Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘women artists’ Category


Nanci Griffith: 2012/many years ago (probably 1990s) (1953-2021)

I grew up listening to Nanci Griffith in my mother’s car. I still remember seeing her live. I’ve loved her music to this day. #RIP — Izzy on Twitter

I have to remember the next time I do a video and then watch once (I never watch more than once) and find myself wincing at the sounds of my voice and accent: “Your own voice is the voice that carries you through life best” — Nanci Griffith —

Friends and readers,

Yesterday when I read on Twitter (to which news comes the fastest) that Nanci Griffith had died that day, I felt — somewhat to my surprise — so grief-stricken. I began to cry. I thought of all the hours I had spent over the years listening to her singing first on audiocasettes and then CDs in my car. I used to spend a lot of time in my car, and often Izzy was with me (especially during her elementary and junior high school years). I just had to go over and listen to one of my favorite of her songs: “It’s a long long way from Clare to here:”

Now don’t misunderstand me — I am intensely relieved that I need no longer go back at all, the best day of my life was the one where I left the USA for England … and came back with Jim and an alternative life I could live as myself

I then rushed over to the New York Times for an obituary, and was fobbed off by a brief one, which said she had asked that no one write about her until a week after her death (I saw that on several sites yesterday), but today there is far from truly adequate, but at least an informed one about her life and her career. It is true to say that she never achieved the wide popularity others did. I think too that she hid her more troubling insights under “a deceptive prettiness.” Early on, like Willie Nelson, she presented herself as a innocent sweet young white girl who was just dropping these unexpected ironic and satiric remarks, and seduced by romance, as in her famous “Love at the Five and Dime:” her opening remarks are to be treasured too:

My British mother-in-law told me of how she worked from 5 am to 11 pm as a servant, a lower-governess in a great house (later 1920s), a form of enslavement, and when she finally fled, and got a job at Woolworth’s how liberating it was — just 5 and 1/2 9 hour days a week, a salary of sorts, all Sunday and evenings free and off. The real life details the New York Times writer refers to resonate in this way with ordinary vulnerable working people

Rolling Stone magazine had an obituary featuring her musical career yesterday. I know all the songs mentioned; my favorite album is Other Voices, Other Rooms. I also would play There’s a light Beyond These Woods. She did voice political points of view, mostly strong humane, leftist-liberal, from what I’d call a “soft” or emotional stance: she presented herself as deeply hurt at injustice, racism, and told stories of individuals variously stymied, thwarted, and then making do with what they had. An underlying thread, not made explicit ever, was about women, abused as girls, deluded themselves. A rare tragic song: “Tecumseh Valley:”

I can never listen to this too many times. Never tire of it. Caroline is what I could have ended as

Surely this next one — “The Great Divide” — is utterly characteristic and when I listen to it tonight tears come to my eyes – one of her themes is the pain of cherished memories:

While I found real variety in her songs and music, she had a particular personal feel to her angle on country music, which included yodelling (which I loved when she accompanied it) because she presented country in ways that felt old-fashioned, with the kinds of instruments, voice sounds, and stories one expected from early on. NPR says her original inspiration was Loretta Lynn (I’ll add EmmyLou Harris & Linda Rondstadt & Patsy Cline); that she was the interpreter of other people’s songs, but it is also true that a song she originally wrote or was the first one to sing became a hit when done by some more mainstream personality — for again she retained in her music a strong sense of her origins in Texas, and working class rural American life. “When you can’t find a friend, listen to the radio” speaks to us all in the cities too: from Austen City Limits: here she names some of her favorite female predecessors

Izzy came with Jim and I to the Berkshire in the early 1990s, when she could still not command a mass crowd: it was a small venue for people sat at tables eating and drinking (in Annandale) and her personal style, seeming unassuming friendliness went over very well. But we also went once to Wolf Trap, and she filled the Filene Center — that must’ve been not far off from summer 2000. She was a big hit in Ireland and often sang with the Chieftains — this Irish group is a real favorite of mine. I love listening to Irish and Scots music.

My friend, Nick Hay, wrote on Twitter: “She always said either ‘I will always believe’ or ‘I still believe’ which was I always found intensely moving. So I still and will always believe Nanci.” I agree with him that it is vital not to forget her political commitment which is summed up in “It’s a Hard Life:”

Ellen who grieves for the loss of her very much

Read Full Post »


Dahlia Ravikovitch 1997 photograph (1936-2005)

A tweet I read tonight on twitter: “Tonight I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another” Eman Basher @sometimes Pooh.” This reminded me of what I was told of a cousin of my mother’s in WW2. She chose to accompany her 6 children into the gas chamber rather than let them die alone.

Dear readers and friends,

This is an unusual foremother poet blog for me: most of the time I do not choose a woman poet because of the immediate political relevancy of her work; here in this time of another slaughter of Palestinians, yet more destruction of the open air prison they are forced to endure existence in, and the apparent indifference of all those in charge of gov’ts with the power to stop this shameless horror, I put forward Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poetry where she as a native-born Israeli, Hebrew-speaking and writing, eloquently cried out against what the Israeli gov’t (and the people who voted it in) inflict on a people whose country they seized by war (1948, 1967). Unless otherwise noted all the poems are translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld:

In this poem Ravikovitch identifies as an Israeli woman watching as a young female Arab is about to be destroyed

Hovering at a low altitude

I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
emerges suddenly
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.

And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

This one makes explicit the aim of the Israeli gov’t and settler colonialist “ethnic cleansers”

Get out of Beirut

Take the knapsacks,
the clay jugs, the washtubs,
the Korans,
the battle fatigues,
the bravado, the broken soul,
and what’s left in the street, a little bread or meat,
and kids running around like chickens in the heat.
How many children do you have?
How many children did you have?
It’s hard to keep the children safe in times like these.
Not the way it used to be in the old country,
in the shade of the mosque, under the fig tree,
where you’d get the kids out of the house in the morning
and tuck them into bed at night.
Whatever’s not fragile, gather up in those sacks:
clothing, bedding, blankets, diapers,
some memento, perhaps,
a shiny artillery shell,
or a tool that has practical value,
and the babies with pus in their eyes
and the RPG kids.
We’d love to see you afloat in the water with no place to go
no port and no shore.
You won’t be welcome anywhere.
You’re human beings who were thrown out the door,
you’re people who don’t count anymore.
You’re human beings that nobody needs.
You’re a bunch of lice
crawling about
that pester and bite

If you are still reading, two more:

A Mother Walks Around

A mother walks around with a child dead in her belly.
This child hasn’t been born yet.
When his time is up the dead child will be born
head first, then trunk and buttocks
and he won’t wave his arms about or cry his first cry
and they won’t slap his bottom
won’t put drops in his eyes
won’t swaddle him
after washing the body.
He will not resemble a living child.
His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth
and she won’t be troubled about his future,
won’t worry how in the world to support him
and does she have enough milk
and does she have enough clothing
and how will she ever fit one more cradle into the room.
The child is a perfect izadil« already,
unmade ere he was ever made.
And he’ll have his own little grave at the edge of the cemetery
and a little memorial day
and there won’t be much to remember him by.
These are the chronicles of the child
who was killed in his mother’s belly
in the month of January, in the year 1988,
“under circumstances relating to state security.”

The Story of the Arab who died in the Fire

When the fire grabbed his body, it didn’t happen by degrees.
There was no burst of heat before,
or giant wave of smothering smoke
and the feeling of a spare room one wants to escape to.
The fire held him at once
—there are no metaphors for this—
it peeled off his clothes
cleaved to his flesh.
The skin nerves were the first to be touched.
The hair was consumed.
“God! They are burning!” he shouted.
And that is all he could do in self-defense.
The flesh was already burning between the shack’s boards
that fed the fire in the first stage.
There was already no consciousness in him.
The fire burning his flesh
numbed his sense of future
and the memories of his family
and he had no more ties to his childhood
and he didn’t ask for revenge, salvation,
or to see the dawn of the next day.
He just wanted to stop burning.
But his body supported the conflagration
and he was as if bound and fettered,
and of that too he did not think.
And he continued to burn by the power of his body
made of hair and wax and tendons.
And he burned a long time.
And from his throat inhuman voices issued
for many of his human functions had already ceased,
except for the pain the nerves transmitted
in electric impulses
to the pain center in the brain,
and that didn’t last longer than a day.
And it was good that his soul was freed that day
because he deserved to rest.
— Translated from the original Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut

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

To be accurate, Dahlia Ravikovitch’s oeuvre as a whole is not dominated by poems of protest on behalf of the Palestinian people or other groups the Israelis or their allies have decided to “take out.” While she appears to have been a peace activist, and sincere political humanist from the outset of her career, much of her earlier poetry is written in styles and imitation of Biblical and archaic verse; for a secular poet and independent woman (married twice, with her son born from a lover she did not marry), her allusions and content are (to me) jarringly from patriarchal sources: her mother had been a graduate of a religious teachers college who went on to train as a teacher of Jewish studies, and Dahlia herself became a a student immersed in Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish studies. She also wrote prototypical “women’s verse” at first (fantasy, presenting herself as overwhelmed by the world) and only gradually does feminist verse emerge. While courageously outspoken against all the forced evacuations, land and house confiscation, abuse of Arab women and children in ordinary discourse and the groups of people she demonstrated and worked with, her earlier targets were the abuse of language, power and powerlessness itself.

For myself I find her poetry direct, forceful, but, except for the personal autobiographical poems, curiously detached from modern reality until half way through her oeuvre. My feeling is it was over time that she became passionately horrified by what she saw the state she lived in did to non-Jews living on the land mass it controlled. It was as she grew older she grew angry at the norms many women obeyed. Perhaps it was after she lost custody of her son (1989, a great grief for her), that she began her moving poetry about mothers.

She was born in 1936, the daughter of a Russian born engineer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine via China. When she was six, her father was run over by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army; one of her early successful (and a characteristic) poems registers the trauma she felt when two years later her mother first told her that her father was dead:

On the Road at Night there stands the man

On the road at night there stands the man
Who once upon a time was my father
And I must go down to the place where he stands
Because I was his firstborn daughter.

Night after night he stands alone in his place
And I must go down and stand in that place.
And I wanted to ask him: Till when must I go.
And I knew as I asked: I must always go.

In the place where he stands, there is a trace of danger
Like the day he walked that road and a car ran him over.
And that’s how I knew him and marked him to remember:
This very man was once my father

The use of repetition, the simple stanzas, rhymes, monosyllables, and plain blunt sarcasm are central to her most memorable shorter lyrics and feminist poetry, as in

Clockwork Doll

I was a clockwork doll, but then
That night I turned left, right, round and around
And fell on my face, cracked on the ground,
And skillful hands tried to piece me together again.

Then once more I was a proper doll
And all my manner was demure and polite.
But I became damaged goods that night,
A fractured twig with only tendrils to prevent a fall.

And then I went invited to dance at the ball
But they cast me me with the writhing dogs and cats
Though all my steps were measured and true.

And my hair was golden, and my eyes were blue
And I had a dress printed in garden flower sprawl,
And a trim of cherries tacked to my straw hat.

