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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Another depiction of Johnson by Reynolds — a more familiar one

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, terrified because she has had another miscarriage (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as dramatized by Peter Straughan, BBC 2015)

Friends and readers

I have been so surprised at Austen’s vehement defense of Mary Stuart in her History of England, that I’ve tended to read her words as ironic, playful, or somehow not really meaning it. But in conversation on the Net here I’ve learnt that Samuel Johnson also empathized with Mary: more, some of the terms in which he put his defense, or one reason he singled out for indignation on her behalf are precisely those of Austen.

She writes in the chapter, Elizabeth

these Men, these boasted Men [Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the rest of those who filled the chief offices of State] were such Scandals to their Country & their Sex as to allow & assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship & Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen & as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance & protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death.

Johnson, said my friend, reviewed William Tytler’s book on “the casket letters.” This is scheduled to be published in the final volume (20) of the Yale Edition of Johnson’s Works (so it is not yet on the Yale Digital Site), nor (alas) can I find it ECCO, but in a conversation with Boswell recorded in Boswell’s Life, Johnson retorts:

BOSWELL: ‘I here began to indulge old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our Union with England, we were no more; — our independent kingdom was lost.’
JOHNSON. ‘Sir, never talk of yourr independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence [sic] of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen too; as every man of any gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.’ (Life, 5:40)

I took down from one of my bookshelves (the one with books on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots) and found in Jayne Lewis’s Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation that Lewis has a section on a painting Boswell commissioned by Hamilton of Mary Queen of Scots for which Boswell wanted Johnson to write an appropriate inscription. Johnson would not as the painting is a travesty of what happened.


Gavin Hamilton, The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Her captors (says Lewis) are in classical, she in historical dress.  Looking at the image, it does seem to me man is in armor, another in a clerical kind of outfit, with a 16th century cap on his head, and a third is some kind of white cape or overcoast.  Lewis remarks they are absurdly “restrained,” and I agree it’s not shown this was coercion. Johnson sent an inscription which ignores the falsely bland (decorous?) picture by Hamilton Boswell paid for, which is (in Boswell’s words) “a representation of a particular scene in her history, her being forced to resign her crown.” Johnson instead produced lines which referred to Mary’s “hard fate,” i.e. her execution.: “Mary Queen of Scots, terrified and overpowered by insults, menaces, and clamours of her rebellious subjects, sets her hand, with fear and confusion, to a resignation of the kingdom.”

Lewis provides an image by Alexander Runciman much closer to Johnson’s response:

Lewis says the review Johnson wrote of the book on the casket letters was “glowing” and that Johnson “reprimanded” the Keeper of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh for his countrymen in having “let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity and then be put to death.”

Johnson “understood, even felt the fatal role that the symbols and signs which reduced her to a thing — and thus potentially to nothing — had played both in Mary’s own tragedy and in the patriarchal farce so recently re-enacted by the artists, critics and collectors of Georgian England … it was the will to freeze her in symbolic form (through ‘insults, menaces, and clamours’) that once stripped Mary of her sovereignty, and that does so as she becomes again a sacrifice to the modern frenzy of renown” (Lewis, 118-19)

According to Lewis, Johnson felt personally (“especially”) close to Mary, perpetually aware of how her predicament could be re-enacted in the present. Austen too sees Mary as affecting her close friends and neighbors and about how her family deserted her: readers have been distracted and puzzled by the lines referring to Mary’s Catholic religion:

Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; Constant in her Religion; & prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that could alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened & zealous Protestants have even abused her for that Steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of their narrow souls & prejudiced Judgements who accuse her

But these lines show the personal identification that actuates her:

Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself, who was abandoned by her Son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached & vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death!

And this footnote remembering Charlotte Smith’s first novel, Emmeline, or The Orphan of the Castle reinforces Austen’s sense of Mary and Elizabeth’s contemporaneity. Austen writes of Robert Devereux Lord Essex.

This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in Character to that equally unfortunate one Frederic Delamere. The simile may be carried still farther, & Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble & gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb:ry, after having been Lord Leuitenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his Sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, & died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.

So when Johnson tried to convince Hester Thrale not to marry Piozzi, that “only some phantoms of the imagination” could “seduce her to Italy,” “eased [his] heart” “by reminding Thrale of Mary Stuart’s fateful flight from Scotland into England:

When Queen Mary took the resolution of sheltering herself in England, the Archbishop of St. Andrew’s attempting to dissuade her, attended on her journey and when they came to the irremeable stream that separated the two kingdoms, walked by her side into the water, in the middle of which he seized her bridle, and with earnestness proportioned to her danger and his own affection, pressed her to return. The Queen went forward. — If the parallel reaches thus far, may it go no further. The tears stand in my eyes” (quoted by Lewis, 119)

Johnson and Austen bring Mary into the present, and also acknowledge her distance from them, Austen by alluding to a novel which sets Mary in the world of “the fancy” (imagination), Johnson by saying “the parallel can go no further.”

