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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Isak Dinesen’s hard-won house in Africa

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

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

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

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

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

From “Biography from Seventy-Four” by Patricia Fargnoli

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

Ellen

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Angelica Kauffman (1741-1807), A drawing of a girl reading her writing

Friends,

I’ve not written a foremother poet blog since I went to a Sylvia Plath exhibit last fall. For Wom-po Annie Finch and Pratibha Kelapure have revived the corner of the list’s website to begin to post brief essays on earlier women poets. They need not be very far back in time. And the first fine one was about Leonie Adams. I thought if I can contribute one this week perhaps that will stir others to pony up, and that community of poets might supply themselves with a foremother poet posting every week to inspirit and teach them, to enjoy.

Two nights ago in my continuing quest to explore the biographical art of Virginia Woolf as modernist and recently as by a woman, I came across a fine book by Caroline Breashears, Eighteenth Century Women’s Writing and the ‘Scandalous Memoir”, one chapter of which discusses the memoir startling for its candour and honesty of an 18th century women poet whom I was therefore drawn to a number of years ago: Catherine Jemmat.

These past couple of evenings I found Jemmat is more successful in prose than verse and presents herself first as a memoirist and then writer of verse and prose miscellanies. Reading over her poetry, her ardent and strident Memoir, and some of the essays she had printed in Miscellanies, in prose and verse (1765 edition), I see her ever struggling to justify herself, and obsessively retelling a paradigmatic story. Again and again she or her subject is mistreated by a relative. Sometimes the angle is ironic: an aunt writes a niece now fallen and in trouble to berate her. A clergyman’s family loses all their money and their father and when they expect to be supported emotionally and financially by an uncle, they are rejected and humiliated. Most horrifying is a story by a animal treated with great cruelty by a family who continually maim the creature (it opens with the master demanding her ears and tail be removed); she morphs into a smaller and smaller animal (finally a worm) each time treated harshly and without mercy. Jemmat says the purpose of this tale is to teach children to be more humane. She certainly does expose the false sentimentalization of family life as a haven. According to Breashears, this is precisely the myth presented in Eliza Haywood’s work (to cite a contemporary woman writer).

Jemmat’s best poems are short columns of verse, and refer to writing, to print. There are some longer prologues or epistles that read well. Lines here and there come alive. There are epistles to friends.  Two suggest that her brother was lost at sea, or died on board a ship. Numbers are addressed to titled male, someone in a position of power, a known artist or professional in Dublin. She is in a friendless state.  She is seeking patrons. Two exultant epistles are to Peg Woffington; one much quieter to Thomas Sheridan. There are poems on simple objects and stanzaic tales, some ironic. Moralizing verse on behalf of prudence. There is one in praise of science. She offers ironic advice to someone on her very latest marriage. She says because she has been saddened by her own life, she cries over stories in newspapers. One touching Prologue is for a benefit play for a hospital: “With sympathetic warmth to feel the throws,/And racking anguish of another’s woes.” She often personates an imagined character. The prosody and aesthetics of her verse are simply centrally 18th century Popian (there is one Miltonic imitation).

An epigram:

Three times I took, for better and for worse,
A bed-fellow, a fortune, and a nurse.
How bless’d the state, which such good things produce,
How dear that sex, which serves such various use!

This stands out:

Question, on the Art of Writing
Tell me what genius did the art invent,
The lively image of a voice to paint?
Who first the secret how to colour found,
And to give shape to reason, wisely found?
With bodies how to cloathe ideas taught,
And how to draw the pictures of a thought?
Who taught the hand to speak, the eye to hear,
A silent language roving far and near?
Whose softest notes out-strip loud thunder’s sound,
And spread their accents thro’ the world’s vast round?
Yet with kind secrecy securely roll,
Whispers of absent friends from pole to pole.
A speech heard by the deaf, spoke by the dumb,
Whose echo reaches far in time to come;
Which dead men speak as well as those that live:
Tell me what genius did this art contrive?

The story of her life indeed is (as retold and commented on by Breashears too) of someone betrayed by the family and relatives and friends she was was brought up to count upon.

Her father, Admiral John Yeo of Plymouther, is the worst of her family to her (when he should be the kindest she says). Her mother, his first wife, died when she was 5; he remarried a girl of nineteen who of course could not relate to another child.  As this second wife becomes a woman she becomes mean to Catherine. The father was often at sea. She was sent to boarding school. Then deeply disappointed of a love match: a young surgeon was going to marry her and died. She rejected the son of a tradesman. She doesn’t  want to marry for money.

She finally marries a silk mercer named Jemmat by whom she has a daughter, but he turns out to be cruel, accusing her of adultery, bullying her, making her fear him through violent behavior. She has a miscarriage. Her father will not give up the dowry, so the husband beats her, and her family actually refuses to pressure her husband to behave differently. She and her husband’s sister fight over power and space. She does “fall” at one point (sexually), but she does not tell much of that — rather we hear of the sisters-in-law fight over property and who will live where. So the escape from her nuclear family was far worse than the original sentence. Jemmat, abusive, often drunk, goes bankrupt. So Catherine was (according to her memoir) “thrown upon the wide world for support.”

We may imagine what this means, but she did survive and wrote a 2 volume book of Memoirs (1st ed, 1762. She became dependent on aristocratic patrons who had known her father. She must have lived in Ireland for a while and frequented the Dublin theater. She published a Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (1766), which includes an essay called “In Vindication of the Female Sex.”  She protests against the scapegoating meted out to women who may be said to have sexual relationships with anyone outside marriage (no matter when or how this is written or talked about).

Catherine Jemmat is not presenting herself as a fallen woman but someone brought low by cultural and financial circumstances and norms. She finds no forgiveness anywhere for just about anything. She flees to her family for succour and they only make things worse, especially her father. Breashears says her memoir is about a woman seeking a home, unable to find or create one for herself. Lonsdale says there are “mysteries” surrounding her — but there are about so many women writers. In Virginia Woolf’s Memoirs of a Novelist, two of the book’s memoirs demonstrate how little we know of women’s lives because quite deliberately their relatives and friends will say nothing truthful; so she slips from our grasp only glimpsed in a phrase here or there.

In her excellent book, Vita & Virginia: The work and friendship of V. Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, Suzanne Raitt argues that the function of life writing when written by women is to restore to them their mother. Like other writers on biography, she collapses the distinction between biography and autobiography. Autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely, the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Raitt suggests when a woman writes of herself or another woman, she is working at restoring her inward health, to put together a new identity out of the fractured one.

Bell Gale Chevigny in an essay in Feminist Studies: Daughters Writing: Towards a theory of women’s biography that women write the life of another woman — who is usually younger than them, or perhaps now dead, from a daughter’s vantage point. Gaskell writes as a daughter of Charlotte. Woolf writes Orlando as a daughter of Vita Sackville-West. I know Elena Ferrante writes as a lost daughter, child, doll. As a mother rejected by her daughters. Jemmat was then fractured at age 5, then again by a step-mother, then by sister-rivals. Hers is an absent mother she cannot reach.

Here is what Jemmat writes to Peg Woffington “on seeing her in several characters:”

In silent wonder sunk, in rapture bound,
My captivated thoght no utt’rance found;
Each faculty o’ewhelm’d, its vigour lost,
And all my soul from theme to theme was tost.
Whate’er the heart canfeel, the tongue express,
The springs of joy, the floods of deep distress,
The passions utmost pow’r, o’er-rul’d by laws,
Which genius dictates, and which judgment draws,
Subdu’d thsu long my bosom’s grateful fire,
Silent to gaze, and with the crowd admire.
Stand forth confest, unrivall’d, and alone,
And view the human passions all your own,
Reign o’er the heart with unresisted sway,
The heart must beauty, and must power obey;
Each muse hath plac’d her sceptre in your hand,
And ready rapture waits on your command …

A second addressed to Woffington makes her into a goddess adorning the very earth and all the seas. She “moves obedient to the air like “bright Venus in the midst of spring,/Sports with the graces in the verdant ring,/The nymphs, the fawns, the sylvan crowd admire …


Peg Woffington as painted by F. Haytley in her role as Mistress Ford in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor

Ellen

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Madame Roland, from her last year of life

Friends,

For quite a while I’ve been considering giving a course on “The Enlightenment: at risk?” at one of the two Oscher Institutes of Lifelong Learning I teach at, and finally I bit the bullet and wrote this proposal for an 11 week course at the American University OLLI:

It’s been suggested the ideas associated with the European Enlightenment, a belief in people’s ability to act rationally, ideals of social justice, human rights, toleration, education for all, in scientific method, are more at risk than any time since the 1930s. In this course we’ll ask what was & is meant by the term, how & why did this movement spread, against what obstacles, what were the realities of the era and what were the new genres & forms of art that emerged. We’ll read Voltaire’s Candide, Diderot’s The Nun, Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands, and excerpts from Madame [Jeanne-Marie] Roland’s Memoirs.

