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Marge Piercy

Friends and readers,

I’m pretty sure I’ve never written a blog on Piercy’s poetry, much less about her as a central foremother poet in English, though I’ve written blogs on her novels, memoirs, and blogs on feminist and other issues where I’ve quoted her poems. I love them — as well as those of her books I’ve read thus far. On her End of Days; on her Cat Poetry; “Sleeping with Cats.” Earlier blogging: Three Women (rescued from an attack by a virus).

I would like this evening to share as an interlude between my summaries of the Virginia Woolf virtual conference I joined in on, her

“Right to Life”

A woman is not a pear tree
thrusting her fruit into mindless fecundity
into the world. Even pear trees bear
heavily one year and rest and grow the next.
An orchard gone wild drops few warm rotting
fruit in the grass but the trees stretch
high and wiry gifting the birds forty
feet up among inch long thorns
broken atavistically from the smooth wood.

A woman is not a basket you place
your buns in to keep them warm. Not a brood
hen you can slip duck eggs under.
Not the purse holding the coins of your
descendants till you spend them in wars.
Not a bank where your genes gather interest
and interesting mutations in the tainted
rain, any more than you are.
You plant corn and you harvest
it to eat or sell. You put the lamb
in the pasture to fatten and haul it in to
butcher for chops. You slice the mountain
in two for a road and gouge the high plains
for coal and the waters run muddy for
miles and years. Fish die but you do not
call them yours unless you wished to eat them.

Now you legislate mineral rights in a woman.
You lay claim to her pastures for grazing,
fields for growing babies like iceberg
lettuce. You value children so dearly
that none ever go hungry, none weep
with no one to tend them when mothers
work, none lack fresh fruit,
none chew lead or cough to death and your
orphanages are empty. Every noon the best
restaurants serve poor children steaks.

At this moment at nine o’clock a partera
is performing a table top abortion on an
unwed mother in Texas who can’t get
Medicaid any longer. In five days she will die
of tetanus and her little daughter will cry
and be taken away. Next door a husband
and wife are sticking pins in the son
they did not want. They will explain
for hours how wicked he is,
how he wants discipline.

We are all born of woman, in the rose
of the womb we suckled our mother’s blood
and every baby born has a right to love
like a seedling to sun. Every baby born
unloved, unwanted, is a bill that will come
due in twenty years with interest, an anger
that must find a target, a pain that will
beget pain. A decade downstream a child
screams, a woman falls, a synagogue is torched,
a firing squad is summoned, a button
is pushed and the world burns.

I will choose what enters me, what becomes
of my flesh. Without choice, no politics,
no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield,
not your uranium mine, not your calf
for fattening, not your cow for milking.
You may not use me as your factory.
Priests and legislators do not hold shares
in my womb or my mind.
This is my body. If I give it to you
I want it back. My life
is a non-negotiable demand.


Expectant, of all life might offer, a digital picture by Lida Ziruffo

Ellen

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Rose Williams as Charlotte Heywood (Sanditon 2) — I fancy this is an allusion to a well-known drawing of Austen by Cassandra where she is seen staring out at the landscape from the back in casual clothes – I am enjoying this second season of Sanditon very much

A brief blog in defense of allowing twitter & face-book to be part of my life

“My idea of good company, Mr Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.” “You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company; that is the best — Anne Elliot, Persuasion

“We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing” — Elizabeth Bennet, P&P)

Both face-book and twitter are mostly adversely criticized in the traditional press (in paper and online), by people seeking to defend individual liberty and a right not to be surveilled by gov’t or other organizations (commercial), not trustworthy information (twitter is a place for mobs, said Obama) — and there is good reason for some of this hostility.

Tonight, though, I want to say that like most human things, the reality is more ambiguous than the above makes the experience appear, has other aspects for the ordinary person (not brought out by professional writers who are partly in competition with these social media or platforms. My idea is that these two vast cyberspace regions (I’ll call them) in experience will be for each of us the product of how we individually use or approach them. We may also weigh the inescapable negatives (like being surveyed, being put into algorithms) against a gain for ourselves.


A long time very favorite book by a scholarly writing woman — with a cover I like very much too

For me from the beginning twitter was a place where I could come into contact with my two daughters and from their tweets (knowing them) have an idea of how they were passing their day. On top of this I typed in the names of women scholars and journalists, and for years have “followed” Amanda Vickery, a historian (she puts reproductions of interesting pictures on, and sometimes a URL to a good essay), Mary Beard (yes too much self-promotion and too determinedly cheerful, but she puts URLs to her blogs, to broadcasts, and interesting essays, information), Joan Smith (a writer of detective novels, feminist, political activist on the left), Lucy Worseley (for her programs and good photos of the places she goes to for filming them), Elaine Showalter (feminist scholar and teacher, mostly personal comments but once in a while an article of interest), Katha Pollitt (The Nation, journalist on the left), Maria Frawley (who I met as a teacher, a 19th century scholar and teacher), Jacqueline Banerjee (Victorian Web edito, Rohan Maitzen (through Trollope Society in London zooms and her blogs). I follow a few friends (not many, this I do on face-book). Janeites and 18th century scholars are mostly face-book friends.

Yes I follow a few very liberal publications (the Nation) and have a few blogs I love — mostly congenial and literary people, e.g., Nick Holland on the Brontes, Samuel West (!). And a few social-public museum and library places (e.g., Gaskell and Chawton houses).


Our — in our front garden — little cherry tree, photographed by Izzy on one of her walks away from and to the house, then put on twitter

I’ve begun what I have to say about face-book: the beginning there was to be with other 18th century scholars I knew from conferences and relatives (a cousin, her daughter) and friends I made elsewhere on the Net or on face-book literary pages (The Way We Read Now, a Trollope Society FB page, once upon a time, a Poldark book page, Jane Austen), art (women artists), personal needs (I’m on two Aspergers pages with women). It’s personal connection, a shared taste or outlook. Several months ago I had stopped going to the general “feed” which was filled with commercials, but now it’s mostly friends who send mostly upbeat messages about what they are doing in life today, this week, this semester. For me it’s a comfort to chat with friends and acquaintances. I have friended more people on FB than followed people on twitter; I am followed by more people on twitter than followed on FB but I have been friended by more people on FB.

I do keep up with news this way, which seems to show on twitter first. If it’s worrying, I got over the NYTimes or Washington Post to check out validity. Once there was a shooting on the platform from the Metro into the Pentagon where I knew Izzy crosses. I first found out about it from an email from Laura, then over to twitter where I saw no tweet from Izzy; but then an email from Izzy re-assured me she had passed through earlier. I then went to AP where I saw a brief item and then went over to the NYTimes a couple of times over the day to see what news came out. I first knew about the Jan 6th insurrection through the TV! I had called Comcast because the TV wasn’t working right; the technician told me to put it on around 2:30 pm on January 6th and I was horrified and frightened by what I saw: thugs dressed in macho male outfits with chains and Trumpite signs scaling the walls, non-gun weapons in hand.


Lenu (Ingrid Del Genio) and Lila (Elisa Del Genio) reading Little Women (in Italian of course) together — 2nd episode of 1st season (My Brilliant Friend, still radiant)

There are downsides to these experiences — like being blackballed from a Poldark Book Discussion FB page, or once in a while badgered over some literary reading I’ve given something (and then accused of being uncivil when I answer candidly to stop him carrying on), or I myself lose “it” over some irritating stance (over upbeat on FB, putting pictures of the worst people in politics on twitter). But these are versions of what we come across in physical life.

What isn’t is soft-core porn (I go nowhere where I can see hard-core porn). I allow no pornography or violence whatsoever on my two feeds. I block the person or address immediately. No naked breasts, no naked men, nothing prurient in this way. I have complained to FB when I’ve seen this persistently on a couple of pages (e.g., an Outlander FB page) and I get in response how quickly to block an address.

It’s still worth to me who am alone, now that Jim is gone, to let unknown people gather my posts as metadata.

I’ll leave this topic at that. The next time you or others wonder how it is that people use these platforms, remember each person in the world or maybe me and people like me want access to others, company, companions. It was on FB the other day I discovered that the third season of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (and the fist two others) are on HBO Max now. So I bought a subscription at long last. While on twitter I see lovely photos by Izzy of where she’s been walking and Laura’s three beloved cats.

Ellen

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“She stood on the pavement, a thin shabby figure, so insignificant in her old hat and coat, so forget of herself in her enjoyment of the scene, that she might have been wearing a cloak of invisibility” (Virago, Chapter 1, near the beginning of the book).

Down in the drawing-room, Charles and Harriet sat without speaking. The wireless usefully filled in the gap. Charles read Persuasion — his favorite book, to which Harriet imagined he resorted when wounded … ‘What a novel to choose,’ Charles thought. ‘Only the happy in love should ever read it. It is unbearable to have expression given to our painful solitariness, to rake up the dead leaves in our hearts, when we have nothing that can follow … except in dreams, as perhaps Jane Austen herself never had but on the page she wrote’ … (Elizabeth Taylor, A Game of Hide and Seek. 1951), quoted in Katie Trumpener’s The Virago Jane Austen

Friends and readers,

This is a book that deserves a blog all to itself. Ending sometime last month, over a three week period a group of people on The Way We Read Now face-book page, read it three chapters a day seemingly (of course everyone is invisible on the Net) together. How many participated I do not know; I don’t know how many summarized the different chapters. I “did” the penultimate trio, Chapters 35-37 out of 40. During the course of the read, I sent along two essays on Miss Mole or E.H. Young, which I thought would give some desperately needed context within which to understand this woman’s realistic novel masterpiece: Kathy Mezei’s “Spinsters, Surveillance and Space: The Case of Miss Marple, Miss Mole and Miss Jekyll” and the chapter from Deirdre Lynch’s Janeites: Jane Austen Devotees and Disciples by Katie Trumepener” about the Virago “Jane” books of the 1930s. I discuss and link in these at the end of this blog. The one other of Young’s novels I’ve read is her Jenny Wren, a re-write or post-text to Sense and Sensibility. I once knew a woman who was planning to write a literary biography: Maggie Lane, who has produced four excellent books on Austen and one on Fanny Burney.

I cannot find a plot-summary anywhere: doubtless the result of repressive censoring spoiler warning policing (not to say terrorists, for you can be thrown off websites for telling any literal detail of a book someone might not have read). But if anyone would be kind enough to supply one I’d insert it into this blog. I just don’t have the patience, for the delicate and subtle twists and turns of the plot-design, are central to the experience. So just the main thrust:

Miss Hannah Mole is a lifelong unmarried woman. She survives by hiring herself out as a companion and/or housekeeper where her salary is so small, that if she is fired, she cannot carry on for very long w/o becoming destitute. She is the only daughter of a working class farmer, and housewife, who left her a cottage, where (we learn in the last quarter of the novel) for a time she lived with a WW1 veteran who fooled her into thinking he cared seriously for her. She has not been able to move him out and so herself moves from place to place. She is deeply ashamed of this secret, fears exposure would render her jobless for life. One female relative, Mrs Lily Smith-Spencer, is a 20th century version of the obnoxious harridans of Austen’s fiction: Mrs S-S won’t give Miss Mole a position herself but provides “character” references. During the course of the story Miss Mole becomes housekeeper to a dissenting minister, Mr Corder, a second mother to his daughters (his wife has died), Edith and Ruth, is fallen in love with by a man, Mr Blenkinsop, living in the house she previously was employed at (where she saved someone from suicide). Her greatest satisfactions come from playing the role of a strong mother/friend to the people in Corder’s household. She loves being alive, walking in th natural world. She seems not to enact a malicious or envious thought all novel long. Her reward is to be taken in as a partner (marriage is assumed but not enacted) by someone with whom she finds herself congenial. There seems to be no way for her to be independent. In life Young worked as a librarian, fell in love with a married man and lived with him and his wife until the wife left them. She never married. You can view her life and writing career here.

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So here are my contributions as I read the book with others:

Miss Mole has gotten through life by masking; by in effect leaving others to assume she thinks or feels like them when she doesn’t. What she needs is a real job, real profession and salary but her original start position is such there is little hope of escape except by marriage. And I can see why she wouldn’t want that. She would not be able to get herself fired. We are told she is thin, unattractive, shabby with sensible non-stigmatizing shoes (her one self-indulgence). She has a trick of immersing herself in the natural world and reveling in it.

From Chapter 5:

“Money was one of the best things in the world, used properly, used by Miss Hannah Mole, and all the way down Prince’s Road she was buying annuities for people like herself, settling some thousands of pounds on Mrs. Ridding” (‘the woman who seemed so ungrateful for the help Hannah gave her baby and her suicidal husband.). “The wind had risen strongly as night came on and Hannah crossed the Downs under swaying branches and swirling leaves. The football-players, the riders, the children had all gone home; lamps edged the roads, but, where Hannah walked under the elms, there was a stormy darkness. The branches creaked lugubriously or with shrill protest, and those which still kept their leaves were like great flails, threshing the winds, maddened by their sterile efforts, for it was the wind, threshing harder, that produced the harvest, whipping it from the trees and driving it before him. Hannah was driven, too; a wisp of a woman, exhilarated by the noise and the buffeting”. Chapter 7: “The image of the funeral procession at the beginning of this chapter is powerfully sad. “This was a very melancholy procession, a detachment of an army of women like herself who went from house to house behind their boxes, a sad multitude of women with carefully pleasant faces, hiding their ailments, lowering their ages and thankfully accepting less than they earned.”

