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

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

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

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Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

“Conscientious Objector” by Edna St Vincent Millay

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

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

Here is the description of our October 7th meeting:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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millaybook

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

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

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

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

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

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The main house at Steepletop

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Ancient Gesture

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

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

Ellen

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James Whistler (1834-1903), “Reading by Lamplight” (1858)

Women cannot be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women, until men in considerable number are prepared to join with them in the undertaking — John Stuart Mill, On the Subjection of Women

Dear friends and readers,

Another set of texts we covered in my 19th Century Women of Letters course this term included George Eliot’s ground-breaking depiction of wife abuse in her “Janet’s Repentance” (one of her three Scenes from Clerical Life), which I preceded with Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women and the contextualized with Lisa Sturridge’s chapter on the novella in her Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction, an on-line Master’s Thesis by Renee Wingert, Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction, to which I am indebted in what I write below. We also read a fine essay by E. S. Gruner, “Plotting the Mother” about Ann Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Ellen Wood’s East Lynn and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 16:2, 1997). Although until recently (when it is discussed) “Janet’s Repentance” has been treated as centrally depicting alcoholism, its real center is wife abuse. Given the set-back women’s causes have received in the recent US election, I’d like to right this misapprehension and urge those who love 19th century novels, especially by women, to read it.

It is striking and original study even today. It places the multiple acts of of physical violence (seen on Janet’s body and the whole of her depressed behavior as a result) not in a private house away from everyone, as a hidden private act, but in the community, showing us how it’s known and occurs as part of everyday life that everyone knows – like the reality everyone also sees (highlighted in Chapter One) that Janet’s husband, Dempster, is an awful bully. Most of the time until today when these things are talked about or dramatized in stories and film, it’s assumed or said no one knew. The woman colludes by not telling explicitly in the cases of sexual harassment. In modern stories, she fears she’ll lose her job, her children, her husband will get back to her and kill her. In fact people live utterly interdependent lives, and a build up of a community of hypocrisy is essential to the husband getting away with it (from schools where the children attend to doctor’s offices). When she leaves she leaves into a community of people, that is what is so striking and to this day unusual. Eliot shows how she is blamed in all sorts of ways by the very woman living in the house with her, how legally she has to break the law to leave him. And yet Janet is isolated – who more without someone to turn to for help than she? her mother doesn’t move on her behalf; only after she flees for her life do the others admit they know, help her to hide and determine to act o her behalf. In Oliver Twist Nancy is a street prostitute; Helen Huntington in her Wildfell Hall is this reclusive person, the whole point of Sherlock Holmes stories which include as inset pieces stories of abuse – the best known is the “Adventure of the Abbey Grange” – is to protect the aristocratic family from shame. (“Abbey Grange” is well-known because the husband spitefully murders her dog and it was done superbly well in the 1980s Jeremy Brett series). The other books mentioned by Wingert or Sturridge do not bring out this everyday reality. “Janet’s Repentance” was serialized by Blackwood and it made him far more uncomfortable than most of the books he ever published.

Equally still mostly verboten is the man is upper middle class. A middle class milieu is usual for stories by women because it’s what they know. But most accounts in the 19th century and until today are of working class men and women, often desperately poor; in the 19th century in parliament an elsewhere it was repeated ad nauseam this was not a middle to upper class problem: it was the drunken working class man presented as unemployed often (as in Dickens, e.g., Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities). And there was legislation in Parliament proposed (it didn’t pass) to flog such men. John Stuart Mill supported flogging such men. Because of course then it’s not them. Didn’t pass.

It’s a movingly done, utterly believable, persuasive story. Wingert’s chapter brings out how the violence is multifaceted violence: emotional, mental, physical, social (the man demands absolute obedience) — he becomes incensed when she finally on impulse in small way refuses him (she will not pick up the clothes he has thrown on the floor) and he kicks her out. The first time we see her it’s as a silence woman waiting for him to come up the stairs, and yes she’d drunk, how else could she endure this but find indifference and oblivion this way. You can see what’s emphasized by noticing it’s serialized and where each installment begins and ends (Part 1, chs 1-4, Part 2; Chs 5-9, Part 3; Chs 10-14, Part 4, Chs 15-21, Part 5, Chs 21-28).

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womanwithbookunhappy
Another 19th century illustration of a woman with a book

As the story opens (1-4), there is an emphasis on the nature of social life and community in Milby. We see how bullying, competition, domination is what wins out and is respected. Everyone sees how horrible Dempster is but they don’t care; they are afraid of him themselves. This environment fosters violence – to a clergyman seeking a post, in public and in private. There is much witty satire on professions (like the medical establishment, though not as funny as Trollope in Dr Thorne), women’s vanities in church. the curate and teacher at this point reads nothing at all. It’s a first attempt at ethnography.

At first we hear of Janet through ominous gossip of unnamed or minor characters or Janet’s mother. “to see her daughter leading such a life …. For my part I never thought well of marriage … Janet had nothing to look to but being a governess … I certainly did consider Janet Raynor the most promising yong woman of my acquaintance … Or: “I’ve never been to the house since Dempster broke out on me in one of his drunken fits. She comes to me, sometimes, poor thing, looking so strange, anybody passing her in the street may see plain enough what’s the matter” (Mrs Perrifer). It ends on her waiting for him to come up. We hear ““O Robert! Pity! Pity!” and are told her mother not far off in her house is imagining this: Janet’s mother’s complicity is thus begun. Two more conflicts are laid out: the established church type versus the dissenters and evangelicals within the citadel; the sensitive, Tryan who wants to effect moral change in the community and those who want an older acceptance of rough coarse ways to remain dominant (why Dempster and his ilk want to pillory him). Tryanites versus anti-Tryanites.

The second part (5-9) opens with switch of mood, morning, people cheerful, a fortnight has passed and Janet is looking better. We move from

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we know them when they are gone” … [to]

When our life is a continuous trial, the moments of respite seem only to substitute the heaviness of dread for the heaviness of actual suffering … Janet looked glad and tender now — but what scene of misery was coming next? …. When the sun had sunk, and the twilight was deepening, Janet might be sitting there, heated, madened, sobbing ot her griefs with selfish passion, and wildly wishing herself dead (5)

We see Tryan again, this time with a firm constituency and friends. They are anti-high church (one man says we could do without all these bishops) and we see his courage withstanding ridicule to be stubbornly the way he is. we hear the local clergy: they discuss carelessly who is kept out of the workhouse and who not. Alas, Janet is delighted to collaborate with her husband on placards; she claps her hands so pleased is she to be valued. We have this scene of the mother-in-law and Janet and her husband: she has little love for Janet, much jealousy, angry that Janet is childless (as are all Eliot’s heroines insofar as we see them). Then we meet the middle range of church leaders, the vicar, his wife, a tea party, and Tryan comes off very well: he is a decent average man who wants to be among people. We have the scene of stigmatizing Tryan gets through with his friends nearby. Eliot seems anxious for us to know that Janet will change here too: the next time we will see him, he will come as Janet’s beloved friend to help her.