I originally thought to repeat my work on Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover, the novel of Naples in the 18th century, but decided it was too long, top heavy, and obviously tendentiousnessly pessimistic.

Then I discovered an English translation and good paperback edition of Madame Roland’s Memoirs as A Heroine of the French Revolution, translated and edited by Evelyn Shuckburgh. New York: Moyer Bell/Rizzoli, 1989. I first read Roland’s Memoirs in an Elibron facsimile of the 19th century original French edition published by her daughter, and at that time had just read a great biography by Francois Kermina (not well-known among English readers), Madame Roland ou La Passion Revolutionaire (Paris, 1976). In type Kermina’s biographies are like Amanda Vickery’s marvelous books, or Amanda Foreman’s biography of the Duchess of Devonshire. Beautifully well done scholarship meant to be read by the serious common reader, and written from a woman’s point of view. Not worshipful: she sees the ambitious conflicted woman who had an affair with Brissot. I enjoyed Gita May’s biography less because it seemed more superficial even if factually full. Gita does show what a reading girl Roland was. Now I look upon May as a conventional biographer with Kermina writing a modernist biography. Also Charles A. Dauban, Etude sur Madame Roland et son temps, another Elibron reprint, a perceptive study in the thorough 19th mode.

The value of Dauban is about 1/3 is made up of her letters. Though all my notes on a review I wrote of Eighteenth-Century Women: Studies in Their Lives, Work, and Culture, ed. Linda V. Troost, an anthology of mostly excellent essays on 18th century women writers seems to have vanished, I have the review itself on my website. I’ll transfer it to the academia.edu page (where such papers get more attention).

One exception was of Madame Roland by Mary Cisar (“Madame Roland and the Grammar of Female Sainthood”). Cisar erases what Marie-Jeanne (Manon) Phlippon (born 1754, guillotined 1793) turned to in order to lead a life at odds with her era’s mores and customs: the power of an intensely rebellious and non-religious private spiritual life. Cisar argues that Roland was an unconsciously religious anorexic recluse through a chart which correlates a generalized life pattern of a typical saint with Roland’s unsocial habits and, emptied of its political content, the record Roland left of her sexual and literary experiences; and through an insistence that a subset of religious books meant far more to Roland than all others. Cisar denigrates Roland: Roland’s memoir is “a somewhat self-indulgent reminiscence,” her “intellectual journey [is] hardly original;” she was reluctant to marry because she “considered all of [her suitors] inferior to herself”; her life was “flight from social obligation.” (How terrible.) Roland’s preference for communing with her books and thoughts and overt claims to “exceptionality” are treated with resentment.

Cisar cites and then ignores Caroline Bynum Walker’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast and “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols” (in Anthropology and the Study of Religion, ed, R. L. Moore and F. E. Reynolds [Chicago: Center for the Scientific Study of Relgion, 1984], 105-25) whose study of female saints, women’s symbols and individual women differentiates actual life patterns and those of women from men. Cisar also dismisses Edith Bernardin’s Les Idées Religieuses de Madame Roland (Paris, 1933), which does persuasively show Roland’s faith to have been theoretically optimistic, secular, and Rousseauistic. Roland’s references to Francis of Sales’s “La Philothée” (which Cisar makes much of), consist of one ironic reference to its sensuality and one anxious one to its injunction to repress unprocreative sex (Mémoires de Madame Roland, ed. C. A. Dauban [Paris: Elibron Facsimile edition, 2002], 50, 67).

Cisar reads Roland’s texts at face value. As has been shown by a number of scholars (e.g., Dorina Outram, The Body and the French Revolution, and Nicole Trèves, “Madame Roland ou le parcours d’une intellectuelle à la grande âme,” Femmes savantes et femmes d’esprit, ed. R. Bonnel and C. Rubinger [New York: Peter Lang, 1994], 321-40]), Roland’s writings are defensive, guarded, often disingenous to protect her, and contain a multiplicity of intellectual journeys, each fascinating and on the level of an original genius. Cisar does not cite Françoise Kermina’s Madame Roland ou la passion révolutionnaire (1957; rpt. Perrin: Librairie Académique, 1976), which is meant to reach a wide audience and based on thorough archival research of her subject’s life. Kermina shows Roland to have been intensely ambitious: Roland’s writings hide from view her frustration, two years of intense politicking, and “une amertume terrible” (the phrase is Trèves, 322).

I would add that, like many another woman, Roland’s writings reveal a woman who valued the friendships she managed to sustain. There is a set of touching letters between her and a good friend, Sophie Canet; she was close to her mother and meant to be devoted to her daughter, who remained loyal. I think Roland was throughout her life profoundly depressed. When she and her husband fell from power and she was anathematized (with salacious slander very like that directed at so many other ambitious intelligent women), a barely controlled hysteria and paralyzing trauma actuated her decision not to flee death. She kept herself sane and explored this trauma by writing the famous memoir.


I discovered an excellent Norton

The course will of course be but one quarter on Roland. If it goes well, perhaps another time I can try Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, and replace Johnson’s travel book with one of the era’s new biographies.

For the other three: I have not read Voltaire’s Candide in many years. When I did, I thought it was the 18th century equivalent of Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce for the 20th century, a sina qua non of the 18th century.


We hear her shouting and then muffled

I read Diderot’s The Nun in French (La Religieuse) and watched the extraordinary 1966 film directed by Jean Rivette, screenplay Jean Gruault, produced by George de Beuregard, starring Anna Karina as Suzanne when I wrote my paper on rape in Richardson’s Clarissa. A study which illuminates much of the process Clarissa and Suzanne go through is Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic violence to political terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992). For my study of Johnson and Woolf I’ve begun listening to Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands (blended with Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides) on Recorded Books. The two readers do it very well.

Documents from the era in one of its new genres would make the point of what was the actuality of the era against its ideals more convincingly. I may add just snippets or excerpts on-line from the most famous books, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Hume’s famous chapter on the argument for a belief in God based on miracles (in the Dialogues), and Beccaria’s against torture from his Crimes and Punishments.

I can Sontag’e Volcano Lover, an important philosophical book for our time rooted in the 18th century — with Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General, in the spring. A reprise of the summer course I did at OLLI at Mason last summer.


An 18th century painting of “the Pont Neuf and pump house” (painter unnamed)

Ellen

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From Peter Staughan’s 2015 Wolf Hall: actors dancing Renaissance dance, POV Cromwell

What sort of person writes fiction about the past? It is helpful to be acquainted with violence, because the past is violent. It is necessary to know that the people who live there are not the same as people now. It is necessary to understand that the dead are real, and have power over the living. It is helpful to have encountered the dead firsthand, in the form of ghosts.

The writer’s relationship with a historical character is in some ways less intimate than with a fictional one: the historical character is elusive and far away, so there is more distance between them. But there is also more equality between them, and more longing; when he dies, real mourning is possible — Larissa MacFarquhar on Hilary Mantel’s imagination, The New Yorker

Friends and readers,

It’s now two years since I wrote four blogs on the powerful mini-series by Peter Straughan, Wolf Hall (featuring Mark Ryland and Claire Foy) (1-2: Fathers and sons;, 3-4, Stealth Heroine and a contemporary Man for All Seasons; 5-6, what human beings are capable of). Though I had read it and listened to Simon Slater’s brilliantly interpretative reading aloud of the whole text (available on CDs), where he makes Cromwell come out much less sympathetically than Mark Rylance’s nuance kind performance in the mini-series, I didn’t blog on the novel just by itself — which I often do for other books so filmed/adapted.

I’ve just had the great pleasure of re-reading the book with a class of retired adults, 20 or so people who appeared to enjoy it very much. I would like to tell a little of what they and I said, but am realizing that we found it such fun not because of any particular insight or examination of the text we did. The fun was in learning relevant history this way. So much we saw in the tyranny of Henry, the complicity of his courtiers, the sexual exploitation of women so germane; the psychologies of the characters we could recognize in ourselves or people close to us. Then they would go off and read history and find these stories re-hashed. The amorality of these characters. They were intrigued by the actual history, the characters, the style of the book (they said this and read passages aloud from the book they were especially taken with), its participation in historical romance. A very intelligent group of people, with interesting personal histories of travel, employment, court cases themselves.

