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Archive for the ‘literary biography’ Category


Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window Shutters

Dear friends,

About two years ago now (how time flies) I chaired two panels whose topic was supposed to be single women living alone befoe the 19th century. Single did not mean unmarried necessarily: rather a woman living as a single woman without a man as husband, father, brother, uncle, or some form of “guardian” cousin. I did not specify that the women had literally to be living alone but was looking rather for someone who had the highest authority in the house, was not with someone else as her peer. I was aware that out of six papers accepted for this panel “as near enough,” only one was about real women living alone — and in these two cases, the woman, Charlotte Lennox and Charlotte Smith, were married and separated from their husbands, with children and servants and other people as burdens in the household too. The others were about fictions, nunneries, a love affair in letters (two young people being forbidden to marry), and my own on widows and widowers in Austen, where only a few in the fictions could be described as living alone for any considerable period of time, with the exception of the impoverished (Mrs Smith, Miss Bates). The fact of non-marriage as shaping their living conditions was not brought up except explicitly for Miss Bates.

I was encouraged by editors scouting about to develop a prospectus for an anthology of essays on this topic, but I was immediately confronted with the reason for the lack of papers. I had no study to fall back on, only individual books part of which might swirl around this topic (single women — meaning spinsters — in a given period, or widows in 18th century France). Studies were done of fictions because there at least the topic was defined and individuals clearly described — there is a problem of definition itself as the unacceptability of the state led many women to keep their state invisible (Felicia Hemans springs to mind). On the one hand, I felt there were so many women of this type when I began to look, and on the other how a firm conception to bring them together had not been developed. You could get articles or chapters on the pressure on women to marry, but then what was discussed was marriage. No one wanted to look; this was not interesting unless the woman was seeking power and it was this search for gaining power that was the interest. I asked friends who had more status than I to join me as an editor (to ask other people to write essays is to need status oneself), but all were busy with other projects. I am a retired adjunct lecturer aka independent scholar. A second obstacle was finding people; this requires a circle of close friend-scholars with the same interests who see somke advantage to themselves in appearing in this anthology. One last: one friend said I might find it becomes “too lesbian” (in effect) and so be sure to cover a wide range of types! (contact people privately before resorting to the CFP).


Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Modern Women

But I had not quite given up the topic. It’s too close to my heart now. Last term (at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University) I taught a class I called 19th century women of letters and my proposal to do it again with a different set of books has been accepted at OLLI at Mason for the coming fall. It hadn’t taken long for me to realize that the typical women of letters was a woman supporting herself, often living alone if I used the expanded definition. It does seem as if living truly alone, literally (though still an anomaly), is a phenomenon only found in the 20th century: essentially it requires that a woman have a good paying job or income (I thought of Virginia Woolf’s desideratum of £500 per year, the equivalent today would be $35,000 per year); and that the norms or mores of the community do not allow male thugs to molest her on the supposition she must be a prostitute (in effect). Before the 19th century there was no large general literary marketplace, few circulating libraries, few magazines. All this was the basis for the 19th century woman of letters:

19th Century Women of Letters

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” and Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and “The Library Window.”  We’ll also read brief on-line excerpts from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” and Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women”.

Now suddenly a thought has occurred to me which I had not been able to reach before: I could do a book on this topic if I chose 6 women I could write about myself. I had so worried myself over the obstacles to an anthology. But I can write a book on my own. I have the Library of Congress and Folger nearby, and access to two university libraries, one with the database. I can now see an introductory chapter; the body of the work; and a conclusion. I don’t know why I couldn’t break through to this before. Maybe need. I need absorbing work I can genuinely respect and look at as useful to others beyond giving myself some kind of meaning. I have now faced that I will be alone most of the time for the rest of my life. I can blog, teach, write and read to participate with others, but I want some overarching goal to guide me. An introductory chapter, a chapter on a specific woman and outline and I could try to send this to one of those editor-publishers whose names and presses I still have.


Another possible candidate: Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), disabled, she supported herself and her mother by her pen

So I’ve begun reading again Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love, The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle. I’m in the second half, the chapter on the relationship of Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle, and remembered a brilliant portrait of them by Virginia Woolf in her Second Common Reader.

Woolf’s essay is a delight. She manages to convey Geraldine and Jane’s lesbianism without openly showing it — so this is a kind of post-James text. I refer to how Eva Sedgwick says lesbian and gay texts around the time of Henry James were using various subterfuges but coming out much more to show gay and lesbian experience. Carter takes another step into transvestism and gender ambiguity which except for the high-jinks of Orlando I don’t see in Woolf.

I was drawn to the pathos of these women in Woolf. Clarke’s Ambitious Heights rather brings out how hard Jane Carlyle was on her women servants — she worked them like semi-slaves, and also made them be a personal comforter to her. Let me say that was wrong of Jane Carlyle; Clarke made me wonder if other women did this. I know that male masters did bugger their male servants, and the only control was fear of blackmail. Woolf doesn’t have the space to explain why Jewsbury lived far away, how she came to London to live close. There were two visits of living together, and the first a disaster, the second a reinforcement. Paradoxically for us a disappointment because the letters stop when they live around the corner from one another. Today they might start to text and tweet at one another. Then Jane’s need of Geraldine but after her sudden death (from fatigue? from stress? from repressive years and years of wearing down her organs), Geraldine spends 20 years alone. The one photo we have of Jewsbury shows her quietly reading, all dressed up. Unlike Woolf who is daring for her time, Clarke does not bring up or out the probable lesbianism of Carlyle and Jewsbury (Jane and Geraldine). It was published in 1990; Clarke doesn’t even discuss the possibility. 26 years ago maybe it was verboten to get an academic respectable if feminist book published.