In the central chapters (10-14) we see Tryan making his way into minds and hearts and (among them) Janet responds despite the “thickening miseries of her life.” Dempster’s business is not prospering – and he takes it out on the person nearest to him whom he can. We are told about “these suspicious points:” it would seem this is a corrupt man (who wouldn’t reveal his tax returns if there were such things). He’s not liked, not trusted, and is drinking more, he becomes more violent inwardly too. The word “cruelty” is used of him repeatedly (13 — “a woman he can call his own to torment … the keen retort which whets the edge of hatred”), and then the crashing close where a dinner is supposed to take place and she refuses to pick up his clothes – an impulse of defiance, maybe the first. Alcoholism is central in these chapters too, though not overtly dramatized until the end of the story. Janet does say to her friend (who will help her) Mrs Pettifer; “Kindness is my religion.” She does tell her mother finally how cruel this mother and everyone else is to. These are complex persuasive pictures of the man becoming more drunk, more inwardly violent – reviewers likened this story to a biography. Reviewers recognized that here was a new unusual author. Then the dreadful scene where he says I”ll kill you,” with a “devilish look of hatred.” But instead on impulse, he thrusts her in in her nightgown, barefooted on a freezing old night. She stands there so relieved she is not dead. It takes a while for her to realize she is cold and feel her strong instinct against suicide. This is the story’s climax.

The denouement (15-21) shows us Janet out in the world now, parted from her husband. she has a strong instinct against suicide and saves herself by going to Mrs Pettifer’s house to whom she was kind and is her rescuer. Is told stay, remain calm. We enter her mind, her memories and there many deeply felt about a woman’s life, its stages and phases (15); she was when young “a pet fawn” given over to the “clutches of a panther.” She thinks over her situation: he owns everything; we are told she felt she had not strength to be independent (much less go to court).

Life might mean anguish,might mean despair; but — o, she must clutch it, though with bleeding fingers, her feet must cling to the firm earth that the sunlight would revisit, not slip into the untried abyss, where she might long even for familiar pains (15)

Eliot muses how all of us are hidden from one another (“full of unspoken evil and unacted good”). Janet fears “being dragged bck again to her old life of terror, and stupor, and fevered despair” (16). She has to determine something. In modern terms we’d say Janet needs to “work” on several areas of psychological damage, needs to talk and find understanding (where Tyran comes in). The difficulty of breaking the habit of drinking for calm (in her case) and indifference to what is happening around her, and the hardest of all what to do about her husband. Now others are with her, among the first thing to be said is, how to protect her from further violence. Today people get a court order and police are alerted – they are supposed to be on the side of the abused person. How is she to live? Her lack of property or income. Mostly dramatized is how she must consult with someone. Over in her house the household and Dempster begin to realize she is not coming home. He has no Janet to bully so he goes after his coachman. Here finally is someone who won’t serve him if insulted: the man says will have the law on the lawyer. A little later therefore Dempster is too proud to call for this man, and half drunk (as usual) gets up to drive his coach himself.

There is a kind of waiting and finally one evening Tryan comes to Janet as her mutual confessor-psychiatrist. In a deeply inward colloquy he tells Janet of an attachment he had with a girl who he left because she was in slower station than him (they were lovers); his cousin said to go out to missionary. He does not but finds life is empty without her, and he hears she had become a prostitute subject to a brothel madam, and is now dead. Here is the core of his conversion experience. (As with Gaskell’s Mary Barton we have the story of a broken prostitute at the hidden core of the tale.) Those who’ve read Daniel Deronda (or seen Andrew Davies’s film adaptation) will recall that Gwendoleth Harleth ends up in just such a relationship with Daniel Deronda.”Janet’s Repentance” has been called “evangelical gothic:” we have a slow conversion of Janet not to the doctrines of evangelicalism but to an emotional cleansing. The others are practical; Something must be done to secure her from violence. Then the community feeling: turning in her favor: her servants who saw it all say they would not stand being mauled. (They never helped her, did they?) As she grows stronger, her mother rightly fears she might go back. But news comes Dempster has had a bad accident (overturned the coach), no one knows if he is alive or dead. As a reader the first time round I hoped he was dead.

And then the ending or fifth part (22-28). We get this exemplary wife, and then he dies with her still looking for some sign of forgiveness (!?); there is none. He is Dempster to the end. No final moment which Janet dreams of even comes. And an incipient romance between her and Tyran cut off. This ending reconciled Blackwood to the story (though he no longer wanted a fourth clerical tale). Janet can be seen as repentant, and I have to admit not only repentant for having been alcoholic but for somehow being at fault. There is a punitive pattern asserted here too.

Although her friends try to keep from her Dempster’s state, she has been trained to submit, and wants actually to go back. They try to stop her, and hide at first that he has been in this accident, but she’s a free body, no one is imprisoning her. Can’t hold her back and she is there to listen to his nightmares – maybe such a man feels remorse. Good lines include Eliot on the community’s “inherent imbecility of feeling:” Most people simply do not enter into one another’s cases at all, Mr Pilgrim (who is close to the scene) is a case in point. Tryan talks of how she doesn’t want particulars known to protect her. Day after day, the community again becomes divided about her – she is to blame, some cant about widows helps. We begin to get religious talk and Janet manifests nervousness. She is so used to her old life; she is at sea, scared. Real psychological feeling. she yearns for “purity, strength, peace” (221). Finally Dempster dies in a delirium tremens fit. Then we see her efforst with others to secure the now consumptive (over-worked) Tryan a place to at least maintain what health he has. Her mood is likened to that of a prisoner galled long after bars go away; you are feeling the memories of the abuse – Eliot would know what is it like to be an ex-prisoner from American prisons. Still she is freed from “haunting anxietya about the future,” “dread of anger and cruelty,” can find repose (23) Again Mrs Pettifer is our dea ex machina; she moves so she will need a boarder. Another good woman in the story, Miss Linnet (a sweet bird name) helps furnish the new place. But he dies.

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

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Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window

As in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and other stories, Eliot’s heroine submits herself to duty; violates natural feelings of revenge, fear, hatred. She does this throughout her career. Gwendoleth’s husband falls over boat, and she hesitates a moment before she throws him the rope; he cannot reach it and the water carries him off; had he not drowned she would have submitted. I wrote in an essay on Eliot published in Studies in the Novel some years ago, “Taking Sides:”

It is the great merit of Eliot’s imaginative work that she poses questions of serious and large import with which we are today only beginning to deal frankly. It is its great defect that she repeatedly opts for dramatic resolutions which cruelly deprive her exemplary characters of some natural fulfillment or worthy goal on the grounds that it is right for them to violate their natural instincts and obey conventions, conventions she herself ignored and disobeyed in order to become George Eliot the great novelist. Her characters immolate themselves, behave even semi-suicidally and we are to admire them for this. What she most often offers is consolation.

In this story we will have Janet left to do good deeds and sit near Mr Tynan’s grave and be admired and liked by all especially her mother. I should say I see in the incipient romance, an underlying autobiographical paradigm (Janet: “alone, she was powerless”): in the second half of Eliot and Lewes’s marriage, he was often ill, very thin; he lies behind Ladislaw, Daniel Deronda — and Tryan too. Tryan is cut off by his consumption.

From the reviewers at the time: some were shocked, women were to write uplifting fiction, all three very unpleasant stories said one critic. Some attacked the exposure of clerical politics: clerical and religious papers paid attention to all three stories. Mostly they were offended but dissenters not as. Many preferred the portrait of Tryan to Trollope’s Mr Slope (from Barchester Towers); a positive not satirical image. Famously Dickens said the author was a woman. Among the best were those that praised the story for the strong depiction of Janet – the interior character of Janet. But I think also the community life is central to the story’s effect. It was agreed moral impact of book was well-meant and there you have the beginning of the immense respect she would get.