She must have been a difficult (as the common adjective used) child from the first. Her mother took her and her siblings to live on a kibbutz after the father died, but at age 13 unable to cope with the collectivist conformist atmosphere of such a place, Dahlia left and moved from foster family to foster family. She was lucky to meet and be mentored by a literature teacher in high school Baruch Kurzweil who praised the way she blended archaic and contemporary modes; with high grades (a story of an intelligent reading girl) and the encouragement of Avraham Shlonsky, the leading poet of the pre-State Hebrew Moderna, and Leah Goldberg, a major woman poet of the time, her verse was published when she was 18; she went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was awarded a scholarship for Hebrew studies at Oxford.

For a woman whose work received so many prizes over the years, she did not do well (I am not surprised) in the academic or publishing marketplace when it comes to positions or jobs, and at the end of her life she was living in what is described as “a modest apartment in Tel Aviv, near the Mediterranean, barely ekeing out a living” as a journalist, TV & theater critic, high school teacher, writer of popular lyrics. She translated into Hebrew poems by Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Poe and others, as well as children’s classics, such as Mary Poppins. She is said to have suffered from severe depressions; when she was found dead in her apartment, it was at first assumed she killed herself.

Medically speaking it was determined she died of heart irregularities (“sudden death”) but surely her serious emotional breakdowns, lack of a secure family life, peripetatic lifestyle, several relationships, and underlying moods in her poetry (justifiable anger, bitterness, anguish and just strong passion for whatever she is feeling) and poverty (which she is said to have worried about) helped bring on a relatively early death. Not that she was spiritually alone or neglected; she collaborated with other poets, musicians, and respected public figures seeking peace, justice, and equality for all in Israel.

If the interested reader wants to know more, I list in the comments a couple of websites beyond 5 more blogs (by me), and a few reviews of Szobel’s book. For this blog I read Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (where most of the poems here come from) and A Poetics of Trauma by Ilana Szobel. I find Szobel’s psychoanalytic and close reading approach to Ravikovitch’s poetry to be illuminating, useful — she will help the reader appreciate Ravokovitch’s poetry in all its layering. See The Poetry Foundation, Jewish Women’s Archive, an obituary from The Guardian.

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


From a series by Martha Rosler: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

So here are a few of the poems I find most successful and appealing. This first one is said to have been a favorite with her; and is often reprinte

Dress of Fire (The Dress)

You know, she said, they made you
a dress of fire.
Remember how Jason’s wife burned in her dress?
It was Medea, she said, Medea did that to her.
You’ve got to be careful, she said,
they made you a dress that glows
like an ember, that burns like coals.

Are you going to wear it, she said, don’t wear it.
It’s not the wind whistling, it’s the poison
seeping in.
You’re not even a princess, what can you do to Medea?
Can’t you tell one sound from another, she said,
it’s not the wind whistling.

Remember, I told her, that time when I was six?
They shampooed my hair and I went out into the street.
The smell o shampoo trailed after me like a cloud.
Then I got sick from the wind and the rain.
I didn’t know a thing about reading Greek tragedies,
but the smell of the perfume spread
and I was very sick.
Now I can see it’s an unnatural perfume.

What will happen to you now, she said,
they made you a burning dress.
They made me a burning dress, I said. I know.
So why are you standing there, she said,
you’ve got to be careful.
You know what a burning dress is, don’t you?

I know, I said, but I don’t know
how to be careful.
The smell of that perfume confuses me.
I said to her, No one has to agree with me,
I don’t believe in Greek tragedies.

But the dress, she said, the dress is on fire.
What are you saying, I shouted,
what are you saying?
I’m not wearing a dress at all,
what’s burning is me.
— translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch

She can express sheer sensual delight and pleasure; here is sonnet using the same devices of repetition and simple words and natural imagery:

Delight

There did I know a delight beyond all delight,
And it came to pass upon the Sabbath day
As tree boughs reached for the sky with all their might.
Round and round like a river streamed the light,
And the wheel of the eye craved the sunwheel that day
Then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
The heads of the bushes blazed, insatiable bright
Sunlight striking the waves, igniting the spray.

It would swallow my head like a golden orange, that light.
Water lilies were gaping their yellow bright
Mouths to swallow the ripples and reeds in their way.
And indeed it came to pass on the Sabbath day
As tree boughs lusted for the sky with all their might,
And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.

There is a series of poems where she expresses raw feelings as a woman involved with men who don’t treat her that well and whom she herself accepts because there is nothing better to calm herself with. I’d reprint “Cinderella in the Kitchen” but it is long so here is a shorter one from this type or series:

At Her Own Pace

A woman is holding a small photo.
She is no longer in her prime.
Travels a lot. Airplane. Suitcase.
For months on end, she stays
with relatives of hers.
“At your pace I couldn’t,” she says.
An introverted woman,
gentle in her ways.
People give in to her. She gives in too.
She’s on the move again. Airplane. Suitcase.
Nothing was set in advance.
The phone rang. She was flooded with a joy
that could tear the heavens open. He’s a man who’s not hers
in the full sense of the word.
She walks from room to room alone. An endless calm.
In the innermost circle of her being, she’s torn to pieces.
On the outside she’s calm. Doesn’t really seek
to take possession.
A small passport photo in her hand.
He’s wearing a tie. A featureless face,
I would say. For her he’s really
the world entire.
Apart from that, outside the innermost circle
she’s calm and recoiling
at her own pace.

Her poems on mothering are intertwined with her protests against brutal war — she saw mothering in war zones:

The quieter intense lasting grief of loss (this also includes typical sarcasm):

What a Time She Had!

How did that story go?
As a rule she wouldn’t have remembered so quickly.
In that soil no vineyard would grow.
A citrus grove stood there,
sickly,
stunted.
The single walnut tree blooming there bore no fruit
as if some essential life-giving element
were lacking in that soil.
Hard green lemons.
A balding patch of lawn.
A great tranquillity.
On the western side, the hedge went wild
and there was a honeysucker, of course
(today we’d call it a sunbird)
-if he were still alive
he’d be twenty years old.
In the valley, the army was hunting down human beings.
Fire in the thicket.
Summer’s hellfire blazing as usual.
Evening mowing down shadows, merciless.

Now she is a mother: On the Attitude towards Children in Times of War

He who destroys thirty babies
it is as if he’d destroyed three hundred babies,
and toddlers too,
or even eight-and-a-half year olds;
in a year, God willing, they’d be soldiers
in the Palestine Liberation Army.

Benighted children,
at their age
they don’t even have a real world view.
And their future is shrouded, too:
refugee shacks, unwashed faces,
sewage flowing in the streets,
infected eyes,
a negative outlook on life.

And thus began the flight from city to village,
from village to burrows in the hills.
As when a man did flee from a lion,
as when he did flee from a bear,
as when he did flee from a cannon,
from an airplane, from our own troops.

He who destroys thirty babies,
it is as if he’d destroyed one thousand and thirty,
or one thousand and seventy,
thousand upon thousand.
And for that alone shall he find
no peace.

Author’s note: This is a variation on a poem by Natan Zach that deals [satirically] with the question of whether there were exaggerations in the number of children reported killed in the [1982] Lebanon War.
Lines 1-2, He who destroys: cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5: “He who destroys a single human soul. . . , it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.”
Lines 16-17, As when a man: Amos 5:19, about the danger of apocalyptic yearnings.

This is the concluding poem in the volume translated by Boch and Kronfeld:

The Fruit of the Land

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons.
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved antitank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we don’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the CO
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you track him down,
and if you seek him without success
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess

From Bloch and Kronfeld’s notes: “The Fruit of the Land” (Hebrew, zimrat ha-arets), zimra means singing; in biblical Hebrew it can also mean “produce, bounty”. Block and Kronfield capture the macho voice of the defense types we constantly hear in the media rhapsodizing about Israel’s superior firepower. But nowadays they wouldn’t acknowledge they have “more than enough” and would have answered the opening question – ” You asked if we’ve got enough cannons” – with a demand for more funds for the military. There is much allusion to the Bible.

Central to the poem is the reality that things do not have to be this way. Armaments ever worse do not have to be the fruit of the earth

I pull out separately this rare more cheerful poem: New Zealand is a colony which succeeded: not all countries founded by colonizer end in cruelty, brutality, hatred; we see in this poem her early Biblical allusions, her use of repetition, her personal voice, the irony and sarcasm, and a late turn to acceptance.

Two Isles Hath New Zealand

Africa’s not the place to go right now.
Plagues, famine — the human body can’t bear it.
Brutality. They flog human beings with bull-whips.
Asia — it would make your hair stand on end.
Trapped in the mountains, trapped in the swamps.
The human body can’t bear it,
There are limits to the life force, after all.

As for me,
He shall make me lie down in green pastures
in New Zealand.

Over there, sheep with soft wool,
the softest of wools,
graze in the meadow.
Truehearted folk herd their flocks,
on Sundays they pay a visit to church
dressed in sedate attire.

No point hiding it any longer:
We’re an experiment that went awry,
a plan that misfired,
tied up with too much murderousness.
Why should I care about this camp or that,
screaming till their throats are raw,
spitting fine hairs.
In any case, too much murderousness.
To Africa I’m not going
and not to Asia, either.
I’m not going any place.

In New Zealand
in green pastures, beside the still waters,
kindhearted folk
will share their bread with me.

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


Al-shifa Hospital, 2014

Which other women have written powerful political verse, including directly about war successfully (whose work I know)? Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, Simone Weil, Alice Oswald. Who have pictured it? Martha Rosler. Novels and plays and memoirs: Ann Radcliffe (in her Summer Tour), Olivia Manning, Iris Origo, Lillian Hellman, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marta Hiller, Margaret Atwood, Adhaf Soueif

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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


Nicola Beauman (b. 1944) recently

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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


A photograph from one of the corners of the bookshop

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


I have listened to Nadia May (Wanda MacCadden is an alternative pseudonym) read aloud Jacob’s Room & find this the most appropriate of all the covers I’ve seen for this book

Friends and readers,

Last Saturday I had the privilege of listening to Alison Hennegan give a talk that took well over an hour on Jacob’s Room for the new Cambridge online (virtual) lecture series on the works of Virginia Woolf. Woolf and her writing is not the only topic Cambridge is developing different streams for: an upcoming one starting in spring is to be about Women Writers.  It includes May Sinclair (Life and Death of Harriet Frean), Sylvia Townsend Warner (Lolly Willowes), Elizabeth Bowen (The House in Paris), Rosamond Lehmann (Dusty Answers), 10 women authors altogether, 10 books; there is to be one on Jane Austen. I gather there are series organized around topics (I attended a separate virtual conference on African Literature this morning), courses, single books, themes. If this one by Prof (I assume) Hennegan is typical of the close reading, and the one on African Literature (about the history of publication in all its phases and angles), I wish I had the time and money to go to many many. A friend told me the sessions on Woolf’s Voyage Out and Night and Day were as stunningly insightful.

It’s my experience when I go to listen to a lecture or am part of a class, if I can take good notes and transcribe them afterwards I understand and remember so much more — of, barring that since I no longer can take down in sten what is said, get a copy of the papers at least, make concrete and centrally coherent some of what I remember, what I learned becomes part of my mental universe. Alas, there will be no copies of papers because they wouldn’t want to share individual ideas without the kind of credit accounting that is given someone when they publish conventionally (the peer-edited journal, the book published by the respected or university press). There was a hand-out sent by attachment, and at first I tried to take notes, but it became too much, and I was losing what she was saying as I struggled to catch up with what she had said. Now that I am aware of what are the obstacles (as it were) and what I should try to do, maybe I’ll somehow take out more in future as I’ve signed up for Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and closer to the time mean to sign up for some of the women writers and their novels.