Geraldine Jewsbury

I also started Kirsteen, which I am relieved to say is as excellent as Oliphant’s Hester, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car: A sequel (about the later years of one of the heroines in the first book), or long ago now (I don’t remember it as well any more) Cousin Phoebe. I just love Oliphant’s books and she would be one of my subjects. I need to narrow each one of six to the trajectory of women living alone, why, how, with what results. I have been wanting to blog on her powerful if flawed The Marriage of Elinor and thinking about this novel in terms of this perspective, brings out what Oliphant is meaning to say by this book, and its continued effectiveness today.

My reading of The Marriage of Elinor went on late at night; I turned pages feverishly because like other of Oliphant’s novels I couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and only towards the middle became aware (as is so common with Oliphant) that it’s not centrally about the character of the young heroine, after whom it is name, Elinor, or she’s secondary; the center is shared by her mother, Mrs Dennistoun whose first name was finally uttered: Mary.

The book is about a woman who gives all to a daughter who continually makes very bad choices. And why are they bad? because she chooses what the world says is admirable. Elinor marries Philip Compton, a macho male handsome man who takes her into expensive society and she finds herself emotionally corroded, among hollow people, a target for monetary fleecing. The book’s true hero, John Tatham has not been passionate and aggressive enough in his proposal to her. He is a kind of Henry James male who does not commit himself emotionally until it’s too late. Sheltering Elinor destroys her life. No one is willing to tell her (including her mother) why she should not marry Phillip Compton who turns out to be (not to put a fine point on this) far more than promiscuous and a gambler: he’s a downright criminal whom her world protects from censor because of his rank and family. The way the story is set up it seems to be about the young heroine — which is what happens in Hester and why it gets off to a very slow start, with us realizing only gradually the young heroine, Elinor, is a doppelganger to the older her mother (Hester is this to her aunt-in-law, Catherine Vernon). It’s very much both and about how destructive is the norm which will not allow a girl to know anything about the world, try to support herself and not be a helpless hanger-on, but find some fulfillment of her own.

Merryn Williams who wrote the best of the three recent books in English on Oliphant says the point of The Marriage of Elinor is to show us how little sexual passion and the reasons for marriage out of love last a very short time; what women care for is motherhood. Men cannot understand these feelings. Elisabeth Jay reminds her reader this is a late novel and she concentrates on the woman in it I’ve not mentioned: dissolute, amoral, endlessly in society (a sort of Helene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) who is represented as repellent. Jay does not respect this novel, mentions it because it is not romantic and shows the real psychology of a desperately bad marriage (in terms of either party getting any fulfillment).

As Elinor sees how bad her decision to marry Compton is, she does all she can to hide the truth. There are hints Compton hits her. Her happiest times it now seems to her were when she was left by this husband to live with her mother and her boy. Finally she separates heself him for the sake of her son, so the son shall not be brought up to become another amoral man. Her mother has given up a great deal of money to Philip as a kind of bribe. Meanwhile Elinor allows her fear of what the world might say adverse to her pride drive her decisions: say to move from the comfortable home her mother has lived in most of her life (it appears to be near Dorking, so Sussex) way up north. She will not send her precious son to a school where he is surrounded by peers because is determined to keep from him who his father was for real, and his background. In court Elinor gives a testimony literally true, but false in what it implies, and the ne’er-do-well husband is himself let go, and returns to having nothing to do with her once he gets his hands on enough money to live luxuriously. But by the end of the novel she has silently conceded the man she married is a criminal type even if he has a title, and she goes to live alone up north, leaving her son with Tatham whose advice she has finally relied upon. The crucial last turn of the book is the question of whether her son will turn against her when he realizes all his life he has been kept away from others, gone to a school where he was not with his own class or boys of his own intellectual level; he does not partly because John Tatham has stayed by his side and provides the explanation and continuity the boy needs. The two women end up living alone in peace at the book’s end

Oliphant reminds me a little of Charlotte Smith: not finding a new radically changed structure on which to plot her story. She often wants us to see her characters confronting hegemonic norms of other people and unable to break them down — in many areas of life and death too. We are supposed to heavily criticize Elinor. I am so used to the conventional stance of pro-heroine, but in these latest scenes what Elinor wants to do (flee the law) is so egregious. Each time flight: each time refuse to cope with what she has created and wrecking havoc on those she says her actions are protecting. The book critiques the passive romantic supposedly super-virtuous heroine; she must come out and she must engage with the situations she’s created. The power of the book comes from what seems a skewed POV divided between Tatham and Mrs Denistoun who anguish over Elinor

How did Kavanagh, Jewsbury, Oliphant manage it? Woolf? I end on Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

So, added to Austen and sheerly the 18th century, woman artists, and foremother poets, I hope blogging here by thinking through work I do towards a book by me to be called The Anomaly. I’m an anomaly by the way. Not because I fit the definition of nearly living alone (which I do): a widow, with my unmarried daughter, a librarian and two cats, but because I’m a very learned scholar with no rank and no income except my widow’s annuity and social security, and the money my mother and Jim left me; because I teach at a place where I don’t quite fit either as a student (yesterday I became aware of how many of the women at AU went to elite or Ivy League colleges and studied to be lawyers and other professionals — they can have no idea who I am, from a free university, getting there by bus, studying English Literature) or teacher (I overdo), and because my social life such as it is is here on Net. Is this enough to be getting on with? I’ve got many rooms of my own and for now more than the minimum income …