Chapter 8: a large part of the meaningful content of this book is conveyed by its ironic tone. That likening of Miss Mole’s transplanting of herself from Mrs Gibson (her previous employer) where she felt some warmth towards herself as she’s there as a friend) to Mr Corder as a funeral procession is powerful: “a detachment of an army of women like herself who went from house to house behind their boxes, a sad multitude of women with carefully pleasant faces, hiding their ailments, lowering their ages and thankfully accepting less than they earned? What became of them all?” this and the rest of the paragraph (upon dying “a craving that there should be at least one person to whom her disappearance would be a calamity.”

In the context of Mrs Gibson, Mrs Rider, and the two daughters, the story of Miss Mole seems to me there to show us how marriage and children were forced on women. You were given few options other than that which might be fulfilling and to reach those you needed to be middle class definitely, and better yet well connected. Miss Mole rebels by her continual ironic abrasions; she knows some release that way (reminding me of Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s S&S). But the descriptive metaphor brings out the tragic undertones of this bleak vision. There is a complexity in these half-hidden stories too. The problem we have reading this book is its particular women’s tradition and 20th century context (like so many others from other eras where women similarly coerced) has been erased. See The Virago Jane.

Chapters 9-11 and 11-14: I felt that Chapter 11 took us past the kind of rebarbative suggestive scenes we’ve had and provided important background for Mr Corder. We have had Miss Mole’s past history and something of her cousin, Mrs Spencer-Smith but Corder is (like the widow before him) the linchpin person in this house, the one with control over money and who does what. He is our self-blind selfish patriarch; it’s a wonderful irony that his sister’s marriage was forgiven to the extent she was given enough money to live on and supply him. He has been something of a rebel but he sees everyone as there to serve him.

I found myself warming to Miss Mole in these chapters as she tries to make existence more comfortable for others and perhaps (gasp! — imagine this group having an Xmas party) happier. The incident over the child Ruth having candle lit in her bedroom as she falls asleep is indicative. The father wanted to stop it though its costs are negligible, I’d say on the grounds he is supporting a deeply punitive culture. It is brave of Miss Mole to stand up to him. I feel we as readers don’t get the full nuance that is referred to here without this context of women’s position and literature in protest at the time. I remember when I first read one of these: The Gentlewoman by Laura Talbot (a pseudonum for Lady Ursula Chetwynd-Talbot) and how I loved its seeming strangeness.

Up to Chapter 20. I see much of what Miss Mole says or does as ironic. She does not seriously entertain any thoughts of any love affair with Mr Blenkinsop or Mr Samson. She much prefers Mr Samson because he is unconventional but as to becoming any man’s, that’s not for her. Whatever happened between her and Mr Pilgrim (whom she fears will tell of her time with the WW1 vet, she wants no boss. Think of all the mortified heroines in Austen – her pride was hurt. To me the real feelings she has are for Ruth and Edith and herself as foster mother (we might call it). She does say to herself, quite seriously, “for the sake of one good baby, she would have paid for than that:” she is thinking of Mrs Ridding where the price for the baby was a neurotic husband.” But she, Miss Mole, can function as a mother through her position as housekeeper, and in these three last 3 chapters, we see her suddenly worrying lest she has insulted Mr Corder (by her abrasive irritated wit) and lose the place. I take her thoughts of doing what Mrs Corder would have done seriously. This, like many of these Virago books at the time, are a protest against demanding a woman marry and giving her no alternative. That’s why the heroines are so often life-long single women.

As to language, and what is a book but words, this book is pre-feminism the second phase (starting 1970s) when for the first time a vocabulary to discuss sex from a non-religious and women’s POV starts to emerge. It’s pre-Simone de Beauvoir. So the books have to use a vocabulary which is antithetical – the authors fall back on understood paradigms. One of the more moving moments occurs when Edith says how dreadful not to have a mother, and Miss Mole thinks of “all the women who waited for words they would not hear.” That is not a marriage proposal but some decent respect and understanding they are not secondary objects (coming alive only in relationship to men). These words Edith longs for – her mother’s understanding – will never come from her father or any ritual Christmas nonsense.


Anna Madeley as Mrs Hall

There is a Miss Mole among the current crop of TV shows from the UK: pay some attention to Mrs Audrey Hall in All Creatures Great and Small. The portrait of Mrs Hall shows how much ground feminism has lost since Miss Mole or the 1980s. She is not presented as a woman who has never married. For all we know she’s a widow. Her estrangement is also from her son, who we learn has done some criminal act which she turned him in on. So the establishment and its forms of punishment are endorsed here. Yet the outline of her life is that of the Virago heroine of the 1930s. None of this is in Herriot’s book, and in the 1970s series she was presented as impersonally there, a woman who needed a job. I will say the interest in her, the desire to give a woman a central role in and of herself, not there as a romantic interest shows the mild feminism of the series. She helps Herriot, she is the central staff of the house (metaphorically) and a very good person. But she is not driven to irony; she accepts her lot as Miss Mole does not.

Christmas time, 1st season, we learn that Mrs Hall’s husband came home from war a changed man, and not for the better. This is why we find her going from house to house as a servant. Her son did something criminal (funny how it’s not specified too – he stole something) and she, his mother, told on him. Maybe they were both servants somewhere – a typical job for lower class people especially women at the turn of the century. Son went to jail. He has never forgiven her. During the course of this conversation, Mr Farnon shows himself to be better than Cordelia near the end of Lear. Of course he will keep Mrs Hall on; he would not know what to do without her. He stands by her in church holding her hand as they sing, for this son did not turn up for Christmas.

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Painting by Harold Wright: an image supplied by one of the people who was part of the group read as Miss Mole

A second angle obviously there is class. Mr Corder is not CofE, but a dissenter of some sort (I use very old fashioned language) and part of what makes him so intolerant and seeming dense, is he feels he has to hold onto parishioners and is fighting a continual invisible fight with those who might just look down on him. See Margaret Oliphant’s Carlingford novels – if you have the patience.

Chapters 18-20: the “dirt” Mr Pilgrim (the name is now ironic) has is he sexually harassed Hannah, and she fears that whatever happened between them he can use to make her seem to be at fault. #Metoo. ome of her behavior might seem to compromise her and in a culture like this of course, he, the man, the guest, would be sided with. So we have here in this novel an early half-hidden story of sexual harassment, which no matter what the woman does is a threat to her position in the world and peace of mind. She was a sexually harassed woman in flight and at risk of being hurt by the very person who treated her with contempt and insult. Mr Pilgrim (the name allegorical of course) found out something about her and went to her house because as a preacher, he wanted to teach her the error of her ways… However he never got near her because she shut the door in his face… The last part of this trio is a poignant. Hannah is afraid to kiss Mr Corder’s youngest most candid and sincere daughter, Ruth. Is she inwardly fearful of becoming too close to this family because, again, she may have to leave them (just as she left her previous positions)?

Her relationship with these two girls is moving. She is acting as a replacement for Mrs Corder she tells us. Looked at from a distance, Miss Moles’ life is pathetic (filled with thwarting) but she will not acknowledge this openly. Maybe that funeral metaphor. Some day she could be broke with the tiniest of pensions.

Me: My mother-in-law was a lower governess in a great house just after WW1, sometime in the 1920s. It was like slavery. Up at 5, never given a moment to herself except when eating and then under constant surveillance. Woolworth’s in the early 1930s, 6 and 1/2 days a week with a real salary was liberty and some power (because you had some money, could even chose you own meal every two weeks). No you were to have no followers.

The opening of Chapter 23 is beautiful in thought and form (Virago, pp 166-67) Her acceptance of what is includes a reveling in the nature world, and through a Wordsworthian (maybe that’s a good term) perspective therapeutic. Complex poetry in prose. We can have a character very bad at heart, and Corder is at the present time (loss of his wife hurt) a mean and petty man in many ways. The sentences do that twisting and turning so it is hard to grasp where Young herself stands. Her dark dress reminds me of the sober Jane Eyre. She is comfortable with Blenkinsop but why?

Miss Mole has won me over for many reasons; here she is very ambivalent Christmas and it’s not only for the homeless and those w/o families. Well, me too. She is so tenuously connected to society; she’s not far from homeless and that may be why the group comes to mind. Where is her family? She might be looking to marry: Mr Samson is not that bad a choice if they are congenial and he has enough money to support them (and loves his cats). She is a prisoner in effect: her work never stops; she is not appreciated by the person who pays her; she endlessly has to worry about impressions she makes. There’s not much best in Mr Corder to be seen insofar as she or his daughters are concerned. He is a man intensely concerned with his status, resenting the money he does get because it’s from an older sister.

I’ve usually felt and experienced Christmas as an ordeal and Young is conveying this, and a very fraught one at that. Not everyone is good lying, and some people never get the knack, nor is it easy for them to see through the lies to what might be a sort of truth. Miss Mole is very clever in that way, but she is not a domineering bully so does not manipulate only self-protects through lying – and her lies are often kind jokes. Her stories (the non-existent burglar) are kind moral exemplums. Young conveys that the patriarchy, class status and the ability to bully put Corder and Mrs Spenser-Smith in charge but many of the other characters have such better traits than they and what’s valued in this book is kindness. I was struck how one of these boss-mistresses says to Miss Mole she has no trouble with servants because she never tolerates an iota of discontent: the servant is fired on the spot. Yes I am seeing that perhaps Young is setting up a suitor-courtship paradigm between Miss Mole and Mr Samson and between Miss Mole and Mr Blenkinsop. Alas. And a Cinderella paradigm is emerging: up to now Miss Mole is seeming very plain and she never gets to go out; suddenly she is elegance itself and cannot be kept out. It would seem she cannot live in her own cottage because she needs money to keep it up — beyond someone living there who does not pay her rent. So marriage is the way out of living on the edge of destitution.

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Young lived for a long time in Clifton, Bristol where several of her novels are set

As the story turns and Hannah has a worthy suitor at last, I offer the idea that nonetheless, Hannah’s blindness over Mr Blenkinsop’s intentions is a device – and to me improbable. Young felt his book needed suspense. So the suspense is we are to sit on the edges of our seats worrying whether Hannah will somehow ruin her chances with Mr Blenkinsop before he has a chance to propose (and thus reveal – our hearts are all pit-a-patting now – he loves and wants to marry her). And we are supposed worried about what Mr Pilgrim can tell (sexual probably given that Hannah has open-minded views about sex) to ruin her with Mr Corder.

Mrs Spenser-Smith is one of the more obnoxious characters in this book. Hannah has to placate her because she needed her for this job and might need her again. But she is awful – in Jane Austen’s hands we’d recognize her for the Lady Catherine de Bourgh she is. Will say anything outrageously insulting. She shows her power by doing things like paying for Howard’s education at Oxford. So he has escaped her too. On the shoes, we have to remember how shoes – poor shoes on people’s feet, especially children – were once a sign of poverty. Also you need good shoes to be comfortable. So Miss Mole having good shoes is a way of avoiding a stigma and being comfortably shod for her incessant work – in the house mostly but no less work than that. Have a look at Mrs Hall’s shoes in the latest season of All Things Great and Small. Attractive and sensible.

Hard to comment on the ambiguity of what we are reading until finally the two secrets — Blenkinsop’s pursuit of Miss Mole (or Hannah as she was called in the BBC film adaptation) and what happened sexually to Miss Mole (not clear with whom or how her giving up of her cottage to a tenant who does not pay his rent relates to this) – are revealed. But for my part I find Ethel sympathetic, all at sea as a teenager, and Mr Corder a male version of Mrs Spenser-Smith without the monetary resources. I compared her to Austen’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh; the closest male I can think to him is the selfish, obtuse, blind, fatuously cruel John Dashwood. What does it matter if John Dashwood does not know how he hurts his family members and those directly in his power? In both the essays I offered as context I have not read all the texts cited (I can’t stand Ivy Compton-Burnett and the only Christie I’ve been able to finish is her superb autobiography), but I’ve faith if I knew more of these Virago Jane authors (or remembered more of those I’ve read) I could cite parallels.

The self-reflexivity of the story is made plain. EH Young lived with a man she was not married to for many years and here he is indicted, though not named and a somewhat literally different story offered. The nameless cad at the center of the fiction in real life was married. I have to go outside my purview to cite what I feel is the moral of the book (by no means adequate to what it dramatizes about our lives in ordinary society, especially when it comes to women) and at work in this chapter – I’ve cited it before: “I believe unkindness is the worst sin of all” (Ch 38). My critique of this idea: it may be what is so excruciating in a daily way but it is not what has made the situation for all of them: apparently under Corder, Mrs Spenser-Smith and the other lying bullies of the book.