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


Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell (1534)

As a historical novel:

They asked if all the characters represented people who once lived. Yes, I said. It’s the type of historical fiction which uses actual historical personages as chief characters (another is I, Claudius); all the people named existed and outwardly they did or lived more or less as we see the the characters here. Unnamed people are representative. This strict version invents almost no one. That’s hard, isn’t it? It’s like a sonnet, a 14 line poem which rhymes in a prescribed way; the villanelle that follows a prescribed obsessive pattern.

The crucial differences in the presentation of this Tudor Matter: Mantel chooses characters most people have ignored and dramatizes them through a fresh convincing, often ultimately compassionate interpretation. Not just Cromwell become hero, but Mary Tudor, Henry’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, emotionally disabled: the pity for Mary Tudor as so twisted emotionally and her body so small and she in pain. Mary Boleyn generous-natured, frank and so become female fodder. Anne Boleyn now seen as not just sexually manipulative, and for a Protestant state, but seethingly ambitious, yet (like Cromwell, Wolsey) vulnerable so (in her case paranoaic), egoistic, losing perspective. Her helpless fall from favor. Thomas More now the fanatic and torturer. Wolsey the luxurious cat-like power-seeker, yet humane, a builder of schools.

All three books one continuous tight-knit story: a fictional biography of Thomas Cromwell based on his papers and a school of Renaissance scholarship that began with G.Elton, to whose disciple, Mary Robertson, Mantel dedicates her novel. This big fat book is Act One of Cromwell’s story, ending in the murder of Thomas More (a contrast to him). The second, Bring Up the Bodies, Act Two, worked up as dramatic clashes between Cromwell and those he’s partly framing, in order to enable the king to murder Anne Boleyn (the stealth tragic heroine, with her wry, embittered alter ego, Mary Boleyn). Act Three, not yet finished (still under construction), The Mirror and the light, ending in the murder of Cromwell himself.

Fintan O’Toole says the appeal of this Cromwell is he is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. Thirty years ago, Mantel’s Cromwell … of limited interest. His virtues — hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, a talent for office politics, the steady accumulation of money, a valuing of stability above all else–— … as mere bourgeois orthodoxy. Boring, contemptible, in a damning word, safe. But they’re not safe anymore. They don’t assure security. As the world becomes … precarious … everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment (Anne’s tablecloth removed). The terror that grips us is rooted not in Cromwell’s … extraordinary strength. Except for the twist -— meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?

Wolf Hall, Act One, is made up of six parts — we read two a week. The structure so familiar from women’s writing, (l’ecriture-femme), is here: it’s cyclical, moving through repetition across eras. One realizes the title, Wolf Hall chosen to suggest how this is a world of wolves. Threes. Each of the six parts is in threes: an introductory chapter (sometimes shortish), a middle chapter (longish, the “meat” of the part), and coda (short chapter).

Part One builds the picture of Cromwell as an abused survivor of a boy, a fully mature man in the home he creates for himself and family, astonishingly a stable well educated kindly man, enacting the good father to the boys he takes in, as we see Wolsey with due irony behaved to him. “He was ever kind to me” Cromwell tells Henry in extenuation of Cromwell’s continued loyalty to Wolsey.

At Austin Friars – in very few pages Mantel has to establish a trusting loving relationship between Cromwell and his wife since she makes Cromwell grieve for his loss of Liz during much of this book. Decent feeling. Playful, sensible. Through her and her sister, Joanne we see how women looked at Anne Boleyn and the divorce — pitied Katherine for not having had a sons

Part Two all comes to grief: Wolsey ejected, the death of Cromwell’s beloved wife and daughters; the central long section (“Occult history”) explains how the ejection of Wolsey came to happen and includes extravagances of mythic history; a coda of George Cavendish (whose love for Wolsey makes him perpetually plangent) astonished to see Cromwell (also a mother figure) crying.

We talked of sources. Although she doesn’t admit them, Mantel was also strongly influenced by Alison Weir’s The Other Boleyn Girl, filmed twice, one released to the theaters with Scarlett Johanson as Mary Boleyn, and the other a BBC single episode with Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn (by Philippa Lowthorne). I read aloud to them Mary Boleyn’s letter to Cromwell when she was thrown out of court with William Stafford, a groom whom she seems to have loved (he valued her). Just extraordinary letter for a Renaissance women – I’ve read a lot of these at one time, most personal letters are guarded or hypocritical, so much verbiage out of which you may glimpse some truths. Correspondence was read by gov’t officials — there was no privacy. MB paid someone to hand-carry it to Cromwell: that she could write such a letter to him speaks well of him, for the relationship must’ve been open to it, invited it. Weir disdains it and talks of it stupid — yes she is not phonily performing (guarded, hypocritical) which is Weir’s criteria I suppose. But Mantel no more favors Mary Boleyn than Cromwell.

Cromwell was a controversial figure and had been bad-mouthed (not too much to say it was snobbery too) with an apotheosis in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Leo McKern memorably this corrupt bully. So we have to unlearn a bit: not only was he beheaded because the king grew angry at the ugliness of Anne of Cleves, Cromwell was sincerely protestant and he succeeded largely in altering the composition of the English structure of gov’t – as is now being tried before our very eyes in the US and has been going on some say since the mid-1970s with Trump and this rump republican congress the fruits of it. How do you affect change: Cromwell did it bit by bit, each time cagily appealing to the self-interest of whoever had the reigns of what he was altering. He left many many letters, diplomat’s letters but write something down and it gives you away.

Mantel has made every effort to make us respect and like Thomas Cromwell but when it comes to the trial and beheading she does not whitewash the man. Six young man: we are shown how awful they are to those beneath them, but should they have been beheaded? it was Thomas Cromwell who made the evidence (if there was any) into a case which could withstand a trial. In other words, if you think Anne was just about wholly innocent, he framed her and killed them all. Unlike More’s behavior to those he burned alive and oversaw the beheading of, there is no evidence for torture. Still, part of the blackening of his character, paradoxically is while until the 20th century Anne Boleyn was often presented as guilty at least of sex with the courtiers, Cromwell was vilified. What Mantel does in the book and the film even more Straughan present Cromwell as doing this unwillingly; he gets no pleasure from it; he looks grave, unhappy, and after she’s dead when Henry welcomes him with open arms, he looks terrified. But he did it. In Bring up the Bodies we also see him exploit women and in general he’s more of a villain, hardening of his character as time goes on. The book takes a much shorter time. No more liaison with Johanne, Rafe and Helen are gone, Richard in another house. We can project this process might go further in the final act Mantel is said to be writing: The Mirror and the Light.


Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey (2015 Wolf Hall)

Wolsey – what kind of man is he presented as? – long effective career in church, slowly promoted up – destroyed or neutralized the positions of those around him; what religious beliefs did he have? You might say Cromwell was a son of Wolsey – a brilliant foreign policy person, diplomat, powerful administrator, he built major benefactor of arts, humanities and education. He projected numerous reforms, with some success in areas such as finance, taxation educational provision and justice. He reformed taxes—opposite of what’s happening today; before him all owed the same, now poorer much less and Wolsey collected much more for the king’s wars and luxurious entertainments, But Wolsey failed him in oen particular? The diplomatic situation was hard: Catherine a daughter of the Aragons; Charles V her nephew, and in a way Charles V besieged Rome, and took over Clement’s power for a while

Wolsey and Cromwell talk and eat together. Then as events close in, Cromwell’s helping to move the old man to Winchester and then York,
Cromwell: “Masters, I want kindling, dry kindling … Get the fires lit … Stephen, find the kitchen …. Actually, see him in first… I need the bedding … What? Who is that? … Michael? Down, off. The horses, later. We want the Cardinal in bed and warm. …Come on, come on, we’re not done yet! …”
To Wolsey now in bed: “I asked if they had nutmeg or saffron – they looked at me as if I was speaking Greek. I’ll have to find a local supplier.”
Wolsey: “I shall pray for it.”

I find it very touching the way Cromwell tries to secure creature comforts for the old man, and how the old man gently mocks his endeavours. Despite Henry’s claim that he loves and misses the Cardinal, and that he cannot bring the Cardinal back (as his courtiers, and the powerful aristocratic clans who loathe Wolsey as a butcher’s son are pressuring him), Wolsey is thrown away, humiliated, sickens and dies.

I come back to the use of Rylance as POV and his uncanny ability to convey complicated layers of thought in different scenes with these highly theatrical characters in situations of deep crisis strain, to seem out-side the action and questioning it. The character he plays, Cromwell, is himself deeply complicit, com-promised and comprising — rising, becoming wealthier, powerful, using his nephew and ward, Rafe as spies. He says at one point, now it’s his turn to get back. He participates in the neurotic fights of the Boleyns. He may tells Henry Percy (then drunk) the day of the power of the thug warrior-aristocrat as all-powerful is over: that the world also works on money, that bankers are in charge (this seems a bit anachronistic, you’d think the Italian bankers were turned into today’s European Union and World Bank).