Ellen

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Stories of 25 Dundee women

Friends,

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

Here is the day they launched their project:


Click to learn their names

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


A carved dog

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

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


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

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

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


1762, Self-portrait

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

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

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

Lines Written after a Nervous Breakdown.1

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

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

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

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

September 1964

Lines Written After a Nervous Breakdown.2

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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maryprince
This painful image reflects the reality of black woman slaves’ lives — of which Mary Prince (1788-after 1833) was one

I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners: so that we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage. When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging of us to keep up a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing.**

** Let the reader compare the above affecting account, taken down from the mouth of this negro woman, with the following description of a vendue of slaves at the Cape of Good Hope, published by me in 1826, from the letter of a friend, –and mark their similarity in several characteristic circumstances. The resemblance is easily accounted for: slavery wherever it prevails produces similar effects.–“Having heard that there was to be a sale of cattle, farm stock, &c. by auction, at a Veld-Cornet’s in the vicinity, we halted our waggon one day for the purpose of procuring a fresh spann of oxen. Among the stock of the farm sold, was a female slave and her three children. The two eldest children were girls, the one about thirteen years of age, and the other about eleven; the youngest was a boy. The whole family were exhibited together, but they were sold separately, and to different purchasers. The farmers examined them as if they had been so many head of cattle. While the sale was going on, the mother and her children were exhibited on a table, that they might be seen by the company, which was very large. There could not have been a finer subject for an able painter than this unhappy group. The tears, the anxiety, the anguish of the mother, while she met the gaze of the multitude, eyed the different countenances of the bidders, or cast a heart-rending look upon the children; and the simplicity and touching sorrow of the young ones, while they clung to their distracted parent, wiping their eyes, and half concealing their faces,–contrasted with the marked insensibility and jocular countenances of the spectators and purchasers,–furnished a striking commentary on the miseries of slavery, and its debasing effects upon the hearts of its abettors. While the woman was in this distressed situation she was asked, ‘Can you feed sheep?’ Her reply was so indistinct that it escaped me; but it was probably in the negative, for her purchaser rejoined, in a loud and harsh voice, ‘Then I will teach you with the sjamboc,’ (a whip made of the rhinoceros’ hide.) The mother and her three children were sold to three separate purchasers; and they were literally torn from each other.”–Ed.

edna-st-vincent-millay
Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

“Conscientious Objector” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the
        clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the
        Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg
        up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will
        not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the
        black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but this is all that I shall do for Death; I am
        not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of
        my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the
        route to any man’s door.

Am I a spy in the land of living, that I should deliver
        men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe
        with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

Dear friends and readers,

On any other blog, this coupling might seem strange. I hope not so here. Mary Prince was that nearly unique presence in 18th century texts: a black woman slave who atttempted to tell the story of her life in her own words. Edna St Vincent Millay was a very great women poet. I’m carrying on my much delayed accounts of conferences and lectures I attended this past fall. Tonight I tell of two excellent lectures I heard at the Washington Area Print Group (WAPG) held once a month during the college semester at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. We look upon ourselves as a small “cell” or twig of the larger SHARP group (book history), which twice I was privileged to attend and once to give a paper on Anthony Trollope’s mappings of his imagined counties: Geographies of Power.

Here is the description of our October 7th meeting:

The slim pamphlet, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African (1831), has gained increased visibility over the last decades due to its claim to being the first slave narrative written by a woman in English. Yet, like its predecessor, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789), these British publications do not fully anticipate the genre models that would later be established by their nineteenth-century North American counterparts. And, unlike Equiano’s Narrative, Prince’s “History” also highlights issues of authorship that continue to raise debates over how scholars should view the autobiographical accounts of enslaved and formerly enslaved people. This talk will cover the life of along with the production and dissemination of the biography formerly enslaved Mary Prince (c.1788-after 1833, b.Bermuda), including her negotiation of familial and religious networks to navigate the West Indies and Caribbean while enslaved, and her eventual self-emancipation through alliances with abolitionist groups in London. It will also look at how Scottish-born Thomas Pringle’s editing of and libel trials over her biography fits into his own history as one of the “founding fathers” of South African settler poetry as well as how Susanna Strickland Moodie’s transcription of Prince’s oral history later shaped her work as one of the first Canadian novelists and the increased visibility in the second and third editions of reader-produced paratexts. This is part of a larger project that looks at women in the British Empire, and positions the writings of formerly enslaved women such as Mary Prince as central to the histories of Britishness, African identity, as well as foundational to understanding the writings of other more well-known authors, such as Jane Austen.The model of narrative, the history that leads to its publication, and the dissemination of Prince’s life history illuminates the way authors, especially women, negotiated the interpersonal and imperial politics of making their stories heard throughout English-language Atlantic print networks.

Susannah Strickland Moodie might be familiar to my readers through Margaret Atwood’s imagined recreation of the Journals of Susannah Moodie as well as the Booker Prize winner, Alias Grace. Moodie wrote the classic memoir of Canadian literature: Roughing It i the Bush, was a journalist and wrote poetry. Early Canadian women of letters;=, she and her sister, Catherine Parr, are the subjects of an illuminating biography, Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray (a wonderful read).

Here is a brief gist and transcription of what Emily said:

Emily’s talk was so stimulating of interesting questions and suggestive about so many concrete details about slave women’s lives and the difference between these (where there were moments of pleasure, often with their childen if they were fortunate enough to keep some semblance of family) and the texts we can or must rely upon.