Lewis goes on to say Mrs Thrale herself copied one of Mary’s poems into her private journal (244, n42). I don’t know which one but offer this as an example of Mary’s use of the sonnet form in a poem

First the original French:

Que suis-je hélas? Et de quoi sert ma vie?
Je ne suis fors qu’un corps privé de coeur,
Une ombre vaine, un objet de malheur
Qui n’a plus rien que de mourir en vie.
Plus ne me portez, O ennemis, d’envie
A qui n’a plus l’esprit à la grandeur.
J’ai consommé d’excessive douleur
Votre ire en bref de voir assouvie.
Et vous, amis, qui m’avez tenue chère,
Souvenez-vous que sans coeur et sans santé
Je ne saurais aucune bonne oeuvre faire,
Souhaitez donc fin de calamité
Et que, ici-bas étant assez punie,
J’aie ma part en la joie infinie.

Then a good modern English translation:

Alas what am I? What use has my life?
I am but a body whose heart’s torn away,
A vain shadow, an object of misery
Who has nothing left but death-in-life.
O my enemies, set your envy all aside;
I’ve no more eagerness for high domain;
I’ve borne too long the burden of my pain
To see your anger swiftly satisfied.
And you, my friends who have loved me so true,
Remember, lacking health and heart and peace,
There is nothing worthwhile that I can do;
Ask only that my misery should cease
And that, being punished in a world like this,
I have my portion in eternal bliss
— from an excellent Mary Stuart site.

For good measure Lewis shows how “in private life” David Hume reacted spontaneously, personally and viscerally to aspects of Mary’s character and in his printed History did all her could to make Mary’s suffering present to readers (120-21). To all these later 18th century people Mary had not yet become wax-work, or an abstract site of scholarship.

I see close parallels in thinking between Austen and Johnson — how people are oblivious, dismissive, show a total failure of the imagination when it comes to the injustices towards the suffering of others — which offers another explanation for why Austen so devotedly and vehemently favored Mary Stuart.

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Hitherto when I’ve discussed Austen’s History of England or her ardent defenses (and attacks) on Tudor queens, I’ve tried to show a fervent feminism at work (For Austen’s birthday: what she said about Tudor queens, especially Katharine Parr).

But this does not help us understand her particular reactions to particular figures, e.g., “Lady Jane Gray, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Now I’m thinking the analogy to make for Austen’s History of England is also our modern historical romances and historical films, where women writers especially mirror women’s modern experiences of victimhood.

The scene of Anne at the window parallels one close to it in time in the film where she looks out to show Thomas Cromwell how her beloved dog, Purkoy, has been cruelly killed in an act of surrogate threat:

Honestly, I look forward to when the 20th volume of the Yale edition of Johnson appears with that review of an 18th book on the casket letters. I still remember what deeply moving use Stephan Zweig made of them in his biography of Mary, and how by contrast, Antonia Fraser acted as a prosecuting attorney whose interrogation demonstrates Mary could not have written them (at least as is). Gentle reader you also owe this blog to my having begun to teach Wolf Hall: A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter and how much in love I have begun to be with Mantel’s first two novels of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I think very highly of Bring Up the Bodies too.


Mary Queen of Scots by Federico Zuccari or Alonso Sanches Coello — an image from yet another era.

I will go back to my notes on Scott’s The Monastery and The Abbot and see what they yield. Scott is of Austen’s era, historical fiction begins with his Waverley (1815), though I admit the one early illustration for The Abbot I could find seems to encapsulate all the failures of historical imagination Austen, Johnson, Hume, Hester Thrale and now Hilary Mantel work against.


Getty image

Ellen

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Wynona Ryder as Jo coming with accepted manuscript to Gabriel Bryne as Prof Bauer (1996 LW, directed Gillian Armstrong, my favorite of all the LW movies


A thumbnail of the pair (hurt badly by the ugly insistence on ownership by a website)

Friends and readers,

Day 6/10 of books that influenced me, had a discernible impact. Yet again problematic. Maybe because books have meant so much to me, that even when younger I had several “going” at a time. I was a reading girl. So from when I was around 10 or 11 reading as an adolescent, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Good Wives was my truly central book. It was sturdy. Below is the cover of the book I cherished for years.