There is his true son, Rafe, who does not have bad dreams, p 26 – we shall see how he came to live with and revere Cromwell; how did he comes to take in Rafe – it’s in the long occult history, back history :so touching every moment: Cromwell as mother – look with me on page 106-7, well into chapter

Part Three introduces the court characters, the king, Anne and Mary Boleyn, deepens Cromwell and Wolsey’s relationship (“Entirely Beloved Cromwell”), people lost along the way become ghosts haunting you (“The Dead Complain of Their Burial”).

What kind of person is Henry in this book? We talked of his sexual anxiety, his apparent timidity; how he believed the old supposedly Biblical culture. When Anne proved no virgin, and he realized how much she knew about sex, how to please him, paradoxically but in character he begins to mistrust her. Jealous. She is bitter herself. Extraordinary sequence of Cromwell taken from bed and re-interpreting king’s dream. All imagined but captures deeper truths about these people — including Cranmer who is so hesitant, young men around king obeying his slightest whims. Cromwell comes home to be haunted by Wolsey, by Liz. I read aloud from Johnson’s Vanity of Human Wishes on Wolsey; Shakespeare’s Henry VIII had he only served his God before his king …; Wyatt’s poem on Anne as like this deer so alluring.

They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change …

Part Four dramatizes how the world is a profoundly dangerous place (you must “arrange your face”), with its long center showing people seeking love (“What shall I do for love?”), discovering enacting cruelty, torture (the burning of the old woman, a Lollard so crazed), treachery under hats. The family groups formed, with Cromwell emerging as Henry’s man (the speech to Henry Percy about where the world is ruled from a case in point).


Said to be Mary Boleyn (reprinted in Alison Weir)

Part Five with Anne now queen (“Anna Regina”), become paranoiac, losing perspective. Contrasts: she and Henry to Rafe’s calm integrity and love for Helen, ex-laundress, widow, all calm competence; Cranmer and his barmaid Margaret, he too like Rafe could not help but love her; the desperate Mary seeking a protector. “The Devil’s spit” (middle chapter) exposes the underbelly of women’s subject position: Elizabeth Barton’s malevolence allows her to take a place on the stage. Ends in Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell’s outwardly iron self.

Master Secretary,
After my poor recommendations, which is smally to be regarded of me, that am a poor banished creature, this shall be to desire you to be good to my poor husband and to me. I am sure that it is not unknown to you the high displeasure that both he and I have, both of the King’s Highness and the Queen’s Grace, by reason of our marriage without their knowledge, wherein we both do yield ourselves faulty, and acknowledge that we did not well to be so hasty nor so bold, without their knowledge.
But one thing, good Master Secretary, consider: that he was young, and love overcame reason; and for my part, I saw so much honesty in him that I loved him as well as he did me; and was in bondage, and glad I was to be at liberty.

So that for my part, I saw that all the world did set so little store by me, and he so much, that I thought I could take no better way but to take him and to forsake all other ways, and live a poor, honest life with him. And so I do put no doubt but we should, if we might once be so happy to recover the King’s gracious favor and the Queen’s. For well I might a had a greater man of birth, and a higher, but I ensure you I could never a had one that should a loved me so well, nor a more honest man. And besides that, he is both come of ancient stock, and again as meet (if it was his Grace’s pleasure) to do the King service as any young gentleman in his court.

Therefore, good Master Secretary, this shall be my suit to you, that, for the love that well I know you do bear to all my blood, though for my part, I have not deserved it but smally, by reason of my vile conditions, as to put my husband to the King’s Grace that he may do his duty as all other gentlemen do.
And, good Master Secretary, sue for us to the King’s Highness, and beseech his Highness, which ever was wont to take pity, to have pity on us; and that it would please his Grace, of his goodness, to speak to the Queen’s Grace for us; for, so far as I can perceive, her Grace is so highly displeased with us both that,without the King be so good lord to us as to withdraw his rigor and sue for us, we are never likely to recover her Grace’s favor, which is too heavy to bear. And seeing there is no remedy, for God’s sake, help us, for we have been now a quarter of a year married, I thank God, and too late now to call it again; wherefore it is the more alms to help us. But if I were at my liberty and might choose, I ensure you, Master Secretary, for my little time, I have spied so much honesty to be in him that I had rather beg my bread with him than to be the greatest queen christened. And I believe verily he is in the same case with me; for I believe verily he would not forsake me to be a king.

Therefore, good Master Secretary, seeing we are so well together and does intend to live so honest a life, though it be but poor, show part of your goodness to us as well as you do to all the world besides; for I promise you, you have the name to help all them that hath need, and amongst all your suitors I dare be bold to say that you have no matter more to be pitied than ours; and therefore, for God’s sake, be good to us, for in you is all our trust.

And I beseech you, good Master Secretary, pray my Lord my father and my Lady my mother to be good to us, and to let us have their blessings, and my husband their goodwill; and I will never desire more of them. Also, I pray you, desire my Lord of Norfolk [her uncle] and my Lord my brother to be good to us. I dare not write to them, they are so cruel against us. But if with any pain I could take my life [that] I might win their good wills, I promise you there is no child living would venture more than I. And so I pray you to report by me, and you shall find my writing true, and in all points which I may please them in I shall be ready to obey them nearest my husband, whom I am bound to; to whom I most heartily beseech you to be good unto, which, for my sake, is a poor, banished man for an honest and goodly cause. And seeing that I have read in old books that some, for as just causes, have by kings and queens been pardoned by the suit of good folk, I trust it shall be our chance, through your good help, to come to the same; as knoweth the [Lord] God, Who send you health and heart’s ease.

Scribbbled with her ill hand, who is your poor,
humble suitor, always to command,
Mary Stafford.

We talked of the attitude towards women in the novel: they get a very rough deal; Cromwell and Mary Boleyn, Elizabeth Barton Mantel’s Wolf Hall performs the function of recent sequels to classic fiction and revisions of consensus histories; she asks us to switch our allegiances to the victimized, conquered, castigated and stigmatized lives of traditional histories and in so doing discover the tragedy going on is one where the subaltern fig-ures are us. In this case these figures include several of the hitherto despised and dismissed women of Henry VIII’s court and his low-born secretary, Thomas Cromwell. My feeling is Mantel came to her very project, her very choice of historical span, by way of so many women’s identification with Anne Boleyn, and added to her Mary and Jane Boleyn, Mary Tudor (Lily Lesser) re-seen (as the product of a neurotic relationship of a profoundly sexually twisted man and woman, Henry VIII & Katharine of Aragon). Thomas Cromwell she came to by way of her insight of the deep evils religion (in her case, originally Roman Ca-tholicism) promotes and disciplines people to enact. Queen, the devil’s spit is Elizabeth Barton; that old woman burnt to death that Cromwell witnesses as a young (288-93) – it’s in the fourth part


Holbein’s 1527 Thomas More (close-up of his face)

Part Six ending in execution of More, and the sexually anxious king turned against Anne and towards Jane Seymour, is a disquisition on power (with which it begins), who has it, where it comes from. Mary kicked out; I read her letter aloud.

John Schofield’s The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. The questioning of the previous factional interpretation begins with the great scholar Geoffrey Elton, and culminates with the work of Mary Robertson to whom this book is dedicated. All very detailed, not overtly entertaining. I’ll send along just one essay by Mary Robertson and it shows how Cromwell operated in the West Country. Since Mantel’s book there has been a revolution in how to regard Cromwell popularly; she has also been attacked by scholars and critics for being anti-catholic: she is an ex-Catholic.

The book was discussed in the US by people on opposite sides of religious politics with as I recall, an arch conservative – of all people – Jewish – attacking the book and her, “maddeningly” great fiction to distort the record so. Krautheimer likes having Sir Thomas More as a saint. Krautheimer wrote in several places attacked Mantel, he was so exercised against this portrait of More as an utterly cold egoistic torturer, fanatic, anything but the humane man for all seasons Bolt dreamed up. Mantel is closer because even though More wrote those great books he did torture and willingly, superfluously seeking people out, while Cromwell avoided it as bad policy. He’d have been against slavery in the 19th century as bad policy. I read aloud parts of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, from More’s Utopia and book on Comfort in Time of Tribulation (written while in prison).

Her interest is as much in religion as culture and politics; it’s fictionalized biography as well as fictionalized history; inspired anthropology as well as extraordinary artistry on all levels. I think it’s a masterpiece or masterwork like Swift’s Waterlands or Scott’s Raj Quartet taken altogether, at the same time as you can discern a cynical appraisal of what formula and content will attract attention, make her big money.