The text of Mary Prince’s life is available in a Penguin classics, edited by Sarah Salih, ISBN 9780140437492. Her life has been published in a number of scholarly editions, with excerpts in anthologies. One of the best, which I can’t recommend too highly is Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader, ed. Antoinette Burton. for those seriously interested in Jane Austen, it is noteworthy that Bristol (from which it will be recalled in Austen’s Emma, Mrs Elton aka Miss Augusta Hawkins, daughter of a tradesman, hailed). Her life story was the first slave narrative attributed to a woman. Equiano was her predecessor in Europe; Frederick Douglas came after her. Her life was published as a tract of an anti-slavery society; her story came with a supplement by an abolitionist editor, Thomas Pringle, as “taken down by” Susannah Strickland, to which was added another yet briefer narrative of another female captured African slave. The questions swirling around it concern authority and ownership. Whose testimony are we willing to endow with authority? (We weren’t sufficiently to Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016.) Who owns the telling of their own lives, its perspective. We see in this text a cultural exchange between bourgeois “white” people trying to present the subaltern enslaved existence of someone regarded as ontologically “not quite human” (not mattering as in #BlackLivesMatter). She (and Susannah Moodie too) was helped to get into written history and then be paid attention to by the 19th century phases of feminism, or “Female Societies” for example for “the Relief of British Female Slaves” (founded 1825).

Mary Prince traveled around the world of Britain’s global colonial empire in her brief hard-working life. I have rarely come across someone whose bodily strength was so used/abused from the time she was outside infancy. Born after England abolished the slave trade, she was at first owned in Bermuda, Jamaica, by a very young girl as a present/toy/doll/commodity. When the chief male of the household remarried, Mary Prince was sold. She survived by luck and by her ability to negotiate with her owner/lovers. One problem in telling her life is she cannot admit to allowing her body to be used sexually. It seemed to me her most basic work-job was as a washer-woman (very hard work) cleaning clothes. She was made to work with half her body in salt water for long hours at a time (rice production) and that shortened what life her body managed; she was also subjected to severe flogging, partly (I think) a result of her strong intellect, which at the same time enabled her to survive. To try to imagine what her legs, feet and back looked like is probably beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not seen tortured people or someone who has lived in the extremis of harsh colonized existence (from Ireland to the Congo). Flogging was a commonplace yet horrific practice inflicted on slaves, colonized peoples, and mainland British males who were “pressed” (snatched as ruthlessly as any genetically African individual). Emily mentioned the “problem” of her being overly emotional, but it seems to me it’s important to keep registering (no longer is the present a better age) outrage. Equiano had the advantage of maleness so he was far better educated by those who recognized or used his real talents/gifts or those of our Mary. He lived well at times, rose to an office-linked higher status; as a woman she could never have this. On a couple of occasions, men who became Mary’s lover or others who became attached to her tried to buy her freedom. This appears to have enraged more than one employer, and she would be whipped ferociously because these attempts had been tried.

On her text’s publication, there were lawsuits, set on essentially by the people (John Wood specifically) who had owned her and whose cruelty her text made plain. First Pringle’s veracity was questioned by the editor of the Glasgow Courier in Blackwood’s Magazine (wide circulation); Pringle sued Cadell, the publisher of Blackwood’s; then Wood sued Pringle. Mary was forced to take the stand and told of her sexual relationship with a Captain Abbot with whom she lived for seven years and to whom she was emotionally attached. (She would hire herself out or be hired by other families where men would take her body either for money or free, if they could.) This kind of thing damaged her stature and reputation further in the eyes of the public (the public did not respect slaves); and she had to leave one society she had joined, the Moravian, and went to live with a freeman, Oyskman who promised to buy her freedom from whoever nominally owned her. Susannah Moodie Pringle had to justify herself again and again for being an amanuensis (probably more like an editor) and defended Mary Prince’s chastity (as if she didn’t, hers would be called into question).

Emily then contextualized Mary among other African-American women. She covered the life and poetry of Phillis Wheatley (left poems), Margareta Mathilde Odell (poems and a memoir). One has to resort to finding names. (I find this is still true of 20th century women artists who participated in the surrealism movement!). Much is to be gleaned from John Gabriel Steadman’s narrative of Surinam (Emily didn’t mentioned Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which while it is a romance, has led to serious texts about Latin and South America), the narrative of “Joanna, An Emancipated Slave,” from the colonialists of North America, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Elizabeth Freeman who was Sedgewick’s nanny, Florence Hall (but 4 pages). Such texts are still often dependent on staying in print by attracting women readers. The average woman reader wants an upbeat story, something where she sees something like instant emancipation when at its rare best is gradual. They are trained to want a veil on sexual experiences, on sexual violence.

I found one of the most disturbing aspects of her story is that she was forced to allow other women to examine her body to prove her stories of abuse were true. We see here what also happened to working class, agricultural, servant women: if suspected of being pregnant, other women had no compunction against coming to them and literally grabbing a dress and feeling the woman’s body. There is no protected space around a woman, her body is not her own if she has no high status to protect her.

As to what Jane Austen could read or know of this material: she had Cowper, Thomas Clarke, Charlotte Smith, Southey; her younger brothers. while ordering flogging, and her older brother witnessing and accepting as a local militia man the anguished punishments of mutiny, could at least tell of what they saw — though it was commonplace then as in World War One not to tell.

