divorce, freedom from male violence in marriage or as a daughter. In his Subjection of Women, 1869, a kind of companion treated to his On Liberty (mostly civil) he argues we don’t know what women’s nature and capabilities are because the way society has been structured has been to prevent them from doing anything but the narrowest of tasks.

I then described Mary Trouille’s book, Women Read Rousseau: Sexual Politics in the Enlightenment (1997), where Prof Trouille shows however narrowly anti-feminist Rousseau seems at first, he is the one man to pay attention to women’s needs, the naturalness (and ease) of breast-feeding, and to write to persuade them to see their functions as mothers as centrally important. Trouille has a long section on the paradoxical subversive use Roland made of Rousseau, and her demonstration by quoting the venomous attacks on her by the newspapers of the day that she was murdered for having as a woman tried to take public power on behalf of women and a moderate stance. Then Marilyn Yalom’s Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in Women’s Memory (2004): Roland’s memoir belongs to a subgenre of memoirs by women about the revolution who were imprisoned or suffered directly for a time: most are vitriolically reactionary so hers shines out (like Helena Maria Williams’s letters on the revolution) for remaining true to the ideals of the revolution and presenting these ideals as good, true, capable of making a good society from the ashes of the ancien regime. What all agree is that she was no diplomatic, never detached, not a manipulator and thus a poor politician.

I then asked them, how would they say Madame Roland saw herself? What is her portrait of herself? Anyone? she sees herself as grave, serious, earnest, and moral. One woman said she found Roland irritating; another said she saw herself as correct in her judgement. She had a passionate romantic nature. She saw herself as embodying the best of the revolution an example to others. She says so. You see this in her letters to Buzot. She did have a rage to write – and finally found her metier without censure in the prison. So many denigrate her – she is not social enough, not sexy. lead a life at odds with her era’s mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Solitary. That was when one man said she wanted to the author of her own life.

So what did they think was at risk today from the enlightenment. One man said we were returning to authoritarianism, not thinking for ourselves. Another said we were returning to intolerance.  We needed to return to good education.  People today don’t read enough, know enough. I then read from Richard Feynman’s closing paragraphs from his eloquent speech to the National Academy of Sciences when he resigned from the organization on “The Value of Science”. And so the course ended.


Detail from Greuze’s The Woolwinder (with her cat) 1759

Ellen

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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.

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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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I have always respected her for the courage in cancelling that yes … All worldly advantages would have been to her — & she was of an age to know this quite well — Cassandra Austen speaking of Jane Austen’s refusal of Harris Bigg-Wither (quoted from Family Record, 93)

Ah! those were pleasant days when I had the Laconia! how fast I made money in her … ” (Wentworth, Persuasion I:8:67)

Once once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me immortal” — Austen’s last writing, on it having rained hard on the Winchester Races

Friends and readers,

This is to recommend not just reading but obtaining E.J. Clery’s Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. Clery carefully correlates documents left by Henry Austen’s life’s activities and those left by people he did business with, was friends or connected to (letters, life-writing, other texts as well as military, banking, lease and all sorts of contractual and court records), with close readings of Austen’s novels and her and her family’s papers, to create a fresh coherent story that sheds real light on aspects of her life and outlook, on his character, and on Jane and Henry’s relationship.

Clery gradually produces a portrait of Henry Thomas Austen as an ambitious, chance-taking, highly self-regarding man who aspired to gain a higher status in life and more respect for his personal gifts than the fourth son of an Anglican clergyman was thought by his world entitled to. At the same time or throughout each chapter Clery attempts to create the contemporary socially engaged businesswoman Austen favored today moving through the familiar events of Austen’s life (there have been so many biographies of Austen by this time) and writing or thinking about writing each novel.