I think it’s more than that and wrote a paper on this – Journal of Popular TV didn’t care for it as too learned. But they liked my thesis that Tudor matter appeals because it presents “men under dire pressure” who transgress sexual and masculine norms. We have these enormously strong women and men who are allowed to dress flamboyantly, enacting abjection in poetry and stories, were sycophants at court and themselves beheaded. It’s this freedom of men to come out of their usual boring clothes and compete with flamboyant women who often win. It’s the costumes. George Boleyn said to have been gay, Smeaton the musician (Mary Queen of Scots also involved herself with a musician, David Rizzio and he was slaughtered. At the end of Mantel’s second book we have had quite a number of men beheaded, six for sexual transgression. Latest idea is that Anne may have been guilty with one of Henry’s close men – Henry Norris, Francis Bryan, William Brereton, Mark Smeaton, George Boleyn also murdereed. Francis Weston. Elizabeth beheaded Essex – rightly.

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

As erotic historical romance


From 2008 The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Lowthorpe, Anne and Mary in the tower (Jodhi May and Natasha Mcelhone)

We began with Mantel’s choice of prologue: from John Skelton’s masque, Magnificence. What’s the effect of this framing? Is this tragedy, comedy or satire? For Cromwell’s contemporaries for Shakespeare a question about genre counts … What’s interesting is the allegory is brought back inside the book. Anne Boleyn is Peseverance in the masque we first her at – dancing with Percy 45-46), we are told in Cromwell’s dream mind Cavendish, George, is virtuous Councilor, Wolsey Decayed Magnificence, he Cromwell is Tempter. If you go to page 14, you find Cromwell supposedly remembering she was Beauty or Kindness (a generosity and openness of spirit). When we think of allegory, we think of simple words. Not the Elizabethans.

People in the class talked of other books “like this one.” One woman in the class gave me a copy of her published poetic narrative verse book, Barbara Goldberg, her Berta Broadfoot and Pepin the short

A 64 page historical romance made up of soliloquies. It is remarkable. Barbara’s sources are much reading in history of the 8th century and earlier in France and Norma Lorre Goodrich’s Medieval Myths. Barbara also used books of troubadour poetry — including the few by women. Her introduction tells of her archetypal Jungian interpretation which uses fairy tales which correspond to the legends and history. It has illustrations which are wood-cut like and remind me of those accompanying a volume of ghost stories by Wharton. Norma Lorre Goodrich takes a feminist or feminine view of these myths, but it’s not acknowledged as such; she puts me in mind of Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespeare Illustrated. The story as Barbara sees it is of a girl with clubfoot whose housekeeper or evil servant substitutes her own daughter in the marriage bed of Pepin the short.

The soliloquies are modern women’s poetry — not free verse, but the elegant Anthony Hecht kind of thing. The story is about the misery of these women — when the servant’s daughter is substituted for the princess and she has to go to bed with Pepin, Goldberg writes of the experience as just awful, terrible, ugly and it’s convincing. Hatred is fostered between Aliste who is the daughter substituted for Berta by her mother, Margiste; the substitution is discovered and Margiste is tortured and then burnt at the stake. She justifies herself. We feel the intensity of these women’s bodies so hurt. The true daughter, Berta, is transferred to Pepin — poor woman, her broadfoot was partly the cause of what happened; a knife would have been take to cut her foot or leg off — the sense is a clubfoot but hard to say. She is disabled and no more wants to go to bed with Pepin and have his children than Agiste. Berta has a mother Blanchefleur whose name reminds me of Arthurian matter. The core here is the erotic physical experience in bed — very like Outlander – only here not idealized at all, forced. A mother forcing her daughter to go to bed with a king is not a joke: even if the man weren’t awful, it’s horrible to be forced this way to give your body to someone to do with as he pleases:

Aliste Considers Her Position

Who was there to turn to when I found
his morning gift, a handsome brooch
encrusted with pearls, on my pillow?
Him? Not him, no morning gift, pink
and strutting, boasting of the seed
he felt spring from him with the force
of ten thousand steeds. When he forced
himself on me, pink, boastful, bent
to suckle like a piglet in his greed,
who was there? He threw his head back,
shouted, boasting of his seed, my morning
gift, and who was there to turn to? I set
my lips in imitation of a smile, spread
my limbs like any sow, but who was there?
Could I proclaim, pink and strutting, ‘This.
This is who I am, your morning gift, servant
girl who cannot sign her name. And do you
love her still? Would you leave a gift,
a morning gift, a handsome brooch, on her
pillow?’ Who was there, who, to turn to?

Not Mother, hopping about with glee, fingers
greasy from palace meat. She pokes my ribs
and cackles, ‘We fooled him, eh? We two
make quite a team.’ when, hankering for all I’ve lost, I think
of home and sister and the poor dumb sheep
I used to shear. Sister [the one she was substituted for]. Sister. Poor
dumb sheep I use to sear. Berta and I
once laughed ourselves to sleep I shuddered
when I saw her heart, darkly gleaming in
Mother’s palm. She hopped about with glee
then tossed it down her throat. ‘There,’
she said,’That’s done,’ her fingers greasy
from the meat. And poked my ribs, while I,
dumb sheep, must play the part of Queen.

This is what Mary Boleyn feels when in the book she must “service” Henry at night because Anne’s pregnancy must be protected.


Charity Wakefield as Mary talking about how she’s used, Mark Rylance as Cromwell feeling for her (2012 Wolf Hall)

I wish I had known about books like this when I read medieval poetry by women, Christine de Pisan, Marie of France, Silence (attributed to a woman, anonymous) and the women’s troubadour poems. My sense is Goldberg is reacting to these — she is by origin German and French-American and the book is dedicated to her mother and grandmother.

Lastly they were interested in Mantel and a few people said they had read other of Mantel’s books and liked them very much. So I close on what I said of her: see “Answering the Heart’s Needs: Giving Up the Ghost

She is the daughter of Irish Catholic Immigrants into England. he daughter of Irish Catholic immigrants, Hilary Mary Mantel was born on July 6, 1952, and raised in a small provincial town in the north of England. Educated at convent schools and joining a monthly processional to the church for confession, she struggled to understand her connection to a faith that seemed at once punitive and alienating. “From about the age of four,” she writes in her 2003 memoir Giving Up the Ghost, “I had begun to believe I had done something wrong. Confession didn’t touch some essential sin. There was something inside me that was beyond remedy and beyond redemption.” She sees herself as having rebelled against systematic suppression by rules all the more adament because never articulated. She met her husband, Gerald McEwan years ago and they went to Sheffield together to law school We don’t need women.

Her physical is important; from age 20 attacked by debilitating illness and told it was psychosomatic, stress caused by over-ambition. Unbearable pain led her to do research herself and came up with a diagnosis of endometriosis; she had a hysterectomy which is actually one of the treatments but she was still in pain and hormones suddenly made her hugely fat. This happens to other women who put IUVs in themselves – she lived in Saudi Arabia with her husband at one point and didn’t go out anyway.

The first writing I ever read by her was a remarkable attack on the human dimensions of the medical establishment, the way it works by intimidation, indifference, how little they often know and how they are most interested in their place in the organization (as Cromwell might say) She immerses herself in research, in the past and writing becomes her compulsion, her liberty. There was a separation from her husband, she really hit a terrible nadir.

By the end of their stay in Africa, she had produced a huge manuscript. But after she returned to London, she found that it was not easy to find a publisher for the book she titled A Place of Greater Safety. Before A Place of Greater Safety finally appeared in 1992, Mantel had established her reputation with four other novels: Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985) and Vacant Possession (1986), satirical thrillers about a macabre mother-daughter relationship; Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988), about a Western woman’s disorientation in the Middle East, based on her own experiences in Saudi Arabia in 1982. She comes into her own when she becomes at once political and personal in A Change of Climate (1994) it considers Ralph and Anna Eldred, recently returned from apartheid South Africa, where they had administered a church mission. Ralph took the post initially to flee from his domineering father, who forbade him to pursue a career in geology. Both he and Anna struggle to justify their good works in the context of a religion from which they feel increasingly distant and a political situation that increasingly sees them as part of an endemic problem of colonialism. After they are forced out of South Africa, they accept a remote post in Botswana. Here, too, they become victims of political discontent and unrest. A disgruntled servant abducts their infant twins; only one, the girl, is ever found, and Ralph and Anna flee to the safety of home. How a woman is connected deeply to her body, her identity is her body is An Experiment in Love (1995), a law student who becomes anorexic. Her memoir Giving up the Ghost (that’s another one I’ve read).