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So, in this chapter (35) we are told what happened between Mr Blenkinsop and Miss Mole on her day out with him. In a nutshell (I’m not going to paraphrase piece by piece) Mr Blenkinsop is taking Miss Mole back to where her child- and young girlhood occurred to the house she owns. He means to take her there and confront whatever it is. She goes to pieces. The chapter is really made up of her thoughts. She is remarkably unmalicious.

Some people might think to go over ground you once were traumatized by is to overcome it – I’m not in that school of thought myself nor EH Young. We see some of Miss Moles’s obsessions. The paragraph beginning “Ah, she thought, things were easy for people with an income they had not to earn.” She ceaseless broods (all book long) on how tenuous her position is, her dependence, her material bonds. I feel for her – I remember ceaselessly in the middle years of working as an adjunct (I did it for 27 years) how I’d brood. I forget why I stopped: I put this down to getting onto the Internet and beginning to write and then to publish so I had other things on my mind that overcame this position. There is nothing in Miss Mole’s life to provide a strong distraction of satisfaction. Mr Blenkinsop is presented thinking how he came to this house by accident. This is the sort of thing that irritates me. He cannot have come here by accident. But he is kind (see above) and does not press himself on her. He feels terrible he has made her so hysterical within. She thinks also about the people she thinks depend on her: the Corder children.

At the end of the chapter Mr B suggests why not start a boarding-house of your own. You could escape this perpetual distress. She says she’s thought of it but she hasn’t the money and has been told she’s too young.

At last the beans are spilled. She retires to her room and sits by the fire. I think of all the many Victoria illustrations of women sitting by the fire (or out on the moor) thinking of their miseries


Miss E Taylor’s depiction of Kate Vavasour, left with her arm probably broken by her brother, George.

We learn at length what was Miss Mole’s horrifying sin, which apparently Mr Pilgrim knows (and my guess from these three and before and after) that’s because she also offended him (by leaving his church?) What happened is during WW1 Miss Mole inherited a house and a man who had fought in the war came to live with her and became her lover. There you have it. His reasons for such behavior remind me of what (summed up) Willoughby told Elinor Dashwood were his motives for smashing Marianne Dashwood’s peace of mind (I refer to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility): “at no stage in their intercourse had he considered her as more than a temporary inconvenience.” Willoughby claims that he grew to love Marianne and felt remorse when his patroness, an aunt, kicked him out for impregnating another girl and deserting her . Right. The way he showed his remorse was to engage himself to an improbably wealthy heiress. Young’s fiction is more probable. Miss Mole does not have the strength of character that believing in yourself, having self-esteem, and backup in other’s people’s support would give. She can’t throw him – or couldn’t. So did the next best thing when she discovered what he was. She left. They had some agreement he would pay her rent and he never has. I’ve seen situations analogous to this.

Meanwhile Mr Pilgrim decides it’s in his interest to tell this tale to Mr Corder. Why? Maybe he thinks she’s in the way of his gaining control over (oops – marrying it’s called) Ethel. Luckily, Mr Corder’s very nasty mind on the surface rejects all Mr Pilgrim has to say as vile calumny just in character.

Since it’s through Miss Mole’s mind realizing what happened (we don’t get this – note that) we get some half-ironic thoughts about God engineering all this and how God and she, Miss Mole, know one another. Hannah gets some peace of mind thinking this but it’s as much exhaustion. This technique is third person indirect discourse so the author is there in and out talking to us too. It’s remarkable the metaphors Miss Mole uses for herself: she refuses to be the dog with the bad name …

Yes I think the double-self is a directly self-reflexive comment: of course Miss Mole has no cousin who has been living her secret life alongside er; the cousin is Hannah Mole herself, and not even a dream alternative but what lies under Edith Hilda’s own reality. Did she pretend to be the housekeeper when living with her lover lover and his wife? I agree with her that Uncle Jim is ruthless. I’d be careful what I told him too. I agree Howard is kept at a great distance. We cannot tell if it is good for him that he got away (gave up the position Mrs S-L got for him at Oxford) as we don’t know enough about his inner life or what he was experiencing at Oxford. Corder cares more that they are seeming to insult the benefactor (if she is that), Mrs Spenser-Smith than his boy’s future or even presence.

What a heartless crew many of these believable adults in this novel are, and Miss Mole knows it. It is not uncommon in 18th century novels for the housekeeper to be the master-owner’s mistress; it’s a cover or disguise. These novels often present the female character without sympathy.

Ethel returns who has been to see Patsy Withers (another of the book’s awful people): Miss Withers wanted to take over the club and certainly would like to see Miss Mole fired. Miss Mole asks why go to a woman who tells lies about you; Ethel says it’s because of that she went. People just gluttons for punishment. It’s here we learn something of the connection of Pilgrim (ironic allegorical name) to Miss Mole (also an allegorical name) Miss Mole was going to chapel at the time of her relationship with the nameless cad.

Miss Mole becomes intensely aware of how Mr Blenkinsop is walking about outside – it seems for hours, in quite a state. She goes out – to let him off the hook. To be kind. She tells him don’t worry, she’s fine – manifestly untrue except that it’s become obvious that Mr Corder is willing to overlook the past and keep her anyway. Well, gee thanks.

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Here is a typical picture of am English country cottage at the beginning of the twentieth century – much popularized as art by Helen Allingham, part of her worlds of women

Chapter 36: Mr B says he was told about the house by a colleague at work… he had not seen it before but thought it might be a good place for the Riddings, and wanted Hannah to see it with him to help him decide if it was appropriate … As soon as Hannah saw the chimney tops, she knew it was her house and could not stomach the idea of her story being revealed to him in all its sordid “glory”, so she ran off in the opposite direction with him following behind totally confused as to what she was running from … She was running from her past to keep the story sacred for as long as she could…it was only later that the scales fell from her eyes and she realized that it was no longer sacred…it was time to put it behind her for good…

“Then shame swooped over her like a great flapping, threatening bird, and the robin piped his gay derisive note.” The events in that cottage were deeply traumatic. It was much more than her lover refusing to marry her. As is very common with trauma victims, she blames herself. For allowing it to happen.

And for being romantic and believing him in the first place…she was a girl though and had no experience of men like him…she believed they would marry eventually while he had no such intention… Women beat themselves up like this even today…”why didn’t I know, why couldn’t I have seen etc.”

A wonderful interlude in this chapter is the conversation with Wilfred. “I think I’ll change my lodgings. My poor dear mother doesn’t pay three guineas a week to have her son’s nerves shattered.” I hope he does go to Mrs. Gibson. Her house is definitely the refuge in this novel.

Chapter 37: This chapter is interesting both for what it shows about Young’s art (by this time we can discern this) and what happens in it.

The opening has Hannah (she has become Hannah far more often than Miss Mole) grieving intensely over this lost love, this betrayal of some ideal of love and companionship embodied in the house or home . She remember how she disobeyed everyone and held onto her house (again we see how society is working to undermine her independence and not allow her to think she can have any, fixed it so beautifully and how the man she invested all this in felt none of it. She was no snob in choosing him. He was an ordinary soldier and farmer. So EH Young does not fool herself with DHLawrence and gothic reveling (remember the Mary Webb books – her dreams are actually nightmares) about getting back to nature and “real men.”

As is so often with this heroine, she sees the best (she reminds me of Austen’s Jane Bennet who tells Elizabeth she sees the best because the pain of seeing the world, here Darcy and Bingley’s family – sisters – and everyone else as heartless and mercenary is too much to endure). So she tells herself this man never understood how much he hurt her.

Well, long ago, someone told me that when people say malicious things to you, especially to other people and appear not aware of how much pain they are causing you, that’s nonsense. They know.

At the same time the pain here is worse for her because she is imagining that Mr Blenkinsop (first paragraph of chapter) is working at kicking this guy out and taking the house over because he wants to place Mrs Riddings and her babies in it (she watches Mrs Riddings in the meadow hanging out the clothes – quite like a rhyme). Now again we are to keep our distance and our ironic perspective – we know she’s got it all wrong. Mr Blenkinsop is doing this for her, and we know also from these opening paragraphs and others, she loves him.

Thus we are almost reassured that soon that proposal will be made and she will say yes. We are not permitted utter fevers of anxiety in this book, but we are never left off the hook (think of a hook put into someone’s stomach) and onto security. By this time we know that Mr Pilgrim’s telling Mr Corder will not result in Miss Mole having to return to the obnoxious cousin and find another place to live. Or it’s improbable.

This kind of maneuvering is done throughout the book.

Then we watch Miss Mole work very hard – things she has not done for months. I feel she is doing this to shore up in her mind Mr Corder will not fire her. How could he? And she is busying herself, feeling wanted, needed. On other other hand, surely there is something masochistic in her choosing to turn the sheets, a job she says she hates; she also does not enjoy using the sewing machine.

Ruth who by this time is a fully educated pupil of Miss Mole (worthy of her, intelligent) says of all this activity: it’s “rather like making a will and paying your debts when you think you’re going to die.” We can connect that to Miss Mole’s thinking Mr Blenkinsop is getting her house ready for Mrs Riddings or her worry still Mr Corder will or can fire her. Miss Mole says, oh, no, I’m “bad-tempered.”

Then they go for a walk. The mood of this walk is very like many of them. Miss Mole rejoices in life, and landscape, and the weather, being alive and activity around her – whether rural or city. Even better she has Ruth by her side. Mother-daughter and pupil-mentor paradigms here. This chapter is also serving to remind us that Ruth can now do without Miss Mole. This is clearing the way for what will become of Ruth once Miss Mole departs – for we do see that Mr Blenkinsop is preparing a halcyon refuge for himself and Hannah. The closing paragraph of the chapter is just beautiful poetry.

But we are not allowed to revel mindlessly because what metaphors does Hannah use to show her understanding of her place in this: the small ships alongside the big ones remind her of “sad widows in their pathetic dignity under their bare masts and yards, and tugs were like the undertakers, at a fuss about the funeral.” Maybe (like Alice Vavasour at the close of CYFH?) Miss Mole is not to be taken as moving into some kind of paradise when a particular man gets a house ready for her and is willing to live in it with her and support her.

We are also not allowed to forget Ethel. Ethel is in is in the midst of making a bad choice. She has opted for Pilgrim and we are reminded several paragraphs before the final one of this chapter that it was Mr Pilgrim who told Mr Corder about Miss Mole’s past so as to bond himself this way more deeply to Ethel. Wait – he was throwing an innocent woman (never hurt him) literally to possible destitution to place himself better in the eyes of Corder? Ethel sees that Miss Patsy Withers as stepmother is far far worse than Miss Mole as housekeeper (because she is a kind of minor Lady Catherine de Bourgh) and knows it’s in her real interest that Miss Mole stay

Finis. I’ve kept up and have finished Chs 38-39. So now (somewhat out of order) we are told what Mr Corder responded to what Pilgrim said It interests me that Ethel sees what a shit Pilgrim is, agrees she should not snitch on Miss Mole but then goes ahead to become his erotic target and to tell even the obnoxious Mrs S-s. I feel that Young means us to forgive and feel sorry for Ethel — too much a dullard to get beyond all conventions even when her mind can acknowledge they are stupid. There is no hope she can see these conventions are there to control and subdue women to men’s wills. We are seeing Ruth emerge to take control: Howard had a farm to escape to; she has Uncle Jim. Miss Mole has too much pride to crawl to Mr Corder and imagine what her existence would become on these terms. So are we are at the end of her tether and in the streets. Why can’t she go to Mrs Gibson? I don’t get it: because she saved Mr Riddings?

Some intuitive instinct now takes Miss Mole or our Hannah to Blenkinsop’s door. I remember Robert Louis Stevenson: two short stories, A Lodging for the Night, and Sire de Maltroit’s door — the poet Villon, homeless, happens on them and is taken in. So our heroine is happening on Mr Blenkinsop’s door. As Austen says at the end of NA, the “telltale compression of pages” informs us “we are all hastening together to perfect felicity.” Only unless you have not paid attention, this final refuge, however it could end in happiness, is a desperate compromise.

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This is a distinguished, uniquely written protest novel on behalf of women and vulnerable men in deeply punitive capitalist relentlessly repressive patriarchy. In these scenes Young shows she knows how people behave and she captures their obtusenesses to themselves very sharply — by having made Miss Mole so very perceptive and with a desperate need and impulse (from years of training) to make do and compromise. Not altogether perceptive because (reminding me of Austen’s Emma), she does not see (improbably given how sharp she usually is) Blenkinsop is trying to court her. A difference from Austen is that Austen would have let Mr Pilgrim be told somehow he had made a fool out of himself (like poor Miss Bates of Austen’s Emma). None of them would like to be seen through. We should remember at this point that Hilda was E.H. Young’s second name.