Clery is not the first critic-scholar to assume that Jane was closer in mind to Henry than any other of her brothers, nor the first to credit him with the initiative and knowhow to help Jane achieve her heart’s desire to publish her novels. (And by this earn our gratitude.) But Clery is the first to interpret these novels metaphorically and literally as engaging in and critiquing or accepting financial outlooks literally analogous to or undergirding the outlooks Clery assumes Henry’s military, business and clerical behavior showed he had. Each chapter of Clery’s study begins with a retelling of Henry’s business and social life at the time of the publication or writing of each of Austen’s novels (chronologically considered). Clery then produces an interpretation of the novel in question, which assumes Jane’s cognizance of Henry’s state of mind or business at the time and that this alert awareness actuated some of the novel’s major themes (perhaps hitherto overlooked or not quite clearly understood).


Henry late in life, a curate

Beyond all this, as a mine of information the book is as useful as James Thomson’s explication of the money system in the era in his “Patterns of Property and Possession in Fielding’s Fiction (ECF, 3:1 [1999]21-42)

This book, then, is not a biography of Henry Austen. Its matter is made up of explications of Henry’s business practices, living arrangements, day-to-day activities in the context of what was happening in business, military, court and city events. His marriage to Eliza Hancock de Feuillide takes a very much second place in the scheme of things nor do we learn much new about her, though Clery is concerned to defend Eliza against the implication she was a bad mother or somehow cool, shady or amoral person, which the insistence on a direct connection between her and Austen’s portrait of Lady Susan and Mary Crawford has led to in the past. She also suggests, I think persuasively, that over the course of the relatively brief marriage Henry and Eliza grew somewhat estranged: she had not been eager for the marriage, and once obtained, he was not especially keen on her company nor she on the life and Austens at Godmersham.


A very poor miniature of Eliza Austen when an adolescent girl


Her gravestone: appropriately Henry buried her with her mother and son

After Henry’s life considered almost sheerly from a career and advancement standpoint, we are given an explication of one of Austen’s novels: like David Nokes in his underrated biography of Jane, Clery has read the letters with an original thoughtful alertness as to the events found in them. She tells us what on a given afternoon Jane or Henry (or Eliza), was doing and with whom, and how this related to what they did yesterday and the following evening and some ultimate career goals (which these business friendships fostered). In these vignettes she comes near to recreating Henry and Eliza and Jane as characters, but is hampered in the case of the first two complicated, enigmatic (neither wore his or her heart on sleeve) people by her acceptance of the Austen’s family’s adversarial dismissive portraits of them, with Henry “wayward” and Eliza ever a flirt (see my blogs on Henry and Eliza). The book is then or feels like a sort of constrained dual biography which then morphs into not always wholly persuasive yet intriguingly innovative literary criticism of Jane Austen’s oeuvre.

There is so much to be learned about financial practices and banking in each chapter; she goes well past the level of generality found in the previous articles (by Clive Caplan and T.A.B. Corley) to give us an in-depth picture of how Henry actually got himself promoted, put into positions where a lot of money went through his hands (a good deal of it which legally stuck to said hands), who he knew who mattered, who they knew whom they pressured, and how once “fixed,” Henry preceded to develop his interests further. Receivership, speculation, the “rotten” credit system come one by one under the reader’s eye. We learn the state of the economy in crucial moments, especially with regard to war, which all these people looked upon as a money-maker for them (thus Tory and Whig enthusiasm). Where we the Austens living in London when the successful business of publishing Sense and Sensiblity began, and what it (and the other novels) entailed. I give Clery great credit for providing us with the sums to see the profoundly immoral and unjust systems at work (for example, the money in the military sector was to be made buying and selling commissions off the table). Henry was of course “conscious of no criminality” (290).


Modern photo of the site of Henry’s bank in Alton today

One is struck by the small sums (£100) Henry and Francis disbursed yearly for a few years to the mother and sisters in comparison to the thousands they pulled in and spent on themselves. Clery mentions the Austen women were utterly dependent on these men who controlled the women’s movement and spending. The year Henry was said to have gone completely bankrupt and he said he could only supply £50 for his sisters, and mother his closest long-time partner, and Henry Maunde probably killed himself (283-84); there were intense recriminations among those involved about how much money Henry and Francis had held back. Suits and countersuits. Henry was resilient enough to almost immediately turn back to a clerical career, begin study for a title, and two years ahead of time (of James’s death) write begging letters in order to gain his brother James’s vicarage (312). Clery also reports in slow motion Henry’s two illnesses during the period of the decimation of the country and other banks when the (“rotten”) credit system (based on massive loans unaccounted for) imploded, and it seems to this reader by no means was Henry’s much boasted about optimism thick-set into his being.