Here I want to say that she was offering a way of reading Jacob’s Room which went past or ignored the problem of Woolf’s lack of interest in creating vivid living characters so that the text seems filled with memorable people who carry the meaning of the text, embody its themes, shape the inferences and what we learn from the book. She was moving at the level of utterances. She began with general remarks and the sort of summarizing of general themes one does with any novel discussion. So she said Jacob’s Room was Woolf’s first fully experimental novel. She characterized it as “an elegy to Woolf’s brother, Thoby, dead at 26, an elegy with a ghost of a man at its center; a death-haunted novel, which opens with Betty, Thoby’s mother, writing a letter filled with grief, loss, as she is a recent widow. I know when I wrote of this novel on this blog I emphasized how no-one I had read wrote about the book as a novel with a widow at its center, beginning, carrying on and ending with her. To this Prof Hennegan added that it is filled with vulnerable women, several of whom Jacob has liasions of different kinds but to none of them does he give of himself for real or truly. We are made to pick up the suggestions about their absent presences. The novel is filled with presences who are not quite there.

Prof Hennegan suggested that we might take Jacob’s Room to be a reply to Katherine Mansfield who criticized Night and Day for failing to address the war. Jacob’s Room showed is engendered by and continually aware of this war: we are watching this or these (Jacob’s friends and companions) young men, upper class, being exquisitely prepared, for professions, for leading a nation of peoples, for art, for invention, from academic to social education, from travel to building homes, lives for themselves end simply slaughtered senselessly — insofar as any true interest of their own. She thought one redemptive them is art outlast human life; art is the means by which human life is extended. The theme of education is central; she writes a prose thickly laden with literary allusion. Women in the book are presented as weak, unknowable and ultimately terrifying to men who however have all the power to do things women do not. She thought D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster have similar views. (I disagree that Forster presents women this way, but D.H. Lawrence might — to me DHL sees women as objects for men to fuck).

She felt the natural world is strong throughout the novel, that we watch boundaries between phenomena dissolve, everything intertwined, what people feel, do, do think, all dissolve. In my comment to her (which we were encouraged to write in the chat area) I offered the idea that I found in Woolf’s words and all they conjure up (characters, things, events) levels of past suggested, so that we continually find ourselves plunging into older and older eras, and then can leap to the present, that the words also take seriously the tiniest little object or piece of life and perceive it as attached to the largest and just as important and through our apprehension of this as we read the paragraphs we move through time and space sensually — geologic as well as historical, cultural, geographic, geologic. She appeared to like my idea, and I told of how hard it was to make people in a class like Woolf, enjoy her and that I tried to attach this texture of Woolf’s — which I found very emphatic but also tied to characters and stories in Jacob’s Room, The Years and Between the Acts. I had tried to make them see this and appreciate the texture by the students’ strong tendency to read looking for people or events that spoke to them in their lives. But as we talked (this was only a couple of minutes as she went on to the next person’s comment) and she said reading aloud Woolf was the best way to enjoy her, or imaginatively reading aloud slowly, I remembered this summer how well the short fiction had seemed to come across when I read it aloud and really emphasized close reading the utterances for themselves. Just bringing this home to myself made the two hours very worth while.

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


Roger Fry, Carpentras, Provence (1930) — I include pictures by Bloomsbury artists, which I find consonant with Woolf’s fiction

In the body of her talk, Prof Hennegan went over various critics’ reactions to Jacob’s Room, and used these as jumping off points occasionally to show how the given critic was looking for something that Woolf did not want to supply, but more often how what they did write was perspicacious. W.J. Courtney thought Woolf unlike any other writer except Dorothy Richardson, in the discernment of nuances of character, “keen discernment of those small, inessential things which go to the making of a life … scores again and again. Her art is “impressionist” and influenced by “jazz”! (“in its tense syncopated movements, its staccato impulsiveness”). Gerald Gould found “beauty,” “lyrical passages — one, in particuar, about crossing Waterloo Bridge in a wind: she can make us feel what she calls ‘the ecstasy and hubbub of the soul'”. He did feel Woolf wrong not to help “the simple-minded reader” to make “connexions” in the fiction “clear.” An anonymous reviewer complains of “no narrative, no design above all, no perspective: [the book’s] dissolving views come before us one by one, each taking the full light for a moment, then vanishing completely.” Vanessa Bell’s cover illustrations were not liked because it did not represent anything seen in the novel. She included all Leonard Woolf’s notes on how many copies were printed by Hogarth Press, after the second impression how many had sold altogether, how much money they made on the book: £42 4s 6d which would today be
£2,402.32

Then 14 passages from the novel were discussed as examples of her techniques, themes, modes — on the ram’s skull; Mr and Mrs Plumer; women in King’s College Chapel; Betty Flanders pondering the nature of her dead husband; the problems of gender, the effect of sex … ; Sopwith entertaining graduates in his room, then years later these men, now mature, remember Sopwith; Jacob’s view of Florinda; an insoluble problem of beauty, in Florinda; the light over King’s Collee Chapel, the Women’s College garden at night; the poignant closing paragraph and sentence of the novel. She repeatedly came back to showing how boundaries of all sorts in the book dissolve away. I shall save these to study — I suppose the method is rather like Matthew Arnold’s “touchstones.”

I suppose I can bring forward here what I wrote elsewhere in this blog on the book when I first finished it:

Jacob’s Room begins as a widow’s story. No where is this mentioned in the literature. Mrs Betty Flanders’ husband died in an accident it feels like years ago, leaving her with three children — one so young it cannot have been that many years. But we are made to feel her husband’s death happened a long while ago to her. She is in Cornwall for the holidays and writing a Captain friend, Barfoot (he’s married so safe) in Scarborough. There is a painter about whom Woolf writes in similar ways to what she says of Lily Briscoe, color, and lonely people who don’t fit in: Mr Steele. On the beach, a little later Mrs Flanders hears the waves, the ship — her husband died of an accident at sea. We are told he left her impoverished, but Woolf’s idea of poverty is different from some of us it seems. She has a nanny, doesn’t cook her own supper, doesn’t have to work for money. But she is at a great loss with these boy children, hanging from her….

Woolf continually moves from inward presence to inward presence and by so doing uncovers a real feeling of living life which includes sex bought from prostitutes by our hero. Many of the presences come from utterly different classes in different areas of life. We also experiencing Jacob in a large variety of social worlds and deeds. Suddenly too the narrator will go into deep dream time on the place where the narrative has settled and allude way back in time so it becomes a movement through centuries, deep history embedded in people today One aristocratic lady likes such-and-such food because her ancestors have been enjoying it since their death, this partial recreation. The novel of manners or social life is left far behind.

Jacob’s Room is as de-centered as un-heroic as Roger Fry (her biography) as de-centered as The Waves, Between the Acts. While we can believe in Jacob, he is just a center knob in a wheel where all the spokes — all the many living presences and places come out of. I just love how he loves and thinks in terms of the Greek classics. This morning I listened to how Woolf manages to bring in tandem a sense of a desperately homeless (near) prostitute trying to get into the house where Jacob lives and other street people and the people at a party he went to — when he came home he thought how delightful to be with 10 new people (themselves beautifully captured), and we find a long reverie on the books at the British library, all by men, Jacob is spending his evening’s reading.

3/4’s through I began to worry about Jacob. I’ve read somewhere that he dies at the end — perhaps that’s why people say (carelessly) this book is about her brother. Jacob is the central node of the book, but it is in space equally about many people whom he comes across and spends time with. Especially women who are vulnerable. I am so touched with those women Jacob goes to bed with — this is indicated discreetly. They are the models paid to strip naked by his friends or at the Slade: ignorant, even dumb, without a chance in the world for respect or security or comfort. Prostitutes. His mother, the widow, whom the book opened with hardly goes any where in her life, hardly meets anyone outside her narrow class sphere and local area.

By near the end of the book Jacob has fallen in love with a married woman he meets while touring, but he has not connected deeply with anyone (not her either). He is not married. It’s hinted people think he’s homosexual and he writes to a male friend Bonamy. I can’t see any other ending but death. Probably in World War One. The book takes place just earlier. At the end of The Voyage Out Rachel dies. In the middle of To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay dies, and in the last third we are told of three other deaths of characters who meant something. I wonder if anyone has written about this urge to death in Woolf’s novels — probably, this one seems the saddest of all. We cherish this character as we are told his close friends do. Others say he is the best person they ever met. He never hurts anyone. He has truly intelligent (sceptical) attitudes towards politics. Acts with compassion and courtesy. The book is about life itself as a stream of feeling; she feels equally intense over say a crab or some other creature endlessly trying to say jump over something and it cannot.

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


Carrington, The Baroque Harmony in the ice off the Labrador Coast, Tinsel in Glass (1929) =- part of the strange beauties in The Voyage Out are Woolf’s descriptions of the South American land- and seascapes our characters encounter

I wish Cambridge would put online the lectures on The Voyage Out and Night and Day that I missed. Since I can find nothing on Prof Hennegan’s lecture on Night and Day that seems to me interesting, let me say briefly it is much better until the very end (when there is a jejeune depiction of a love proposal and courtship so hot-house, idealized, naive, I was embarrassed by it), with some of the most interesting parts, the Mary Datchett story (a spinster who loves the hero and is carving out a life for herself dedicated to liberal political causes), Ralph Denham’s character and world (modelled on Leonard Woolf), and the meditations (in effect) on the problems of writing biography (the heroine, Katherine Hilbury is said to be helping her mother write a biography of her father, now dead, once a super-respected poet. I am very much looking forward to the the lectures I’ll go to on Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Elizabeth Bishop and her cat in a car

Dear friends and readers,

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

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


Daisies in Paintbucket

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

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

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


Again with her cat

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

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

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

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

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

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


South National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1863

From Trollope’s Journal

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

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

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

Paris, 7 A.M.

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

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

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

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

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

And this Sonnet (1928)

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Martha Rosler, in front of her most recent exhibit, Irrespective at the Jewish Museum & Yale University

Dear friends,

This is an interim blog, or a blog in progress. I am not ready to write at all adequately, even in a blog form, on the life and work of the American artist, Martha Rosler. I need to read her writing more, see more of her photography as printed in books. I’ve two good books on the way(Culture Class, and a Retrospective catalogue). But having felt so demoralized by recent events in the US public worlds, and today feeling lifted up with some hope for women with Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris for his vice-presidential candidate, and listened to the various podcasts on Rosler’s exhibit online, I want no longer to wait to include in my series of woman artists at long last, someone still alive as well as right now creating art to enable women to uncover, challenge, and subvert the views of them that turn them into powerless sex objects, woman as existing only in relation to men (mother, wife, sister, daughter),and to expose war, homelessness, gender roles, commercialism, inequality, hard labor, desperately abysmal living conditions around the world. She is has been at this for fifty years. She was born and still lives in Brooklyn, taught at Brooklyn college, has been socially engaged with the communities all around.  Her official website.