Odd historical novels, The Giant, O’Brien – -18th century very tall man. We have a woman in drag, arguably Cromwell is a womanly man – but also stealth heroines I call them: Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn especially. Anne Boleyn fascinates her as she has others.

I didn’t sufficiently emphasize how this book is also historical romance but Barbara’s book and the interest in Mantel’s non-historical novel showed they got that without being told.

Ellen

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Photograph of DuMaurier at her desk

Dear friends and readers,

I’m relieved to be able to report that at least among a group of 50+ year olds (some 25 or more) Daphne DuMaurier’s fiction is not obsolete. Someone could say in reply, well, of course not, the production of film adaptations of her books has far from ceased. Two recent very well-done film adaptations, Jamaica Inn (2014, scripted by Emma Frost), a three part mini-series, featured Jessica Findley Brown (she of Downton Abbey fame), as Mary Yellan, with corresponding middle-range box office fine actors in the others, and My Cousin Rachel (this summer 2017, scripted by Roger Michell who’s done several Austen films), featured Rachel Weisz as Rachel dressed very like Olivia de Haviland in the famous Hitchcock film, and no less than Simon Russell Beale as the lawyer. Both were closely faithful to the original book –most unlike most previous film adaptations of DuMaurier. Very recently The Scapegoat has been filmed with Matthew Rhys as the hero who wants to take over another character’s identity. Nonetheless, a film is not a book, and a film may lend itself to a popular film genre and be re-made because it’s so well-known. Does the book itself still speak to readers?


Jessica Findlay Brown as he masculine Mary Yellan (Jamaica Inn, 2014)

Yes on The King’s General, from my own re-reading (decades after the first time when I was in my teens) and from the class discussion where several class members produced much subtler thorough analyses of the characters than I had, saw few flaws (transcending stereotypes), understood the underlying perspective of the book: much of the book dramatizes war as women experience it, battles, sieges, deaths, crippling, and especially the use of starvation (still very much with us) as a toolr from woman’s point of view. DuMaurier herself had just gone through a war (WW2– Cornwall was bombed) this in Menabilly, the mansion she lived in for decades as a renter, renovated, and was finally kicked out of, famous today as Manderley from Rebecca. The one element in the long sequence of chapters of the seige and sacking of Menabilly (7-19) omitted is rape (admittedly a central part of civilian women’s experience in war zones but one not admitted to in any of incriminating detail until World War Two. DuMaurier bases what she depicts after the seige of Menabilly (Honor Harris’s flight to another family mansion in Cornwall, Radford, and then another, Mothercombe on the book’s shaping insight that war for women does not end with any truce. Why not? People have died, and one person gone can change all, everyone left imitating themselves; people maimed, crippled for life, whole households destroyed and how do you bring back land, re-furnish a house. A woman who has been gang raped or coopted into concubine doesn’t forget, her memories don’t go away,see Marta Hilliers’ Women in Berlin, for which she was ferociously attacked for exposing war gang-rape and concubinage: we are supposed to swallow that, not shame ourselves (why are victims the shamed) and of course not the great warriors.

The 17th century in Europe provides us with our first documented replacement of men with women, women who themselves could write, so we stories of sieges from women from the English civil war era (see Lady Brilliana Harley in Eva Figes’s Seven Ages of Women); the closest non-fiction I could compare these to is Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943-44 (extraordinary book); in fiction of course Gone with the Wind (siege of Atlantic, sacking of Tara).

We also see it’s a conscious decision to allow the countryside to be ravaged, ransacked in an attempt to win a war: winning the war, killing, is more important than what happens to those living in its countryside. And we see whichever side wins, the people lose.

The book is remembered (when it is) for its crippled heroine, but what emerged from our talk is how disability is a theme throughout the book: from the way Richard Grenville’s possibly homosexual son is abused from a young age for his lack of aggressive masculinity to the point he is abject and cannot defend himself (it’s not your disability that kills you but society’s response to it), to the maiming and destroying of valuable characters one by one as the battles are told.

The idea of the course I’m reading and teaching this book in is to show the contrast between historical fiction after say 1980 and before 1960: as the story goes, in the early part of the 20th century historical fiction had reached an all-time level of scorn. It has been regarded in the 19th century as the highest form of fiction, requiring serious research, about serious political issues and a tremendous imaginative input: Walter Scott was respected; George Eliot’s Romola set in the Renaissance; the most admired of Thackeray’s books was not Vanity Fair, but Henry Esmond set in the civil wars in Scotland in the later 17th century. In early 20th century until near WW 2 and just after still historical fiction was seen as bodice rippers for silly women and boys’ adventures stories for men who wanted to fancy themselves manly heroes. This way of looking at them is not gone from us and historical fiction and romance are still written in this mode sufficiently to be mocked. What are seen as women’s novels and women’s films are particularly susceptible to mockery.

Hard to pinpoint when this changed and the process was slow. I’d say a new form of historical fiction – or a return to higher norms, ideals, serious history begins just after WW2. Mostly people wanted to write about the war and found masquerade made this easier. The “jump” – changeover – begins to gather steam and many books in the 1970s: I’d date for convenience with Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, written between 1965 and 75, and called at the time of finishing “a landmark of post-war fiction. He won a Booker Prize for its coda, Staying On (which I’ll teach in another course on Booker Prize books this fall at the OLLI at AU). In short, the books got longer, they were seriously researched, they were political , and by the 1990s deeply anti-colonialist – the Raj Quartet occurs during the breakup of the British Raj and its complicated politics, ethnic identities, fierce hatreds leading into and out of World War Two. It’s very accurate if you can accept the Anglo- perspective. Salmond Rushdi could not.

It’s important to stress there is no hard and fast difference between the two eras, especially that there is a lot of romancing in the current books. All of them intersect the past with the present, realism with fantasy; it’s a matter of emphasis I suppose – Sontag gives her book, The Volcano Lover, the subtitle: a romance. The difference is an attitude of mind towards how your novel is going to function socially and historically. But what we discovered is while King’s General is not post-colonial, nor does it mean to undermine our Enlightenment ideals, it is seriously researched, accurate and implicitly political. Specifically DuMaurier is a Tory, and she sides with the Royalists against the oppression of the Parliamentarians after (in the book) Cornwall is taken by Parliament and the Protectorate confiscates property and attempts to impose its notion of a moral order (which included by the way secular marriage ceremonies, allowed for liberty of the press, decent trade agreements, better tax system).


Menabilly in the landscape

Within that slant, she really recreates the civil war as it played out from place to place in Cornwall. And many of the individuals in the Rashleigh family, Cornish gentry, and our hero and heroine are based on archives (albeit some of them in the Menabilly attic). DuMaurier cared about Cornwall. Cornwall was a place where the royalists made a last stand against the Parliamentarians – they had the sea at their backs, and they were with great difficulty slowly defeated. It was a royalist stronghold, rotten borough later on. At the end of the war when she wrote KG, she had already been living in Menabilly (Fowey, Cornwall) for some 8 years and even though just a renter had begun to renovate. The ancient house and grounds burnt into her soul. World War Two was coming to end and it seems the owner was seriously ill and perhaps dying; if he died, there was no guarantee his heir will renew the lease. He didn’t die, and the first of several such crises was over. But almost losing it, made her aware of the house. It was indeed sacked to the nth degree during the civil war; the family members, most of them (not sure about Honor Harris) said to be there in the novel were there. It was a linchpin house the way these huge houses were politically. She did serious research into the family and their papers – she found the Rashleighs were not as keen to be memorialized as she had thought. The various family members who is married to who, the names of the children, where they are, and how they end up are accurate in outline and to some extent their characters.


Godolphin House, Cornwall (one of the ancient ruins)

There was an Honor Harris, a Harris family (Honor’s oldest sister, Mary, did become the second wife of the oldest Rashleigh male, Jonathan. Honor left a memoir, and that’s the basis of this 1st person narrative, melancholy and somber in tone as it begins where the book ends, 1653, close to Honor and her brother, Robin’s deaths (they are living on charity), and her character (highly educated as she had the time to become so). The crippling by a hunting accident (Honor falls from a height to stones below) is DuMaurier’s addition. DuMaurier says of the crippling in a letter that she saw a wooden wheelchair from the 17th century once and it stayed in her mind and that she identified with this heroine – as with Mary Yellan. “Honor Harris beame an extension of the author, my persona in the past.” She had felt powerless as a woman in the war.