But if it’s clear he had to know (it’s right before him, us and Clery and all) how insecure were all these securities, nonetheless he gave both his sisters crucially bad advice when it came to offers of money for Jane’s books. It’s important to remember that when Jane self-published Sense and Sensibility, and lopped and chopped First Impressions into Pride and Prejudice and sold it outright for £150, not only had her work been continually rejected, no one had offered her anything. It’s repeatedly said in his behalf (for the letter disdaining Murray’s offer of £450 is in Henry’s idiolect) that self-publishing was the common way: not when you were given such a ready money large offer. In just about all the cases of self-publishing I know of there has been nothing like this offer; as for the other common route, to solicit subscribers you need to know people, you need to be well-connected, you need really to be known and you have to have people solicit for you — those cases I’ve read of slightly later (including Burney much later in life) the person hates to solicit. It’s more than half what Radcliffe was paid for The Italian. Murray was not a “rogue” in this offer; he knew the market for fiction far better than Henry or Jane did. Another comparison might be Charlotte Smith; the sums she was offered early on with her first successes are smaller than that offered Austen. Murray was said to be a generous publisher (as was Johnson to Smith).

Henry repeats the same mistake years a few years later when Murray makes an overture to buy the copyrights of all six novels. After “consultation with Henry, Cassandra refused. Murray had “remaindered the 539 unsold copies of Emma at two shillings, and the 498 copies of the second edition of Mansfield Park at two shillings sixpence.” Of course he didn’t offer more for a “new edition” as she hinted. They ended selling all the copyrights to Bentley for £210 minus the £40 Bentley paid to Egerton for Pride and Prejudice, and they reappeared as inexpensive cheaply produced volumes for six shillings each (“sales were less than predicted and the number of copies issued each time was reduced”, 318-19)

Here is the source of the continual itching of the acid chip-on-the-shoulder consciousness that wrote the biographical notice, the continual bitterness, albeit mild, of some of his satire in The Loiterer. Henry cannot accept that the real gifts he felt in himself and by extension in his sister were not valued by a world he himself knew indifferent to integrity. He kept hoping otherwise when, Edmund Bertram-like, he studied for a face-to-face examination in the New Testament and Greek, only to be told by the Bishop “As for this book, Mr Austen, I dare say it is some years since either you or I looked into it” (291). He got the position based on his connections and family status.


Close up detail of Cassandra’s one portrait of Austen’s face

Some of the readings of the novels may surprise long-time readers of the criticism of Austen. Emma is interpreted as Austen’s rebellion against commercialism, a “self-flagellation” where we are immersed in a world where most of the characters who count are indifferent to money (242-43). Emma has been repeatedly read as a seriously Marxist analysis of society. I was surprised by how little time Clery spent on Sanditon. Clery seems to me accurate that the fragment represents a return to the juvenilia mode, but is after all a fragment and nuanced and subtle enough to support persuasive continuations about the proposed novel as about financial bust. Clery does uncovers some new sources of inspiration: a novel by Thomas Skinner Surr called The Magic of Wealth (his previous was A Winter in London); the author, a banker, also wrote a pamphlet defending the Bank of England’s paper money policy (see 295-96 and my blog on Chris Brindle’s stage adaptation).

But there is much to be learnt from Clery’s analysis of the juvenilia themselves, what’s left of Austen’s letters, the Austen papers; Clery’s reading of Sense and Sensibility as an “austerity novel” exposing ruthless “greed” and measuring everything by money as the center of society (139-51) and her reading of Mansfield Park as dramatizing and exploring “a speculative society” on every level (194-214). Clery precedes MP with an account of Eliza’s dying, Henry expanding his banking business by becoming “Receiver General for Land and Assessed Taxes” (190) and Warren Hastings’ pose of indifference: there is no need to over-interpret Fanny’s position as an exploited bullied dependent, or her famously unanswered question on slavery. Everything in MP lends itself to talk about money, only this time what is wanted and achieved by many is luxurious ease. Finally, Persuasion is presented as defending “embracing risk” (274-76), with Wentworth linked to Francis Austen’s admiration for a naval hero accused of “wrongdoing in connections with the Stock Exchange Hoax of 1814” (216, 275).