Her photograph and montages speak for themselves — as pictures should.  From her Semiotics of the Kitchen:

Letter “K” (Knife). Still from Semiotics of the Kitchen, black-and-white video, 1975 — If you had to live here …

From House Beautiful, Bringing the War Home (1962-72); Images of women at home as of Vietnam and the US colonialist wars against the Southeast Asian people (Vietnam, Cambodia)


The Gray Drape


Men at War


The Gladiators

This is one she made of Pat Nixon, as the quintessential American householder:


First Lady, Pat Nixon — it’s hard to distinguish so much phoniness, so flat and abject , so pathetic a consciousness

How beautiful? what make for beauty? Rosler is much influenced by Luce Irigaray’s strategies of apparent aquiescence combine with harsh punishmentas the way of the world towards ordinary people. In her essays on art and the art world, she lays bare the class structures, the privileging, how museums and colleges can work to stifle individuals. Her anti-war work is sometimes wrongly interpreted as being against just one kind of war: the colonialist, far away. But she is ever doing is examining the material bases and left-overs from our daily lives. History and art must be inclusive: take in what’s found at Wall-Mart, low and vulgar as well as high and elegant art.

Here is a good explanation of what her collages and montages are made of:

And here she discusses the conditions of the art world in Lisbon at an exhibit in a museum the 1970s, her own attitudes and how they’ve changed over the years, and what are the conditions an artist who wants to show her work (and occasionally maybe sell it) have to deal with: audience taste, audience tolerance, the financing of art

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Paul Signac (1890), Portrait of M. Félix Fénéon (1861-1944)


1946 reprint

[After the crushing of the Paris Commune, 1871] Between 25 thousand and 35 thousand men, women, and children were summarily executed, their bodies burned in piles or tossed into mass graves. There were more executions that week than in the three-year Reign of Terror during the French revolution, (JUHalperin, Félix Fénéon, p 26)

The judge: ‘You were seen talking to anarchists behind a lamppost.’
Fénéon: Can you tell me, your honor, where behind a lamppost?’ — (SFigura, ICahn, PPeltier, “The Anarchist & the Avante Garde,” MOMA, Fénéon, 21

“Drawing near the abbey”, Catherine’s “impatience” “returned in full force:” “and every bend in the road was expected with solemn awe to afford a glimpse of its massy walls of grey stone, rising amidst a grove of ancient oaks, with the last beams of the sun playing in beautiful splendour on its high Gothic windows” … [but the next morning] [Catherine] was struck, however, beyond her expectation, by the grandeur of the abbey, as she saw it for the first time from the lawn. The whole building enclosed a large court; and two sides of the quadrangle, rich in Gothic ornaments, stood forward for admiration. The remainder was shut off by knolls of old trees, or luxuriant plantations, and the steep woody hills rising behind, to give it shelter, were beautiful even in the leafless month of March. Catherine had seen nothing to compare with it …” (NA, II:5 [20], 152; II:7 [22], 168)


Catherine (Felicity Jones) and Henry (J. J. Feilds) coming up to the abbey (2009 NA, scripted Andrew Davies)

Friends and readers,

It’s not often I come across an article in the New Yorker where I feel I know something the writer of the article does not seem to know — and I may have in Peter Schjeldahl’s “Out of the Dark,” a review of two presently languishing exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art, one on the “premier photographyer of the human drama of the Great Depression,” that is to say, Dorothy Lange, and the other on a “shadowy French aesthete and political anarchist (bomb thrower, in his later years a communist), “sometime art critic, dealer, collector, journalist, editor,” Félix Fénéon. More likely he just thought it supremely unimportant that Fénéon in my view (and that of others) wrote the best translation of a novel by Jane Austen into French to date.

It was in 1894 while awaiting trial for having participated in the murder bombing of groups of civilians, that Fénéon is said to have been bored, and searching the prison library found some old school books, a “few volumes of George Sand and Northanger Abbey. “Women writers, like women visitors, ” were of course considered “innocuous” (JUHalperin). A friend brought Fénéon a dictionary, and “he began patiently to translate the English novel. He was soon happily involved in rendering the author’s pithy style and keen insights into human nature” (JUHalperin, 284).

But maybe not. Maybe Schjeldahl didn’t know. I turned over all 204 pages of the book MOMA has produced to accompany its exhibition, Félix Fénéon, the Anarchist and the Avante Garde, and nowhere do I find this considerable incident: it’s not nothing to translate a novel by Austen and then get it published. Schjeldahl refers to himself as simply “Googling” these (including Lange) “brilliant subjects,” but of course I assume he read the MOMA book because he singles out for emphasis the same topics: Fénéon’s wit, that he was (ironically) chief clerk of the Ministry of War at the time he was involved with what Schjeldahl and others call terrorists (they saw themselves as revolutionaries; more recently the French have seen themselves as a resistance, and now yellow jackets), his importance as an editor & reviewer of central periodicals in Paris, the immense collection of art objects he amassed — and his ability to be effortlessly wittily startling and cruel in words.

I could write a letter to the New Yorker, but lack ambition and suspect it would not be published.

So instead I shall re-print my short essay written some years ago for Ekleksographia Wave Two, a poetry magazine, for October 2009, a special issue on translation. The periodical was online, and I had my essay linked into my website, but alas, the link has gone bad (what happens is somehow some “rogue” page supersedes mine — and I’ve no idea how to fix this). I did know about this, and at the time put the essay (before I lost it) on academia.edu as “Jane Austen in French.” But it has gotten very little attention there (61 views, 9 readers).

For a reasonable while (and I’ve not given over yet) I was studying French translations of Austen, and I read part of one Italian one L’Abbazia di Northanger by Liana Borghi.  I am very fond of NA, and have written a number of papers and blogs on the book, the gothic, and its two film adaptations, on women’s friendships in the book, one even published in Persuasions. During this time I made it my business to study a couple of French studies of Austen (see Pierre Goubert, 1, 2,) and I once sent off a proposal to discuss at a Chawton House conference the contemporary French translation of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho by Austen and Radcliffe’s contemporary, Madame de Chastenay.

Be all this as it may, my argument for the superiority of Fénéon’s text is contextualized by my reading of French translations of Sense and Sensibility, which I think highly of, or are of interest because of the author-translator (Isabelle de Montolieu).

In a nutshell what interested me (why I felt compelled to write a short essay) is that this witty anarchist saw in Austen a fellow spirit, a fellow subversive. Fénéon’s translation itself picks up on it as a bookish book, does justice to the deeply picturesque elements of Austen’s texts as well as imitating interior voices he is hearing that persuade us believable characters are before us.


Catherine and Isabella Tilney (Carey Mulligan) in the circulating library talking of books … (same movie, only I’ve lightened the still)

Jane Austen in French

like the original poet, the translator is a Narcissus who . . . chooses to contemplate his own likeness not in the spring of nature but in the pool of art — Renato Poggioli

Why would one want to produce a cauliflower in wool? . . . The desire to reproduce one medium in terms of another . . . is a curious,
wide-spread and deep-rooted human need. It may or may not be at the mysterious root of art — Margaret Drabble (1)

I enjoy reading translations of books I love into one of the two languages I can read besides English: French and Italian, and I had the real delight this summer of reading Félix Fénéon’s Catherine Morland, a fin-de-siecle translation of Austen’s Northanger Abbey (first published 1818). It is one of a very few translations of Austen to be remembered as by another author and the only one I have seen described as excellent, as just about up to Austen’s own.

As I began to read, I felt I should put Austen’s English text aside, forget it insofar as I could, and read Fénéon for limpid, lapidary verve he was offering. Alas, I couldn’t quite. I know and love Austen’s novel too well, and would find myself aware that this phrase or that paragraph was omitted, and wanted to check Fénéon against Austen. Then as I came to the later gothic parts of Austen’s book, the sparkling wand of delicate irony was lost for a while. So although by that time I had a copy of Austen’s text under Fénéon’s on my lap as I read, I picked up a third text, Pierre Arnaud’s L’Abbaye de Northanger (Pleiade, 2000), and read that. Well, for the whole of Arnaud’s I found a text consistently close to the original, one whose vocabulary and syntax imitated Austen’s; if a little stilted or pedantic, Arnaud wrote with much more expansive or generous (longer) sentences than Fénéon’s. These allowed Arnaud to keep the anguished and troubled tones in Austen’s English female gothic too. Ought I to have read it apart from Austen’s? Perhaps, but I didn’t. I didn’t have the urge and my pleasure was in seeing the English transposed to another system of sounds and meaning as I went along, rather like the pleasures offered by closely faithful film adaptation (for example, Peter Bogdanovich’s 1974 film Daisy Miller).

Fénéon’s method is close to what Dryden termed paraphrase (“translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator, so as never to be lost, but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense”) with very occasional and subtle forays into imitation (“assum[ing] a liberty not only to vary from words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion”).(2) What Feneon was doing was reliving the experience Austen had lived, and finding analogous words in French to convey this as he went along. He did not translate by conjuring up a new text word for word, but found the words that came naturally to him in his idiolect as he re-enacted, re-saw precisely Austen’s imagined experience, all the while keeping his eye on the text’s movement before him. So we have an older male outside looking in, touched and amused, but not himself feeling within the gut the intense importance of small things and sense of vulnerability the female Austen experiences. There is a kind of throbbing delight and anxiety in passages given Catherine by Austen; an acid and even quiet hatred for the outrages of common life, and resentment of certain kinds of stupidities in women and bullying in men, which Austen feels are overlooked as unimportant or, worse yet, rewarded. Fénéon is slightly but persistently more distant. He wrote Catherine Morland while he was in prison charged with anarchy and possibly murder (the question was, Did he engineer the bombing of a restaurant in Paris where people were hurt and killed?). He was allowed this text in his cell together with a dictionary because at the time Austen was seen as utterly apolitical, harmless, and it’s her detachment and the sheer aesthetic playfulness of the picturesque he recreates (3)

Pierre Arnaud’s method veers between Dryden’s metaphrase (“turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language into another”) and paraphrase, and he achieves a remarkable balance between gothicism and witty yet serious enough social and psychological realism. His sentences can be involuted, the feel pedantic, but he rarely loses a subtle implication – which Fénéon growing impatient, may well skip rather than lose his hold on a vital stream of intensely captured feeling. I tried Arnaud’s translation against a third, Josette Salesse-Lavergne’s Northanger Abbey (Christian Bourgeois, 1980), and found Salesse-Lavergne’s is the weakest because she doesn’t do the concentrated work metaphrase demands (her paraphrase is so weak that I found errors) and shows no evidence of even careful thought about the zeitgeist of the text (as Arnaud shows in his “Notice”).