I’ll end by suggesting the use of the pseudonym in this particular case was the result of more than Eliot’s being a woman and wanting to hide that. Her matter is deeply subversive. She was known to be an atheist or at least agnostic, living with a man outside of marriage. How could she deal with issues like these and get the respect needed for her story to function morally.

Janet’s Repentance is a deeply felt, passionate and intelligent text, often satiric too. I hope I have roused my readers’ curiosity and interest to get hold of and read “Janet’s Repentance.”

Ellen

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Furness Abbey, Cumbria (modern photo)

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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An eighteenth century map of Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Richard Rothwell’s Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Dear friends and readers,

I interrupt what has become our regularly scheduled programming recently (conference reports, women artist blogs, Austen films and pictorialism) to be ironically a propos to the dire election results of last Tuesday. A new book of short stories, Eternal Frankenstein, testifies to how Mary Shelley’s transformatively original fable seems never to go away, endlessly susceptible of immediate application. A friend wrote it’s “an anthology of short stories that, for lack of a better term, all riff off of the original Frankenstein. Many of the stories are very good and the last is a retelling of Mary Shelley’s life by her ghost, hence her own pov. Many seem to be written by academics.”

I say ironically because I read it with a group of adults in a class called 19th century Women of Letters where the burden of our song included the truth that most of the great books by women of the 19th century and certainly those who practised successfully (for the first time perhaps in history) sufficiently remunerative professional writing to support themselves are on the one hand, forgotten, not recognized, not in print, or the other, ignored as not mattering. Until today still there are people who insist (John Lauritsen, to be precise) that Mary Shelley wrote none of Frankenstein, and that her diaries recording the inspiration, writing, publication and revised edition are all lies (Lauritsen also insists Percy Bysshe was homosexual). Many readers today do not realize Shelley wrote superlatively fine books and essays for 30 years after Frankenstein.

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Brendan Coyle playing Nicholas Higgins in Sandy Welch’s adaptation of Gaskell’s later novel, North and South, would be perfect as John Barton too

Let me first mention the relevance. In 1848, the year of revolutions across Europe (reformist, not reactionary) and of the Communist Manifesto, Elizabeth Gaskell published Mary Barton, the first English novel with a Communist working class man (actually a chartist) as its protagonist. Describing John Barton whom she wanted to name the novel after, she writes at one point:

And so on into the problems and mysteries of life, until, bewildered and lost, unhappy and suffering, the only feeling that remained clear and undisturbed in the tumult of his heart, was hatred to the one class, and keen sympathy with the other. But what availed his sympathy. No education had given him wisdom; and without wisdom, even love, with all its effects, too often works but harm. He acted to the best of his judgment, but it was a widely-erring judgment. The actions of the uneducated seem to me typified in those of Frankenstein, that monster of many human qualities, ungifted with a soul, a knowledge of the difference between good and evil. The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. The people rise up to life; they irritate us, they terrify us, and we become their enemies. Then, in the sorrowful moment of our triumphant power, their eyes gaze on us with mute reproach. Why have we made them what they are; a powerful monster, yet Without the inner means for peace and happiness? John Barton became a Chartist, a Communist, all that is commonly called wild and visionary.

The middle class in the US made it against the law to teach a slave to read. Gaskell actually conceives of her tale as a realistic elaboration in the person of John Barton of what Shelley’s monster can stand for. The creature as the outcast slave, as the oppressed, as the victim of society. Vulnerable, loving wanting love and when ignored and treated as hideous, beaten, taking his violent revenge. That was not James Whale’s view in 1931 who took the monster to be the mob. I have seen cartoons of Donald Trump as a Frankenstein monster (many readers do not realize that there are two characters, one a Dr Frankenstein who created the second, a nameless creature sewn out of parts of corpses) where he stalks the world and is followed by madden peasants with pitchforks.

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Boris Karloff as the creature innocently trying to make friend with small girl who he turns on when she is revulsed by him

In an absolutely primal way Frankenstein and his creature converse are wholly unreal — to find an equivalent allegorical resonance you have to return to poetry, Blake, Milton, the Greek drama, probably also the dramas of Byron and Shelley too.

We had a wonderful time in my class reading and discussing Frankenstein primarily but also Mary’s life and excerpts from a few of her later works and a poem by her on her lasting grief over Shelley’s death, how she never stopped missing him as a companion.

“STANZAS”

I must forget thy dark eyes’ love-fraught gaze,
Thy voice, that fill’d me with emotion bland,
Thy vows, which lost me in this ‘wild’ring maze,
The thrilling pressure of thy genrle hand;
And, dearer yet, that interchange of thought,
That drew us nearer still to one another,
Till in two hearts one sole idea wrought,
And neither hoped nor fear’d but for the other.

I must forget to deck myself with flowers:
Are not those wither’d which I gave to thee]
I must forget to count the day-bright hours,
Their sun is set – thou com’st no more to me!
I must forget thy love! – Then let me close
My tearful eyes upon unwelcome day,
And let my tortured thoughts seek that repose
Which corpses find within the tomb alway.

Oh! for the fate of her who, changed to leaves,
No more can weep, nor any longer moan;
Or the lorn Queen, who, chilling as she grieves,
Finds her warm beating heart grow cairn in stone.
Oh! for a draught of that Lethean wave,
Mortal alike to joy and to regret! –
It may not be! not even that would save!
Love, hope, and thee, I never can forget!

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

What was acceptable for a woman to write? Gothics. Ghost stories. They were allowed into this semi-fantasy genre. The industrial novels of the era. Their children were in those factories; women made up an enormous part of the factory labor force very quickly. Domestic realism and romance. Frankenstein is an explosively unusual multi-faceted gothic. The gothic is an instrument by which you can explore our existence and its meaning fundamentally, ask fundamental questions the premises of a realistic novel doesn’t allow. This leads me into the most subversive theme or perception and complex of emotion in the book. It hovers at the edges more than in the center, it’s there, in the allusions — to Adam and God (though Milton), to the Prometheus myth. At several points in the narrative Victor Frankenstein cries out against vague forces of world and wishes he had never been born; the monster cries out to Victor, why did you make me? Did I ask for life? in all its hideousness? Let us look at epigraph. It comes from Paradise Lost. Adam speaking to God who says to him he deserves the punishment he is getting. There is a similar line spoken by Satan. The Promethean figure has ever been interpreted as ultimate rebel against God. The book is deeply melancholy endlessly questioning.

FRANKENSTEIN by Dear, Benedict Cumberbatch (as Victor Frankenstein), Jonny Lee Miller (as The Creature), Naomie Harris (as Elizabeth Lavenza), Ella Smith (as Gretel, prostitute), The Olivier, National Theatre, 15 February 2011, Credit : Pete Jones/ArenaPAL, www.arenapal.com
From the National Theater production in London where Bernard Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller took turns playing one role and then the other, in succession

Mary Shelley’s poet-husband, Percy Bysshe wrote a play called Prometheus Unbound in which he takes the Aeschylus situation and shows Prometheus as someone who triumphs over all tyrants, all tyranny including that of any and all Gods. Concept of liberation is central. It is not central for Mary Shelley; rather there is a dark despair more reminiscent of Byron’s closet drama called Cain: in Byron’s play Cain revolts against the heavy toil God has imposed on him and his mother, father and brother; in a fit of passion against Abel who he sees as kissing the rod and in disgust at a blood-sacrifice Abel makes to God, Cain murders Abel and becomes an exile and wanderer. Much like Frankenstein, the creature, Caleb and Falkland. The audacity of Byron’s poem aroused terrific indignation. Mary much influenced by Byron: her novel called The Last Man based on a vision of the universe in Byron’s poem called Darkness. Reads like what the earth would be like after a nuclear holocaust.