Details of their lives come to hand for each novel: “How appropriate that the party had a chance to see Midas at Covent Garden Theatre during a short three-night stopover at Henrietta Street” (204). The quiet disquiet over Austen’s possible incestuous feelings towards at least one of her brothers now becomes part of a Henry story across Austen’s oeuvre.  I’m not alone in feeling it was Frank, given the poem about his marriage, Frank’s providing her and her sister and mother with a home, the infamy of the letter “F” and clandestine Jane, the destruction of their letters (attributed to his granddaughter), not to omit Frank marrying Martha Lloyd (whom Jane loved) later in life (see Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life).


Green Park Buildings, Bath, end of the row — Austen and her family lived in Green Park buildings 2 centuries ago

In recent years there have been a number of books claiming to link this or that Austen novel with a building, a real life person or event never mentioned in the novel in question or Austen’s extant letters so it is so refreshing to be able to say of the bringing of contextual matter outside the novels into them not discussed before is not dependent on theories of invisibility or subtexts. I especially liked when Clery brought Walter Scott’s career, Austen’s remarks about him and his texts together. She brings out that Patronage is the contemporary novel by Edgeworth with Mansfield Park (193) but what Austen continually took notice of in her letters is how Scott is doing. In Clery’s book just as a number of financial scandals come into public view as well as Henry’s “precarious position” (Edward gives him a promissory note for £10,325), Mansfield Park is lagging in the “performance” department and Emma is not electrifying the reading world, Scott’s Antiquary is published, at a much higher price than either MP or Emma, and withing 3 week 6,000 copies sold, the author gaining half-profits of £1,632.” Jane Austen tells the truth as far as she knows it: it was disheartening.

When they all returned to Chawton Cottage, Jane wrote her niece Fanny of Henry: “London is become a hateful place to him, & he is always depressed by the idea of it” (292). I detect a strong plangent note in her closing letters quite apart from her last fatal illness. Stress can kill.

Deign on the passing world to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Letters to be wise,
There mark what ills the Scholar’s Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Patron and the Jail,
See Nations slowly wise and meanly just
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.

Clery attributes Jane’s burial in Winchester Cathedral and the floor plaque with its inscription to Henry and the publication of her novels too. He ended his life impoverished but, Clery asserts, Henry ‘s courage in life gave us his sister’s novels (324-25).

Ellen

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This hangs in the Colonna palace and is the only authentic portrait of Vittoria Colonna

Friends and readers,

For my third book of a 10 book list on what book influenced me most strongly or had some large impact on me: Suzanne Therault’s Un cenacle humanist de la Renaissance autour Vittoria Colonna, chatelaine d’Ischia. I read this in the Library of Congress over many nights the summer I was 37. Yes it’s in French: it is filled with Colonna’s poetry translated into French and situates her on the beautiful island of Ischia surrounded by other wonderful poets of her era, often more southern Italy like Jacopo Sannazaro, also all translated into French


Suzanne Therault, Un cenacle humanist de la Renaissance autour de Vittoria Colonna, chatelaine d’Iscia (click on the image to enlarge it)

I began by taking notes and then just xeroxed the whole book because I could not get it any other way: Therault had died before it was published so it is actually unfinished, parts of it in semi-draft. I enjoy this sort of thing when the book is great; you can see so much more of the person’s thinking and feeling often. I just fell in love with the picture of Ischia she created and her translations of Colonna’s poetry. She led me to learn Italian and I ended up translating all of Vittoria Colonna’s poetry and then went on and translate all of Veronica Gambara’s, write a chapter of biography of Colonna and a short complete biography of Gambara, and write essays on them. I published a few translated poems conventionally (in anthologies) and my work on Colonna was used by graduate students for their theses. My Colonna poems were read in a festival of Renaissance poetry.