One swallow does not a summer make, so I tried three analogous Sense and Sensibility texts. First, Isabelle de Montolieu’s Raison et Sensibilite; ou les deux manieres d’aimer (1815, just 4 years after the appearance of Austen’s). Montolieu was more popular, better known than Austen; I had edited her first novel (which influenced Austen), and this translation had recently been republished (Archipoche, 1996)(4). I had read castigations of Montolieu’s text, and discovered that she translated so freely she often leaves the original story altogether, making up her own incidents, changing what’s happening even radically, especially towards the end, reminding me of most film adaptations. Dry irony becomes trembling sensibility; truth to experience turns back into romance cliches. So, with my experience of Arnaud in mind and the Pléiade book to hand, I turned to Pierre Joubert’s Le Coeur et La Raison for contrast, and found his adherence to a balance between metaphrase and paraphrase, a matter of a man carefully turning sentences from one medium (English) into another (French). Joubert is a persuasive essayist, and makes a good argument for changing Austen’s title as the English heavily-connotative complex words have no equivalent terrains in French, and his book is sometimes very witty, but thoughtful linguistic expertise turned to rendering a book academically respected does not make for a living text. Again I switched, to Jean Privat’s Raison et Sentiments (Christian Bourgeois, 1979), and was relieved and then absorbed by the directness, force, and clarity of a text genuinely rooted in contemporary spoken French which nonetheless kept to Austen’s syntax and an Anglo-influenced vocabulary.

There is an argument (followed in a recent Russian translation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) that a translator (like a modern screenplay writer) should attempt some combination of the language of the author’s day with our own. Well, this older contemporary tone, connotation and syntax (even across languages), Montolieu offers. When she translates closely (and she performs metaphrase for long stretches), her tone becomes uncannily like Austen’s, and yet like Fénéon, her text is imbued by a spirit of her own where she is either re-enacting, or reacting instinctively against, her source. I’ve read an (anonymous) 1808 translation into English of Germaine de Stael’s 1807 Corinne, ou l’Italie, and this 1808 text has Montolieu’s power to bring a modern English reader closer to the older French text than any modern translation, even Sylvia Raphael’s Corinne, or Italy (Oxford 1998), a moving work of art out of Stael’s: like Arnaud accurate, like Privat direct, and beyond that, like Feneon (except, revealingly, for the female gothic) manifesting an unembarrassed understanding of, identification with, Stael from beginning to end.

I have translated the poetry of two women poets, Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547) and Veronica Gambara (1485-1550), and written an essay on translation in general and my own methods.(5) I believe great translations emerge when the new artist imaginatively re-enacts what she finds in the previous text in her modern idiolect: you must be true to your own inner spirit and be seeking to express it through choosing a deeply empathetic text which you try to experience as if you had written it; at the same time, you forget yourself, so absorbed are you in contemplation and re-enactment. Poggioli and Drabble would put it that a translator tries to “transpose” another “aesthetic personality” into “the key of their own” and “escapes from the self” through an attentive work in a medium they also love.6 What I enjoy in strong translation is its re-creative and revelatory power.


Catherine savoring the gothic room (again 2007 NA, still lightened)

Notes

1 Renato Poggioli, “The Added Artificer,” On Translation, ed. Reuben Brower (NY: Galaxy, 1959):139; Margaret Drabble, The Pattern in the Carpet, A Personal History with Jigsaws (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2009): 290.
2 John Dryden, Of Dramatic Poesy, ed. George Watson (NY: Everyman, 1964):1:268.
3 Joan Ungersma Halperin, Félix Fénéon, Aesthete and Anarchist in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (New Haven: Yale UP, 1988), 169-70, 284, 307. It was begun 1894, published 1898. Fénéon reworked his text with the help of an English poet, John Gray.
4 See Isabelle de Montolieu and Caroline de Lichtfield 
5 “On Translating Vittora Colonna and Veronica Gambara”
6 Poggioli, 139; Drabble, 253.

See also Lucy Cousturier (1870/8-1925): artist, memoirist, a life outside conventional society

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Catherine Clive as Mrs Riot by Peter Van Bleeck (in the Garrick Club) (detail enlarged)

Friends and readers,

I am delighted to be able to say I’ve put onto academia.edu, a review I wrote a couple of months ago of Berta Joncus’s Kitty Clive, or the Fair Songstress . I had hoped to attend the ASECS meeting in St Louis this past March, and was looking forward to seeing it published in the spring 2020 issue of the Intelligencer — right around the time of the conference. I was also to give a paper on historical fiction in the 18th century: Wheelchairs and Vases (on Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover), but like all the world (it seems), in the interests of protecting literally thousands and thousands of lives from a deadly and high contagious virus, the meeting was called off and I have been “sheltering in place” since March 13.


An 18th century illustration, said to be the house in Twickenham where Clive lived out her later years

Seven years ago I wrote a blog on Clive as an actress and writer, a woman who built a highly successful career in 18th century theater: I hope I have now deleted that blog because I realize how inadequate it was: for a start, I did not realize to what extent Clive built her success on her singing and musicianship. The blog was part of series of blog-essays on actresses, artists, and women poets, which I resumed doing a couple of months ago, and now add a much shortened (& corrected) version of.

If my reader has read the review, and is (I hope) going to get the book and read a few of the essays of and by Clive available, perhaps the thing I can do here is add to it a sense of Clive’s inner life at its charming best: on stage. To convey her the persona or personality her audience supposed was hers I begin with two epilogues written for and/or by her. It was a central convention of the era for star-actresses to address the audience before or after the play in ways that introduced or satirized the play they had seen, presenting an ironic under-self, a hidden laughing sub-self who mocked and replayed the character the actress had just personated in familiar (supposedly non-fictional) ways.

We begin with an epilogue spoken at the end of The Apprentice by Arthur Murphy, an 1756 after-piece for Southern’s Oroonoko (tragic-poignant). This one is attributed to a friend (as some of her pieces also were) but is written as if it were by her, identifying the speaker’s attitudes with that of a another hard-working girl. Note how Clive addresses the audience rebarbatively, partly identifies with the milliners, qualified by sharp hard ironies towards women spending their lives in virtuous low paid hard work, and the many ironic and celebratory references to familiar characters of the Shakespearean and 18th century repertoire (some of which she would have played):

EPILOGUE written by a Friend , spoken by Mrs. CLIVE.

[Enters reading the Play-Bill.]
A very pretty Bill,—as I’m alive!
The Part of—Nobody—by Mrs. Clive !
A paltry, scribling Fool—to leave me out—
He’ll say perhaps—he thought I could not spout .
Malice and Envy to the last Degree!
And why?—I wrote a Farce as well as He.
And fairly ventur’d it,—without the Aid
Of Prologue dress’d in black, and Face in Masquerade;
O Pit—have Pity—see how I’m dismay’d!
Poor Soul!—this canting Stuff will never do,
Unless, like Bay’s, he brings his Hangman too.
But granting that from these same Obsequies,
Some Pickings to our Bard in black arise;
Should your Applause to Joy convert his Fear,
As Pallas turns to feast— Lardella’s Bier ;
Yet ‘twould have been a better Scheme by half
T’have thrown his Weeds aside, and learn’t with me to laugh.
I could have shewn him, had he been inclin’d,
A spouting Junto of the Female Kind.
There dwells a Milliner in yonder Row,
Well-dress’d, full-voic’d, and nobly built for Shew,
Who, when in Rage, she scolds at Sue and Sarah ,
Damn’d, Damn’d Dissembler !—thinks she’s more than Zara
She has a Daughter too that deals in Lace,
And sings—O Ponder well—and Cherry Chase ,
And fain would fill the fair Ophelia’s Place.
And in her cock’t up Hat, and Gown of Camblet,
Presumes on something— touching the Lord Hamlet .
A Cousin too she has, with squinting Eyes,
With wadling Gait, and Voice like London Cries ;
Who, for the Stage too short by half a Story,
Acts Lady Townly—thus—in all her Glory.
And, while she’s traversing her scanty Room,
Cries—“Lord, my Lord, what can I do at home!”
In short, there’s Girls enough for all the Fellows,
The Ranting, Whining, Starting, and the Jealous,
The Hotspurs, Romeos, Hamlets, and Othellos.
Oh! Little do those silly People know,
What dreadful Trials—Actors undergo.
Myself—who most in Harmony delight,
Am scolding here from Morning until Night.
Then take Advice from me, ye giddy Things,
Ye Royal Milliners, ye apron’d Kings;
Young Men beware and shun our slipp’ry Ways,
Study Arithmetic, and burn your Plays;
And you, ye Girls, let not our Tinsel train
Enchant your Eyes, and turn your madd’ning Brain;
Be timely wise, for oh! be sure of this;—
A Shop with Virtue, is the Height of Bliss.

The second prefaced a private performance we apparently know almost nothing about, only that prologue survives and was published in one of several miscellanies of prologues and epilogues popularly read at the time in collections of such verse, as by David Garrick, a actor-manager very important in Clive’s life and to her career (as he was to just about all actresses and actors at the time).

A Prologue, upon Epilogues, Spoken at a Private Benefit:

Enter in a black coat, closely buttoned.
Behold me in the usual prologue dress,
Though why it should be black, I cannot guess;
Custom, the law of schools — improvement’s foe,
Has long established that it shall be so:
But, say is slavish custom to control,
The active vigor of my free-born soul;
I”ll break the statute — and her laws deface
[Unbuttoning coat and displaying gold-laced waist-coat]
Behold the glare of deviating lace;
Departing farther from custom’s dream
I bid adieu to prologue’s usual theme;
And while o’er critic rules my rivals doze
A prologue upon epilogues compose.
The epilogue, which always deck’d with smiles
In female accent, tragic care beguiles:
That when exalted thoughts, the mind impress,
A trivial jest must make the pleasure less.
Ludicrous custom, which compels to show,
The cap of folly, in the rear of woe;
Portrays a smile, emerging from a sigh,
And pleasure starting from affliction’s eye;
Makes joy’s bright beam in sorrow’s face appear,
And Quibble dry the sentimental tear.
If when a tragic tale in virtue’s cause,
The soft compassion of the tender draws;
Custom, decrees, our feeling be repressed,
By some vile pun, or some unseemly jest:
By the same rule, when comic swains give birth,
To nature’s dimples, in the cheeks of mirth;
A doleful ditty, should conclude the night,
And rob the audience of their dear delight:
E’er with improvement they can make retreat,
The purpose of the well-wrought piece defeat.
Then sons of genius, be it all your pride,
To throw the codes of prejudice aside:
By custom’s shackles be no more restrained,
Be ev’ry mental faculty unchain’d.
Our bodies freedom, we in birthright find,
Then let’s assert the freedom of the mind.

This prologue upon epilogues develops a complicated thought and assertion on behalf of liberty as well as containing an insightful critique of how epilogues relate to the genres of plays and play with dramatic conventions. The text is not in ECCO; it’s reprinted in “Garrick’s Unpublished Epilogue for Catherine Clive’s The Rehearsal; or, Bayes In Petticoats by Matthew J Kinservik, Études Anglaises, 49:3, (1996):320-26.


This the full length whole portrait by Peter van Bleeck – -I prefer to reprint this than one of the several prints supposedly of Clive much younger — they are patently false, doll-like rococo faces, Barbie doll bodies, smooth wigs, a shepherdess costume

Her career was so long and complicated, I thought it best to provide a narrative older life from the ODNB (as an alternative to or) filling out Joncus’s portrait from a different register & tone:

“According to William Chetwood’s General History of the Stage (1749), Clive was the daughter of William Raftor, a Kilkenny lawyer of considerable estate who ruined his fortunes by aligning himself with James II during the latter’s campaign in Ireland in 1690. After a period of exile, he was pardoned and returned to London to marry a Mrs Daniel, ‘Daughter to an eminent Citizen on Fishstreethill with whom he had a handsome Fortune’ (Chetwood, 126). Chetwood further claims that the couple had numerous children, but the names of these brothers and sisters are unknown, except for James (*d*. 1790), who joined Kitty in a stage career, and a sister whose married name was Mrs Mestivyer. There is evidence that Kitty Clive supported her father once she was working, so whatever handsome fortune was in place when her parents married evidently dwindled over time.”