Mary Shelley’s book has again and again been identified as not only questioning the complacencies of Christianity: the world is good, and if it’s not you get your reward afterwards – why wait?. That, like her father’s book, it certainly does.

Frankenstein also an attack on whatever Deity it is that is in charge with Victor playing the part of the Deity and his Creature the part of man. There are many references to the Greek and modern usages of the Promethean myth of rebellion; read Blake, and you see that, as other critics have written, Mary Shelley uses the gothic to make a statement about the nature of life which is
exultant in its rejection of the norms of a mercenary foolish society which are trivial, soul-destroying and absurd; despairing in its search for some new source of fulfillment which will not twist human nature into depravities it has not known before (such as we find in deSade — another writer from this era). You can go through this novel finding allusions which recall story of Adam and Eve and Prometheus myth, except that when you do you find Frankenstein is Prometheus. It was Frankenstein who attempted to bring to man the power to stop death and dying, to bring back the dead. You find allusions to Paradise Lost from epitaph on, to end, p 209: when he says he is a Satan after he has read it. So creature is Satan and Adam.

Book’s first critic is Shelley: society is responsible for what the creature becomes, but equally what happens emerges from nature itself, human; we learn to overcome nature a bit by empathizing with what we have never empathized before. Christian readers continued to be horrified when they couldn’t themselves turn it into religious warning and punishment message

There are so many interpretations and ways to approach this novel we could spend a whole semester on it far more easily than people do on Pride and Prejudice or even Eliot’s Middlemarch. Given my course, I concentrated on it as a female gothic.
it is about birthing: Frankenstein, a man who cannot give birth to children, does it through science – which in the period as far as the body goes meant dissecting corpses – and upon the birth of this creature is revulsed. The language tells us the source of this nightmare: Mary knew from quite a young age that her mother had died of the childbirth. She often visited her mother’s grave – people did that. It’s a nightmare of parturition. The child comes up and demands protection, love, absolute devotion. When the creature comes to tell his story – I don’t know how far you got, we get this extraordinary account of how a new born baby might slowly gain perception of the world it is part of. In the era there are others that do this: Dinah Craik’s Olive: this gives us a neonate coming to consciousness. The central character is disabled – the monster is so ugly he is like a disabled person. Motif found in woman’s novels of this era is disability seen sympathetically and from the point of view of the caretaker (burden, responsibility). The one novel easy to find is John Halifax, Gentleman who corresponds to mainstream Victorian novels .Olive does not.

This is distinctly a woman’s gothic and for once not about rape: but the experience of the aftermath of birth, for child and mother, it’s a hideous thing the experience, and early experience is tremblingly in need. The book was written before Mary had given birth five times, and all but one of her children died. It’s prophetic: her first two were alive at the time, Clara and little William. Byron accused the couple of not being careful enough of their children: Mary knew this but didn’t know how to live defying Shelley. We read and discussed Margaret Atwood’s poem, “Speeches for Dr Frankenstein.”

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Kenneth Branagh as the hubristic irresponsible doctor-scientist with his technology and Robert de Niro his victim-creature (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, directed and produced by Branagh)

We also went over it as a male gothic and (again) attack on science. he structure of gothic books seen as male gothic are male with wanderer –: atemporal, do not just move forward in time. Pursuit and pursuer as a doppelganger. Often the gothic has some interface which moves us from reality, world of apparent reason into dream romance world. Can be a mirror we walk through, a manuscript, a diary. Design of Frankenstein:

The story opens on the icy edges of the earth, near the North Pole. We have impossible fantastic voyages through mountains, into a crazed laboratory-scene deep in the Orkneys, in furthest Scotland; it takes us back to the ice for the rousing conclusion. It is all letters or first-person narratives — only the epistolary mode could carry such a reverie off and keep you believing. Parts:

1. 4 Letters: We open with Walton to his sister — . He is introducer. Slow moving into madness. She is exploring the body while attacking science. The book has Victor returning to alchemy which is also suggestive. The stealing of bodies. She then makes an analogoy with the quest for north west passage.

2. Chs 1-8; II, Chs 1-2: Walton is supposedly telling us what Frankenstein said word for word. Frankenstein a deep-musing memoir, a flashback. Whole book is a flashback in the center of which we find another flashback Okay first we get Frankenstein’s story up to the time just after Justine’s death. Volume II opens up with Frankenstein home, death of Justine, disillusionment and despair of Elizabeth

3. Vol II, Chapters 3-8: At the center of the novel, we have the creature’s tale. Tell of gentle family. How slowly he learns. Lovely beautiful piece about coming to consciousness of a child. Note though that material resembles story of Count Malvesi and Lucretia. Seems strained romance from far away Europe about oppression of ancien régime

4. Vol II, Ch 9; III, Chs 1-7: Then we return to Frankenstein: he becomes driven figure; creature stalks him, he tries to make another. in this sequence shows we are inside total dream world of gothic: nightmares predominate no one tells a tale in the words of someone else and then recites letters in it. Is it probable in the least bit a man (Walton) could retell the story of Frankenstein to his sister in the words of Frankenstein; then the creature to Frankenstein; then letter writers too. Doesn’t matter. Our sceptical tendencies turned off.

5. Walton, in continuation, more journal-letters. He watches Dr Frankenstein die, the creature grieve over him and then escape into an infinity of ice and a conflagration of fire. Finally back to Walton again: he cannot withstand mutiny and is returning to England. It would seem back to impersonal, world of rationality: except we cannot return, we have seen too much; and one final scene and appearance of creature.

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I had just gone to a lecture on Frankenstein Revisited by Bernard Welt, a film and literary scholar (scroll all the way down) at the Smithsonian. I told of that, and that there appear to be a plethora of biographies on Mary Shelley, but when you look into it, most of them, very like the recent Romantic Outlaws, basically end with Shelley’s death, leaving a 30 year rich life where she wrote more novels, at least two as gripping as Frankenstein, and some say her The Last Man is better than Frankenstein, countless biographies, travel writing, 2 plays, essays and lived an interesting life. A rare one to do this and tell some hard truths about Mary Shelley’s life with Shelley is by Mary Seymour. For example, not that I want to be sensational: but the half-sister who traveled with the unmarried pair to Italy, Clare Claremont became Shelley’s mistress for much of the pair’s life together, had at least one child by him, Allegra was probably his not Byron’s two miscarriages, and he impregnated two other women during that time. Mary was determined to cover all this up and almost succeeded. Lots of writers, especially those who are pro-Shelley tell it quite differently. Percy influenced Frankenstein oh yes but she wrote it. The same person who wrote Matilda (about an incestuous love between father and daughter so real Godwin stopped her from publishing it in his lifetime) and The Last Man wrote Frankenstein. Her independent and at times unconventional existence was one she kept out of view: she was in love at times, had a close relationships with a woman who lived her life as a man, and her intense relationship with her radical father, Godwin are all of great interest.