I experienced some 15 years on and off of real happiness doing this and then Jim put it all on a website for me. I then extended the project into reading translation studies, wrote an essay on Austen in French and on translation itself and have loved to read translations especially in French and Italian ever after. I am friends with Antonio Chimenti, who wrote and published a short biography of Gambara in Italian and stay in touch with her. I am acquainted with Maria Musiol, who sent me a copy of her biography of Colonna, which I have read but did not write a review as I found myself in too much disagreement over the portraits; her retelling of the life is the only thoroughly researched one available. In my teaching I would assign a book of poetry translated from Gaspara Stampa, whom I also studied too.


Izzy on the roof of the Milan cathedral

Jim, I, Izzy and Laura went to Rome in August 1994, stayed 4 weeks and with Jim I managed to visit Marino, where her family lair (so to speak) was located; I saw the palace from the outside. He took me and Izzy and Laura to Ischia to stay at the beach for three days. This April when I went to Milan with Izzy and Laura I tried to get to Correggio (close by) where Gambara lived and my friend, Antonia, now resides but was not able to pull it off. You need to have a car. There are schools named after Veronica Gambara and a club (online too).


A photo of Marino

Over the years I’ve gotten lots of thank yous and comments, and since getting on the Net (1990s) have written a few reviews in a peer-edited Renaissance periodical of Renissance poetry, books about and by Renaissance women especially poetry and life-writing (scroll down to “Renaissance literature”). I reviewed the translation by Abigail Brundin of Colonna (which I find very poor, translationese, cribs in effect). My discovery and love of Iris Origo’s life-writing, biographies and autobiography came out of this interest. I try to keep up my reading skills in Italian — I read one of Elena Ferrante’s novels in Italian this past year, La figlia oscura, The Lost Daughter.


Brescia, where Gambara lived

Ellen

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Anna (Hermione Norris) reading Clarissa’s letter telling Anna of her desperate need for some shelter as she’s pressured intensely to marry Mr Solmes (BBC/WBGH Clarissa, 1991)

Friends and readers,

I’m carrying on for the second day. For my second book of a 10 book list on what book influenced me most strongly — or, to echo the language used, as it makes sense in this case, what book had a [large] impact on me: Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Again I don’t have a cover illustration from the book I actually read, as in this case again there was no paper cover, and I read the 4 volumes of the unabridged third edition of Clarissa in the old Everymans. Mine were maroon.

I don’t understand why in the original meme people were (in effect) discouraged from saying why this book was meaningful. For me the fun is in thinking out why this or that choice. The self-learning as the ten days go by.

So,

When I first read Clarissa at age 18 in a college course on 18th century English novels, I would read it 16 hours straight at a time. I found I couldn’t stop I was so intent. Just for coffee or say food or nature breaks. Then when I realized this savage egoist, Lovelace, was going to succeed in raping Clary, I began to feel intense nervousness and then when I got to his famous one-line letter to Belford, “The affair is over. Clarissa lives!” I was stunnted to think I’d missed it or we wouldn’t be told, but, no, the event was to be told in a flashback in a later segment of the book. So I had to read another 200 pages before I got to the humiliating aggravated assault and Clary going utterly distraught. That first experience was an abridgement, a Modern library blue book. Then as a graduate student taking a course in the 18th century novel, I did my talk and term paper assignment after reading the unabridged Everyman 4 volume set (I found it at the Strand in NYC). I decided to major in 18th century literature so I could write my dissertation on this book with Robert Adams Day as my advisor. Ever after I’ve been persuaded it had a central opening turning point for novels by women centering on women’s issues and subjectivity. I read so many epistolary novels, I love novels of subjectivity. When John Letts invited me to do a talk for the Trollope society at the Reform Club I wrote “Partly Told in Letters: Trollope’s story telling art.” (probably a high point in what may be said to be my career as a writer).