In 1728, “A friend of Jane Johnson, the first wife of Theophilus Cibber, Kitty was introduced to both Cibber and Chetwood. They, in turn, impressed with her ‘infinite Spirits, with a Voice and Manner in singing Songs of Pleasantry peculiar to herself’ (Chetwood, 127), recommended her to Colley Cibber, who added her to his list of performers at Drury Lane. Chetwood indicates that she had a few minor appearances in the spring of 1728, but once the full 1728–9 season opened she began appearing regularly in increasingly large and important roles. Throughout that season and those that followed she moved from supporting roles in tragedy to singing in afterpieces and playing the first-ranking characters in the farces popular in the period.”

“The fashion of musical comedy and burlesque suited Kitty’s vocal and comic talents perfectly, and she shone in parts such as Nell in Charles Coffey’s The Devil to Pay, in which she portrayed a cobbler’s wife transformed into the lady of the manor. Henry Fielding wrote several parts for her that highlighted her skills, including Chloe in The Lottery and Lappet in an adaptation of Molière’s The Miser. In the summer of 1732 she was given the most sought-after female role in musical comedy, Polly in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and received a tribute to her portrayal from the Daily Journal, which called her the ‘Darling of the Age’ (25 July 1732). During the rebellion of the players in 1733, Kitty remained with John Highmore’s company at Drury Lane . . . Henry Fielding, who also remained loyal to Drury Lane, praised her acting talents and the alternative view of her character. In his preface to The Intriguing Chambermaid (1734), in which she played the title role, he compliments her as ‘the best Wife, the best Daughter, the best Sister, and the best Friend’ (Fielding) . . . Her best roles were particular comic types: the silly country miss, the wiser and more fashionable version of the same, and the pert and resourceful servant. These remained her strong suit for much of her career.

Few details are known about Catherine Raftor’s marriage to George Clive (*d*. 1780), a barrister and second cousin to Robert Clive ‘of India’ [Joncus suggests he was homosexual and it was a marriage of convenience — to look like heterosexuals], but that she appeared as Mrs Clive in the bills for the first time in October 1733. The name change suggests that the pair had just married or had done so during the summer, when she would not have been performing regularly. Evidence about the couple’s married life is also slight, but the two did not live together for very long, separating some time in 1735. Chetwood, ostensibly declining to comment on marital affairs, declares, ‘I never could imagine she deserved ill Usage’ (Chetwood, 128), implying that was just what she [had] received . . .

Although Clive herself did not contribute to the pamphlet war during the theatrical rebellion of 1733, in 1736 she had reason to believe that the acting manager, Theophilus Cibber, was trying to claim some of her roles for his second wife, Susannah. Clive published her side of the controversy in the press in order to defend her position on the stage.

It is my consolation to think, that as I have always endeavor’d to please them [the town] as an Actress, to the best of my Abilities, whatever has been urged to the contrary by the Malice of my Enemies, will have no weight or Influence upon my Friends. (London Daily Post and General Advertiser, 19 Nov 1736)

When Clive’s appearance as Polly was finally presented, she addressed herself to the house, apologizing for the disturbance and offering to play the secondary part of Lucy instead. This apologetic tone and willingness to appease her audience secured both her popularity and the role of Polly until she herself was ready to bestow it on a younger actress of her own choosing in 1745 . . . Although publicly Clive decried and apparently regretted bringing theatrical matters notoriety in the press, the lesson she learned during the Polly war served her well in 1744.

After the failure of Charles Macklin and David Garrick to open a third theatre to break the monopoly held by the patentees, Clive found herself unemployed. Rather than relying on others to defend her position and livelihood, that October she printed a pamphlet, The Case of Mrs. Clive Submitted to the Publick, explaining her position and that of other performers. Particularly galling to her was the oss of her annual free benefit, a privilege she had held for nine years, and how she discovered her lack of a job—by finding other actresses listed in her roles in the bills. This ‘unprecedented Act of Injustice’ (The Case of Mrs. Clive, 14) did not allow her the time to find work in Dublin, where she had met with success during the summer of 1741. Following the publication of her pamphlet, Clive held a benefit concert at the Haymarket on 2 November by command of Frederick, prince of Wales, and Augusta, princess of Wales. The royal couple had commanded Clive’s benefits in the past, and their continued patronage of her expressed their personal dismay at the lord chamberlain’s ruling in favour of the patentees. Theophilus Cibber confirmed that the audience at the benefit had been a notable one, by describing the affair as having ‘many Persons of the first Distinction … in the Pit and Boxes’ (Cibber, 76). The manager, John Rich, no fool, recognized Clive’s drawing power, and rehired her the next month at Drury Lane, although not at the salary level she had previously attained. As in the Polly war, Clive found that humble approaches to the theatre-going public could push theatrical management to some semblance of civility towards players . . .

David Garrick attained the patent for Drury Lane in 1747, Clive’s career settled down considerably. Printed appeals to the public were no longer necessary, except for a skirmish with the actor Ned Shuter over benefit performances in 1761. She continued to shine in her best venue, the stage. She retained many of the parts that she had made famous, including Nell in The Devil to Pay, but moved out of *ingénue* roles into those more suited to her maturing voice and figure. Flora in Susanna Centlivre’s The Wonder, Mrs Cadwallader in Foote’s The Author, the Fine Lady in Garrick’s Lethe, and Lady Wishfort in William Congreve’s The Way of the World were typical of these later roles. Comedy remained her forte, but she also continued her facility in speaking prologues and epilogues.

A dedicated performer, and one with full appreciation for the transience of theatrical life, Clive continued to seek new roles for herself and new ways to supplement her income. She tried her hand at writing farces, which became a feature of her benefits. Her first, The Rehearsal, or, Bays in Petticoats, was first presented at her benefit in 1750. There were scattered additional performances, and it was eventually published in 1753. Clive wrote at least three more farces, Every Woman in her Humour, A Fine Lady’s Return from a Rout, and The Faithful Irishwoman, but none received even the limited fame that her first had done and none was published.

Throughout her long career Clive remained a London actress, and except for the two seasons at Covent Garden (1743–5) she was loyal to Drury Lane. However, at some point in the 1740s it is apparent that she moved her primary residence to Twickenham and lived in lodgings in London during the theatrical season. In that small community, she and Horace Walpole became close friends . . . Soon afterwards she had become a visible and cheering presence in his correspondence, and he gave her a small house on his
property. Reading through the correspondence makes it clear that Walpole and Clive developed a strong, enduring, and almost certainly platonic friendship . . .

In 1768 Walpole mentioned to a friend that Clive was preparing to leave the stage, and the bill for her benefit in April 1769 advertised that it would be the ‘last time of her appearing on the Stage’ (Stone, 3.1401). She performed some of her favourite roles: Flora in The Wonder and the Fine Lady in Lethe. After more than forty successful years on the stage, Clive had earned enough to support herself comfortably in her retirement. In her published Case in 1744 she revealed that she had been making £300 annually, plus her benefit, which in her most successful years could almost double that salary—in 1750, for example, her benefit brought her just over £250. In 1765, in a letter to David Garrick, she commented that her salary remained £300 a year. Although much of her income would have gone to support her professional life (she spent considerable sums on singing lessons and appropriate clothes) she had evidently managed her money wisely.

Her own correspondence, along with that of Walpole and David Garrick, reveals Clive’s retirement to have been carefree, except for bouts of illness and occasional trouble from footpads and tax collectors. Her brother James and sister lived with her, and were, according to Jane Pope, supported by her. She busied herself with ‘Routs either at home or abroad every night [and] all the nonsense of having my hair done time enough for my parties as I used to do for my parts with the difference that I am losing money instead of getting some’ (Highfill, Burnim & Langhans, BDA). Her periods of illness self-described jaundice-—eventually grew more frequent, and after catching a chill at the funeral of Lieutenant-General Henry Lister, she died on 6 December 1785. She was buried in Twickenham churchyard on 14 December. Horace Walpole dispersed her personal possessions among her friends and relatives.

K. A. Crouch”

The actual private lives and characters of actresses were in earlier centuries and still are distorted by the roles they inhabit (which they are partly identified with) and the media which presents them in these roles: the critical reviews, nowadays active fan groups on the Internet. The process is sometimes called specularization (from speculum, Latin for mirror): specularization or mirroring refers to the process whereby the nature of an observer’s gaze shapes and defines what he or she looks at, thereby determining the what is and can be said or thought. In the 18th century actresses were still partly seen as prostitutes, as degraded and demeaned by their work; today to escape or elude this pornification, actresses are now elevated as rich and therefore powerful and successful; they are dressed to be glamorous, beautiful in today’s conventional terms.

Having read Joncus’s book, Clive’s The Case of Mrs Clive and The Rehearsal; or, Bayes in Petticoats, as well as the remnant of her letters left to us, and read and watched a number of her most roles/characters in straight and concert plays, and understood that she was sexually lesbian, I see her as highly ambitious, unusually pro-active for a woman of the era (no lack of agency here), robust, anything but thin-skinned (more like a rhinoceros, at least in public), determined to be respected, to dress well and be the center of her world. She kept a strong guard on her sexuality, but alas was determined to keep a reputation for chastity (and her safety) by attacking other women not as fortunate, more sensitive, less or differently talented than she. She could not find it in herself to empathize and thought they represented a danger to women like her.  She could therefore be ruthless (in the original meaning of the word too), but as Fielding and other long-time relationships (with Garrick) suggest, capable of generosity, loyalty, trust and very hard work. She had a real talent for writing and I can imagine (in effect) collaborated on many of the songs and speeches she gave, was herself a kind of director. Joncus seems to feel she preferred comic roles, and late in life was able to carry on her career after attracting too much envy — and growing old — by caricaturing herself. Her Rehearsal reveals how painful she found this, and how tiresome fools, how weary she could become of long hours and years of work. But she did provide for herself and family until she died. The word I’d use of her at her best is gallant.

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

For the sake of the review I watched Christopher Miles’s 1999 film adaptation of Garrick and Colman the elder’s The Clandestine Marriage, re-arranged, made much more plangent, poignant, softened but yet with an undercurrent or robust scepticism about the character’s motives for what they do and appreciation for how they attempt to enjoy their lives.

The play itself had been (in the 18th century mode) ironic and rough-house, everyone blatantly mercenary, innately selfish and would doubtless soon return to being so again. The joy or sentiment comes in erotic bless — the play historically speaking is defying the 1753 Marriage Act as the couple marries in Fleetwood prison) and our heroine is pregnant; beautiful landscape, music effective, acting very well done. Stellar cast, especially Natasha Little as the convincingly sweet innocent Fanny, Nigel Hawthorne (lecherous aging but finally benign Lord Ogleby), Timothy Spall, Tom Hollander (early in his career, Sir John Melville attempting mercenary marriage), Paul Nicholls as the drop dead handsome Lovewell. Trevor Bentham wrote the screenplay.