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Another popular depiction of Mary – Reginal Easton allegedly drawn from her death mask

Mary was the daughter of the notorious Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin and her father placed the book for her. It was not easy: times were hard, this was after a depression set in after Napoleon unseated and armies disbanded, the next year was the Peterborough massacre, Godwin took it to John Murray, who debated but turned it down, finally an old firm he knew about who dealt in cheap books and it was published cheaply, only 500 copies. But her dedication was to her father, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, also by this time known (Queen Mab), wrote a powerful preface, and soon the familiar story began to circulate: this one acceptable: one very hard summer, cold, miserable earthquake on the other side of the globe, rainy, she, Shelley, Lord Byron (famous) is valet, Polidori and Shelley were reading ghost stories late in a villa on a lake. They proposed a competition, each would write something about a ghost. Why do we know this story? Because it helped sales. Did it happen? Something like it probably did. Godwin wrote an anonymous wild scream of praise. At first it was attacked: Tory Edinburgh critic described it as “blasphemous,” “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdities.” but Walter Scott (the great unknown) wrote a fair appreciation – puzzled saying the author had written an unnerving fantastic tale in precise clear English. ‘An extraordinary tale, in which the author seems to disclose to us uncommon powers of poetic imagination . . . [it is a work which genuinely] excites new reflections and untried sources of emotion’. But there was a price to pay when Shelley died; our present text is the 1831 text – incest is censored out, the impieties muted or softened.

She went on to write five more longish novels and the one novella, Matilda. She became a regular writer of biographies, short stories and tales, literary criticism, did an edition of Shelley’s poems that was influential. She was not able to bring it out fully until her father-in-law died. Her father-in-law was her tyrant you might say: he was very rich and could have made her life easy, but resented her deeply. Alas, her son was his heir, and he was slowly driven to dribble out money for a good school, for clothes, for university. She did fall in love or at least began to; at one point she was involved with woman. I had forgotten the one lesbian relationship Mary probably involved herself in when she returned to England: Mary Dodds, a transvestite was written about in a piquant biography by Betty T. Bennett. Mary’s last 30 years were engaged in a self-effacing cover-up and distortion of her life and Shelley which has done her far worse harm (her reputation, what’s read of her today, how she’s seen) than she managed to do with Shelley whose works and reputation escaped her reframing hand. People remembered he was radical. They did not know he had been a sexual predator after women and died apparently quite fat — utterly self-indulgent too in all areas.

She traveled back to Italy and Germany and wrote about it. Though she never ever would say this when one considers how faithless Shelley was to her and how wretched her life with him, she could have been better off had the situation of women been better, her reputation not so ruined as to drive her to lie, and to try to hide her life.

I’ve more than one friend who has said to me The Last Man is better than Frankenstein: I started it this summer but had to leave off, and am hoping to read it in with a group online this coming spring. I’ve mentioned how there are people who insist Percy wrote Frankenstein: he had a hand in it, was influential but when you read his poetry you say how distanced he is. He wrote a play called Prometheus Unbound in which he takes the Aeschylus situation and shows Prometheus as someone who triumphs over all tyrants, all tyranny including that of any and all Gods. Concept of liberation is central for Shelley himself. She wrote excellent short biographies of Renaissance and other literary period figures. Her criticism defends the idea that the author is central to a work: his or her core spirit has to animate it.

I regretted leaving Mary and her creature. Percy did write about the book society is responsible for what the creature becomes, but equally what happens emerges from nature itself, human; we learn to overcome nature a bit by empathizing with what we have never empathized before. Christian readers continued to be horrified when they couldn’t themselves turn it into religious warning and punishment message.

I know there’s a pleasure in terror, and the aesthetic sublime; the novel lets us move into unspoken and still mostly unmentionable ideas (of grief I’ll mention) which as Scott says were not so much has broached much less discoursed so meaningfully before. Her Frankenstein, Matilda and Last Man are books written by one person under the impetus of strong passionate commitment — endless repeats of something obstructive are hard to resist. Again, over on an academic romantics list Laurens and a couple of others chiming in have persisted to the point that Shelley scholars concede maybe Percy wrote this or what part of that or certainly wrote more than the preface. Laurens goes to the absurd lengths of saying Mary’s diaries are made up and Shelley a frantic closet homosexual (meanwhile two wives, perpetually pregnant and probably a maidservant in Italy by him).

Not so. The paradigm of paranoid pursuit and chase, the intense paranoia, the alienation of the central figure is found in Mary Shelley’s Mathilde — and no one has ever attributed that to her husband. It shows the influence of her mother’s Wrongs of Women. Both Matilde and Frankenstein are deeply influenced by Godwin’s Caleb Williams: obsession, paranoia, deep rebellion against rock-bottom ideas of a hierarchical deeply injust society and human nature fuel all three in a closely similar pattern.

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Robert De Niro seems to me to have gotten the peculiar combination of dignity, high intelligence and pathos that is Mary’s creature (when not in a violent rage)

Lastly on the movie tradition, we read an essay by Paul O’Flinn where he began by suggesting there is no such thing as Frankenstein, there are only Frankensteins, as the text is ceaselessly rewritten, reproduced, refilmed and redesigned. The fact that many people call the monster Frankenstein and thus confuse the pair betrays the extent of that restructuring. At the time Mary’s book answered contemporary tensions and issues. It’s a direct response to the machine breaking and industrial conditions at the time. When a group of people peacefully assembled in 1819 in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, where Gaskell lived and where her two industrial tales are set, to demonstrate for representation in Parliament (chartism), calvary charged into the 60,000 to 80,000 people and many were killed. A defining moment of the age; Shelley wrote one of his more readable memorable poems on it, The Mask of Anarchy, whose concluding stanza you’ve probably heard snatches of because Orwell quoted it Shelley urged the people to

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Slake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many – they are few.

The earliest framing, Presumption, or the Fate of Frankenstein, 1823 – a very orthodox view: Frankenstein took God’s place, he presumed and he was punished. Crude and popular. We have had Mrs Gaskell who says that John Barton is a realistic representation of Frankenstein – she too writing as if the creature and his creator are one and the same. Mary hated the Tory despotism; she is also interested in the new science of the age. This is not daft modern leftism. This political way of reading Frankenstein surfaces repeatedly, but against it are the movies.

O’Flinn felt that the 1931 film has been central; James Whale then led to the 1957 film which revived the craze of films. The 1931 movie strips the original book of its philosophical underpinnings and presents an anti-mob fable. Central is the abnormal brain given this monster – so it’s an attack on disability too. Media companies are actively interested in maintaining the status quo – to my mind the incessant commercials have a deeply reactionary subtext. The movie reversed just what Mary wanted: she did not want the creature to be seen as brutal but as brutalized, as deeply hurt. All the highjinks and supernatural grotesqueries drew in an audience, made a great deal of money and spawned an industry of Frankenstein type films. I did bring in Martin Tropp’s qualifications in his study of many Frankenstein films in Barbara Lupack’s excellent anthology, 19th century women at the Movies.

Why people like this kind of thing? I have seen the 1931 film as well as The Bride of Frankenstein. I may well have seen the 1957 one, I’ve read about it. O’Flinn says an altered ideology is now at work: now the doctor is the villain; he’s a Baron and meglomaniac. Now a new set of fears are embodied in the film: of nuclear holocaust, of technology itself. Now the isolated outcast whatever you think about him is replaced by someone with control over weapons. I can add to O’Flinn a lot of the imagery was taken over by Peter Sellers for How I learned to Stop worrying and love the bomb: especially that which is associated with Nazism, and crazy dictators, especially Dr Strangelove himself, said to be partly modelled on Kissenger. Donald Trump invited or visited Kissenger among his day’s activities today.