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millaybook

Here is the full blurb for the Edna St Vincent Millay meeting on November 18th:

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was a daring, versatile writer whose work includes poetry, plays, essays, short stories, songs, and a libretto to an opera that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera to rave reviews. Known for her free-spirited lifestyle in Greenwich Village, Millay wrote poems promoting personal freedom that resonated with a generation of youth disillusioned by the social and political upheaval of the First World War. Millay’s literary executor Holly Peppe will present an overview of the poet’s life, illustrated with slides, and suggest reasons for her poetry’s uneven critical reception. Dr. Peppe will also talk about her friendship with the poet’s sister Norma Millay. Dr. Timothy F. Jackson will discuss Millay’s manuscripts, her publication history, critical reception, and the process of editing Millay’s works.
    Holly Peppe, literary executor for Edna St. Vincent Millay, has written and lectured widely about the poet’s life and work. Dr. Peppe’s essays appear in various books and periodicals including Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal (Southern Illinois University Press, 1995); Millay’s Early Poems (Penguin Classics,1998); Collected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2011), and Selected Poems: An Annotated Edition (Yale University Press, 2016).
    Timothy F. Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Rosemont College. He earned his doctorate in editorial studies from the Editorial Institute at Boston University. While a CLIR Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he served as an assistant editor of the Walt Whitman Archive and was the initial executive editor of Zea E-Books. He has edited work for traditional and digital publications in a variety of fields, including poetry, philosophy, and business.

Both talks were very engaging. Holly Peppe: Millay was regarded by academia as simply this “song-bird,” and not seen as the major American figure in letters that she is. It was the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature which first featured a variety of her poems and took them all seriously. An obstacle to writing her life accurately is her sister, Norma, still alive, is determined to censor anything that might be seen by the average person as “negative.” At the same time she (who has much insight into her sister’s life and politics) controls all the papers.

On her background: her mother provided her with a steady diet of interesting music. In high school she worked for the literary newspaper. It was after graduating college, that she was writing poetry and first attracted a modicum of serious attention and respect. She wrote political, love, confrontational poems. She was the first to introduce and deal with themes of real female sexuality in American literature. She was fortunate to attract patrons. She had won a couple of contests, and Caroline Dell heard her read and paid for her to go to Vassar. From 1917-21 she became part of groups that included important critics (Edmund Wilson) and painters as well as writers (Isobel Bishop, Max Eastman who escaped Nazi Germany). To make money she wrote “pot boilers:” Nancy Boyd was her pseudonym. She was consistently anti-war. She met and married Eugen Van Boissevain, widower of the labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland, a political icon Millay had met during her time at Vassar. A self-proclaimed feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their twenty-six-year marriage.

A pivotal moment was buying a 700 acre farm-house, Steepletop, which became a core place around which they built a shared unconventional life. Both drank a lot. She had a much younger lover, George Dillon, whose presence is the center of her erotic sonnet sequence, Fatal Interview (which became one of her signature texts with her wider public). One finds her with Charles Ellis Norton (important intellectual of the era just before and early 20th century); she became active in opera patronage. Her writing is written from the woman’s point of view: the woman’s body is central to her experience of social life (how men like, are attracted to, marry a woman). It was in 1940 she first was attacked for a Notebook she published. A few close relatives and friends died, and she had a nervous breakdown. Remember this is a time of barbaric war. Her sister, Catherine died, and then her beloved husband of lung cancer (1949). She returned to Steepletop to live alone. She translated Latin texts during this time. She did drink heavily all her life, and at age 58 she died from a fall down the stairs.

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The main house at Steepletop

Tim Jackson told us more about editing the texts — which was his basic function. There have been many reprintings and editions of Millay’s work. Since 1912 her poems have appeared in more than 50 anthologies. To do a collected standard edition of course requires going to the manuscripts. He was interested in who influenced Millay (and also who her work influenced). Millay copied out John Donne, Housman and Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” She read the later 19th century French poets. She wrote Edmund Wilson about her memories of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and she wrote Matthiesen about her later poems. T.S. Eliot was interested in publishing her poems but as they appeared in first editions. but she would tinker endlessly (revise and revise small things). We find her angry at publishers over specific lines: she worked very hard on prosody, rhyme.. Her most popular book was one filled with lyrics, Figs from Thistles (the poem people seem to have remembered “My candle burns at both ends”), and by the wider public her earlier poems are much much better known, especially her sonnets. Apparently (for reasons I can’t figure out), “Rendez-vous” is among her most widely read and praised:

Not for these lovely blooms that prank your chambers did I come. Indeed,
I could have loved you better in the dark;
That is to say, in rooms less bright with roses, rooms more casual, less aware
Of History in the wings about to enter with benevolent air
On ponderous tiptoe, at the cue, “Proceed.”
Not that I like the ash-trays over-crowded and the place in a mess,
Or the monastic cubicle too unctuously austere and stark,
But partly that these formal garlands for our Eighth Street Aphrodite are a bit too Greek,
And partly that to make the poor walls rich with our unaided loveliness
Would have been more chic.
Yet here I am, having told you of my quarrel with the taxi-driver over a line of Milton, and you laugh; and you are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed–with pumice, I suppose–
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish I did not feel like your mother. (from Huntsman, “What Quarry?”)

I found the above on the Internet with an ordinary person explaining why she personally loved the line “I could have loved you better in the dark.”