Years later (mid-1990s) I led my first reading group on the Net with a group of 18th century colleagues and lovers of reading on Clarissa in “real time” (following the calender in the book). After 2000 I finally had the nerve to write a deliver a paper at ASECS on rape in Clarissa, and then one on the masquerade motif in the 1990s film adaptation of Clarissa where I got to know the script-writer, David Nokes.  Hermione Norris became a favorite actress for me; I loved her and Clary’s friendship. I’ve read the unabridged Clary through several times, not to mention dipping in. As with S&S, I don’t forget the text. Of course I bonded utterly with Clary.

I’ll say simply too that sexual assault and harassment have topics of intense personal concern for me since my teenagehood.


Clarissa (Saskia Wickham) writing from the debtor’s prison (1991 BBC Clarissa, scripted David Nokes)

Diane Reynolds on WomenWriters@groups.io offered another way of “taking” or reading the “meme.” What books have been a revelation to you that made an impact or were important? Something you learned that changed your mind or you didn’t know before. These can come in adolescence or teenage reading — and sometimes much later too. once I got on the Net and made more friends and found I could reach more books and had a better idea of what was in them I had two stunning revelations: Mary Pipher, Reviving Ophelia: saving the selves of adolescent girls; and Naomi Wolf’s Promiscuities. I was about 48 to 50 when I learned that the horrible sexual experiences I had had with boys as a young teenager were in fact commonplace. What also no one told me was other girls were similarly harassed, fooled into acquiescing and then (for many) self-hatred and shame. Who knew? not me. I once tried to tell another girlfriend and she said, never tell anyone else this, and later another said to me, why did you tell X that? oh Ellen she went and told all sorts of people. Right; she belongs in the second season of the film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale or some equivalent soap operas. So after that I didn’t try to reach anyone.

I still have these two books. They made me feel so much better. I felt such regret no one had given them or books like them to me at age 15 when I so sorely needed them. They didn’t change my life; not so much that it was too late to have reacted differently because my nature is the same today and I probably would just be able to retreat from that kind of abuse, which is what I learned to do (emulating Elinor Dashwood’s prudence and self-control). I would at least not have thought about these experiences the same way and would have known to blame the culture I lived in and all those colluding in it complacently.


Clarissa fighting back, insisting she wants to live the single life and to leave her be.

Clarissa was a self-help book. I was Clary and felt so much less alone reaching back in time. And I named my girl cat Clarissa, and now call her Clarycat, and she knows her name.

Ellen

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Vanessa Bell, the artist, the theme this time a woman drawing

Dear friends,

Some more thoughts on women as autobiographers and biographers. I’ve been reading yet another autobiographical novel by a woman, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. It’s another that conforms to the characteristics of women biographers and autobiographers as outlined by Suzanne Raitt and Gale Bell Chevigny. Again one must collapse distinctions between autobiography and biography and fiction and non-fiction. This brings us back to Max Saunders’ Self-Impression with its argument that in our century the central genre has been “autobiografiction.” In Stauffer’s book on the Art of Biography in the 18th century he suggests that autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Anyway the history of all three forms cannot be understood apart from one another. without the history of the other.

Jigsaw is centered on Bedford’s fractured relationship with her mother and what she is doing is restoring their lives together, imagining them as more one unit than they were because so often her mother was absent from her. The mother was with a lover, with her husband (Bedford’s father), leaves to live with another lover. From afar the mother tries to dictate or show interest in her daughter’s schooling, reading, what worlds she belongs to, but the effort is largely imaginary. The mother’s first loyalty is to the man she is living with, dependent upon.

How many absent mothers do we find in women’s novels. This paradigm is usually explained as allowing the daughter-heroine liberty but from this new perspective it is a mirror of how daughters experience their mothers in a patriarchal society

Then yesterday and today I read two essays that felt very old because they were printed in pre-Internet days and are not on-line. The first, Patricia Meyer Spacks’s “Reflecting Women,” in a 1974 Yale Review (Vol 63, pp 26-42) offers yet more analogous marvelous insights into women’s life-writing and fiction which anticipate and indeed say more graphically, less abstractly what Raitt, Chivegny and others on women’s life writing from the Renaissance to today put forth as a new findings. Demoralizingly I thought to myself what I’ve read other unearthers of a women’s tradition in this or that art:  how can make progress made when each generation has to re-fight the same battle. Yes women were great artists and here are their names and history. Yes this is the genres they paint or write in and the latest critics proceed to re-invent what was said before and has been forgotten because what was published was so rare and then it was forgotten — like this one by Spacks.