Early wheelchair — 17th-18th century

The outlines of Richard Grenville fit the portrait of the real man who did take money and supplies from Parliament telling them he would fight for them in Cornwall and then returned immediately the royal side. He was so violent to his wife Mary Howard left him; there were two lawsuits, one from her and another with her kinsman, the Earl of Suffolk. He did escape from prison and go to Germany for 6 years. A lot of the detail about the battles is accurate. He behaved very badly, enacting ruthless aggressive sociopathic behavior (like Trump no concern for other lives), hanging some men unfairly, even carelessly, extorting money, using war contributions for himself. He would not obey Royalist commanders; he was imprisoned more than once. St Michael’s Mount. Spent time in Launceston, and when released went to Italy. Excepted from Pardon in 1648, he found his way to Charles II. He accused Hyde deeds he knew that Hyde did not do. He wrote an account of the period war and it was published and used by DuMaurier, a vindication of himself. Hyde as Clarendon incorporated Grenville’s history straight into his own. As in the book, Grenville died a fugitive, disliked, looked upon as not worth trust (because he would not keep his word) in 1658, and buried in Ghent.

In her Enchanted Cornwall DuMaurier remarks there are no Grenville around now (there are Rashleighs) and while one man did write a vindication of him, there was no one around to become indignant in 1946. You think they wouldn’t? Think again. As with Max de Winter and a number of DuMaurier’s villain heroes, she meant us to be appalled by his behavior. Grenville descends from Jem Merlyn in Jamaica Inn: his cruel streak is visited on his illegitimate son in the book of whom he is fond: the Parliament king Joe Grenville where they know the execution will be seen by as many characters as possible.

It is also a gothic romance. It was in 1824 when some alterations were made to the house, the Rashleigh at the time he found in a redundant buttress skeleton in clothes of cavalier in civil war clothes, a stool, a trencher – a secret roo This incident, merely read about, was part of what drove her to write King’s General. Grotesque freakishness (which we see in Richard’s son Dick, rather like Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge) – these are typical of the gothic.

The same patterns emerge across DuMaurier’s books too. I’ll mention just two: in King’s General another mean domineering, near murderous female –- it’s Richard’s twisted sister, Gartred, who partly causes Honor’s accident. Readers have assumed that DuMaurier identifies only with the abject heroine, but from what she says we find she identifies with these rebellious angry types too; maybe in irritation at her readership, he almost sneers at the second Mrs De Winter whose name we are never told. She was conservative politically – common among the more popular romance and historical fiction writers (Winston Graham an exception to this rule – very progressive if you’ve been watching the mini-series or have read the books). Like other women before WW2 she will say she has two people in her, a loving wife and mother, and then this rebellious masculine self, hidden, giving power to her creativity.


Cornwall’s slate cliffs and hills (from Claude Berry’s Portrait of Cornwall)

And the centrality of Cornwall: many of her books are set there, and she writes two super ones on Cornwall: Enchanted and Vanishing. It is a periphery, a place outside the central boundaries. To the Lighthouse — PD James has a tale set in Cornwall which uses a lighthouse too. Later in life she was almost wholly in Cornwall, fought to protect it from tourist ravages; she was forced of Menabilly but lived no far away in Kilmarth. She maintained her privacy as far as she could but would break it with autobiographical memoirs which she is said to have regretted.

She was bisexual, probably more strongly lesbian and the two great loves of her life were Gertrude Lawrence and Ellen Doubleday. She also had a loving companionship with Christopher Puxley during the war which had to be brought to a close when DuMaurier’s husband returned. Forster says in her letters she shows herself to be homophobic and her children did and do what they can to squash the true story of her sexual life — told by Margaret Forster. I doubt they liked the movie, Daphne, based on the biography. The DuMaurier family are angry at Margaret Forster and today deny she ever knew their mother.


Geraldine Somerville as Daphne (2007)

The family has been gifted. Her grandfather was a Victorian illustrator, George DuMaurier, who late in life wrote two best selling novels: Trilby with its mysterious “oriental” character, Svengali was one of them. Her father Gerald DuMaurier was a prominent actor-manager in London, brilliant man about whom she wrote a wonderful biography. She met interesting people from her earliest years; a privileged existence; her parents connections got her publication early. Her sister, Angela also wrote, another sister, Jeanne painted. Family had journalists, her mother an actress, Muriel Beaumont. She’s described as uncomfortable, unhappy in the social whirl of London; she married a man she was not quite compatible with, but a good match, Frederick Browning and after WW 2 she was Lady Browning: he was himself a sensitive intelligent type (became attached to Philip Duke of Edinburgh and we may see him enacted in The Crown if it takes us back to World War Two, and forward to the 1960s, which I expected it will). DuMaurier was not a nice person – if you read about her behavior to her servants she could be deplorable, exploitative, especially of a governess who however was very loyal to her. She presents herself and others say she was distanced from her 3 children, Tessa, Flavio, Christian (Kit). If so, their later life shows them fiercely loyal to her, writing memoirs, nurturing her reputation.

Later in life she was almost wholly in Cornwall, fought to protect it from tourist ravages; she was forced out of Menabilly but lived not far away in Kilmarth. Her husband spent his last years at Menabilly too; he died in 1965. She maintained her privacy as far as she could but would break it with autobiographical memoirs which she is said to have regretted; she characterized herself as suicidal, sympathetic with why people have this impulse. She lived until 1989.

To conclude (as I don’t want the blog to be too long), when I looked at the Mason database for scholarly articles on DuMaurier, I found not a single one. On some of the Hitchcock movies made from her book, yes. Even Winston Graham (the Poldark author) and Diana Gabaldon (DuMaurier’s closet modern granddaughter, only Gabaldon is much less transgressive and subversive, disquieting) have a few scholarly articles. So when I began by rejoicing that for some readers (and probably some of those who persist in going to the DuMaurier films) is not dated, not obsolete, it’s true that with the exception of a few feminist critics (Nina Auerbach, Avril Horner, Sue Zlosnick), biographers and her children (and cousin) who wrote memoirs and edited DuMaurier’s letters and memoir, DuMaurier is still dismissed.

Ellen

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The regular rape of Offred: the hands are Serena Joy’s the wife, into whose lap Offred must lie, and as the commmander drives his penis into her (no emotion allowed to be shown)

Friends,

I’ve gone on — like many others — to watch three more weeks of A Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3), and have been gripped not only by the story and characters themselves, but how often the world of Gilead parallels what I’ve experienced in life in much quieter, muted, subtler ways, prophecy what can be the outcome of such behavior and modes such as we are seeing in the Trump’s regimes attempts to repress protest, and erase women’s rights insofar as they can.

Diane Reynolds has written brilliantly about the impotence of the chief males, specifically commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in episode 4 (Nothing sexy about men or violence; subversive television): how rare it is in mainstream film to have a central male impotent. I felt in the way sex was presented, the implication was men don’t need a woman to respond and all their sexual feeling can be satisfied in genital sex for themselves, without regard for the woman. Indeed in this scenario, the man would prefer the woman just be still so as not to get in his way. The second season of Outlander uses impotence: sometimes Jamie (Sam Heughan) cannot have an erection or any form of sex with Clare (Caitriona Balfe) because he is so terrified by the trauma of his nightmares about how the British police Officer, Black Jack (Tobias Menzies), drove Jamy to submit to sex, by torture, horrific physical cruelty) smashing Jamy’s hand), branding and taunting him over the branding. The chauffeur (as I call him), Nick (Max Minghella) as Guardian, comes closest to what we imagine when we conjure up “the natural male.” I wonder how much Atwood meant us to remember the gamekeeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover — a modern analogue is the chauffeur of Downton Abbey, coopted but at first defiant.

In Episode 5 I was startled to see the film suddenly “descend” (?) into the usual heterosexual sex scene, here between Nick and Offred (Elisabeth Moss). Otherwise and even here it’s very grim. there seems little joy anywhere. When June and her boyfriend or partner, Luke (O-T Bagfenle) go out with their baby daughter, Hannah (Jordana Blake) it is never to a park, to a green place or anywhere peaceful,not one quiet moment except at home in bed having sex in darkened spaces; they are inside garish night clubs. They go to noisy, glittering neon-lit amusement parks. I was surprised to to hear Offred (June at the time) ask Luke to leave his wife. First I did not know she was living or going out with a married man, and then though I can see why she does not want to be a secondary supplement, I probably in life would not feel that comfortable about a woman who told me she had demanded her boyfriend leave his wife for her. I would probably identify as much with the wife. I saw this as part of the way the film does not sentimentalize or idealize the life before this dystopia. She’s not much a reader. I also saw the use of iron all around Nick’s hips as equating his phallus with guns, iron, macho male hardness. I understood Offred was doing this in part to impregnate and thus save herself from deportation “to the colonies” (a form of transportation and thus death). But the scene was not much different from many of the sexual scenes in Outlander

I remember in the 1990 film the chauffeur was kind (not at all threatening as when in episode 5 when she gets aggressive he suddenly threatens to “turn her in”), and when in the film Offred escapes, she escapes with him. A new family is re-formed. He is not a macho male in the way of this one and Natasha Richardson herself in appearance and much about her is “sweeter,” more lovely, not aggressive. He invites her up to his (in effect) tree-house. There are so many more trees and greenery in the 1990s.