I find myself wanting to bring in (and read) yet another book: Elena Ferrante’s Lying life of Adults. I’ve often felt that the way a lot of people get through being with others is lying, little lies, big ones; perhaps the difference for Miss Mole is hers are not only self-protective and kind but when alone they shore her up. We’ve seen that with the tales she tells Ruth. Austen’s Catherine Morland: “But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood? …” (Northanger Abbey)

An essay by Kathy Mezei (“Spinsters, Surveillance and Speech”) should also be of interest to anyone who reads books by women written after WW1 and into WW2, especially once again published by Virago. This essay includes an Agatha Christie and Ivy Compton-Burnett book beyond EH Young’s Miss Mole. In all three the life-long unmarried and deliberately-set up vulnerable woman is defended but at the end of both books the establishment (as it were) closes in on them again. So they are mild protest novels. For my part the problem is the acceptance of the class, religious and capitalist system these characters live in a corner of. The author does show how awful the top accepted male is in all three cases. He’s murdered in at least one of them. What I liked about the essay is situating Miss Mole with two other spinsters, or life-long unmarried women — one a famous detective by a famous author, the other a dark caustic author. It helps pick up the intended tone or nuance.

More important for the large perspective is Kate Trumpener’s “The Virago Jane” in Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, where she analyses a group of novels published by Virago in the 1930s, and shows how they are in continual dialogue with the deepest and more superficial aspects of Austen’s fiction. As I’ve written above reading Young’s book continually brought to mind analogues from Austen and by extension other women writers influenced by Austen. Trumpener supplies the full nuance and depths in Austen through these books, which the reader ca then (as it were) take back into Young’s books. There are two pages on Chatterton Square.

It is a real loss here is no single study of E.H. Young. The woman I knew slightly (still have a sort of memory acquaintance unless she’s dead), Maggie Lane (who has written and published 3 books on Jane Austen, 1 on Burney) said she was working on but never came through. She also said she was working on a book on Fanny Burney and Hester Thrale as “frenemies.” Not all things we study become books. The quietude mixed with profound disquiet of this book cannot attract any kind of wide audience now – but gender, class and money are still key factors for women who are still often made “secondary creatures” as Simone de Beauvoir wrote.

A stinging woman’s novel. Rosamond Lehmann wrote a great novel, woman’s novel type, called The Weather in the Streets (1930s, heroine has abortion and recovering reads P&P as a fantasy that cheers), available as a Virago. The group at TWWRN went on to read Chatterton Square:


Note how covers and titles resembles those on better women’s books today (her Curate’s Wife title puts me in mind of Joanna Trollope’s Rector’s Wife)

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It was made into a BBC 4 part serial drama, Hannah, but that has vanished decades ago. Have I mentioned that she worked for the women’s suffrage movement and was an air-raid warden during WW2. See Heavenali for The World of E.H Young: Upper Radstowe, with images from the cover illustrations of the green Virago editions of Young’s novels


A photo of Young in later life

Ellen

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Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price, writing to her brother, amid her “nest of comforts” (which includes many books) in 1983 BBC Mansfield Park

“Our books, dear Book Browser, are a comfort, a presence, a diary of our lives. What more can we say?” (Carol Shields, Mary Swann).

La bibliothèque devient une aventure” (Umberto Eco quoted by Chantal Thomas, Souffrir)

Dear friends, readers — lovers of Austen and of books,

Over on my Ellen and Jim have a Blog, Two, I provided the four photos it takes to capture most of my books on and by Anthony Trollope, and explained why. You may also find a remarkably informative article on book ownership in England from medieval times on and what makes up a library. I thought I’d match that blog with a photo of my collection of books by and on Jane Austen, and in her case, books about her family, close friends, specific aspects of her era having to do with her. Seven shelves of books.

I have a second photo of 3 wide shelves filled with my DVD collection (I have 33 of the movies and/or serial TV films), my notebooks of screenplays and studies of these films, as well as books on Austen films of all sorts. These three shelves also contain my books of translations of Austen into French and/or Italian, as well as a numerous sequels, many of which I’ve not had the patience or taste to read but have been given me.

My book collection for Austen is smaller than my own for Trollope because even though I have many more books on her, she wrote only seven novels, left three fragments, some three notebooks of juvenilia, and a remnant of her letters is all that survives. For each of her novels or books I have several editions, but that’s still only seven plus. By contrast, Trollope wrote 47 novels and I won’t go on to detail all his other writing. OTOH, there are fewer books on him, and the movie adaptations of his books are in comparison very few.


There’s no equivalent movie for The Jane Austen Book Club where members vow to read all Jane Austen all the time

So although I won’t go to the absurdity of photographing my many volumes of the periodical Persuasions, and what I have of the Jane Austen Society of Britain bulletin like publications, I can show the little row of books I’m reading just now about her and towards a paper for the Victorian Web.

The project includes reading some Victorian novels written with similar themes, and Henry James’s Spoils of Poynton; for me it is true that Austen is at the center of a group of women (and men too) writers and themes that mean a lot to me, so I have real libraries of other women writers I have read a great deal of and on and have anywhere from two to three shelves of books for and by, sometimes in the forms of folders:

these are Anne Radcliffe (one long and half of a very long bookshelf), Charlotte Smith (two long bookshelfs), Fanny Burney (three, mostly because of different sets of her journals), George Eliot (one long and half of another long bookshelf), Gaskell (two shorter bookshelves), Oliphant (scattered about but probably at least one very long bookshelf). Virginia Woolf is another woman writer for whom I have a considerable library, and of course Anne Finch (where the folders and notebooks take up far more room than any published books).

As with Trollope starting in around the year 2004 I stopped xeroxing articles, and now have countless in digital form in my computer; I also have a few books on Austen digitally. The reason I have so many folders for Smith, Oliphant, Anne Finch (and other women writers before the 18th century) is at one time their books were not available except if I xeroxed a book I was lucky enough to find in a good university or research library. You found your books where you could, went searching in second hand book stores with them in mind too.

One of my favorite poems on re-reading Jane Austen — whom I began reading at age 12, and have never stopped:

“Re-reading Jane”

To women in contemporary voice and dislocation
she is closely invisible, almost an annoyance.
Why do we turn to her sampler squares for solace?
Nothing she saw was free of snobbery or class.
Yet the needlework of those needle eyes . . .
We are pricked to tears by the justice of her violence:
Emma on Box Hill, rude to poor Miss Bates,
by Mr Knightley’s were she your equal in situation —
but consider how far this is from being the case

shamed into compassion, and in shame, a grace.

Or wicked Wickham and selfish pretty Willoughby,
their vice, pure avarice which, displacing love,
defiled the honour marriages should be made of.
She punished them with very silly wives.
Novels of manners! Hymeneal theology!
Six little circles of hell, with attendant humours.
For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours
And laugh at them in our turn?
The philosophy
paused at the door of Mr Bennet’s century;
The Garden of Eden’s still there in the grounds of Pemberley.

The amazing epitaph’s ‘benevolence of heart’
precedes ‘the extraordinary endowments of her mind’
and would have pleased her, who was not unkind.
Dear votary of order, sense, clear art
and irresistible fun, please pitch our lives
outside self-pity we have wrapped them in,
and show us how absurd we’d look to you.
You knew the mischief poetry could do.
Yet when Anne Elliot spoke of its misfortune
to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who
enjoyed it completely
, she spoke for you.

—– Anne Stevenson


The Jane Austen Book Club meets in a hospital when a member has a bad accident

Gentle readers, I can hardly wait to see the second season of the new Sanditon on PBS; my daughter, Laura (Anibundel) much involved with WETA (PBS) nowadays, writing reviews and such, who has read the fragment and books about Austen tells me it is another good one.


Chapman’s classic set (appears as Christmas present in Stillman’s Metropolitan): for our first anniversary Jim bought me a copy of Sense and Sensibility in the Chapman set (1924, without the later pastoral cover)

Ellen

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This statue by Adam Roud of Jane Austen walking steadily, looking to the side, book tucked under her elbow has been my favorite of the modern rendition — found in Chawton churchyard — we know she loved to walk …

Friend and readers,

I’ve written such a number of blogs commemorating Jane Austen’s birthday in some way by this time, the most obvious where I reprint her poem to a beloved friend, Anne Lefroy, who died on the day in 1808; I wrote about what she wrote that seemed to me neglected (yes) and so interesting: her remarks on Tudor queens, including Katherine Parr; and a whole series, some containing notable poems to her, a new opera, some about a much enjoyed social activity (dancing) and so on.

But I never thought to comb her letters looking for how she felt on the day  (or maybe I did and couldn’t find anything). Diana Birchalls has done a splendid nuanced job asking: did she enjoy it?, and, apparently, true to character, it’s not clear. That is, what is found is considerable ambivalence.

I put the following lines in quotations as a comment on Diana’s and since then added to  it: “She tried hard, she worked at being cheerful and sometimes she was. But she was so intelligent that marking time (as birthdays force us to) is an ambivalent event. Perhaps she might have been happier had she been able to write more,” and it seems been less censured (there is evidence she worried about her family’s response and had to answer to them, including her mother still on Persuasion), had her publishing started earlier. “She was also a spinster with not much money and among her milieu not a high rank and it’s impossible to ignore the average POV and she might have felt that her life was lacking because of the way others treated spinsters.” There was that time in Bath.” OTOH, she knew she was lucky within limits, was solvent enough by living with her family in the prescribed way (she saw how so many others had much to endure, had, as far as we can tell, a supportive family, some loving friends, so she had much to be glad about.” What is most surprising about the quotations and asides and indirect references (beyond the one poem) Diana turns up is the plangent tone of so many of them.

For myself, I imagine Austen happiest when absorbed in her imaginary in the throes of writing, as I imagine a number of her near women contemporaries, for example, Fanny Burney and Anne Radcliffe (given the amounts they wrote), and others she mentions as predecessors, and rivals and simply someone she is reading, e.g. Mary Brunton, Charlotte Smith, Anne MicVicar Grant,  Madame de Genlis. She loved memoirists in French as well as English; we catch her reading travel writers, educational treatises, poets. Perhaps it’s best to commemorate her with striking passages by her — they are hard to pluck out, for they gain their depth by context and resonance across a book.


This morning I came upon another statue of Jane, which has joined the first at Chawton (the gardens), Robert Prescott’s Jane absorbed in writing —

So here are some brief ones I keep in a commonplace file, as favorites, as general ironic truths, as what I have turned to — Matthew Arnold style, the touchstones: I’ve organized them by novels in order of publication, or what is the probable chronology of writing, and then from the letters. The first, the epigraph to this blog: “It is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible” … Henry Tilney, NA

Sense and Sensibility

‘We are all offending every moment of our lives.’…. Marianne Dashwood

‘It is not every one,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves.’

Elinor could only smile.

Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.

Pride and Prejudice:

‘There is a fine old saying, which every body here is of course familiar with — Keep your breath to cool your porridge, — and I shall keep mine to swell my song.’ … Elizabeth Bennet

‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing’ … Elizabeth once again …

Mansfield Park

Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated reason to … acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure …

Emma

She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself. … Emma thinking

‘Well, I cannot understand it.’ ‘That is the case with us all, papa. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other’ … Emma and her father

“We all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits. Mine, I confess, are exhausted.’ … Jane Fairfax to Emma, fleeing, after Box Hill

Northanger Abbey

‘Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.’ … Catherine

‘But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?’ — Catherine about General Tilney

‘After long thought and much perplexity, to be very brief was all that she could determine on with any confidence of safety.’ … Catherine thinking about writing to Eleanor Tilney after having been so insultingly ejected from the abbey

Persuasion

‘One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering….’ Anne Elliot to Captain Wentworth

Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven … Austen as narrator & Anne Elliot

Lady Susan

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age!–just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout–too old to be agreeable, and too young to die… May the next gouty Attack be more favourable … Lady Susan herself

Unfinished fragments of novels and Juvenilia:

I wish there were no such things as Teeth in the World; they are nothing but plagues to one, and I dare say that People might easily invent something to eat with instead of them. … Catherine, from Catherine, or the Bower

‘ … she has been suffering much from headache and six leeches a day … [which] relieved her so little we thought it right to change our measures,” “to attack the disorder” in her gum, so they “had three teeth drawn, and [she] is decidedly better, but her nerves are a good deal deranged. She can only speak in a whisper … fainted away twice this morning …  Sanditon, Diana Parker about her sister ….

When there is so much Love on one side there is no occasion for it on the other … The Three Sisters

From Austen’s censored, cut up, bowdlerized letters:

Do pray meet with somebody belonging to yourself, — I am quite weary of your knowing nobody.

I do not want People to be very agreable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.

Pray remember me to Everybody who does not enquire after me.

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy.

I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument …

People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them …

I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter …

And I cannot resist this longer quotation one, as one possibly never noticed overlooked by my reader:

In defense of spinsterhood:

from Frederick and Elfrida (Juvenilia): one could call it a parodic short story: We have as heroine, “Charlotte, whose nature we have before intimated was an earnest desire to oblige every one … ” when “an aged gentleman with a sallow face & old pink Coat, partly by intention & partly thro’ weakness was at the feet of the lovely Charlotte, declaring his attachment to her”

Not being able to resolve to make any one miserable, she consented to become his wife; where upon the Gentleman left the room & all was quiet.