Spacks is more penetrating and ranges across classes and eras and conditions in ways none of those I’ve read recently do. She discusses the rich society woman, Hester Thrale Piozzi’s continuing re-telling of her life story in most of Piozzi’s writing and compares what is found there to the deprivation and racial punishments known by the young African-American woman, Anne Moody in Coming of Age in Mississippi; and yet more appalling for what was done to her, Mattie Griffith’s Autobiography of a Female Slave (first published 1857; first published in an affordable paperback in 1974). In one scene Mattie is tied to a post, stripped naked and whipped and violated sexually, then laughed at and denigrated and then compared to an non-human animal. I wonder she did not become deranged or kill herself. Emily Kugler on Mary Prince’s autobiography rejoices that she has found Mary Prince as an almost unique autobiography by an enslaved woman in the US; Kugler has not heard of Griffith it seems. Spacks moves to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (17th century writer during the civil war in the UK). I never forgot the pathos of the final paragraphs of the Duchess’s brief autobiography where she says she writes for “my own sake, not theirs” (others) so it does not matter that her readers assume what she writes does not matter, and has only written so she will not be mistaken in history as another of the Duke’s wives now that she has written his biography. to Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa to Ellen Willis’s Up from Radicalism: A Feminist Journal (1969).  Ellis fears her arguments with her partner and his disapproval of the ways she lives will lead to their parting: she needs the comfort of his presence, his money. In later years well after Spacks wrote, Ellis married her partner to have his access to good health care when Willis developed and then died of cancer.

Spacks uncovers that the underlying perspective of all these is that of women who are dependents. Hester Piozzi Thrale was forced to marry Thrale, a man much older than she, vulgar, cold, a bully, by her mother who proceeded to dominate Hester for decades during which Hester was continually impregnated by this man. Thrale bought attention and respect by her salons filled with prestigious people; that was one of Samuel Johnson’s functions at Streatham. What view can a woman have of herself who is a bondswoman, whether to other women, a selfish domineering mother, or a man however professional and rich. Hester’s salons were to entertain him and pass the time. I remembered that when Hester married Piozzi, Johnson cursed her and she was utterly ostracized by her daughters, friends, family; deserted by Frances Burney for whom Hester had done so much (as she did for Johnson): that’s why she went to Italy. I have had to give up on writing my half of a Woolf-Johnson paper partly because I knew what I now have to say about Johnson will be so utterly out of kilter with my partner would and will pay as well as everyone in that volume. It’s conceived as demonstration of Johnson’s modernity. Modernity? A feminist avante la lettre is what is partly implied no matter how qualified the assertion

Mattie Griffiths escapes because her white mistress left her a legacy and her freedom. She still had to flee to realize it (with money hidden away), and went to live in Massachusetts where she taught “African children.” She then wrote her autobiography using the style, language, tropes of European tradition. Her book is written in a stilted style so as to gain respect, an identity and tell of the intolerable conditions under which she had lived. She is safe by assimilating herself in a book. Spacks compares her to the 20th century Brazilian prostitute, Carolina Maria de Jesus who lived in one of the unimaginable slums of that land, writing on scraps of paper picked up in the street, using for money what the father of one of her three children gives her for serving him sexually when he visits. She loathes him, is disgusted by herself because she is a woman. Like many another woman at the bottom she lives in fear of arrest. Readers Digest rejected her manuscript. Arrest, illness and then death is the fate of a major character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th century protest industrial novel, Mary Barton: for vagrancy, she is given 3 months hard labor, and then ejected with nothing on offer to help her. What matter if this is nominally fiction.