I still remember chapters, the moral lessons of several, lines and incidents come floating up, details, Meg learns it’s better not to dress up to the point you make yourself uncomfortable, Meg and Jo each wear one soiled glove and one clean; Amy’s birthday party to which no one came, the newspaper (like Pickwick); Jo’s cutting her hair; Jo and Laurie as friends; the trip to Europe Jo didn’t get to go on; Beth’s death; I loved that Jo married Prof Bauer and like those film adaptations where the relationship is made deep, understandable, the male character appealing (1970 with Angela Down as Jo, 1995 with Wynona Ryder as Jo, even the 2018, where the best role was given to Marmee and actress was Emily Watson). My edition had picturesque black-and-white illustrations (in the style of the above) and I colored the lines with colored inks, tracing over the black lines. I encouraged my daughters to read the book and both did, with Laura going on to lovie Little Men better (it might be the better book, her depressive state of mind, about an outcast).

Recently I embarked on watching a series of these Little Women film adaptations (170-2018) back-to-back and writing about them. I lost my DVDs of them when my computer broke down, but now a kind friend is replacing them for me, and I hope this year to do justice to this set of films — though it is the book that influenced me. Kindness, courtesy, compassion, how all people should be treated with dignity, on the side of reading and writing girls, Jo’s long choice of spinsterhood rather than marry where there was no deep congeniality and sharing of true innate values and gifts. It was not the female community so much for me.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nancy_Drew#Ghostwriters

I have vowed to myself the value of these blogs is I tell as accurately as I can what comprises the truth. So, at the same time I was reading and rereading the Mary Poppins books still, I had started the four at age 8 while I lived in the southeast Bronx and vegetation was not something we a lot of. I loved how the character was on the surface hard and not giving, but when all adults were gone, one escaped into a magical happier beautiful world. The Park was my favorite, though years later Margaret Drabble’s Seven Sisters picked up on the story of the Pleiade in another of the Poppins books (so I loved the Drabble). At first I did not like Disney movie (I saw it when I was age 18) as destroying what was so crucial to the character (Julia Andrews was all sweetness), but after a while adjusted to its projection of a similar message through dance – great dancing by her and Dick Van Dyke, especially the chimney sweep piece.  A new faux realistic and sociological take on Travers’s life see Saving Mr Banks.


Bert and Mary

I’m torn because the other meaningful seemingly English book was Burnett’s Secret Garden which I so loved as an escape into a garden (I was with Mary Lennox all the way); I was very fond of Colin and wanted to name a son after him. When I found myself on a boat sailing up the English channel and saw the white cliffs of Dover I ws so foolish as to be nostalgic and glad to see these cliffs “at last.” Don’t reread Secret Garden if you don’t ant to be dismayed by its racism, snobbery towards Dickin and his sister Susan and their gratitude to be talked to at all is insufferable: they are very poor and the book is okay with that.


These books go so deep one doesn’t need to back them up by the more widely disseminated movies

Much less because I can’t quote many lines, specific scenes don’t come up and I can’t remember any character I could identify with but Nancy Drew, but I know I was reading many of these at the same time as Little Women and The Secret Garden.  L, and they and Poppins (or a foolish ignorant naive young girl) created an Anglophilia in me, marrying a gentleman, preferably English or Anglo in origin, is urged on the reader. At any rate I married an Englishman.

Like GWTW, the old Nancy Drews (they are rewritten each decade) is ugly in its denigration of “criminals” as always non-white, non-American, coarse, lower class and I would never recommend these books to any girl now. Carolyn Keene is a pseudo-nym for a stable of complicit authors, the first Margaret Wirt Benson. I did like how she would get into her “blue coupe” and drive into the horizon, a symbol of liberty. Years later my first truly chosen car was a blue Chevy Cavalier, now I too had a blue car to drive about in. On my own behalf I stopped reading these books when I began to root for the “villain” girl of the Dana books, Lettie Briggs. I began to detest Nancy Drew for her self-satisfaction and just about everything about her that made her think her better than other people. I tried Judy Bolton and the books felt realer (they had a single author I learned in later life and were never rewritten) but she marries half-way through an FBI agent and the books become as reactionary as Nancy Drew while much duller: Peter is endlessly rescuing her. Nancy Drew is today a global figure: I’ve had students who came from Nigeria cite a Nancy Drew as her favorite book from childhood.

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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


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

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

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


Izzy on the roof of the Milan cathedral

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


A photo of Marino

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


Brescia, where Gambara lived

Ellen

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

So,

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

Ellen

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Isak Dinesen’s hard-won house in Africa

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

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

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

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

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

From “Biography from Seventy-Four” by Patricia Fargnoli

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

Ellen

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

Friends,

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

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

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

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

An epigram:

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

This stands out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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