Their quiet however continued but a short time, for on a second opening of the door a young & Handsome Gentleman with a new blue coat entered & intreated from the lovely Charlotte, permission to pay to her his addresses. There was a something in the appearance of the second Stranger, that influenced Charlotte in his favour, to the full as much as the appearance of the first: she could not account for it, but so it was. Having therefore, agreable to that & the natural turn of her mind to make every one happy, promised to become his Wife the next morning …

It was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, & to that end threw herself into a deep stream …

We cannot know if this was written before or after Austen refused Mr Bigg-Wither. May we hope it is meant generally?

Ellen

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Laura Knight, Two Girls on a Cliff (Cornwall), a foremother artist, again quiet female friendship is not a topic readily found in all eras

Eph — What freindship is, Ardelia shew?
Ard — Tis to love, as I love you.
Eph — This account so short, (tho’ kind)
Suites not my enquiring mind.
Therefore farther now repeat.
What is freindship, when compleat?
Ard — ‘Tis to share all joy, and greif,
‘Tis to lend all due releif,
From the tongue, the heart, the hand,
‘Tis to morgage [sic] house, and land,
For a freind, be sold a slave,
‘Tis to dye upon a Grave,
If a freind therein do lye.
Eph — This, indeed, tho’ carry’d high,
This, tho’ more then ‘ere was done,
Underneath the roling [sic] Sun,
This, has all been said before,
Can Ardelia, say no more?
Ard — Words indeed, no more can shew,
But ’tis to love, as I love you.
— Anne Finch to her beloved sister-in-law, Francis Finch Thynne, Lady Weymouth

Dear friends and readers,

I should probably have framed my previous blog with one of the insights in Paula Backscheider’s study of 18th century poetry by women in the context of poetry “through the ages:” she suggests and (I think) demonstrates that friendship poems are used different by women from men. Men often use these politically, to situate themselves publicly. For women they create counter-universes with the friend in which they can explore possibilities, pleasures, identities together.

This is a companion blog to the previous on Anne Finch’s friendship poet to good friends who were also poets, and to her predecessors. Now we come to friendships where the women were not poets, but were willing to enter Anne’s poetic world with her, so, to start, e.g, Catherine Cavendish Tufton (Arminda) and Francis Finch Thynne (Ephelia), two of her closest dearest women friends. The number of poems doesn’t tell us much as there is but one to, e.g., her cousin, Elizabeth Haslewood (d. 1733) who becomes Lady Hatton, daughter of her mother’s brother, Sir William, whom Anne grew up with and with whom she remained close. Elizabeth married Christopher Viscount Hatton.  The list here contains one women who was a reluctant participant. To begin,

“Ephelia” was not the powerful caustic still anonymous female poet, “Ephelia” and glamorous aristocrat that Maureen Mulvihill wants her to be. The last time I looked Ephelia’s identity was still not known.  Finch’s Ephelia was Heneage’s sister, Finch’s sister-in-law, Frances Finch Thynne, Lady Weymouth, wife to Heneage’s close friend, companion and support, Thomas Thynne, Lord Weymouth.  Utresia (see below) is Anne’s niece , Lady Weymouth’s daughter, called in the poems also Lady Worseley. Lad Worseley was dragged (so to speak) into a close relationship she apparently was made uncomfortable by. The three poems to Lady Worseley’s mother are deeply felt and include one of Anne’s very best poems, the outstanding:

1) MS Folger, 6-11, “Me, dear Ephelia, me, in vain you court,” Ardelia’s answer to Ephelia, who had invited Her to come to her in Town–reflecting on the Coquetterie & detracting humour of the Age,” as brilliant as that of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, both of which find an ultimate source in Boileau’s Satire III (itself an imitation of Horace’s Satire I, ix). I believe Frances Thynne is also depicted in

2) MS Folger 22, “What freindship is, Ardelia shew?” “Freindship Between Ephelia and Ardelia”. Frances Finch was the muse of the poems addressed to Ephelia because all her life, she played the role of consoler, strengthener: she knew intimately the sources of her “sister’s” psychological problems and we see yet more of their relationship in

3) MS Wellesley 100, “Absence in love effects the same,” “Untitled: These verses were inserted in a letter to the Right Hon: ble the Lady Vicountess Weymouth written from Lewston the next day after my parting with her at Long Leat,” copied out with an apparently frank letter, which, alas, was destroyed. We can say though that unlike Francis’s daughter (see directly below), Francis stayed a satisfyingly long time (over night). It’s a melancholy song written upon awakening after parting from a friend.  Cf earlier brief or one stanza version, presented as translation from a French libertine epigram, found in Ms Folger

Ephelia was not Dorothy Ogle either (as surmised by Myra Reynolds), Finch’s beloved step-sister who died young, whom Finch addresses as “Teresa,”

1) MS’s: F-H 283, 18-25; Folger 206-8, “Hither, Ardelia I your Stepps Pursue,” “Some Reflections in a Dialogue between Teresa and Ardelia on the 2d and 3d Verses of the 73d Psalm,” a Biblical paraphrase, in tone and content bearing a strong resemblance to an important as yet unattributed autographical poem,

2) No MS (!), 1701 Gilden Miscellany, pp 288-93, “All flie th’unhappy, and I all wou’d flie,” “The Retirement” are addressed. Dorothy had lived with Anne their sometimes lonely orphaned childhoods in Northamptonshire among the Haslewoods (an affectionate but large household), and with the litigious formidable grandmother Kingsmill in Sidmouth.


Joseph Farrington, The Oak Tree (18th century engraving): See Anne’s “Fair Tree” (scroll down for podcast)

A third close associate and one from her younger years, Elizabeth Haslewood, Lady Hatton (see above). Mock heroic in a delicate way and like “The White Mouses Petition” in the vein of Madame Deshouliers. The poem mentions at least three of Elizabeth’s four sons, and evinces comfortable intimacy

1) MS Wellesley, pp 93995. “Where is the trust in human things,” To the Hon ble Mrs H—n [in Heneage’s hand, pasted over ample space, original heading censured]. Anne identifies with the mouse in both poems, but as that was a custom (in Madame Deshouliers and aristocratic circles), one should not over-read.

Eventually, much to her distress, embarrassment, and irritation, Lady Worseley, another Frances Thynne (it is hard to distinguish these people as individuals since they themselves chose names which placed them as a member of a kindship system of aristocrats), married to Robert Worseley by 1690, found herself chosen by Anne Finch in the way Anne chose Frances Thynne Seymour, the daughter of a beloved friend, Grace Strode into whom Anne wanted to pour her innermost feelings. The poetry to Utresia contains much beauty but also the most painful lines left by Ardelia. There are three poems, which suggest that at first Utresia decided that to accept letters would be the best way to handle the relationship, but eventually found Anne’s intensity too much and then Anne seems to have been unable to accept Lady Worseley’s rejection of her intensity.

1) MS Folger unnumbered page -275, “If from some lonely and obscure recesse,” “To the Honourable The Lady Worsley at Long-leate who had most obligingly desired my Corresponding with her by Letters.” It ends on extravagant praise of Lord Weymouth, Lady Worseley’s father (Heneage’s brother-in-law); Finch imagines them walking together. Longleat itself the focus of what he created. This is a deeply moving poem with much beautiful landscape, but (as is not uncommon), Anne may not have not seen clearly enough the person she wanted to make her companion soul; it may be that Lady Worseley was forced to accept this because not to do would be to reject the praise of her father.

2) Ms Wellesley, pp 77-78. “From the sweet pleasure of a rural seat,” A Letter to the Hon: ble Lady Worseley at Long-Leat, Lewston August the 10th 1704. This is one of those poems in MS Wellesley whose date makes it much earlier than the rest of the poems in the Ms Wellesley; at the same it it is accompanied by a letter from “Ann Finch” to her niece saying that her mother, Lady Weymouth so easily excused the verses Anne wrote upon waking (see above), she will excuse these. She stopped writing because a messenger who was to carry the poem was about to leave. It seems the visit of mother and daughter over-excited Anne and she showed some emotions that disquieted the daughter.  In her letter she is not aware of this. The last or next poem shows Utresia determined to keep a distance between herself and her poetic aunt.

3) MS Portland 19, pp 304-7, “The long long expected hour is come,” , “On a Short Visit inscrib’d to My Lady Worsley,” copied out in Anne’s own hand, for she needed to write this, wanted it saved but could not apply to anyone else to write it down. Utresia (here also called Celia) had found it hard to put Anne off, Anne would not take a hint, and when Utresia finally showed up, Anne’s behavior was so overwhelming, she had to get away from her. McGovern quotes someone who visiting Anne in London in later years and finding her “ill,” or “melancholic, wrote that she found Lady Winchilsea very amusing. Not everyone can dismiss or frame a melancholy woman as someone who makes jokes.

Several other women across Anne’s life meant a great deal to her personally and to whom she felt free to write candid poetry:  Catherine Cavendish, who married Thomas Tufton, earl of Thanet; both spouses were friends of Heneage and Anne, and married only a few months after they did; the Tuftons (or Earl and Lady Thanet) took in the Finches (Colonel and Mrs Finch) at their estate of Hothfield in Kent when the Finches fled London. Catherine Cavendish is Arminda, and they were life-long confiding friends; to Arminda, Anne wrote but one poem, but an important beautiful one, deeply grateful, openly vulnerable:

1) MS Folger, pp 220-27, “Give me, oh! indulgent Fate,” “The Petition for an Absolute Retreat, Inscribed To the Right Honorable Catharine Countess of THANET, mention’d in the Poem, under the name of ARMINDA.”

Of the next generation, another close friend to Anne Finch was Cleone, or Mrs Grace Strode Thynne, wife of Henry Thynne (Theanor, died 1708), son of Francis and Thomas Thynne, Lord and Lady Weymouth. Henry was then Heneage’s nephew so Cleone was daughter-in-law to Anne’s best friend, and, eventually, mother to Anne’s beloved Lady Hertford. Henry died fairly young, and Mrs Grace did not continue to live with her in-laws but returned to the Strode family home in Leweston; nevertheless, she and Anne remained close, to which relationship three poems by Anne testify.

1) “Sooner I’d praise a Cloud which Light beguiles,” To the Painter of an ill-drawn Picture of CLEONE,” no MS (!), the only source text the 1713 Miscellany, pp 176-78. Very lovely in parts, with strong praise in words which suggest these contemporaries were “sympathizing” friends, written possibly around the time of the couple’s marriage (1695),

2) “THINK not a partial fondness sway’d my mind,” An Epistle to the honourable Mrs. THYNNE, persuading her to have a Statue made of her youngest Daughter, now Lady BROOKE. No MS; found in a 1714 Steele Miscellany; and in 1717 Pope’s Own Miscellany, from which the copy on my website is taken. Finch defends herself for having appeared to favor Mary (“Maria”) over Francis Thynne (“Aspasia”) I suggest 1704-5.

3) One of Anne’s comic (happy) masterpieces, “How plain dear Madam was the Want of Sight,” After drawing a twelf cake at the Hon ble Mrs Thynne’s (dated in MS Additional 4457: “To the Hon ble Mrs Thynne after twelfth Day 1715 By Lady Winchilsea”, Ms Wellesley 91-92 (copy text althought one of the lines is softened in comparison with Ms Additional text)


For full details about the occasion, the cards, the people there, click on The Birthday at Winter Solstice

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Mary of Modena (Urania) was one of Anne’s real and dream figures: Mary of Modena seems to have functioned in Finch’s life as a luminous icon of beauty, divinity, poetry of language. Perhaps she was also in Anne’s mind a mentor-substitute for the mother whom Anne never had. Perhaps one of the sources of Anne’s passionate Jacobitism was this imagined relationship. Two poems. One very early, after James II fell from power, one of Anne’s brief masterpieces. The second includes the presence of Anne Tufton (Salisbury or Lamira; see below) who tries to mitigate Anne’s over-reaction and on whose advice the elegy to the queen is brought to an end:

1) MS’s: F-H 283, 7*; Folger 17, “She Sigh’d, but soon it mixt with common air“. Never printed.

2) Ms Wellesley, pp 68-71, “Dark was the shade where only cou’d be seen,” “On the Death of the Queen”


Mary of Modena, depicted with a James III

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Returning to Anne’s circles in later life, one is tempted to say these are less important women to Anne because they came later or were of a younger age. Not so apparently in the case of Anne Tufton (see above, Lamira and below “Salisbury”): Catherine Cavendish Tufton, Lady Thanet had two daughters. These relationships may have been substitutes for the biological daughters Anne never had: To Anne Tufton, Lamira, the first of which seems to me uncomfortably coy; the second perhaps Anne’s greatest poem. She is also mentioned in Anne’s poem on the death of Mary of Modena:

1) Ms Wellesley, 92-93, “With all respect and humble duty,”, The white mouses petition to Lamira the Right Hon: ble the Lady Ann Tufton now Countess of Salisbury. This relationship matured into

2) No MS, 1713 Miscellany, pp 292-94, “In such a Night, when every louder Wind”, “A Nocturnal Reverie”


A tawny owl — part of a beautiful tribute and analysis of Anne’s poem by Carol Rumens in the Guardian for this year!