Ellen

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Frontispiece to 1788 edition of Elegiac Sonnets

To the Goddess of Botany:

OF Folly weary, shrinking from the view
Of Violence and Fraud, allow’d to take
All peace from humble life; I would forsake
Their haunts for ever, and, sweet Nymph! with you
Find shelter; where my tired, and tear-swollen eyes
Among your silent shades of soothing hue,
Your ‘bells and florrets of unnumber’d dyes’
Might rest–And learn the bright varieties
That from your lovely hands are fed with dew;
And every veined leaf, that trembling sighs
In mead or woodland; or in wilds remote,
Or lurk with mosses in the humid caves,
Mantle the cliffs, on dimpling rivers float,
Or stream from coral rocks beneath the ocean’s waves

Dear friends and readers,

This is my 2nd report on the Charlotte Smith conference at Chawton House Library (October 14th-16th). I’ve described the morning panels and musical recitals; in the afternoon, there were three more panels, two again on Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets and her poetry, the third on her novels. This suggests someone preferred the poetry papers or more likely there were more of them and they were strong: this verse first made her reputation, and continued to be respected (if forgotten). I first fell in love with Smith’s poetry. I report on only these two on poetry here (saving the third for third blog in order to keep the reports shorter). I want to stress here, this is just the gist of what was said, many details and sub-arguments omitted.

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From Elegiac Sonnets, 1789.

We began with The Marketplace and the Canon.

Michael Gramer’s “Subscription and the Poetic Corpus,” was a comparative study of the first 3 editions of the Elegiac Sonnets. He compared Smith’s sequencing of her first 19 poems in the first and second editions; for the third, he suggested the 35 poems open and close in the same fundamental trajectory of permanent heartbreak. The compelling goal of the 1st edition was to support her husband and herself and children while in the debtor’s prison, and to hire lawyers or do whatever was necessary to see him freed. What we see is a drama of non-renewal, of indifference before the poet in nature and outside in society. I agreed with the pairings Michael outlined: thus sonnets 7 (“On the Departure of the Nightingale”) and 8 (“To spring”) revisit and deepen sonnets 2 (“Written at the Close of Spring”) and 3 (“To a Nightingale”). In Sonnet 9 (“Blest is yon shepherd on the turf reclined”) Smith envies the shepherd; in Sonnet 10 (“To Mrs G,” “Ah! why will memory with officious care”) she fails to bring her memories out vividly or repeat them; 11 (“To Sleep”) and 12 (“Written on the sea shore. — October, 1784) drift towards death, with the last registering an indifferent universe. Mid-way Sonnet 6 (“O Hope! thou sooth sweetener of human woes!”) and the last, 12 (below) offer a sense of closure.

Written on the Sea Shore, Oct. 1784.
ON some rude fragment of the rocky shore,
Where on the fractured cliff the billows break,
Musing, my solitary seat I take,
And listen to the deep and solemn roar.
O’er the dark waves the winds tempestuous howl;
The screaming sea-bird quits the troubled sea:
But the wild gloomy scene has charms for me,
And suits the mournful temper of my soul.
Already shipwreck’d by the storms of Fate,
Like the poor mariner methinks I stand,
Cast on a rock; who sees the distant land
From whence no succour comes–or comes too late.
Faint and more faint are heard his feeble cries,
Till in the rising tide the exhausted sufferer dies.

There is some change in ordering in the 2nd edition, but not significant. The third edition extends the perspective further to create a world of widening allusions, with the poet still the lone wanderer who is not cured, but (as yet) feels not altogether hopeless. It was published by subscription, usually not favored by women; it too sold widely, and then there was a second subscription. Almost unheard-of. The fifth edition listed the subscribers’ names. At one point her husband, Benjamin (she had left them by then), heard she was making money, broke into her house (she was in law his), attempted to beat her, through violent attacks got her to give him the money in her desk.

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John Constable, A Seascape

Bethan Roberts’ “On the margin” returned us to Smith’s 44th sonnet, “Written in the churchyard in Middleton in Sussex” (it had been discussed in the morning). We were looking at the sonnet’s content about a church near the sea from a geological standpoint: Bethan had illustrations (1796 1807, 1828, 1847) showing showing the gradual encircling of the church by the waters. It’s a poem about erosion; all dissolves away, only she fated to remain (and endure hard-work, geological, archealogy). The poet wishes she could escape the noise and movement of the oceans, mountains, life itself. She is intensely desolate. Bethan also showed images of paintings by Constable of this area. She ended on Smith’s poem to St Monica. The learned antiquary no longer comes to this spot, no holiday rituals occur here, not even “the pensive stranger” who looks at the place from afar. Only the poet comes close to find meaning in this spot

The antiquary comes not to explore,
As once, the unrafter’d roof and pathless floor;
For now, no more beneath the vaulted ground
Is crosier, cross, or sculptur’d chalice found,
Nor record telling of the wassail ale,
What time the welcome summons to regale,
Given by the matin peal on holiday,
The villagers rejoicing to obey,
Feasted, in honour of Saint Monica.
Yet often still at eve, or early morn,
Among these ruins shagg’d with fern and thorn,
A pensive stranger from his lonely seat
Observes the rapid martin, threading fleet

The broken arch: or follows with his eye,
The wall-creeper that hunts the burnish’d fly;
Sees the newt basking in the sunny ray,
Or snail that sinuous winds his shining way,
O’er the time-fretted walls of Monica.
He comes not here, from the sepulchral stone
To tear the oblivious pall that Time has thrown,
But meditating, marks the power proceed
From the mapped lichen, to the plumed weed,
From thready mosses to the veined flower,
The silent, slow, but ever active power
Of Vegetative Life, that o’er Decay
Weaves her green mantle, when returning May
Dresses the ruins of Saint Monica.

Oh Nature ! ever lovely, ever new,
He whom his earliest vows has paid to you
Still finds, that life has something to bestow;
And while to dark Forgetfulness they go,
Man, and the works of man; immortal Youth,
Unfading Beauty, and eternal Truth,
Your Heaven-indited volume will display,
While Art’s elaborate monuments decay,
Even as these shatter’d aisles, deserted Monica!

M.O. Grenby returned us to Charlotte Smith as a businesswoman as well as poet. We learned how in her letters dealing with her publishers, Smith would demand higher prices than they were willing to pay, would argue with their assertions they had made less than they had; used them (and her work in effect) as stocking a bank from which she could draw needed money. Smith also wanted to influence almost every level of the publication process, was actively interventionist, changing the order, the content. She suggested a French translator. (What kind of translation matters.) Her later books meant for children were also published to make money. We know exact sums Smith asked for and what she got. She was willing to move from one publisher to another. It does seem most of Smith’s efforts did not bring the money she wanted. When the older Cadell with whom she began as a writer died, she had an even worse time and eventually cut off relationship with the younger Cadell. It’s telling that at the end of her life when the liberal brave publisher, Joseph Johnson, began to publish her, she got better payment and advances without doing half as much strenuous negotiation (or hardly any at all).

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Thomas Bush Hardy, “Under Beachy Head” (the poem published by Johnson was “Beachy Head”)

There was not much time for discussion afterward (the musical recital and lunch had made us much later in the afternoon by that time than intended), so we had a brief coffee, and immediately after another panel of papers.

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Now the topic was Nature and Art.