Women become mirrors of their men; they avoid reality by fantasizing in print, in their writing, says Spacks. They write not only to create an identity (that I have known since reading Paula Backscheider and Margaret Anne Doody on women’s poetry) but to assert themselves at all. They justify themselves by claiming exactitude in truth. They are safer because their bodies are not immediately involved; yet they don’t have to claim anything for themselves beyond the recognition of the literary effectiveness. No political action need be taken. Sexuality is a trap. Men look at sexuality as a challenge, the woman is a pleasure to acquire as a subordinary part of their lives.  For women it becomes an agent of her defeat (as she has children and begins to live apart from the larger social world). I used to write in the interstices of time when my children were young. The classic mode is that of translation or the sharp perceptive observer, both of which I did.

Do I dominate my own experience by writing about it? I know I don’t. My rational for this tonight is to make sure that Spacks’s essay is not forgotten. But I am creating an identity as a (I hope) respected writer, scholar, teacher, blogger online.


Isak Dinesen’s hard-won house in Africa

Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s “Dependents: The Trials of Success” is a companion essay to Spacks. It caught my eye as next (pp 43-59) and because in my last Sylvia II blog I wrote of false imposed definitions of success. This is a remarkable analytical essay, much longer than Spacks, which I cannot do justice to. Rorty begins by saying the US nation began with an assertion of independence based on war. Autonomy and power are what we focus on; self-respect comes through self-reliance. Of course we know independence is a myth for anyone; as a criteria it’s a killer for women who are automatically failures when they don’t define their lives by themselves. As an ideal it makes women resent men and men resent the dependence of women on them. Mobility is demanded — individual assertiveness comes first. The arts of self-expression cannot be valued. In trouble and need where can people turn? They hide their families; put children into schools that socialize according to to these norms, and women become even more beside the point, functioning as “consumers.” But productivity is the mark of worth.

When she comes to women married to professional men who are intellectuals, she moves into details close to my own experience and heart. She says to create you need to be in a world working with like-minded others, in a special environment where intellectual work is a full-time job. Juggling very differrent other demands makes for half-hearted half-time scholarship, perhaps competent. Slowly the “shadow of self-contempt” moves in. She thinks this is not a specifically female problem, but the problem of a “harried and torn person.”

An interesting side question is her idea that only when people work together do we come to know one another’s strengths and virtues and she thinks it’s taking on responsibility that offers fulfillment far more than any leaning on love. Mutual reliance among equals, and now her essay turns desperate as she returns to US values of domination which results in one group of people giving up so much (and it’s not natural) for another. We are back to the bondsman and master. It’s in this light Rorty questions the reality of “liberty,” “satisfaction,” “success;” the last is experienced as trial, ordeal in a juggernaut of power. There is thus a high cost or price paid for what is called “progress.”

She then goes on to say we must revise our conceptions of human worth, respect a whole range of talents, temperaments, redefine our grounds for mutual esteem. We need to get back to shared social planning for all. Utopian? She ends with recent travels where she became convinced the conditions of women in different countries are too different for any general solution that is gender-based. General solutions across cultures are economic and ideological. She thinks the “mechanisms” of “social vindictiveness” against “social explorers” in the US are paradoxically stronger than ever. Do not let yourself be unprotected against the rage the whole system engenders and then what you need to do undermines any social transformation.

I have gone a long way it would seem from women as autobiographers and biographers. But the content of what women write about has brought me here.

From “Biography from Seventy-Four” by Patricia Fargnoli

She is not who she was.
Last week, she dreamt
she could still run.
She ran and ran a long way.
She sleeps uneasily now,
waking and turning,
waking and turning.
If she could be anywhere
she’d be on the windjammer
sailing to Martinique,
the one she remembers
that comes back in dreams,
the sea dark blue and rolling,
that paradise, green mountain
and white sand in the distance …
Grace: what is given
without being asked,
what makes one able to rise.
The last time she felt joy
so long ago she can’t remember.
She is afraid
of thunder that comes too close,
war and the threat of war.
She tries to protect herself
from the wind of no good …. (from Winter)

Ellen

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