In her notebooks one finds quite a lot humor and comedy, comments on the immorality of the “seven deadly virtues.” She also wrote an essay on faith as a philosophical groundwork for herself. By John Crowe Ransom, an important contemporary critic, she was treated with disdain mainly because was a woman; and it has been her gender and the preference of the wider public for love poems that have gotten in the way of her gaining the respect and place in American letters she should have. In life she found herself dunned by the IRS for information about her tax liabilities. Eventually a historian, Alice Burney, interested in her work gathered a great deal of it and sold it to the Library of Congress. She made a lot of money and with her husband’s accumulations, was able to live the life of a chatelaine, farmer, and women of letters at Steepletop, an estate of 300 acres, which is nowadays a “site of memory,” a place you can visit. There are regularly scheduled tours.

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Kauffmann, Angelica; Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses; National Trust, Saltram; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/penelope-taking-down-the-bow-of-ulysses-101590
Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807); Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses

There is no comparison between the hardships of Mary Prince’s life and how all she ever said was brought into question because she had been a slave; and the liberty, fertile and happy relationships of Millay’s and a relative lack of respect for her work because she was early on marginalized as a woman. In her brief and frank autobiography (her voice does come through), Mary tells of how she saw herself as chained to a washtub for most of her waking hours in her strongest years. The line quoted by Sarah Salim as an epigraph for her edition of Mary’s life brings out how African-American women were seen and used for the first two hundred years of living in the US: “The nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God, 1937). I first became interested in Millay when I read her “Conscientious Objector” in Jon Silkin’s great anthology of war poetry, The Penguin Book of First World War One Poetry. In the edition this poem first appeared, it was in the back of the book with other poems by women. At first there had been no poetry by women worth reading according to Silkin’s anthology. His book has been much admired and reprinted several times: the most recent edition threads the women’s poems in chronologically and at the back we now have superb poems originally written in other languages and translated into English (a number of German poems, Russian including one each by Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, by Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti). I hope the new edition is part of a change placing Millay in the contexts where her work truly belongs. This does not just mean in “mainstream” American literature (preponderantly by men) but books of women’s poetry too. I’ll end on two. Here is “Menses” at the Poetry Foundation (also read aloud) and

An Ancient Gesture

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried

Ellen

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Queen Charlotte (1760-61) by Allan Ramsay (1713-84)

Emma got up on the morrow more disposed for comfort than she had gone to bed, more ready to see alleviations of the evil before her, and to depend on getting tolerably out of it — Emma, Chapter 16, after the ordeal of Christmas …

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Amy Brenneman as Sylvia (a sort of amalgam of traits from Austen heroines, with her plot-line that of Persuasion) reading Emma, the first choice to read of The Jane Austen Book Club

Dear friends and readers,

A mere seven days have slipped by (I say this ironically) since I wrote my first report on the Burney conference in DC, which occurred on Wednesday, 20 October, just before the official JASNA meeting began this year on Thursday, 21 October. I covered two-thirds of the papers on Burney. Here I offer summaries of the talks on Burney at the end of the day, and a general description of what a JASNA conference is like, and brief account of the key-note address (as I described it elsewhere). As an overview of all the papers on Burney I suggest that we saw a conflicted woman: she lived in a world ordered by imperialism abroad and patronage at home; she tried to find space for herself as a writer and (reminding me of what D.W. Harding said of Austen’s fiction so long ago) ways to express her identity and ideas that would not antagonize those dearest to her (her father) and who she did and had to respect. I have noticed over several conferences too (I may be wrong) that the novels and sheer texts too favored for discussion are Cecilia and The Wanderer. As I began to write out the notes on the Emma conference, I did remember the novel and a few of the good film adaptations whose pictorialism (mostly in the novel) help realize aspects of the novel, and felt a little better: Austen does that for me. I hope to concentrate on Austen’s mature fiction in a paper on Ekphrasis in Austen for the coming Austen and Art conference this coming Monday. A good way to start another year.

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Frances Burney and Politics (In continuation):

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Again a painting by Ramsay, this time of Charlotte and her two older boys — these paintings are said to show the queen had mulatto features, which was brought up (separately) during the conference

The third paper of the afternoon panel, “Celebrity and Material Culture” was given by Kate H. Hamilton, “Queen Charlotte, Burney, and Virtuous Servitude.” Kate talked about the conflicts between the role of a public servant and the role of a novelist. Fanny saw herself as an apolitical writer, but in order to be careful did not send her journal-letters to her sister, Susan, through the post. Her virtuous reputation was dependent on her social connections. While there she was part of a feminized society, attending to queen’s personal needs in dress, entrusted with the queen’s jewelry, and this identity was the one she had to live out publicly. At the same time her fame as the writer of Evelina had helped bring her to the queen’s attention, and she spent much time writing creatively. Kate provided a text which suggests how Frances writes about these conflicts (somewhat coyly) in her diaries:

The Queen sent for me after Breakfast, and delivered to me a long Box, called here The Jewel Box, in which her Jewels are carried to & from Town, that are worn on the Drawing Room Days. The great bulk of them remain in Town all the Winter, & remove to Windsor for all the Summer, with the rest of the family. She told me, as she delivered the key into my Hands, that as there was always much more room in the Box than her travelling Jewels occupied, I might make what use I pleased of the remaining part, adding, with a very expressive smile, ‘I dare say you have Books, & Letters that you may be glad to carry backwards and forwards with you. –‘ I owned that nothing was more true, & thankfully accepted the offer. It has proved to me, since, a comfort of the first magnitude, in conveying all my choice Papers & Letters safely in the carriage with me, as well as Books in present reading, & numerous odd things … CJL 1:192)

Kate mentioned that Mme de Genlis wrote more openly about conflicts between her public, writing, and private roles in life that tarnished her reputation.