Lisa Vargos’s paper on Smith’s “Nature Writings for Children,” suggested how original or at least different was Smith’s approach to the natural world and time from that of most romantics or readers at the time. (Reminding me of Mme de Genlis in her Adele and Theodore and many another woman writer before and since (discussed so long ago by Ellen Moers in her Literary Women), Smith sets herself up as a teacher, Mrs Woodfield, who with her two pupils, Elizabeth and Henrietta, explores the landscape. Mrs Woodfield shows how hard it is to control nature, rather they, as people, must join in on an intimate community within the natural world and exert influence on behalf of this continuum of living creatures and plants. Rural Walks contains innovative dialogues, and anticipates aspects of our contemporary theories about climate change. Often Elizabeth cannot see or respond to what Mrs Woodfield is putting before her while Henrietta is more receptive and perceptive. A kind of common humanity is felt, as Mrs Woodfield describes the tragic death of a small animal (dormouse). In her Conversations Introducing Poetry Smith is Mrs Talbot talking to George and Emily. Lisa discussed “To the Snow-drop” which shows Smith’s knowledge of Erasmus Darwin. Smith had in mind Anna Barbauld’s poetry for children; her book also aligns itself with Gilbert White’s writing. As a teacher she is not a disciplinarian, she challenges children to say why this or that is happening. One underlying aim is to help them find (or create) a permanent place to dwell within themselves.

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Richard Ritter’s talk, “Finding ‘Remote Pleasures at Home:’ Charlotte Smith’s Conversations and the Leverian Museum,” was about the museum as such, and how museums in the later 18th century functioned commercially. Smith as teacher is in this part of her book bringing the children there to see the collection; everything is neatly displayed, and the children supposed to look, ask questions and given a sense of a system within which specimens were set up with great care, and made to look “alive.” The limitations of taxonomy were felt. Here and there Smith’s poetry registers the sudden violent destructive power of natural history. What made his talk interesting was the conflicts he described between those like Smith who had their doubts about such displays:

The birds, or insects, or quadrupeds, though they may be very well preserved, lose that spirit and brilliancy, which living objects only can possess. The attitudes of the birds are stiff and forced, and without their natural accompaniments. Their eyes are seldom so contrived as to resemble those of the living bird; and altogether, their formal or awkward appearances, when stuffed and set on wires, always convey to my mind ideas of the sufferings of the poor birds when they were caught and killed, and the disagreeable operations of embowelling and drying them. — Charlotte Smith, Conversations, Introducing Poetry: Chiefly on Subjects of Natural History. For the Use of Children and Young Persons, 2 vols (London: J. Johnson, 1804), ii, 64-65.

and those so enthusiastic for this kind of show that they overlooked the down side, such as imprisoning animals in an unnatural environment which gives false impressions to those come to see.

Oil painting on canvas, River Landscape, with Fisherman, and distant Ruins of an Abbey, manner of George Smith of Chichester (Chichester 1714 - Chichester 1776) and John Smith (Chichester 1717 - Chichester 1764).Tall tree in foreground; river runs across the centre of the picture. A fanciful ruin of slender Gothic arches on an eminence at right. A fisherman seated on near bank.
River Landscape, with Fisherman, and distant Ruins of an Abbey, manner of George Smith of Chichester (1714-1776) and John Smith (1717-1764).A fanciful ruin of slender Gothic arches on an eminence at right.

Valerie Derbyshire’s paper, “In pursuit of the picturesque: Looking a Smith’s places with an Artist’s Eye,” was about the effect of a some popular contemporary landscape artists on Smith’s poetry. Valerie dwelt on George and John Smith, followers of Gilpin, especially; she seemed to feel his paintings were liked by Smith; but she also mentioned Thomas Hearne’s paintings based on an artificial aesthetic, putting nature in an ordered landscape; Paul Sandby, with his ideal classical landscapes of anywhere and everywhere; Richard Wilson’s more romanticized (as to light and mood), but more accurate landscapes. And of course Gilpin, whom Austen’s brother and Austen herself mention with much delight and respect. Val showed us where specific landscapes could have been influential. Smith rejoices in her picturesque memories of her childhood and uses them: Emmeline is herself outside the social world; Ethelinde makes heavy use of some recognizably real places; Celestina is another homeless heroine, living in an exiled state. Valerie said the descriptions of the Isle of Wight and some of the English countrysides owe a good deal to this kind of painting.

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John Smith of Chichester, A Winter Landscape

The talk afterward was informative. Lisa talked about botany in the era, the use of herbs for medicine. There is a poignancy about Smith’s tone in her children’s books. I asked Val how she felt about John Barrell’s Dark Side of the Landscape where he argued that most of these landscapes were unreal because they left out the rural poor, the hard work, the disordered dismal existences. Valerie acknowledged the cogency of Barrell’s objections and said Smith must’ve been aware of this gap or discrepancy between these distanced views as she describes beggars, exiles, soldiers the desperately poor in her poetry. There was not time to talk about why such figures are not found in Smith’s novels more often — perhaps readers wanted romancing?

I have now thought about this problem of the source of Smith’s landscapes. I know that Radcliffe studied travel books to concoct her landscapes and perhaps Smith did this for the Hebrides. Her years at Bignor Park were important and in her letters and the poetry until she is too sick and in pain to walk she wanders in the English countryside. She had herself been to France. She orders books from libraries and borrows them when she is writing her novels, and she grieved so about their loss because (as she says in her letters) she used books too to write with.

I also thought about Smith’s depiction of a debtor’s prison where she does not dwell on the other people surrounding her hero and heroine sympathetically, but as dangers to the heroine (sexually) and people the hero keeps away from (this in Marchmont). I’ll end on this sonnet, one whose political point of view was not much covered in the conference:

Sonnet 67: To dependence

Dependence! heavy, heavy are thy chains,
And happier they who from the dangerous sea,
Or the dark mine, procure with ceaseless pains
An hard-earn’d pittance — than who trust to thee!
More blest the hind, who from his bed of flock
Starts — when the birds of morn their summons give,
And waken’d by the lark — ‘the shepherd’s clock,’
Lives but to labour — labouring but to live.
More noble than the sycophant, whose art
Must heap with taudry flowers thy hated shrine;
I envy not the meed thou canst impart
To crown his service — while, tho’ Pride combine
With Fraud to crush me — my unfetter’d heart
Still to the Mountain’s Nymph may offer mine.

It’s a bitter poem. It’s said in studies of emigration to the US and Australia and Canada from the UK what was longed for most was independence, liberty from the clique-patronage system of the ancien regime, which Smith loathed. So the problem of dependence in the poem is much larger than a woman seeking a position or freedom from a tyrannical husband or family. She attacks the ancien regime system at its corrupt narrow source, and at the same time asserts a secular ethical outlook that strengthens people. So if she does not truly identify with the poor or lower class people, she does understand what makes the world everyone lives in so corrosively destructive.

It was time for coffee and some biscuits. My next report will cover papers on Smith’s fictions.

Ellen

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Charlotte Smith in 1792 by George Romney

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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John Thelwall (1764-1834)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the grounds of Bignor Park

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

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

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

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

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Another part of the gardens

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

Ellen

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Margaret Oliphant as a younger author (about 1860, from The Bookman, 1897)

She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter — Oliphant on Austen

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished a great novel, later 19th century (1883), and for the second time feel convinced Hester as much a masterpiece that people should read as any by George Eliot (but Middlemarch and Romola is in a different league), as any by Anthony Trollope, as many by Dickens, any by Thackeray (but Vanity Fair), yet I’m hard put to explain why or how because like Austen whom Oliphant understood so well Oliphant “never rises above the level of ordinary life,” and skewers “what is remorsely true.” The difference is that in this novel Oliphant is appalled and feels heart-broken over what she so despairingly sees.