Mrs Arabella Marrow was an unmarried daughter of Samuel and Lady Marrow, of Berkwell, Warwickshire; she was one of Mrs Grace Strode Thynne’s closest companions. Date: Lady Marrow died October 19, 1714. A “letter” shows how much Anne knew and was up-to-date on Jacobite and Hanoverian politics.

1) Ms Wellesley, p 55v.“For can our correspondence please,”, “A Letter to Mrs Arrabella Marow: [A prose opening: The favour of such an agreeable & most obliging letter as I recieved . . .] In MS Additional 4457 it is subscribed “London, October 18 1715.” A strongly Jacobite poem. Lady Marrow already dead.

2) MS Additional 4457, p 56v “Their piety th’Egyptians show’d by Art,” “To Mrs Arabella Marrow upon the Death of Lady Marrow”. A witty epigram whose modest idea is intended to console her friend for her loss of her mother.


A double stock flower (tagetes patula?)

Anne did not forget people. Lady Selena Finch Shirley (1681-1762), married to Robert Shirley, Lord Ferrers (1650-1717) in 1699.  Lady Selena lived at Wye College in the early 1700s (Cameron found this out): she was a daughter of George (and Jane?) Finch whom Cameron found living at Wye College in the early 1700’s; she had ten children by Robert Shirley before he died in 1717. She died 1762. In the second poem Finch says looking upon the flower in its ripe prime reminds her of the time when she “That beauteous maid wou’d view/The green house where I liv’d retired;” that is, between 1700 and 1703 when Anne lived at Wye Shirley Finch would come to visit her in a green house or garden near Wye; now destiny has led her young friend to the country and Anne placed in town where Anne can no longer feel rejuvenated by her friend’s presence as once she was. It is a compliment to Lady Selena’s daughter, also called Selena (See Complete Poems, Vol 2, pp 484-85).

The first may be explained this way: Statira was best known to 17th century women readers as presented La Calprenede’s Cassandra. Finch had used this romance before in poetry found in MS Folger: see the homoerotic, “An Epistle from Alexander to Ephestion in his Sicknesse” Statira is a formidable heroine in LaCalprenede’s bookn, a sort of Amazon; it’s an ambiguous compliment (for she is not chaste), but perhaps Finch was thinking of her friend having had ten children.  During the time the women were close Lady Selena must’ve been almost continually pregnant.  And now she is or is near widowhood.

1) Ms Wellesley, “Such was Statira, when young Ammon woo’d,” Upon Lady Selena Shirly’s picture drawn by Mr Dagar.

2) 1717 Pope’s Own Miscellany “How is it in this chilling time,” “On a double Stock July-flower, full blown in January, presented to me by the Countess of FERRERS” By the right honourable the Lady WINCHELSEA, pp. 126ff

Lady Catherine Jones (Clorinda, d 1740), third daughter to Richard Jones, Viscount, first Earl of Ranelagh. Her name occurs very late in Anne’s poetry and only once but there is suggestive evidence they knew each other for a long time. Anne uses the name Clorinda in other poems but these are about secular beauty, and one may refer to Anne herself. What’s significant here is she served Mary Beatrice as Chamber-keeper, and was a patron of Mary Astell who dedicated two religious treatises to her. Lady Catherine corresponded with Swift twice but to her contemporaries it was probably more important that her family moved in high circles (she once dined with George I, 1717); she seems never to have married. The poem below is devotional, poetry as praying:  perhaps Lady Catherine was especially religious. The poem occurs in series of such poems, and I think it was meant to be set to music; it’s not meant to be read, but sung as a series of visions:

1) Ms Wellesley, 134-35 “Alleluja Sollemn Strain,” An Ode Written upon Christmas Eve in the year 1714 Upon these Words[:] And again they Said Alleluia Inscribed To the Rt: Hon ble the Lady Catherine Jones

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Last the daughters and granddaughters of friends and relatives:

To the younger Catherine Tufton, Serena, born 1692, Anne Tufton’s sister:

1) MS Folger, 298-9, “To write in verse has been my pleasing choice,” “To the Rt. Honble the Lady Tufton Upon Adressing to me the first Letter that Ever she Writt at the Age of–”

2) MS Folger, pp 242-44, “‘Tis fitt Serena shou’d be sung,”, “A Poem For the Birth Day of the Right Honorable the Lady Catherine Tufton. Occasion’d by the sight of some Verses upon that Subject For the preceding Year compos’d by no Eminent Hand” — also for a child.

The first poem in the MS Wellesley, to or on Lady Carteret, yet another daughter of the family, Francis Worseley, Lady Carteret, Utresia’s daughter, so granddaughter to Frances Finch Thynne, Lady Weymouth:

1) Ms Wellesley, p 49  “Quoth the Swains who got in at the late Masquerade”, “On Lady Cartret drest like a shepherdess at Count Volira’s ball”

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So I’ve identified as friends or people Anne Finch both cared about and wrote deeply felt poems for: Frances Finch Thynne, Lady Weymouth; Dorothy Ogle; Elisabeth Haslewood, Lady Hatton; Frances Thynne, Lady Worsley; Mrs Grace Strode Thynne; Mary of Modena; Anne Tufton, Lady Salisbury; Arabella Marrow; Lady Selena Finch Shirley, Countess of Ferrers; Lady Catherine Jones; Catherine Tufton; Francis Worseley, Lady Carteret.

Anne writes to and about male friends too, some poets, some not, but often with irony and never with the open earnestness and fullness of heart she does to her women friends. Several of these poems to women are more deeply felt than those by her to Heneage. Eventually I may try to write a blog about the poems to male friends and poets.

Ellen

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This she blotted carefully and laid aside [a real letter she has written expressing real emotions]. Then, taking up the folder containing Beneath the Visiting Moon [her latest novel], she pulled out her papers, re-read her last paragraph, and bent her head obediently to her daily tasks of fantasy and obfuscation (Brookner, Hotel du Lac, characterizing what her heroine does when she writes fiction)

Friends and readers,

For the last 8 to 10 weeks and sometime before I’ve been having a wonderful time reading four twentieth Century women’s political novels, to wit, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies, Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — as well as (just as much fun in some ways) books on these women authors and other books by them and reviews and essays, not to omit watching relevant movies. This blog is not on this material, as I have written about these books and some of the movies on this blog and elsewhere, but I want to assert how enjoyable such books are.

This is a period when women were beginning to achieve all sorts of rights by law and custom they had not had before, but were still much constrained by the social roles imposed on them by determined patriarchy. Not until the 1960s and 70s do women begin to take jobs in the professions after going to college, and only after that are they more widely recognized in such colleges and jobs. So a paradoxical or complicated situation is theirs.

The political slant has been as enjoyable as one I did several years ago of two 20th century women writing historical novels set in the long 18th century: Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover.

“What country? when she is a woman? (Woolf), women’s political novels differ from men’s; they’ve not been allowed (until very recently) to connect directly to the public world and state; have not joined wars for the usual canonized reasons; independence & self-esteem stirred but same ideology which undermines them returns. They question basic assumptions, about battle too. Naomi Mitchison’s worry that liberalism, belief in democracy, endlessly subject to internal dissent and attack from oligarchies, will dissolve if conservatives when they gain power yield to fascist ideas …

The teaching has gone over so well, or well enough, in these veins, I would like to continue, with intriguing switching of perspectives: Christa Wolff’s Cassandra and Four Essays, Eva Figes’s The Seven Ages [of Women]. I will teach these two next winter.  Also finally to branch out into other genres and non-Anglo texts (in translation) Marta Hillier’s Women in Berlin, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca, Storm Jameson’s Journey from the North.

There is just so much from so many women, so often unsung, neglected, marginalized, died young (Winifred Holtby, say South Riding) and still misrepresented (Virginia Woolf). Non-Eurocentric texts: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Backward Place, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreters of Maladies. I’ve gone on to a number of fine books on women’s 20th century novels/memoirs under the aegis of different themes, eras, genres –just wonderful.

I’ve also been reading about women’s publishing houses, a history of Virago by Catherine Riley, not only as for the first time publishing women’s books in large numbers and continually, but publishing books by women telling their history, of their literature, their point of view.

Not so wonderful though: today in the New York Times, an article by Ruth Franklin ostensibly about the withdrawing from public of a biography of Philip Roth: the biographer, a male, has been accused of sexual assault, but there is further context about Roth’s own behavior and his books. It’s by Ruth Franklin and her title gives you insight into what is her real topic: “What we lose when only men write about men.” She tells you, quite correctly, that is it much much easier to get a contract or access to archives if you are man wanting to write a biography; I’ll add to that it is also much much easier if your topic is a famous man. Famous male writers count.

But if you are a woman intent (let’s say) on writing a literary biography of woman writer boy do you have rough road ahead and your work may never reach fulfillment. And if it does, what characteristically happens to it? I’ll give one example, we are told Boswell is the father of (literary) biography, his book is on the famous Samuel Johnson. Then we are invited to fast forward to later 19th century biographies, all by men. Guess what? There is a great powerful biography inbetween: Elizabeth Gaskell on the Life of Charlotte Bronte. Arguably it’s better than Boswell’s. What has happened: it was attacked at the time as unwomanly (telling some truths about Bronte) and Gaskell was sued; nowadays it is attacked as unbalanced and (oh dear) unfair to Bronte’s tyrannical father (who, we are told, against all evidence to the contrary was no tyrant).

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Tonight I want to talk about two novellas by women of the mid-century which at the same time I happen to be reading with a group of people on FB, “The Way We Read Now.” One of them by an author whose novels I now realize I read very naively in the 1980s, Anita Brookner, and another by an author I knew I had not cared for particularly, Muriel Spark, and now by dint of reading with others, have been driven to decide why. As part of this group I to some extent contributed a posting on each chapter of the novel day-by-day, one after the other: it was through this that I feel I got inside Brookner’s guarded emotionalism in her self-defensive Hotel du Lac for the first time, and at least confronted the chilling derision in Spark’s depiction of a group of a few poignant but mostly desperate and petty or selfish and ruthless very aged and dying characters.

On Hotel du Lac: this is a book about women’s relationships with one another; it’s (to use a word no longer familiar) feminocentric. We see that often the individuals in this group neither like or trust one another, though they pretend otherwise and can feel sorry for one another. Edith Hope is a modern Bronte heroine. Make a spectrum with Austen on one side, and Bronte on the other, and there’s no question. She truly wants to be solitary (whatever she says), to lose herself in the treasures of mind (as Jane Eyre says at one point this means more than anything), and she dislikes plush, luxury as all in very bad taste.

Like Brookner herself, Edith prefers the lifelong single life – but unlike Brookner has not found an occupation where she can find a substitute set of ethics for herself. A quiet retreat. This makes me remember Vanessa Bell who lived an utterly unconventional life sexually and otherwise and remained a very private person. Edith’s pseudonym is Vanessa Wilde.


Anna Massey as Edith Hope and Desmond Elliot, as the needling sadistic (if on the surface ever so kind) Mr Neville (the 1986 film is beautiful to look at)

After reading a couple of essays on the book: Margaret Stetz on “Visual Life” connects Brookner’s novels to her art books: Brookner critiques society through the painter’s work & life: Watteau is an idyllic escape but profoundly melancholy. Geuze is salacious and tells uplifting anecdotes so as to sell. In Hotel du Lac we have perspectives on the writing life. There’s much more and while am no longer in my 30s and would probably not read another Brookner novel soon (I read it in a far more aware way), I took down my two art books and would love to find the time to read her sketches on Romanticism and Its Discontents.

Fisher-Wirth’s tragic vision made me think about these women — maybe I should take this too gross caricatured mother-daughter and think about mothers and daughters in Brookner’s other fiction, Edith Hope’s estrangement from her mother. Mother-daughter relationships are central to women’s fiction. Hotel du Lac (lack as well as lake) is a deeply despairing book — she reminds me of Wharton but also Ishiguro — except this book lacks tenderness and little tolerance for the philistinism Brookner pretends to in her interviews.

Last Stetz’s “Reluctant Feminist:’ Brookner’s public remarks are rebarbative, abrasive & misleading; that Brookner seems to regard some patterns in women as not constructed but innate. Stetz shows parallels between Brookner’s fiction and Woolf (Voyage out repeatedly, sometimes using Rachel/Helen). I liked the writing the woman artist core of the book. I wish Brookner had presented Edith’s fiction in some way but Brookner is/was herself too much on guard. Other lacks in the book include its inflexibility of POV —

I tried the Morahan/Foster movie, and it lost Edith’s inner life so was a hollowed out, shallow version of the book, excising especially especially the bitterness against men who play flattering games with deluded women and profoundly unfaithful to any vulnerable partner.

I should say how strong and picturesque her writing style. The sentences on each page quiet utterances of art.

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The moments when Spark’s book most interested me were the rare passages of literary allusion in which she seemed to be inviting the reader to compare her supposed realistic depiction of the very old and dying to more romantic feelingful texts. I’d say hers is not realistic because Spark chooses to deprive her characters of any beauty, fulfilled hope, anything charitable or redemptive — insisting on pettiness, cruelty (to the point she is not satisfied with destroying the life’s work on aging and death of one man in a fire, the fire must burn to death a cat and dog as well), to me it seemed the meaninglessness of life for all (though they don’t see this).