Diane has written on this one too, especially on the inchoate rage of the women who suffers female genital mutilation (“When dystopia is better than real life …. “). While there is no female genital mutilation in Atwood’s book (the ritual had not become as well known in the 1980sas it is today), in the real world in Africa and the middle east, women are subject to genital mutilation and this mutilation is what is driving Ofstevens when she loses it and darts into the car. We see more of the vicious commander: we see while he seems gentle talk to him and the Pence like ideas come out and his own elation in his power and control. Again like the real world.

In my present mood tonight it seems to reflect the real world — like when the woman Ofstevens tries to drive away, in frantic attempt to escape, and then mows over, runs over people, for revenge. The men with their machine guns gunning her down reminded me of a scene in DC the summer of 2013 where a group of police gunned down and murdered a black woman, Miriam Carey, who had by mistake hit a cement barrier; she was terrified of them as they pushed their guns into her car, and when she scooted around them (not running anyone over), they chased her down and killed her — they could have killed the baby in the chairseat. Didn’t care.


Their scrabble game

Episode 6 offers our first glimmers of hope. A looped set of flashbacks showing us some initial crucial scenes in the war featuring Fred and Mrs Waterford (Serena Joy, her ironic name, Yvonne Strahovski). It appears Serena Joy was a strong aggressive woman, a scholar, but she followed this crazed set of deeply anti-humane anti-women ideals and she ended up thrown out of the public world, with nothing to do, her two books (one is called A Woman’s Place) are last seen in the trash. We see them as a middle class couple so well dressed and equals. Fred emerges as a man partly made into a villain when he is given such power and adulation. When we see the original relationship of the commander and his wife and how she originally was a published author, going to conferences, central in power structures:: surely some of her hatred of Offred comes from the perverse way her arguments against feminism have turned out to make her powerless and silent.


Serena Joy cursing Offred when it becomes clear that Offred is not pregnant

He also comes across as more human because for a second in the hour he succumbs to a natural desire: he is drawn to kiss Offred! He has tired of their scrabble, how she does not make him the central object of her stay in the room, and asks her to leave. She has to return to darkness, no books, no outlet and she finds herself turning around to beg to stay, and appear to want a kiss, some caress. Elisabeth Moss is a particularly powerful actress (see The Guardian for her presence as almost a guarantee of quality); her strong-structured face, her control over emotions she nonetheless projects as so intense they are almost breaking her within is just the kind of acting style this mini-series needsHe coldly allows this and then forcibly sticks his tongue in her mouth. She now has to submit, pretends to like it, and is seen washing her mouth out thoroughly next. He also astonishingly feels some guilt coming home as his ambassador negotiations are not going well: he seems to realize Serena Joy might have helped for real. And when he comes home he and she actually make love. He seems reluctant as if this is verboten.

So too does nature emerge with Nick and Offred. She visits but hates to have to make love for baby-making. She is in a deep rage by this point but somehow he calms her down. And they too are making love — not just having sex this time.

The visit by the ambassadors to a Spanish country (Mexico) includes a “dinner party” for the handmaid’s where they are told they will enjoy themselves. It turns out that the “damaged” handmaid’s must be kept out — orders of Mrs Waterford — lest as with slavery, the visitors see how viciously the girls are treated. One of the girls (with a gouged out eye) begins to cry. What enjoyment can she be imagining? Anything will do. I know the feeling. And then astonishingly Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) shows some pity: she had promised them, they were looking ward to it, she objects to keeping them out, but of course acquiesces when Mrs Waterford says sternly, they cannot be seen as they will look bad (like slaves who were maimed if the owners cared). Aunt Lydia offers chocolate and treats as a substitute — the pathos as the girl accepts this replacement reluctantly.

Now once there everyone in strict ritual table form. Mrs Waterford presides as the wife. A conversation reveals to Offred it’s not oranges Gilead is trading with this outsider Spanish group: but the handmaids themselves. The commander had shown the children the handmaids had had. This Spanish country wants children; no one have been born in a long while. Like animals in a zoo will not produce children.

Just before the dinner and again afterward Offred is introduced to the Spanish ambassador, a woman. Mrs Waterford has warned her to give the right answers to this ambassadress. So (as Offred knows what the right answers are), she says she has chosen this state or condition and is happy with it. So stiffly briefly said. One can see something is wrong as the woman pretends she has had a big conversation. Clearly she has not.

Fast forward to the end of the hour and Offred is leaving for her morning walk; the ambassadress and her male sidekick are there. Again the ambassadress thanks her for telling so much. Offred can’t take it and blurts out the truth: they were captured, are beaten with cattle prods, raped, their eyes gouged out for punishment, if they are caught reading, they have finger cut off, twice, the whole hand. The woman now has to acknowledge but what does she say? she is so sorry. Offred says in reply, thank you but do something. The woman claims she cannot but we know she wants these woman as baby makers. And then she leaves and her male counterpart comes forward. He suddenly offers to help. Offred suspicious, he says he can get a note to her husband. Who is alive. Hesitant, shocked, and sudden gleam in her eyes, she does write on the pad. So there is another place in that beyond where her first friend fled on the train

What really gets me is how believable the scenes are. I feel I have seen versions of them in my society. Black man as prisoners for what they should not be jailed for kowtowed utterly. Slaves in the past saying they were happy, showing evidence of brutality. Pence’s desire for conversation therapy.


Serena Joy waiting for her husband to return home ….

Another blog by Diane Reynolds’s blog on episode 6 (Nothing to lose but their chains?) one emphasizes how hard it is, how very dark the hour still is. Okay it was not as hard to take as the previous. Diane’s qualifications are we’ll-taken. The glimmers of hope I spoke of are only by contrast to the relentless cruelty and indifference to their victims we saw in the first 5 episodes. We see what I consider natural feelings that are good or at least kindly interactive on the face of it immediately come out. But it is true the commander is showing his power over Offred and she is repulsed but cannot show it. All relationship with him in her situation is horrible. It teaches us what it is to be a slave or powerless prisoner. If aunt Lydia feels compunction at not giving what she promised, she cerrtainly does not fight for the handmaid’s. The commander and Mrs Waterford’s love-making is also ruined at the core by their analogous relationship to the commander and Offred. Nick is similarly powerful over Offred — cant tell and their love making is again as the other pair suddenly a return to domineering heterosexual sex — it is what is understood as good sex in our culture by many. The ambassadress does not offer to help but will exploit and yes the ending is too pat: a coincidence too strong. But until now nothing yielding happened.

Further on the story level we can see a possible “out” for Offred. We see more the life was once very otherwise, there are communities outside that are decent we can hope. Didn’t have that before.

On the connection with today: I was horrified to listen to Trump’s utter hypocrisy in Saudi Arabia where the slightest public protest can lead you to imprisonment, torture, parts of your body cut off and death. We in the US the majority who didn’t vote for this man are apparently in the helpless situation of Offred. We have no one to turn to who has the power to oust this regime which supports the Saudis who are going to use this weaponry to destroy the Yemenese people altogether. The parallels with our world are not just sexual.

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


In a Disneyland sort of place

I have been reading the book again. It is not as relentless even in the opening The 2017 film makers made the whole thing so much tougher. As I read I am more appalled because I recognize my society in this book’s depiction The regimentation, the dysfunction, the coldness … And I reread the original ending. The book ends with a coda on on an academic conference decades later (2195) where someone reads a paper about this strange manuscript. Is it true? if so, what happened to these people? The participants in the session all profess great humanity, but they dissect the occurrences in the manuscript with startling indifference. It’s a bitter satire on academic papers and the way academics can behave around them: making the slightest of jokes, all flattery for one another. All the speakers are male; we are in a patriarachy still. Atwood has used time-traveling, movement forward suddenly to give us a sceptical and cold switch. It’s an astonishing sleight-of-hand. This mini-series is departing in just the way the 1990s film did, where Offred and her child escaped with the help of Nick. The positive elements of Episode 6 are those which led to the escape at the close of the 1990s film — though I agree with Diane these are counteracted by the heinousness of the commander’s use of power, by Offred’s revulsion, by the refusal of the Spanish ambassadress once she is told that Offred is a beaten terrified enslaved women to do anything — she just walks off.

Ellen

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

Friends,

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


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

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

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

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


Herland

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

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

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


Nina Hoss as the woman haunted by continual rape

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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