Kelly Fleming’s “Miss Larolles, Lady Belgrade’s Shoe Buckles and the Law” was another paper which used elements, characTers, and scenes from Cecilia to discuss larger political and social issues, in this case the contradictions between the way the law of debt worked and what a woman might assume was her private property. Kelly discussed how the auction in Cecilia showed how a wife was forced to pay her husband’s debts by selling her paraphernalia (e.g., shoe buckles). Such property could also be sold when the husband died to pay for debts. Without having real ownership, the woman could nonetheless be indirectly made to pay a debt (unless say another male in the family stepped in). Such events also brought the pain of exposure as they were also fashionable to go to. Kelly brought in the way disguises were used at masquerades (one of her guardians Mr Briggs warns her against the glittering objects on display as belonging to people); and again the point was women cannot find or rely on power through seeming to own anything. During Cecilia the heroine is fleeced of her inheritance of £10,000.

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Sophia Elizabeth Burney (1777-1856) was Frances’s niece, her sister Esther’s daughter

After an afternoon tea break, Lorna Clarke’s description of her and Sara Rose Smith’s edition of Sophia Elizabeth Burney’s “Works” and “Novels, Plays, and Poems” combined with the fourth panel, “Family Politics” ended the academic day.

Lorna said a generous grant from the Burney Society published this volume under the aegis of the Juvenilia Press started by Juliet McMaster. The book was privately printed, and some 15 years ago surfaced in an edition called Works; in 2009 Peter Sabor bought a copy from a private collector. There are two copies of a first volume and one of a second. This new edition combines these; the texts project a strong exuberance; Sophia was perhaps 13 when she wrote them and copied them out in fair copies later. Some 14 titles, 2 novelettes, 2 poems. Titles include Murder Prevented (a playlet); Murder Committed (a tragedy where there is is female confinement, women suffer violence from men; lovers kill themselves); Unlawful Marriage (family struggles, with nightmarish images); A History of Jack Scarrow (boy runs away 100 miles to London). One comedy is reminiscent of Congreve. The stories remember real traumas in the Burney family; events that occurred. They register that Charles Burney’s affability could be seen as sycophancy. As far as we know Fielding’s Amelia was the only novel in Charles Burney’s library.

In her paper, “Burney at Cheapside,” Lorna argued that Burney’s writings are deeply imbued with the politics of gender and class; her place in London society was equivocal, and her consciousness of this played a large part in her unhappiness at court. The Burneys hid that Esther Sleep, Charles’s first wife, owned a shop that sold fans; Charles’s origins were in the servant class, and he used his second wife’s money for income. In her depictions of women, in the life-writing Esther’s mother (Frances’s grandmother) is depicted as an angel, while in Evelina we find a French grandmother, Madame Duval whose vulgar, aggressive behavior mortifies the heroine. Evelina exorcises the ghosts of the Burney forebears: the portrait of Madame Duval, a cathartic release for Frances; the Branghams, versions of the Sleep family. In The Witlings we are in a millinery shop; both Cecilia and Camilla show similar subtexts. Lorna then discussed the use of fans in Burney’s journals to show how through comedy and realism Frances expressed complex feelings she could not approach any other way: pictures on them, lines of verse; how they are used as props, in court ceremonies, as instruments, material symbols.

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From a recent production of The Witlings

Victoria Warren discussed Frances’s play, The Witlings as a treasure trove of every painful sorrow, from what is in the play to how Frances was forced to cancel any productions ever in her lifetime. Some of the facets of the play’s humor show strong feminism; expose deep anti-intellectualism of popular culture (one character has such an aversion to reading, the sight of a book is distasteful), heartlessness; most satirical lines are given to Censor. Victoria went through the individual characters to show how how each functions. There is sentiment too, an almost thwarted love story: the heroine, Cecilia Stanley, grieves because Beaufort does not seek her out for herself.

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Colonel Molesworth Phillips

Jocelyn Harris’s paper on Colonel Molesworth Phillips, Frances’s sister, Susan’s abusive husband, closed the conference. Jocelyn argued that Austen attacked Phillips in her characterization of Fanny Price’s father (often drunk, clearly capable of violence, a do-nothing useless man) in Mansfield Park. Austen of course read Burney’s novels; knew the Cookes who were related to the Burneys; her brother Francis, from his time in the navy, would have know of Burney’s brother’s career (Jocelyn went into many details here). I’ll add that Austen mentions Burney’s son at one point in one of her later letters; and she would probably have known whatever gossip was commonly known about the Burneys. Jocelyn seemed to think that Frances Burney would have recognized this portrait of her brother-in-law in Mansfield Park. My comment is there are no textual proofs whatsoever for this assertion; nor that (as Jocelyn also suggested) Burney would have read Mansfield Park in this way (so seen this “message”), if she read it (there is no record of her reading any of Austen’s novels in all her voluminous writing); and many men in the era were in the military, were violent outside their official job, alcoholics, and ended drones, living on small pensions, all at once.

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Norbury Park, owned by Frances’s friends, the Lockes, where she built Camilla Cottage, which she had to give up later in life (romantic picturesque drawing in Constance Hill’s Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends

In the last half-hour of the conference there was a wide-ranging general discussion which many of the people there joined in on. Some of the most interesting remarks I got down were about other artistic and learned people who Burney wrote about in her journals; about some sources for Burney’s plays, her fictionalizing in the journals, her borrowing from other authors, and Joyce Hemlow’s long career and how she knew much about the property owned by the Burneys and the way they made money to survive. Harder questions were about Frances’s own anxieties as these emerge in her real life finances. We all went out to waiting cabs and headed for a dinner together at McCormick & Schnick’s (said to be a fashionable restaurant in DC). It was expensive. The society will next meet with the Aphra Behn Society next November 2017 in the Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel.