Early on we have a very mocking description of the fiction of the 50+ year old son of two characters (“I simply could not go on with it. A motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in an hotel with that communist librarian … ” – an allusion to Philip Larkin?), and very late a ridiculing description of his mother’s romantic seemingly soap opera fiction, so entangled you cannot keep track of individual characters or events; there is an allusion to Dylan Thomas who did not go gentle into that good night; several to Dowson who wrote fin-de-siecle sensual poetry, especially his poem supposed written by a man in love with a women but unfaithful while she is indifferent to him (this parallels one of the very elderly couples in the book). Very Verlaine, with echoing refrains and classical allusion (one line refrain: “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”).

It was Dowson who wrote the famous often quoted “Days of Wine and Roses:”

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Then near the close of the book allusions to last two stanzas of Byron’s Childe Harolde. They are really moving as Byron bids adieu to his book, to his dreams, to his poetry, to everything he has tried to suggest from his deep soul. If Spark means to say reflexively, see hasn’t my take been better? my answer is no. The central mystery of the novel is who is the neurotic man or supernatural or psychic spirit who has been pestering the characters with obsessive phone calls saying “remember you must die.” They are in no danger of forgetting. I was urged to see Spark as in a distanced way (ironic) trying to show us the lack of compassion in the treatment of the old. But to me the ironies were very unfunny: a very sick feeble man disinherited because it turns out his wife briefly had another husband first?

While reading the book, I happened to watch one of this year’s Oscar winner, The Father (see excellent review), with Anthony Hopkins as an very old man, and Oliva Coleman, his aging daughter who has recently been forced to bring him into her apartment as he has gone into senile dementia and much as she loves him, needs liberty to live a life fulfilling her own needs.

I thought to myself though maybe Spark would say it is absurdly sentimental because it presents the daughter as so concerned for her father, so deeply grieving at what is happening. But the people surrounding the man are not super-kind (especially a man who seems to be his daughter’s husband – it’s hard to tell since we are in the old man’s confused mind), and the story in front of us is how much a burden his daughter finds caring for him.


Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) takes “her girls” on a field trip (from the 1969 popular movie)

I thought one chapter from a book of essays on Twentieth Century Women Writers edited by Thomas Staley, excessively charitable:

William McBrien interprets (or explicates) Spark’s novels as manifesting “dandyism.” He links her to Max Beerbohm and says in her books “artifice” is “a spiritual strategy;” her writing is “macquillage” (make-up, cosmetics) “that may serve the spirit.” He quotes her saying “I believe events are providentially ordered,” and says that at the same time or maybe because of this she writes in a “insouciant” manner.

What troubles me about this is there is no discussion of the content in this general summary — he just asserts this as well as the idea that readers find her stories “engrossing.” (I didn’t; I admit I found the book very easy reading, no trouble to take in.) She gets away with what she does — what she swiftly and concisely piles on — because of her style — he uses the word “flippant and sophisticated’ for that — I’ll agree on flippant.

He then goes through quite a number of her novels where the characteristics found remind me of what is found in Memento Mori. In The Comforters a typewriter that clicks by itself with a voice that repeats the words the heroine utters. One critic, Peter Kemp, collected all her references to Job in her books and her statement in a Church of England Newspaper called “The Mystery of Job’s Suffering” where she shows (this is Kemp’s paraphrase) “how alone we are in life and how incomprehensible and inconsolable in human ways.”

At one point McBrien uses the phrase “Catholic Chic” of the fantasies in one of her books. There’s a mocking story about a convent and [The] Abbess, much “studied frivolity.” They include post-texts: one is called Robinson – a Robinson Crusoe story. He goes over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie slightly, focusing briefly on how the heroine is a fascist. There are mystery elements in many, connections to T.S. Eliot (in one novel “an Eliotic voice, revealing the Unreal City, and Waste Land archeology), to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Flannery O’Connor admired her work

One quotation by Stevie Smith I found apt “Muriel Spark has a real genius for being gruesome and hilarious in practical circumstances, gay in city graveyards, gothics in factories.” It may be that if you read a number of her books, put them together and brought forth some consistent vision – she has one autobiography as novel (Loitering with Intent) that might help — you could make a case for her as a serious novelist. That’s what Wm McBrien is suggesting.

For myself I still may try Loitering with Intent because I’m interested in life-writing. To me there is something chilling and heartless in this book.

It was probably a good thing for me to have read this book so I won’t go overboard in my praise of all 20th century women writers. My blog may seem more balanced (ironic joke alert).

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To conclude, as long time readers of this and my other blogs may know, I’ve long been working on a project “towards a book” (whether I ever write one or not doesn’t matter) where I study life-long single women writers (“Not an anomaly” is its working title); now I’m seeing a way to modify my argument which has been at once too broad and too narrow and one others might not find appealing in the way I do. Brookner was a life-long single woman living with her parents. Muriel Spark also spent much of her life alone; she had a long term relationship with a woman she denied was lesbian.


A brilliant art study by Brookner where she uses the painter’s life, sensibility and paintings to characterize aspects of 18th century culture


Occasionally praised and reissued (because her novels sell), this critique of the book’s inadequacies by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt makes sense to me after reading Memento Mori

Ellen

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For three days I could find no information on the Persephone Books’ move to Bath. But this fourth day I got a letter from a company representative to say yes, sadly, they are are moving. I had concluded that I fell for an April 1st fools day hoax. No such luck, they have been driven to the smaller city, away from Bloomsbury and the nearby British Library. I include my correspondence with them in the comments


Nicola Beauman (b. 1944) recently

“I like books that tell me how we lived,” says Persephone’s founder Nicola Beauman.“I’m very, very interested in the novel as social history.”

Dear friends and readers,

This is a shorter blog than I’ve been in the habit of writing, more in the nature of an item of news, followed by context suggesting the meaning of the news. I’ve been very frustrated since the YouTube of Nicola Beauman announcing the move of the Persephone bookshop located in Bloomsbury (Lamb’s Conduit Street, near the British Library), London to Bath, which I saw on twitter and was able to trace to a Carol Shields site on Facebook, is not movable — I cannot share it, nor can I link you to it, except as a tweet (on twitter — do click as of this morning the video is still there). I cannot even find the originating story in any of the major online newspapers I read. No wonder; there is no originating story there. The Video says nothing about moving; it is about why and how Beauman started Persephone books and that is is managing to survive during the pandemic though online sales and its reputation among a select loyal group of readers. I was correct to surmize that economics might driving the shop from its present location to this western spa city, only it was quietly announced in a newsletter that goes out to members of the Bookstore and potential customers who subscribe.

Why make this blog. Because the marginalized announcement together with the way the store is tactfully run, and the people are careful to control how it appears and is discussed — is indicative of the continued marginalization of women and their justified apprehension of the way they will be presented. And yet it has been since the beginning of the 20th century and the suffragettes’ presses, and until now, so crucially important that women have their own presses.  As I cannot be sure you will heat the YouTube yourself, I’ll tell you what she says below. I will “flesh out” some of the points she makes with my own experience.  Then add some information on other presses publishing women’s and feminist books.


A photograph from one of the corners of the bookshop

Nicola Beauman started the company in 1998 because she had long loved 20th century women’s books, and finding for decades that most publishers would publish very few books by women of them, especially if they were about mothers centrally, that at long last (like the little red hen) did it herself. She says what is unique to the 20th century is women are still strongly constrained by all sorts of inhibiting conventions and until the 1960s/70s could get good jobs or into professions, were not seen or active widely in public life in general the way they began to be as of the 1980s. Yet they were going to public school up to university, working “outside the home” (“out to work”) in large numbers before World War Two, had the right vote and many rights and liberties that men have. So knowledge, self-esteem, self-confidence were within their purview regularly.

The result is a peculiar angle on life. I have discovered in teaching 20th century political novels by women this term, I just love not only the books I’m teaching, but to read about and some of other 20th century women’s political books.

I’ve twice taught a course I called 19th Century Women of Letters, and once Historical Novels by Women, especially set in the 18th century and dealing with war. I moderate a small modest listserv on groups.io I call WomenWriters.

All other things being equal, I often prefer women’s prose texts and poetry to men’s. They are inwardly much richer by virtue of the aesthetics that often informs them. Why not plays? because until recently almost all stage plays were written from a male angle even when women got a chance to write and to be staged. Women have, it seems to me, broken into screenplays for movies much quicker than for plays — less money, less prestige.


The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme, a partial view of the cover — see excellent blog

my other Persephone books are Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, The Making of the Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Miss Pettigrow Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson, Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity, Beauman’s own The Other Elizabeth Taylor, a book of short stories, and a lovely catalogue.

I love that the covers of these books are grey. Virago had a policy of choosing for covers paintings or images by women, or the kind that a woman would not — not a woman as a come-hither-fuck-me sex object. They seem to have given that up and turned to more abstract designs (as has Oxford of late), as if the publishers fear that younger adults today will not be attracted to a picture that depicts the 19th or even 20th century — as too old-fashioned. Grey solves the problem I have had many a time: a book I long to read comes with a soft-core porn image of a woman on its cover.

I am now reading a very good translation of Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina by Richard Pever and Larissa Volokhonsy, in a deluxe Penguin edition. In order to be able to endure the physical object, I put over the image of a woman’s knee which suggested what was up her thigh, a still from Joe Wright’s film adaptation of the novel featuring Keira Knightley looking desperately calm. Sometimes I can’t find an image that fits, so I just have to cut the cover off — weakening and eventually ruining the book. Grey reminds me of the old sets of good book sold in the 1930s and 40s by Left Book Clubs with soft brown or beige covers, sometimes with soft gold or silver lettering.

Beauman says that Persephone has kept up their high standard of choice and their have been sales sufficient to stay in business, even during this pandemic. But they will have more budget to publish and do more of the things they like to. They miss the in-coming customers and occasional events (book launches, talks). IF they had to they could succeed in Bath & spread their wisdom, and splendour there. But after all, they do not. Mockers may find their presence absurd, but I don’t nor their shop.

The New York Times had a spread of pictures and story to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the press and bookshop: A Bookstore of One’s Own by Sarah Lyall. Over on Twitter, Elaine Showalter tweeted to my comment that I like the shop, love the imprint, prefer to read good books by women most of the time, that I’ve covered wonderful lists, and there “really should be a book about the great feminist presses;” I replied there is a fine book on Virago: Catherine Riley: The Virago Story: Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon. This retells the origins of the press, its struggles to stay true to its mission, good books by women, its morphing into divisions of larger publishers and its stubborn integrity until today, the specific women who have made it what it is. I own too many (cherish most) to enumerate. An essay on the authors favored who resemble Austen can be found in Janeites, ed. Deirdre Lynch: Katie Trumpener, The Virago Jane. But a full scale book would be enourmously helpful in understanding one important strand of feminism today: other presses born around the time of Virago were Spare Rib, Pandora (“Mothers of the Novel” were the older books), Feminist Press of NYC. Anyone coming to this blog who can think of others, please supply the title in the comments.

As for Beauman herself, I’ve read her superb (highly informative) A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel, 1914–39, Virago (London), 1983 (about early and mid-20th century women writers and their books); The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Persephone (London, England), 1993 (did you know Taylor was a communist? and had affairs — you wouldn’t realize this from the surface stories of her books unless you think about them a bit); and Morgan (on EM Forster as seen and realized through his imaginative writings). The first and third have meant a lot to me. I have been to the shop twice, once with a friend I’d never met face-to-face before, knew for years here on the Internet. We had coffee and some kind of cake.

Ellen

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A Bridge Party by Barbara Loftus (1995?)


From A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma), Nina Hoss, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Irm Hermann (German, Max Färberböck 2008)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Ten Mondays, 11:45 to 1:15 pm,
March 1 to May 3
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC, but conducted online via zoom

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: 20th Century Women’s Political Novels

We’ll travel across 20th century wars, politics, and social life in fiction and memoir: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), about an Anglo-Irish household during the 1920s civil wars; Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (1960), on the fascist take-over of Rumania in 1939; Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1975), her experience paranoic McCarthy era, 1950s USA; and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), African-American experiences of life in early to mid-century America. We’ll learn of the authors; the woman’s perspective on earlier and today’s era. There are numerous excellent films which connect directly to these books; I cite a number (below) that people may profit from by watching on their own: of these, two are film adaptations of our books:  1999 Deborah Warner’s adaptation, The Last September; 1987 the first two hours of Alan Plater & Cellan Jones BBC serial film adaptation of Manning’s Balkan Trilogy titled The Fortunes of War.

Required books (in the order we’ll read them):

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Anchor, 2000 978-0-386-72014-4.

Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City (the 1st & 2nd of the 3 novels called The Balkan Trilogy) available separately, but I have them in the more much more frequently printed The Balkan Trilogy. Penguin 1974. You get three for what you pay and the novels become more brilliant as they go on. The URL for this older print is 0-14-010996-X. The trilogy has been recently reprinted with the dual Title, The Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy, introd. by Rachel Cusk. Penguin, 2010. 978-1-59017331-1. Both printings have the same pagination for the text.