The brilliant comedienne of the Carry on films, perfect for Lady Bellaston in Tom Jones, Joan Collins took Catherine Clive’s original role — domineering and I felt I went some of the way in trying to imagine Clive on stage. I’ve see the play itself twice at the Folger. Another actress who could take this role is Frances de la Tour. So I’d say she went from a cross between Mae West and Jean Arthur in her earlier years to Frances de la Tour (another actress who could take on Lady Bellaston, Mrs Heidelberg and a Mother Hildegard, the powerful 18th century abbess in Outlander).


Joan Collins as Mrs Heidelberg

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Susannah as Cordelia in Lear (a part often taken by James Quinn (1693-1766)


Susannah as Belvidera in Otway’s tragedy, Venice Preserved (Jaffier, the protagonist, played by Garrick)

For 14 consecutive nights Susannah drowned houses in tears, and stirred the very depths of men’s hearts, even her husband’s, who was so affected that he claimed and obtained the doubling of her salary, Doran, Annals of the English Stage (19th century work)

An eighteenth century actress. My first of the new style actresses blogs: I tell the story of her life in story-biography style. I had a lot more information to go on than for Adelaide Labille-Guiard, so this is also clearly about women’s position in the society and the specific conflicts of Susannah’s life and career. I chose her because she is nowadays spoken of denigratingly. The recent form of feminism which shapes studies of actresses is an aggressive capitalist one, and Susannah’s life under this lens does not draw empathy or admiration — as it should, and does from her biographer, Mary Nash (1977)

Friends and readers,

As Adelaide Labille-Guiard was my first choice for resuming my women artists blogs because her life is so little known, so Susannah Arne Cibber is my first choice for 18th century actresses because nowadays she is spoken of disparagingly as a woman dependent on men, a woman who submitted to men because too much attention has been paid to the marital and sexual arrangements that she was coerced into to survive, and then (in court) publicly humiliated for, and not enough to the strength and talents with which she began and developed her first successful career, and then, astonishingly, recuperated her life and work (in the Irish theater) to again become one of the most valued singers of her age and a deeply moving tragedian. In later years her partnership with Garrick was so firm and her insight into what an actress needed for control and respect that she worked to become a manager-partner with Garrick. She could not overcome the prejudice (in Garrick) against women, but she did, until an organic disease (in her stomach it’s said) overcame her, live a fulfilling splendid comfortable life. And again (as I have in many of these sketches from the beginning) found a good biography, Mary Nash’s The Provok’d Wife (Boston, Little Brown, 1977) and a couple of informative recent articles (by Helen Brooks).


Thomas Arne by Zoffany

There is an odd disconnect between her parentage and the musicianship both she and her brother became as masterly at. Her father and grandfather (who died in Marshalsea Prison) were upholsterers (artisans), her mother a midwife and devout Catholic. From parish registers we know that between 1710 and 1718 Anne and Thomas Arne baptised 8 infants: 5 of them died quickly; Susannah was the fourth child, born February 14, 1714, the second of three to survive. Probably because the father was ambitious, he was able to recognize genius-level talent in his son, Thomas, and Susannah. Thomas was first sent to Eton and then apprenticed as a clerk to a lawyer; he rebelled and one story tells of Thomas learning to play the violin in secret. He acquired a clavichord, a player, mastered the keyboard. They lived in the Convent Garden area, and slowly Arne began to become part of the companies playing; knew the people, wrote and worked with them on music, and then produced superb musical events with them.  Eventually he became one of the best and important composers of the era (1710-78), and among his friends, the equally talented, Henry Carey (1687-1743) and Johann Freidrich Lampe (1703-51, wrote scripts).

By contrast, the father had paid for singing lessons for Susannah for years — no need to spend money sending her to the right school to be taught to conform. She begins to sing professionally; one of her earliest professional roles was in Carey’s Amelia. She sang her brother’s music. In this early time she sang in Carey’s Rosamond (play by Addison) and her “expressive sweet contralto” won Handel over (whose Deborah she sang) and was a runaway success at Lincoln’s Inn Fields (1733). Unfortunately, she caught the eye of Theophilus Cibber, son of Colley, an obnoxious bully, sexually abusive of any woman he became involved with (his exhausted wife, Jane Cibber, married 1725, had just died), and her father by now in bad debt, she was confronted, bullied by him driven into marrying this man known as a vicious brute. She had been revulsed by Cibber, tried to hold out with her mother on her side. She had an earnest, melancholy sensitive character. There were worse men about, marriage was a form of protection (literally and from a reputation for promiscuity for unmarried actresses), and of course the two Cibbers were enormously influential in the theater.

At first Susannah was as prodigal as Theo (quickly pregnant), fitting herself into what he wanted; I would put it she accepts training by her father-in-law who recognized her capabilities. In the crowded scheduled super-busy Drury Lane, Susannah lands a break-through role in tragedy (she was hemmed in partly because roles were understood as belonging to the actress who first realized and made a hit with it), her first such role, in Aaron Hill’s translation of Voltaire’s Zaire as Zara.  Hill fancied himself knowing in dramatic art, Thomas Arne wrote the music  Her very frailty after giving birth for the first time was part of what appealed. She began to rack up (as it were) tragic and grave parts: Andromache in Philips’s Distrest Mother, Indiana in Steele’s Conscious Lovers, Amanda in Colley Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift. Meanwhile Theo was taking these braggart coarse roles (Pistol). Those writing about her next step talk of how naive she was, how she never did anything without a man’s approbation, calling her a “priestess of sensibility.”

But what was she to do and what did she do? she broke or tried to break her marital relationship. With all his physical bullying, driving her to work when she was pregnant, she had apparently established during the second pregnancy she was not going to sleep with him (he reproaches for this seethingly), and she moves to put a stop to being put into roles where she’d be publicly mortified. She had loathed how he spoke of and presented her as a “laughable public property.” Most of all of his insisting she take the role of Polly in Beggar’s Opera, which brought down on her Catherine Clive’s vituperative wrath. She had gone to Fleetwood for support, but he refused; nonetheless, she resisted taking Polly, insisted from now on she would decide what roles she took and what not. He went into a “cyclonic rage” and broke down the door of her dressing room, took all cash, her whole wardrobe, all her jewels, and sold it all. Basically the law gave him the right to strip her naked and leave her broke, with no shelter.

Lady Arabella: I won’t come home till four tomorrow.
Lord Loverule: I’ll order the doors locked at twelve.
Lady Arabella: Then I won’t come home till tomorrow.
Lord Loverule Then you shall never come home again, Madam.
— Vanbrugh, The Journey to London

It’s at this point William Sloper, the country squire who would make a crucial difference for her quiet eventually and for the rest of her enters the story. When later Cibber went to court and accused her and Sloper of adultery, it was said that it was Cibber who openly demanded she go to bed with Sloper for a sum of money Cibber would collect. Certainly he let the man visit his house. But an equally probable trajectory tells of how she had met Sloper at the Cibber home in Wild Court, and taught her to play backgammon. They would sit apart talking companionably; their temperaments were compatible.  His wife admired her in Othello; she learned of his splendid house, West Woodhay. He brought needed food to the house, disbursed money to half-paid servants.  Cannot it not equally and more likely be she chose this sensitive man, especially since Cibber began to resent him (especially when in prison)? Between Susannah’s salary and Sloper’s gifts, Cibber was doing very well when out of prison, but he wanted Susannah to be discreet, but now when he tried to get her to take Clive’s role of Ophelia in Hamlet (Clive was clearly unsuited for this role), Susannah would not even attend rehearsals.

The story is complicated, and includes the two lovers taking a flat apart (Blue Cross Street, Leicester Fields), moving again (Kensington lodgings), Sloper’s wife separating herself from him, then Cibber writing her a long crazed letter (Nash, 117-22), which Nash describes as hysterical, a mad, sly letter, so groveling and so menacing, so rambling and so calculating,” where there is also an assume “iron grip” on Susannah. She was now pregnant by Sloper; they capitulate for a while to the appearance of a menage a trois, — before throwing him out. There is another series of letters by Cibber. They flee to hide, but Cibber finds them out, goes after them with hired thugs and guns, and tries to wrest her from Sloper. She is dragged out of the house, but the two will not be parted. It all ends in a humiliating court case where Susannah is utterly shamed.  Even if the judge wanted to sympathize with her, the law was clear that it was Cibber who was the abused person; she, the vile sinner. Cibber asked for 5000£; the jury awarded him 10£. Some did understand Theophilus Cibber was as “depraved and rapacious” as the roles he played (Nash, 151).


West Woodhay house

It is from this nadir, Susannah climbs a long way back. It took a long time and to my way of thinking we ought to admire and respect her wondrously. She was pregnant, utterly shattered from shame and spent two years as if she were “a runway slave,” so fearful was she (and Sloper) that Cibber would make good on new threats unless (say) Sloper paid all his new debts; he advertised his case all over again, but still she kept fleeing (now with a young baby girl around whom Sloper and Susannah would eventually build a family life). Cibber was “still under a recognizance not to threaten or molest” Susannah and so he went to court again. Again he had to win because all law and custom was on his side; he was awarded 500£ (not the 10,000£ he asked for) and apparently he could not go to court again. I drop Theo’s story now: he sold his preposterous missives to the booksellers. He did continue to harass and threaten her and Sloper whenever he could; he drowned in 1758 crossing over to Dublin.

The two lovers disappear (perhaps from the British Isles) and the next time she emerges, it’s November 1741 and she is “under the protection of,” working with and for James Quinn and Friedrich Handel in Dublin. Again as told this is “amazing:” what “can explain the willingness of this timid woman to leave her retirement with William Sloper … ” Maybe she was not so timid; maybe her acting career was a raison d’etre of life for her; she had not chosen to be an actress (though she clearly sang from the time she was young, opinion is divided on her sophistication), but once started, maybe she loved the power over an audience, the accomplishment, the acting out of these different identities, the interaction with other actors. She didn’t have to invent a story, she could take someone else’s and express herself as an actress and through song.


Susannah Cibber by Thomas Hudson

Several elements went into her recovery of herself and her career. First she had a happy good relationship with William Sloper who admired her partly because of her career. He had money, connections, influence. Her first, and now in the second longer, phase of her career she made friends, was liked, she worked hard and had real talent for acting and singing and she had learned well on the job. She had grasped from what happened in courts and her hidden life, she was not as much Theo’s “chattel” as she had thought, but she did remain socially elusive except for when she and Sloper were at home in his country estate. Now her life is made up of her many many acting roles — mostly poignant, grave, or tragic. Nash says her singing was “mediocre,” but she riveted audiences. Charles Burney said how effective she was in recitative; there was an “emotional projection of words;” she was an actress when she sang. Nash writes: “there was something inconsolable, something irremediably melancholy about Susanna Cibber.”  (She seems to have had an opposite character to Catherine Clive.) It was with Spranger Barry (another of her partners on stage) in Romeo and Juliet that the lovers are described as “heart-rending.” She would also take virtuous heroines: she was the sorely-tried Aspasia in Johnson’s Irene.