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Doran Goodwin as Emma reassuring her father that her marriage to Mr Knightley does not mean she and her father will part (1972 BBC Emma, scripted Denis Constanduros)

It is almost impossible for any individual to give any general or clear idea of the special lectures, individual break-out sessions, and key-note talks of the JASNA conference. Although the conference was said to begin on Friday (which the conference fee to pay for the sessions covered), there were “light” special lectures (by people who’ve gotten awards for popularizing books, TV personalities, an author of an Austen sequel), group conversations (including a food specialist, people dressing up in costumes, a dramatic sketch with a local fine actress who has performed in plays made out of Austen’s novels) and talks at scattered times on Wednesday and Thursday (fitted into four sessions, for each of which you had to purchase a ticket beyond the conference and hotel fees). I omit the other “special” workshops (on handiwork, fancy work, making things, dancing lessons). At the same time there were tours from the hotel to various tourist places around DC (including to the Folger Shakespeare Library). The conference fee covered but four sessions, and during each nine panels or papers and discussions were going on at once.

There also had been on on-line and one in-person writing workshop for “young writers” (students) done by three name Austen scholars and some volunteers from American university on themes from Emma. There was also a book store, a costume shop.

I regretted having to miss most of the official conference (8 sessions a time). At an earlier conference in Portland, Maine there were far more session times, though again there were a large number on at the same time (not quite 9 each time). I noticed a costume curator’s talk late on Thursday but as there was no further information about this one I didn’t try to come just at that time on day for that. (Were you staying in the glamorous hotel it would have been easy to do.) As part of the conference itself (no extra fee or ticket) there was a concert on Friday night (with nothing on against it), a selection of regency era music performed by a “specialist historical flute player” using an early 19th century Broadwood square fortepiano. My daughter would have liked to go to some of the dance workshops also going on at conflicting times, and requiring a ticket and early registration.

By simply citing all this plainly I hope to have given a sense of what most of this JASNA conference was like. For me there was far too much taking us away from the text of Austen’s Emma.

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Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax fleeing the garden party at Donwell Abbey (1996 A&E Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

So the “official” conference (what your fee paid for) got together as a group on Friday at 1 for Bharat Tandan’s talk ending around 2:15 in the general ballroom. Most of the people at the conference were in the room at the same time so it was a fairly large crowd sitting there politely. I’ve described it fully here (scroll down). Briefly, Prof Tandan asserted rather incoherently there is much invisible in Emma of the greatest interest, but he did not go on to discuss in what these invisible elements consisted. There were then two sessions, one from 2:45 to 3:45 pm, and the second from 4:00 to 5:00 pm.

I’ll save what content on Austen’s Emma I and my daughter were able to hear for a third blog and here just cite the sessions I was especially sorry to have to miss: Anita Solway’s “The Darkness of Emma:” how there is “a somber vision of the vulnerability of our lives that anticipates Persuasion,” and if there are “blessings of existence” that “counteract its devastations;” Gillian Webster’s “Solving the Puzzle of Jane Fairfax: Jane Austen and the Anti-Heroine:” why is Jane Fairfax “so central to the novel, and why is she not the heroine,” how Austen “subverts conventions and challenges her readers to accept a different perspective” (than the usual?); Sheryl Craig “Dependence or Independence;” on the 16 characters gainfully employed in Emma; Holly Field, “Accountable to Nobody: Motherless children in Emma;” Susan Jones’s “Oysters and Alderneys: Emma and the Animal Economy: on the animals (there and alive, and I suppose, alas, killed and eaten). Finally Jeffrey Nigo of the Art Institute of Chicago, together with Andrea Cawetti of Harvard (experts in music, opera, she a former opera singer), on “Divas in the Drawing Room, or Italian Opera Comes to Highbury:” it was possibly a serious talk about arias performed in the era, and the career trajectory of a woman singer.

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Romola Garai as Emma after the assembly ball, come home and practicing as strenuously as she can for a little while (2009 BBC Emma, scripted Sandy Welch)

More next time,
Ellen

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Carrington when young (photo)

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The river Pang, Tidmarsh

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An Artist’s Home and Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The drawings of herself are in the letters

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

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A photo of Lytton reading to Carrington

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

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Cook and Cat

with her pets,

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At Ham Spray

walking talking sitting by the side of Strachey,

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

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

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A hill town in Andalusia

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A Spanish woman, ink and silver foil on glass

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

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Vanessa Bell, The Nursery

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Carrington, Bedford Market (1911)

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Carrington, A Footbathing Party — much like Bell’s

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

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Rouen Ware

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Beanie Bags — the paired figures are typical of lesbian art

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Self-portrait (1910)

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

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Her father (painted much later)

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

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Noel her brother — much later

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

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Very Stevie Smith like

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

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Hills in Snow at Hurst Tarrant (Hampshire), 1915

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

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

Like Vanessa Bell, Carrington took to engravings and book illustrations

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

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Tidmarsh Mills, the meadows

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

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

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A fireplace tile design

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Birds above a cornucopia of flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Hermit

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Furness Abbey, Cumbria (modern photo)

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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An eighteenth century map of Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Charlotte Smith in 1792 by George Romney

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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John Thelwall (1764-1834)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

landscape
From the grounds of Bignor Park

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

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

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

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

underneath
Another part of the gardens

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

Ellen

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