Lillian Hellman. Scoundrel Time, introd Garry Wills. Little, Brown 1976. This same edition is available reprinted in 2000. The old URL is 0-316-35294.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. Vintage, 1970. 978-0-307-27844-9.


Bowen’s Court, now pulled down

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 1 Introduction: A kind of novel, historical as well as political & about war; when written by women; 4 era. Using film. Contrasting memoirs & fantasy dystopias: Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (gang-rape); Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (nursing); Virginia Woolf, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison (polemicists, home front stories). Elizabeth Bowen’s life, oeuvre. Irish War of Independence and Civil War

March 8 Elizabeth Bowen’s life and writing. Bowen’s The Last September

March 15 The Last September. The Two Bowen films. Fascism, fascist take over of Romania.

March 22 Olivia Manning’s life, oeuvre. More on women’s writing about war. Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida.

March 29 The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City. Other women writers at war, at the end of the empire

April 5 1987 BBC Serial, The Fortunes of War Lillian Hellman, with something of Dashiell Hammett. Their careers.

April 12 Her memoirs, Scoundrel Time. Something of her plays. Movies available: Watch on the Rhine, The Little Foxes.

April 19 Julia? Black history in the US; Black authors; Toni Morrison’s life & career. The Bluest Eye.

April 26 The Bluest Eye. Her later novels & books. The African diaspora

May 3 The Pieces that I Am. Women’s 20th century historical & mystery/spy novels.


Guy and Harriet Pringle (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) with Prince Yakimov (Ronald Pickup) in the Pringle Flat (Fortunes of War, end episode)


From Julia, Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) going over Autumn Garden (1977)

Suggested Films:

The Heat of the Day. Dir Christopher Morahan. Script: Harold Pinter. Perf. Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York &c. 1989. Available as DVD to rent, buy from Amazon, and as a whole on YouTube.
The Last September. Dir. Deborah Warren. Script: John Banville. Perf. Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, David Tennant, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, &c. 1999. Available as DVD from Netflix or to buy on Amazon. Also found on YouTube in 10 minute segments.
The Little Foxes. Dr William Wyler. Script: Lillian Helmann. Perf. Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright &c MGM, 1941. Amazon prime. DVD to buy.
The Fortunes of War. Dir. John Cellan Jones. Script: Alan Plater. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennet, Rupert Graves &c. 1987. Right now available as a DVD Region 2 to buy and on YouTube in 7 segments.
Michael Collins. Dir. Script. Neil Jordan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts. 1996. Available on Amazon Prime, as a DVD on Netflix to rent and on Amazon as a DVD to buy. As a DVD it comes with a documentary by Melvyn Bragg, very much worth the watching.
Watch on the Rhine. Dir. Herman Shulmin. Script: Hellman and Hammett. Perf. Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Donald Woods &c 1943 Warner Bros. Amazon Prime and a DVD to buy.
Julia. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Hellman and Alvin Sergeant. Perf. Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robarts, Maximillian Schell, Meryl Strep &c 1977 20thC Fox. DVD to buy or to rent on Netflix. Also complete on YouTube
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf Benjamin Whitlow, Charles Gray, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden &c. BBC, 1981. DVD to rent from Netflix, available as (scarce) DVD.
The Pieces that I am. Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Saunders. Perf. Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Ophrah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Moseley &c 2019 Perfect Day Films. Amazon Prime, DVD on Netflix or to buy.


Lillian Hellman, 1947, Photograph by Irving Penn

Suggested Outside Reading:

Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics & Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford and Hellman. University of Va, 2001.
Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. NY: Knopft, 1950.
Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. NY: Simon and Shuster, 1978.
David, Deirdre. Olivia Manning: A Woman at War. Oxford UP, 2012.
Foster, R.F. Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London, Penguin, 1993.
Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: A Biography. NY: Knopft, 1977.
Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. NY: Random House, 1983.
Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vintage, 1999.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Lillian Hellman: A Difficult Woman. NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012
Lassner, Phyllis; British Women Writers of World War II. London: Palgrave, 1998; Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of Empire. NJ: Rutgers, 2004.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. State University of NY, 2004
Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. NY: Counterpoint, Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Patten, Eve. Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War. Cork UP, 2011.
Roymon, Tessa. The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Staley, Thomas. Twentieth Century Women Novelists. Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies, trans from German by Stephen Conway. 2 volumes. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987. A study of fascism.


A recent photo, from The Pieces That I am

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Elizabeth Bishop and her cat in a car

Dear friends and readers,

Of the many women poets I’ve written a foremother blog about, just now Elizabeth Bishop may be the best known — both for her poetry and about her life and letters. There is a recent consensus about her importance and transcendence (if that’s not too pompous a word). She is reprinted everywhere (though maybe her refusal to allow her poetry to be printed in all women anthologies has slowed down the dissemination); dozens of articles, several individual books, two biographies (at least). For this blog I recently read Megan Marshall’s partial autobiography, Elizabeth Bishop: a Miracle for Breakfast, and Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description. It’s easy to learn supposedly little-known facets of her talent too: such as she also drew and painted, as in William Benton’s “Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art” (New York Review)

It seems most of her pictures are of her travels; she liked to draw the places she lived in as a sort of visitor, or temporarily, her domestic spaces, and typical woman’s objects: so still life flowers presented from a overtly plain life angle:


Daisies in Paintbucket

From a very young age, she began to pile up awards— even when she had published little outside college newsletters or a slender number of poems. She is likened to the finest poets in tradition: as Emily Dickinson, about whom she wrote in a “poignant and pointed” review of a book of letters by Dickinson that has survived (Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Doctor and Mrs Josiah Gilbert Holland and also of Rebecca Patterson’s Riddle of Emily Dickinson (the riddle is Dickinson was lesbian). There she is also with Helen Hunt Jackson, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath (in Vivian Pollak’s Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference). I’ve now attended and myself led two zoom get-togethers of poets and readers happy to spend two hours and more close reading Bishop’s poetry. In both we felt we had hardly started and gotten through too few poems.

Paradoxically, this means I can write rather less than more about her, and the way perhaps to add to what is known is pick slightly less frequently printed poems.

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Again with her cat

About her life, I think it important to know that she was the daughter of New Englanders, one of whom, her father, was from a wealthy and well-connected (Brahman) family, from whom she inherited a legacy that kept her afloat (precluding the necessity of work for higher wages), and enabled her to go to good schools where she made the right connections: Walnut Hull School to study music as a girl led to Vassar College (1929) where she wrote and met (among others) Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark (whose Rome and A Villa is one of the most brilliant meditative books about a place I know), and Marianne Moore who became a dear friend (never a lover apparently), who mentored Elizabeth and helped her publish. Like Bishop, Moore avoided controversy by erasing references to her gender beyond the obvious, steering well clear of telling anything explicit about her personal life, or overtly political. According to Kathleen Spivack, like many women writers of her generation, Bishop internalized the misogyny of the 1950s. I can understand why she would want to protect herself against prejudice and the judgmental tendencies of the wider public.

She had a difficult childhood: her father died when she was very young, and her mother was institutionalized; she lived with different relatives and it took time for these people to realize and act upon the apparent reality that the child was more comfortable with her maternal relatives though they were the less educated, and not part of forward-thinking circles. From her young adulthood on, she suffered badly from depression and alcoholism (she alienated people, she lost time from serious work), and her history includes several liaisons, some longer, some shorter, with the most important woman a Brazilian woman from a pre-eminent political family, Lota (Maria Carlota) de Macedo Soares. Bishop lives with Soares in Brazil for years; alas, over this relationship, Soares killed herself. An important friendship with a male poet was with Robert Lowell; Elizabeth became involved with his troubles with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick (whom Lowell treated very shabbily and whose letters he plagiarized). Very late in life Elizabeth became deeply involved with a woman much younger than herself. There is an equally complicated history from her young to her later years of academic appointments.

She not only does not write free verse; from an artistic point of view, hers is a highly patterned poetry, using formal and stringent rhyme schemes, stanzaic forms, with continual subtle uses of assonance, alliteration (sometimes she seems to drill down into rhythms of anglo-saxon prosody across a line). Annie Finch has written about how this formality, love of patterns, is a characteristic of l’ecriture-femme, women’s poetry (see Finch’s The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self and A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women). Sestinas, villanelles, double sonnets, repeating tercets (a poem using just three rhymes). Her poems with the most moving content convey their ideas and articulated feeling through close visualized description and the verse musical refrains. She is a foremother poet’s poet, loving repetitive structures, imitative sounds for moods and evocations.

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I’ve chosen a few poems where I kept my inability in this blog to replicate stanzaic forms demanding indentation visual pictorialism in mind, and which I fancy might be less known and are not too long.

The first, as a Trollope scholar, her brilliant meditation on the part of Trollope’s North America where he visits Washington, DC, during the civil war and projects the depression and despair Trollope felt while there, partly a result of what he saw in the city.


South National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1863

From Trollope’s Journal

As far as statues go, so far there’s not
much choice: they’re either Washingtons
or Indians, a whitewashed, stubby lot,
His country’s Father or His foster sons.
The White House in a sad, unhealthy spot
just higher than Potomac’s swampy brim,
— they say the present President has got
ague or fever in each backwoods limb.
On Sunday afternoon I wandered, – rather,
I floundered, – out alone. The air was raw
and dark; the marsh half-ice, half-mud. This weather
is normal now: a frost, and then a thaw,
and then a frost. A hunting man, I found
the Pennsylvania Avenue heavy ground …
There all around me in the ugly mud,
— hoof-pocked, uncultivated, — herds of cattle,
numberless, wond’ring steers and oxen, stood:
beef for the Army, after the next battle.
Their legs were caked the color of dried blood;
their horns were wreathed with fog. Poor, starving, dumb
or lowing creatures, never to chew the cud
or fill their maws again! Th’effluvium
made that damned anthrax on my forehead throb.
I called a surgeon in, a young man, but,
with a sore throat himself, he did his job.
We talked about the War, and as he cut
away, he croaked out, “Sir, I do declare
everyone’s sick! The soldiers poison the air.”

John Bowen argues that Bishop’s double sonnet gives us an epitome, the core quintessence of Trollope’s North America: Trollope’s mood, central attitudes to the war. Bishop saw the same city many years later and had the same take on it. It is not a cynical perspective but an accurate response to aggressive militarist people, an unpretentious disquieting vision. She takes words from Trollope’s letters and wove them into her verse.

The next poem inspired a novel by Lisa Weiland about Bishop.

Paris, 7 A.M.

I make a trip to each clock in the apartment:
some hands point histrionically one way
and some point others, from the ignorant faces.
Time is an Etoile; the hours diverge
so much that days are journeys round the suburbs,
circles surrounding stars, overlapping circles.
The short, half-tone scale of winter weathers
is a spread pigeon’s Wing.
Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp feathers.

Look down into the courtyard. All the houses
are built that way, with ornamental urns
set on the mansard roof-tops where the pigeons
take their walks. It is like introspection
to Stare Inside, or retrospection,
a star inside a rectangle, a recollection:
this hollow square could easily have been there.
—The childish snow forts, built in flashier winters,
could have reached these proportions and been houses;
the mighty snow-forts, four, five, stories high,
withstanding spring as sand-forts do the tide,
their walls, their shape, could not dissolve and die,
only be overlapping in a strong chain, turned to stone,
and grayed and yellowed now like these.

Where is the ammunition, the piled-up balls
with the star-splintered hearts of ice?
This sky is no carrier-warrior-pigeon
escaping endless intersecting circles.
It is a dead one, or the sky from which a dead one fell.
The urns have caught his ashes or his feathers.
When did the star dissolve, or was it captured
by the sequence of squares and squares and circles, circles?
Can the clocks say; is it there below,
about to tumble in snow?

Written in 1937 while for three weeks in Paris Bishop seeks to capture the architecture of the place she is living in, uses the image of a star inside a circle to recreate the way Paris grew out from itself (as Hugo has it in his Notre Dame de Paris) here like a star-fish. We have the present grim winter time (the Nazis were making their inroads on Europe, whence the reference for a need for ammunition), with Dickinson’s image of hope now “a dead wing with damp feathers.” I love the way the registering of the fleeting and transient (a child’s snow fort becomes a child’s sand castle) becomes something eternally remade over the seasons, with the image of stone signalling Paris’s long history, its eternity in stone in its ancient buildings. The idea of time is carried through the second stanza: “can the clocks say; is it there below?” What there?

And for a last, this sonnet where I find Bishop keeping herself calm by making order and harmony through making a poem which can harnesses the very rhythms of her heartbeat and body as she writes and we read it. This is the way I read Jane Austen’s novels, say Emma: the orderly rhythm of her sentences, their elegance and deeply felt content within patterns soothes and keeps me calm, strengthens me. This is what Bishop is doing through her very finger-tips, her lips, her whole body healing. Is there any more beautiful evocation than that “moon-green pool” which reminds me of lines by Pope and Anne Finch [to be cited, and linked in]

And this Sonnet (1928)

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

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I conclude with a YouTube of Elizabeth Bishop reading a group of her poems at the 92nd Street Y in NYC in 1977.

Ellen

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