Merryn Williams (in her literary biography of Oliphant) says of Oliphant’s The Marriage of Elinor (1891) what is true of Hester “its strength is in the way it explores and illuminates a painful situation.” In Hester we see how a woman make a shipwreck of her life because she behaves deeply well to someone near her (spouse, nephew, son), trusts him but because she also tries to control him, expects he will behave nobly in return, is deeply resented and out of bitterness betrayed. In Elinor the betrayer is a husband, and we discover that Elinor finds salvation in her relationship with her mother and her child. It’s not astonishing that what happens in Elinor parallels Oliphant’s imagined later life with her husband and mother (had either of them lived) but it is astonishing that relationship of the older single heroine of Hester, Catherine Vernon, with one of her much younger cousins, Edward Vernon, parallels Oliphant herself in her relationship with her sons. The novel can be read as showing that Oliphant understood that she was in part to blame for her son’s derelict irresponsible characters and yet that this outcome need not have happened; the son-nephew need not have responded with suspicion, mistrust, even anger at this high-minded giving of hers.

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The novel is also about how hard it is for people to communicate with one another humanely. There are two parallel and admirable women characters: in character type, strongly ethical by instinct, highly perceptive, capable of reading with understanding people and books, not to omit business practices and courtship, Hester Vernon, is a young version of Catherine who is Hester’s mother’s cousin-in-law. As the novel opens, they are placed in hostile-feeling positions. Unknown to Hester, her father, John Vernon, was responsible for nearly destroying the family banking business and simply ran away (and died) to avoid having to cope; Catherine had also been in love with him when he chose Hester’s mother, a woman of feeble mind, obtuse, utterly conventional in all her ideas, thinking, feeling cant (as Samuel Johnson would have said). Catherine offers them a home, the house they had lived in, in the same spirit as she houses other of her indigent relatives. She is not generous spirited in mood to any of these relatives (in Vernonry) but then most (not Hester, who is too proud and decent, nor her mother who is too dumb) are endlessly spiteful, ungrateful, competitive. Catherine’s way of dealing with this is to smile at them; under the smile we can register Oliphant’s deeper sense of profound dismay kept at bay. What Oliphant shows us is a deep calm scepticism about all human professions of idealism, a justified cynicism. She’s been accused of being hostile to men: rather she is rare for not according them any deference when they are weak or lacking. In reality she can be just as hostile to women, but it’s not noticed. Hester then conceives a dislike of Catherine-Oliphant out a resentment similar to Edward’s, milder as the generosity is milder and the smiles not seen as often. Catherine herself cannot bear the remembrance of Hester’s father or his preference for Hester’s helpless hopeless mother. It is extraordinary how Oliphant is seeing through herself in this book.

The novel moves slowly. Hester at first tries to free herself by asserting she will take a teaching position. She finds no one will tolerate this: it lowers her, the family, she is told will make her miserable. All she is allowed is to live by her mother’s side and wait for some young man to ask her to be his wife. There is someone available in her small world’s stage and there are people who are capable of companionate supportive friendship. There are two further young cousins of Catherine, first, Harry Vernon, good-natured and as it emerges instinctively deeply ethical and far more generous spirited than any one else, but not perceptive, not active intellectually, energetic, or with much business sense (he has no competition in him) falls in love with Hester, courts, asks her to marry him, and is refused. His sister, Ellen, marries a weak man, Algernon Merridew, someone easy to lead, and sets up a housekeeping style well above their means, one which includes regular assembly dances. To these eventually come the grandchildren of two further pensioners (for once not Vernons) Captain and Mrs Morgan: Roland and Emma Ashton. Roland has all the intelligence, savoir-faire, and sophistication (it is he who tempts Edward to gamble in the stock-market without meaning to disrupt the Vernon bank) and he is drawn to Hester. Emma is a comical version (except ultimately it’s not funny) of the crass match-seeking impoverished young woman. The grandparents, and especially Captain Morgan provide Hester with meaningful talk, advice, companionship, daily small enjoyments of walking, eating together, passing time sharing whatever is passing.

The Morgans, in some moods, a further sensible young woman with children whom Catherine supports (Oliphant supported so many in her family, including brothers, brothers’ families when brothers died), Harry, and one of Catherine’s lower rank business associates, Rule (who works with her to save the bank twice) and at the novel’s close the sudden turn-around of Catherine when she has to take in that her beloved Edward hates her, and resumes her place in the bank, opens up to Hester and leans on her, all provide a foundation of believable sane and needed and natural reciprocal kindnesses. Nonetheless, the greatness whereof I speak emerges because the novel is also one of the bitterest realistic novels I’ve ever read. The intensity of inward pain, “her heart throbbing with wild suffering” (Chapter 51, p 453 in the Virago edition introduced by Jenny Uglow) Catherine experiences, the self-torturing anguish of realizing she has not been loved, not trusted, has been duped, deceived, not wanted all these years by her semi-adopted semi-son and heir, Edward, is as strong as any tragic emotion. That Catherine cannot allow herself to be beaten out of pride, because so many depend on her makes the weight of book have as much heft as Middlemarch.

Oliphant kept saying to herself in her autobiography, she wrote as well as George Eliot; she misses the greatness of Eliot’s book because her foundation for her tale is far narrower, and when she widens out (as in The Ladies Lindores) she becomes too defuse (see my review in “The Scottish Angle”). She does (to use Henry James’s phrase) “ful[ly], pleasant[ly], reckless[ly], rustle over depths and difficulties” (quoted by the Colbys in their The Equivocal Virtue, p 138). The novel’s sequel, Lady Car (which I’ve just begun reading), narrows the focus to an inward utter disenchantment of wife (“unable to contend with the wild seas and billows [of inner life] that went over her head”) with husband, of Lady Car’s subsequent bewildered self alienation, and alienation from her son, takes us again into this area of quiet brutality Oliphant excelled in and recognized in Austen. (See also my Phoebe Junior among others.)

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As previous generations distorted Oliphant because she would not present herself as vatic (Woolf says she sold herself, is “smeared” by her willingness to be prolific to provide money for her son’s at Eton), so now I find there’s a strong tendency to praise novels whose heroines attempt and succeed at remunerative careers (Kirsteen. which is very good but not that typical); Elisabeth Fay (a fine biography of Mrs Oliphant as a writer) wants “resolution,” something upbeat and progressive, redemptive, hopeful. What then to do with Oliphant’s harrowing ghost stories? Arguably her The Beleaguered City, Camus-like in its despair, is her greatest work (a novella). If you can read Italian (I do with effort) Beatrice Battaglia’s essay on Oliphant’s gothic Dantesque “Land of Darkness” (in La Critica Alla Cultura Occidentale nella leteraturea idstopica inglese), makes a case for Oliphant as a gothic artist and in her ghost stories visionary.

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“The Library Window”

I recommend also a chapter by Linda Peterson in her Traditions of Victoirian Women’s Autobiography, Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, and Robert and Vineta Colby’s essay on “The Beleaguered City: A Fable for the Victorian Age,” Nineteenth Century Fiction, 16:4 (1962):283-301.

To return to Hester. My idea is not to be discouraged because probably you (or I) will not get near reading all 147 of her volumes (that number is the Colby’s and includes Oliphant’s biographies and literary history), much less a good deal of her excellent scattered journalism. Henry James called her the “great improvistrice” (a female Trollope). Find and read the best: they are gradually making their way into print through the spread of facsimile editions. You will find as an anonymous Quarterly Review writer said “She approached very subject from a woman’s point of view … believing and professing that a woman’s estimate of life is generally to be preferred to a man’s” (Williams, p 57).

Ellen

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Kellie Castle

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