She formed a strong partnership with Garrick (“the least promiscuous, the most conventional of men”); she felt safe with him; they made an effective couple on stage where the chemistry was transparent. Their highly performative letters survive and it is here we see her attempting to persuade Garrick to let her be a partner in the theater management or patent. Eventually she was the winner in her “wars” with Clive; the public stayed with this disgraced woman. Everyone knows how much Garrick did to make and keep Shakespeare’s plays central to the English stage. She was paid altogether an enormous salary while still in good health.


David Garrick, by Thomas Gainsborough

But her last years were marred by her “chronic stomach disorder” which emaciated her towards the end. She had to give up her heavy schedule. She did long for social acceptance by upper class women, be they titled or of the bluestocking variety, and never had it — neither did most actresses of the era. Mrs Siddons was a remarkable exception; so too Frances Abingdon. She never belonged to any group of women, and we find her maintaining close relationships with her family members: her daughter, her sister-in-law, Cecilia Arne (whom her brother mistreated), Sloper’s sister, Margaret Lethieulllier, who defied convention by coming to stay for long visits to West Woodhay.  Sloper and she hoped for much for their son; he was enrolled in Westminster but he died in the first year away in school. They educated Molly lovingly (in manners, musical accomplishments, an educated taste); she married a well-born clergyman, a love match, and was accepted by his community, but she died young, age 46. Susannah probably hoped for something more from her relationship with Garrick, though hard to say what; when he retired from the stage, it was a blow for her — he had regarded stage as having “almost civic importance” and had transformed Drury Lane. James Quinn, one of her strong supporters, died just two weeks before her. She died January 30, 1766, age 51.  She was buried not in Westminster Abbey itself (like Garrick, Anne Oldfield), but in the North Cloister, a sort of anteroom. William Sloper died three years after the death of their daughter. I imagine him lonely after the death of Susannah and his two children by her.

The one final command performance Garrick did before the king his heroine was Susannah Cibber and since the king wanted to see a comedy (and Susannah’s strength was in serious parts), the choice became Vanbrugh’s Provoked Wife. Nash says Susannah had a “passionate fondness” for this role: a young woman “wretchedly married to Sir John Brute, who not only neglects, but loathes and even physically assaults her.” She is “tenderly wooed by Constant,” a discreet, eloquent, patient and faithful lover, and if she is not yet Constant’s mistress when the play closes, the idea is waiting to be fulfilled off-stage. So Lady Brute does not die nor is she reconciled or resigned to her husband. She asks herself: “What did I vow? … I think I swore to be true to my husband. And he promised to be kind to me. But he hasn’t kept his word. Why, then, I’m absolved from mine” (Nash 313-15). I have read this play myself and find the scenes of the husband with his wife, implied mistress, and servants distressing. Susannah could and did play her part with “special animation” and “poignancy.”


Jonathan Slinger and Alexandria Gilbreath as the Brutes (RSC, 2019)

If Jane Austen never got to see either on the stage, she knew of them by their reputations, books, and read the plays they were in.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


A Self-portrait

Friends and readers,

For my first of my new series of women artists I’m going to disagree with the some of the implications of the biography by Laura Auricchio, which book suggests a life and work where our heroine breaks through taboos, wins unusual recognition, fulfills her gifts, all while leading an independent life. She did indeed lead a courageous independent life if by that we mean she left a mistaken marriage quickly, was well-educated, trained in the best schools a young woman might find in France, and apparently lived as a single professional woman supporting herself and others for many years– in the face of all sorts of obstacles from ridicule to threatened possible imprisonment. The qualification is the result of her life-long relationship with her teacher and mentor, then friend and promoter, and finally lover Francois-Andre Vincent (his teacher had been Joseph Marie-Vien [1716-1809].) Following the records of her we find her continually doing what she had to do to get herself and her work accepted into what academies she could, obtain and paint paying clients (some of them remarkable people), and have her work exhibited in the right places. We find good and useful friendships (with other women, with clients). She survived the revolution, no mean feat, herself painting a series of National Assembly deputies, painting on into the last years of her life.

On a humane intimate level, it seems that one of the two famous pupils in her best known (beautiful) painting, of herself with two pupils, namely Marie-Gabrielle Capet (1761-1818) was Vincent’s daughter and became for Labille-Guiard a beloved (step)-daughter:


The other girl is Carreuax de Rosemond (d. 1788)

Marie-Gabrielle was lovingly painted a number of times (close-ups), e.g.,


Study of a Seated Woman Seen from Behind (Marie-Gabrielle Capet), 1789

She lived with Labille-Guiard and Vincent for many years; well past her (step-)mother’s death, she named Vincent as her father (and was his primary beneficiary). Late in life, Marie depicted Labille-Guiard surrounded by a group of male artists, while she paints Joseph Marie-Vien, to the side is an older Marie herself. She had become a painter in her own right calling herself Gabrielle Capet. A close-knit family of three artists. Adelaide’s father had been a successful marchand du corps de la mercerie, his shop was in an area of Paris which was a center for theater, music and dance, their street near the Louvre where the Royal Academy had its headquarters, with favored painters and sculptors living and working nearby. Madame de Barry was at one time an employee in her father’s shop. There had been 8 children (all but she dead by 1783). Her mother died in 1768, and a year later she married a neighbor, from whom she was legally separated in 1779. She married Vincent in 1800.

Where I part company from Auricchio’s study is I take Labille-Guiard’s work as an artist to have had (to use Germaine Greer’s words) an “illusion of success” rather than the real thing. Why? She paints as effectively and ably, with psychological astuteness Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun rarely achieves, in the earlier part of her career as she does the later. With a genius level talent for depicting aliveness, skin, textures, nervous brush strokes, moods, she never develops into anything else but a portraitist, and these remain oddly still. However later in her career she is forced to tone down the luxurious and rank- and reward-based accoutrements, extravagant costumes, furniture she seems to have delighted in painting, so that the portrait concentrates more than ever on the person’s face and body, yet she is essentially making the same kinds of portraits over and over. She flatters her clientele, has them lavishly enact admired norms (in the case of women breast-feeding, with children hanging all around them, or presented as deeply sensual), follows whatever she thinks will be approved of, and remains decorous (sometimes in the face of ridicule, implicit or open dismissal). When it’s not a case of elite requirements, she is hemmed in by new revolutionary codes. Late in life she shows her group hierarchical scenes are done out of more than commercial and respectable considerations, for she produces the same kinds of worshipful ancien regime type group hierarchical scenes she began with. Like Orwell’s horse at the end of Animal Farm, she cannot resist a ribbon, and elevates Madame de Genlis late in life with a satin and lace gown, “a spectacular headpiece of ribbon and lace” and (to me) unsettling green leather gloves:


Madame de Genlis

When she rises out of the usual, ordinary, expected, it’s because something in the person him or herself comes through or Adelaide’s own love for her subject lifts the painting.


Again Marie-Gabrielle Capet, 1798, a somber portrait – the girl smiles hiddenly

Or some inexplicable or unexplained allegiance, as in the emotionally intense strange


Portrait of Louisa Elisabeth of France (painted 1788)

Not the least fascinating element of the above often-reprinted image from Labille-Guiard’s portrait of the (once) Duchess of Parma with her two year old son, is that the Duchess died in 1759; Labille-Guiard was 10 at the time, so this is a probably a completely faked picture. Art criticism can go on and one about the combination of sentimental romanticism, hierarchical rococo neo-classicism, mothering in a fantastical hat whose feathers are repeated by the parrot on the one side, and white curtain to procure a shadow on the other, but it is as unreal a put-together set of alluring arms, hands, bosom, dress, with a waif-like child on a oddly sunny balcony (as if a film camera were spot-lighting the area) as you are likely to come across.

Auricchio’s study keeps to a sensible track. It may be read as a history of what helped but far more often stifled and got in Labille-Guiard’s way. In her early years of training (which included pastels), she studied with respected minor and well-known painters, one of whom, Alexander Roslin (1718-1793) was especially supportive of female artists, and nominated Adelaide for membership in the Royal Academy in 1783. In the first chapter she is attacked by the relentless comte d’Angiviller who did everything he could to exclude women from the Royal Academy and stop a commercial exhibition she was part of; at the same time she is supported by a bourgeois entrepreneur, Claude-Mammes Pahin de Champlain de la Blancherie-Newton (whew) who staged popular and varied art salons and praised her work strongly. She did learn to produce precisely the sort of work that was expected of her gender, class, even marital status. She also chose subjects which advertised, confirmed and validated her as in this or that network of support. I’ve chosen from this part of her career one which shows a favorite motif: the artist doing his or her work


Portrait of the sculptor Augustin-Pajou Modeling the bust of J.B. Lemoyne (a pastel)

Still she and other female artists were primary targets for virulent tracts presenting lewd gossip; she turned to the comtesse d’Angiviller against a gross libel that hurt a client. It’s no wonder her career stagnated. She seems never to have considered trying a landscape, a still life, anything truly expressionistic (like Angelica Kauffman). When she was strongly praised, she tried to use the moment to ask for lodgings in the Louvre, which she was not granted (but given a pension of 1000 lives instead). She also ran a school for other female artists. Dena Goodman has studied her work from this period and finds the way Labille-Guiard presents her women in what is clearly a public space (meant for men then) gives them gravitas and a place in the world.

Come the revolution, new fights and struggles (though over similar things) occur where she took a pro-active role for women and moderate reform; at one point she is mocked mercilessly. Transition was tough as fleeing aristocrats don’t remember to pay their bills, new patrons are needed, her worshipful style towards aristocrats not changing, she finds her one entry poorly received. Unexpectedly, she painted Robespierre, about which we are not told very much; discouragingly, this is another of her paintings to have gone missing. At this point she casts her lot (or informally joins) a group of political moderates; most of her paintings of this era remain untraced. Iconoclastic fervor destroyed one of her works. She retreats, retrenches, leads a quieter life; together with friends and family members she buys property, tries legally to secure income to Vincent’s daughter and another young woman and even continues to try to obtain lodgings in the Louvre.

Her work changes again, becomes smaller, less idealized, more somber. Now no women were allowed in the Royal Academy, yet we find her re-grouping and painting again. Two works from this later post-Revolutionary period:


Portrait of Joachim Lebreton — she is still keeping away from us the inner life of the more simply dressed and framed man — he was the head of the museum department of the Committee on Public Instruction, a leading art institution


Portrait of the Comedian Tournelle, called Dublin, 1799 — he had been imprisoned for performing Richardson’s Pamela (deemed controversial and unpatriotic)

I’ll end on an earlier work (for as I suggest the earlier works can be as good and interesting as her later), executed perhaps around the time she painted herself (1780), a portrait of her partner and husband, Francois Andre Vincent

Considered the leader of the neoclassical movement until he was usurped by Jacques-Louis David … [his wife paints Vincent] fully within neoclassicism … this painting is interesting for its wide range of colors, achieved with very little tonal variation … Labille-Guiard displays superb technical dexterity in color and tone which allowed her to perfectly integrate the foreground with the middle and backgrounds and the outlines of the figure with the surrounding space. The interplay between the lateral illumination of the face, the darkness of the other side of the face, and the light in the background contributed to an atmospheric school that would extend throughout Europe (Jordi Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art).

You could say she was a stubborn portraitist. She does not appear to have owned a cat nor painted any pet-companions.  One begins to find this in this era.  Her life-span id closely similar to that of Charlotte Smith.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »