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Archive for the ‘women artists’ Category


From the 1981 Sense and Sensibility: Irene Richards as Elinor is seen drawing and walks about with art materials (BBC, scripted by Alexander Baron)

Friends,

I found myself unable to go to the Jane Austen and the Arts conference held at Plattsburg, New York last week. I have told why in my life-writing Sylvia blog.
Happily for me, the conference organizer was so generous as to offer to read the paper herself, and had it not been for a fire drill, would have. Two of the sessions, one mine was supposed to be part of, were sandwiched together so she read from the paper and described. I was told there was a good discussion or at least comments afterward. Since I worked for a couple of months on it — reread all six of the famous fictions, skimmed a lot of the rest, went over the letters — and read much criticism on ekphrastic patterns in Austen and elsewhere, the picturesque in Austen, her use of visual description, not to omit related topics like enclosure, a gender faultline in the way discussions of art are presented, I’ve decided to add it to my papers at academia.edu.

Ekphrastic patterns in Austen.

I hope those reading it here will find my argument persuasive, and my suggestion for further work on Austen using her discussions of visual art and landscape useful.


From the 1983 Mansfield Park Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price gazes at the maps her brother, William has sent her as she sits down to answer his latest letter or just write herself (scripted by Ken Taylor) – her nest of comforts in her attic includes window transfers of illustrations

Ellen

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Varo, Harmony (1956)

Friends and readers,

Hers is a story of three women artists who formed strong bonds of friendship in Mexico during World War Two and flourished afterwards: her art has women at the center of pictures, fairytale like, archetypal, sometimes charming and comic, telling psychoanalytic & occult & melancholy tales …

Of the women surreal artists of the 20th century, Remedios Varo stands out for drawing full-bodied complete women more frequently than any of the others (sometimes in groups!):


Varo, Embroidering Earth’s Mantle

She is further unusual because many of her pictures can be characterized as pretty and pleasant to look at. One can even apply the word charming to her pictures, a word not appropriate for most of 20th century surreal school:


Varo, A Paradise of Cats

She catches attention because her pictures have a strong fairy tale or archetypal element which would at first seem susceptible to today well-known and once common Jungian or Freudian symbolic analysis (and for those of her paintings where you can find an explanation, you discover that after having recourse to Joseph Campbell’s allegoresis in Hero with a Thousand Faces, this is what the critic is doing). She stands out because she seriously read mystic, magical, astronomical and alchemical treatises:


Varo, Creation with Astral Rays


Varo, Creation of Birds (1958)

Joanna Moorhead and Teresa Arq have come to the conclusion that also unlike most of the women surreal artists, together with Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), and the photographer and Hungarian artist, Kati Horna (1912-2000), her two close friends, Varo was able to escape the misogynistic grip of the male repertoire of images, because the three women formed such close bonds in Mexica after 1943, and supported, companioned, and inspirited one another to carry on (see Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna: Essays by Stefan van Raay and Nicola Johnson; Joanna Moorhead, Teresa Arq, Michelle Suderman, Antonio Rodriguez-Rivera. London: Ashgate: Pallant House Gallery, 2010). All three had unusually supportive spouses or partners (most of the surreal women artists took a very much secondary place to the surreal male artists they lived with or married); they found themselves with a group of male supportive friends. All married (defying the surreal idea that marriage must destroy a woman’s creativity), two had children (Carrington and Hora), and the three women spent hours together in their homes. They would spend time together talking (often of political issues), in the kitchen, reading, and then paint scenes reflecting their lives together, as in this semi-comic scene:


Varo, Vegetarian Vampires –they are eating watermelons, tomatoes, strawberries, with a rose on the table, pet chickens nearby

When you look to see how Remedios Varo’s pictures are understood, you find a variety of allegoresis all of which cohere or come together to form a single encompassing vision. In a fascinating article bringing together Varo’s pictures with the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Elizabeth Sanchez finds that after both made a journey down the Orinooko in Venezuela (separately, they did not know one another), both positive analogous stories of self-discovery, creativity, and spiritual rebirth. Sanchez organizes a number of Varo’s paintings to follow a heroine’s successful happy adventures into the unknown in realms of art; the quest makes the artist become one with the natural world. It must be admitted the imagery is fantastical:


Varo, Exploration of the Sources of Orinooko


Varo, Cosmic Energy (1956)

Dino Comisarenco Mirkin finds that the paintings trace a maturation process, telling stories of rupture, process, journeys, escapes, wondrous acceptance:


Varo, Outside the Tower (1960)

By contrast, Janet Kaplan explains Varo’s paintings in a feminist vein (which allies them more to the work of Kay Sage and Frida Kahlo): this one reminds me of Bemelman’s Madeline books


Varo, A Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst’s Office (1960)

This is said to be a reverse Rapunzel:


Here a woman is kept passive and is unnerved by a male head, with glaring eyes, he licks her neck


Varo, Unexpected Presence

Still, Kaplan finds on the whole a progressive journey with different moments of insight.


Varo, Spiral Transit (1962)

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A photograph of Remedios Varo in Mexico (with a pet cat)

Maria de Los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Urango was born on 16 December 1908, in a small town in Girona, Spain. Her parents were middle class, educated, worked for liberal causes; her father, Rodrigo, worked as a hydraulic engineer, her mother a devout Catholic. Both influenced her but the father more: he encouraged her to read, to independent thinking, provided her with science and adventure books (including Edgar Allen Poe). His successful career (including working directly for the Spanish king) took the family to Cadiz and then Madrid. She studied for a BA in a college of arts and crafts and a Madrid Fine Arts Academy whose students included other later respected painters (and Kati Horna’s husband, Jose). She began to paint under the influence of modernist poets (Lorca) and surreal artists. She married a schoolmate, moved with him to Paris, but a year later returned to Barcelona on her own where she became a member of the artistic avant-gard. The Spanish civil war had begun, which changed her (and everyone else’s) life. Her brother, Luis, was killed.


Varo, The Souls of Mountains (1938)

She had fallen in love with the anti-Franco activist, Benjamin Peret, and the pair moved to France where they shared studios with others; she exhibited, collaborated, experimented. She went to the Louvre, other museums and began to read mystic treatises (occult, about Tarot cards), but the Nazis were closing in and Peret and Varo were both imprisoned, experienced traumatizing abuse, and somehow escaping, with the help of a New York rescue committee, managed to flee to Mexico.

I offer only an abbreviated general account (I list articles and books in the comments). There are numerous sites on the Net which recount the phases of her career (this from Spanish artists), some with more details. The central biography is Unexpected Journeys: The life and art of Remedios Varo by Janet Kaplan.. Surreal Friends is especially rich in citations of the books and artists’ work Varo studied,and of course are included many reproductions of Carrington and Horna’s work. All who have followed Varo’s life and work seem to be agreed that her art began to flourish when she moved to Mexico and formed her friendships with Carrington and Horna (see Guardian article). The patronage of Edward James, a rich Englishman who collected their works, and built a house in Mexico where they and other artists (not all surrealists) were welcomed. His close relationship was with Carrington and there are extant revealing letters.

The three women frequented meetings of the followers of German mystics Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff (who also influenced P.L. Travers, known today for her Mary Poppins stories, but also a poet). They were interested in the evolution of consciousness. The two painters read art history, and studied Renaissance artists, especially Paolo Ucello’s strange allegorical secular paintings. They followed his use of natural color. These two paintings show Varo combining some of the older surreal imagery with her new occult preoccupations:


Varo, Hibernation (1942)


Varo, Stealing the Essence (1955)

They were as a group outsiders, Europeans, both marginalized and privileged. One might say the three women had the best of all worlds: their apartness gave them time to be together, and to make art, and their experience of war made them hold together. Varo did however divorce Peret, and by 1948 married a comparatively wealthy man, Walter Gruen, who respected her work and encouraged her to paint. The personalities of the three special women friends were quite different (as is their art); Varo was known as “sharp as a knife, quick-witted, always ready to pick up on new ideas and trends. With Gruen by her side, she became the most ambitious of the three. When she died, apparently unexpectedly, of a heart attack in 1963 (in the same year Kati Horna’s husband died), Gruen dedicated part of his life to cataloguing her works (some 400) and administering a legacy she had inherited from her parents.

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Varo, The Escape

All who write of Varo emphasize the studied, careful and academic vigor of her approach. Early on she had supported herself working for Bayer Laboratories this way. Doubtless some of this came from her training by her father. She would visualize her idea, make precise sketches, trace them onto a panel, and then proceed to use oils. She preferred a limited range of color, linked to the natural world: earth tones, “raw umber,” blues, a monochromatic palette. Joanna Moorhead suggests the viewer remember Leonardo da Vini’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet it seems to me that what engages us are the sudden splashes of playful orange, red, yellows, in starry landscapes much blurred, with these child-like machines:


Varo, Roulette (1955)

My favorite of her paintings combine the marvelous with a style evocative of literary history —


Varo, Troubadour

She does show a real melancholy or depression occasionally, a deep disquiet with the way she is living her life, what she is reading:

Varo, Alchemy: A Useless Science


Varo, [Self-]Encounter

At her best she is tender, shows kindness, and her images seem could be fit into Shakespeare’s later romances


Varo, The Flutist

Ellen

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Eileen Agar (1899-1991), a photo of herself (summer 1935)


Remedios Varo (1908-63), The Flutist (1955)

Carrington: I painted for myself. I never believed that anyone would exhibit or buy my work

Dear friends and readers,

At long last I return to my project on women artists (see first series). I had reached the mid- to later 20th century for a second series. Dora Carrington (1893-1932, Constant Artist) was my choice for the transition from 19th to 20th and early to near mid-20th century.

As I read to look at and read about the art of the last great artist for this 2nd series, Remedios Varo, I discovered she developed her distinctive art in the context a large mid-century movement, about or for which (unfortunately commonly) only a few male names have survived in public consciousness and readily available documentary records: the surreal movement, the most notable artist Andre Breton. Varo is part of a later generation. It’s one which crucially influenced male (Pablo Picasso) and female (Frida Kahlo) alike. The pictures, often nightmarish, symbolic in ways deliberately hard to decipher, capturing the barbarism of the first and second world wars (as these suddenly encompassing global conflicts are called) in learned symbolic and enigmatic ways is not understood nor liked. Many of the women who were involved with men in the movement or on their own made art use torn-off bits of the Freudian sexist psychoanalysis rightly rejected by most feminists (of whatever type). These women often survived by becoming the mistresses of these men; the war broke the curve of many of their careers; too many became isolated, were the third mistress or wife of one of the males; a few killed themselves and their art was not exhibited. Later retrospective exhibits simply omit women except in photographs as attached to the men.

The reality is also that women artists beyond those connected to the surrealists were influenced by them and their use of grotesque, often ugly images, pieces of women’s bodies, heads, with hidden terror as a strong motif, come out of this mid-century movement. The idea is to reject the false Barbie doll body that is imposed on women as a norm in the art of Alice Neel (1900-84) (I don’t reprint these lest they attract the wrong kind of attention to my blog). Paula Rego (b. 1935) paints an discreet version of this kind of thing:


Paula Rego, The Maids (she has also painted Germaine Greer)

Kahlo, Neel, Rego and others want to mirror the assault women feel in their private lives from the public world. What has survived most widely of these women are the hard feminist exposes of Kahlo, photo journalism (once in a while very funny but mostly group and autobiographical photos), and faery tale fantasies:


Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Pastoral


Kati Horna (1912-2000): Couple with a dog

There are several books which as a whole or in part name these women and attempt to tell their lives and account for their art: I’ll be reviewing Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo and Kati Horna in my blog on Varo,

and eventually Frances Borzello’s Seeing Ourselves (a history of women’s art which traces it through the most common type of picture by a woman, of herself — cheap, available, explanatory).

For now I want to tell of Chadwick’s insightful astonishingly informative book. I say astonishingly because I came away with 24 names of working women artists. She included short biographies of many of them, and in her book tells of their lives and careers as she goes over their art. The book has many black-and-white images and groups of rich color reproductions.

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Kay Sage (1898-1963), Le Passage (1956)

How relevant Deborah Cherry’s thesis that women don’t want to work in the genres invented by men, and when they do so successfully, they change the male genre wholl

The first two chapters tell the central story: Andre Breton and a group of like-minded European men took to Freudian theory and began to make art which visualized an unqualifiedly sexist and symbolic macho male point of view. Picasso belongs to this group. No matter how polite and soft-spoken, understated is Chadwick, she shows Breton and most of the male surrealist artists to be utterly exploitative of women, using them for sexual pleasure and painting them as symbols to feed their vanity and pride. When the women exhibited after the war, they were made fun of — then surrealism was seen as the product of hysteria. The war was as devastating to them as to most other artists in Europe — most of these people seem to have lived and worked in France and when the Nazis took over they fled.

Was anything gained by the women who joined onto these men, beyond temporary meal tickets and what good times and liberty from the stifling conventions of their family backgrounds, when they came from impoverished circumstances and become someone’s mistress lifted out of that. They found themselves in an artistic group where artistic ideals (however sexist) were promulgated; they escaped the invisible prison existence of marriage, babies, and servicing a husband and family; those of them who broke away from these men in order to make art gradually found themselves. Those who accepted these men’s attitudes, had known nothing else. So many came from well to do families or doing well, who would not send girl to formal education after rudiments. Their intellect not trained except by themselves. They did have the enjoyment of these love affairs. Here and there a child is born They found a world of art to belong to — bookstores, exhibits, musical concerts, pleasure outings, parties. What those who began to fulfill themselves as artists had to do though for most of them was break away from the husband who wanted them to serve him (and of course he could have other women if he wanted). Too many ended up impoverished, alone, killed themselves. We see a woman intimidated by a lemur (associated with the night); mirrors and doors suggest a fearful immediate future:


Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012), The Birthday — she was one of several woman artists who became for a while the partner of Max Ernst (a well-known admired surreal male artist)

Tanning is said to have liked reading Ann Radcliffe, Oscar Wilde, Hans Christian Anderson; another women artist, Valentine Hugo uses an animal this way in her Dream o December 1929, it’s dream of unconscious talisman for women’s visionary powers.

The surreal male ideal visualizes a woman as an thereal child, or deeply sexual responsive (natch) vamp (with variations). A few manage to project a genuine self-image (not abstractions for world or parts of his body, one of sensibility rather than hallucination. Often they are picturing inward mental life, thoughts displaced and floating in a soup, pictures of much suffering; Wylie Sypher’s old thesis visual art of a period is a counterpart of its literature suggests the women painted the reality of their frightened or lonely consciousness of their body.

The third chapter on “women and sexuality” tells of individual women trying to find a “third way,” something to replace their roles as sex objects, wives, mothers, supporters (they made salaries) or sexually available compliant dreams. One problem I will have is I don’t want to reproduce pornography or anything which can attract the wrong attention so some of me images will seem tame. The pictures by surreal women artists in these chapters are depressive. Kahlo’s famous “women as a broken column” is typical. I take Marianne von Werefkin (1860-1938) and Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945) to have escaped this prison by using large political events affecting women as their context.


Kollwitz, Woman with her dead Child (1963)

“The Female Earth,” Chapter four, is the longest and where the art of these surreal women artists is centrally described and reprinted. Chadwick says women artists searched for correspondence between the natural world and the unconscious: women in the form of mythic figures like Melusine stand for all powerful nature as female — but provides no explanation for the endless deformed and witheringly sick looks of the figures; a coastline is hideous (is this the only way to escape the confines of conventional life?) Mysticism where we have objects that look like wombs in which an agony has occurred or some miserable woman surrounded by fearful objects, distortions of natural world. Lots of fur. I find I like the playful images best:


Meret Oppenheim (1913-85), Fur Lined Teacup

The artists used automatic painting (letting yourself go), and sounds like the use of drugs was involved, and then one peson prodded on another into drawing or writing words down. Liberating the imagery of the unconscious so they say is done by relying on hallucination and chance techniques –- images of sea, tendrils, smoke, blobs of all sorts, distorted stars – avoid hero’s journey, animal images, fish, people like mummies, ghosts, leafy forms, abstract lines, circles, half circles and ellipses, squares, patterns. Women caressing one another — perhaps lesbian imagery I don’t recognize – protecting their genitals. Women with long beaks, when they are fairy tale like they are a little better, not so wretched. Faces drowning, brutality has terrified them into death like images. When they are in color, they are better, Those that make sense show women miserable. The photographs show women at work. Sexual encounters as explosive, jagged, time after initial shock. Woman as tree – not mentioned by Chadwick as old motif; trees become women. Center of lunar and reproductive cycles. She does see the terror, misery, pain, blood and piercing in Frida Kahlo, deep personal loss, wounded figures, cracked bodies, women hanging upside down by their feet. Kahlo’s Roots is an ironic variation on her husband’s fertile earth. Sage depicts psychic aridity. They reject conventional identification of nurture with women. Agar photographs strange rock manifestations – neolithic rocks by the sea. Discordance images of contemporary holiday-ers and prehistoric nature so goes into Egyptian deserts Psychic desolation becomes political metaphor


Marie Cerminova Toyen (1902-80), Au Chateau la coste (1946)

Chadwick says the in the women’s art is a refusal to differentiate, to assign certain images and areas of painting a greater weight and clarity; that give disturbing effect; all in glowing detail and we feel we have missed the crucial key. Yes that’s it, when we look at the images unless we begin to see the pictures as frantically feminist, they make little sense. The art of Leonor Fini shows her working on tiny things, flowers, plants, insects, debris thrown up by sea, with careful detail. Things loved in childhood take on new sinister meaning. A sphinx by Leonor Fini (1907-96) poses question about women artists in natural and metaphoric process –- this is again an art of fantasy, magic, transformation; ceremonies are depicted, suggesting an ancient world, a system of rites define the passing of time and placate the gods; we have a muse of Construction, devoid of any explanatory symbolism or narrative content. Fini makes paintings of stygian darkness and primordial chaos, states of consciousness dominated by social interaction but “underneath” ruled by instinctual drive and animal need: she would not show women as submissive or subordinate to man; this is an intuitive world too, the sphinx awaits awakening of consciousness.


Leonor Fini, Ceremony — this is a famous one (it seems to me to be a “dark side” of Arthurian myth)

Chadwick’s last chapter is called “The hermetic tradition. n these pictures and this section she again reiterates the male views: women are seen as controlled by childlike vision and magical powers; and he absorbs her into his experience. An artist named Valentine Penrose (1898-1978) saw herself as benign witch. Women’s central role is again to inspire, as a concept, a sorceress with power in creative process. Chadwick reprints Ithell Coluqhoun’s (1906-88) statement that she is creating occult gothic novels borrows, using grail literature. Eileen Agar’s paintings have as titles Mysterious Vessel, Mask of the Night, The Muse Listening. They bought into occult studies like Robert Graves’s absurd The White Goddess (about a chthonic divinity that rules the world). Imagery comes from alchemy.

When they fled the Nazis to Mexico, and re-grouped, or went elsewhere we find fantastic imagery, and the art is gradually transformed to mirror women’s social lives together (Carrington) or inner world of creativity as manifested in newly conceived traditional figures (Varo). A vision of life as a journey, of voyages, stardust, silent. In Mexico, Leonora Carrington wrote a one act play with druidic characters from ancient Britain, imagery from celtic rituals. We see dislocations of space and scale, trying to tamp down bad dreams, insomnia, and also shared visions of women as creative out of natural imagery of everyday life cooking, eating. Kay Sage *1898-1963) who had been born into wealth in the US, returned, went into retreat, and when her husband died, killed herself. Others women were lost in parts of cosmopolitan cultures of what cities they could afford (magazines)

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Dorothea Tanning, Guardian Angels (women need these for protection?) (1946)

In its conclusion the book became to me demoralizing. Chadwick persisted in appearing to respect the male way of inventing punitive and exploitative sexual imagery and many of the women were not able to make a substitute that was viable. They had to break away all together, turning to geology, animals (or their pictures don’t make sense because most are not as frank as Kahlo: the images we see are scary, ugly, hideous, if you get yourself to look at the stick figures you can see women being abused, women disconnected and images which reflect the barbarisms of WW2. Or they are of the natural and crockery (women’s things) world presented playfully now and again. All done indirectly and without words to explain. Chadwick is to be commended for her enormous patience, though her neutral presentation has the effect of endorsing misogynistic Freudianism. But this is the context for mid-20th century art: the visual equivalent of stream of consciousness.

Among the worst things at the book’s close are not just the women’s careers not getting anywhere for most pat, and the attitudes of Leonor Fini and Meret Oppenheim (1913-85). Both protested mightily against being put in a book on women artists. This is a prison, this is a ghetto, they say and the rest of it. But neither are not in the male books nor the exhibitions. Here again Kahlo and Varo transcend this: Kahlo refers herself to her real life; Varo holds herself apart: she uses women as instruments for creating life and beauty; she looks to create harmony, contemplative moods in which figures can function in positive ways we recognize.


Remedios Varo — this one reminds me of Bemelman’s famous Madeline pictures (a girl’s picture book)

Chadwick appears not to take the idea of a l’ecriture-femme seriously; she does not see that across the centuries women’s art focuses on the same kinds of imagery, uses similar cyclical structures, subjectivity, indirectness so she develops no firm alternative women’s aesthetic for the surreal movement.

So as per women’s tradition, Kahlo also painted this China Still Life — filled with her woman’s version of surreal imagery: growths of vegetables:

and her is Varo’s Flowers (her pictures of Paradise of Cats is too well known)

Ellen

 

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recentphoto
Carrie Fisher (1956-Dec 27th, 2016) and Debbie Reynolds (1932-Dec 28th, 2016)

I write about those days at a great distance – not only in terms of time. I cannot feel close to the young woman who went about with my name long ago … she is often strange to me, sometimes antipathetic, now and then, but for the self-conviction that stares at me from the printed page. There too I am at odds with her — Elizabeth Robins, suffragette-actress, who left an autobiography

I am the custodian of Princess Leia — Carrie Fisher off-the-cuff at a signing event

Friends and readers,

Not everyone coming here will recall that for a while I was writing a series of blogs on actresses, most of them 18th century, but my idea was to focus fairly on the profession of the actress, its history, and individuals. If Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher were not actresses, where are actresses to be found? I wrote about them on my Sylvia blog a few days after Carrie Fisher died of a massive heart attack, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, the next day of deleterious heart event given the non-technical name, “broken-heart syndrome,” and stroke, in other words, intense grief at the loss of her daughter.

My daughters seemed to feel about Carrie Fisher’s death the way I felt about Jenny Diski’s death from cancer this year. As a mother to daughters, I felt so touched over how the mother died, her grief too strong for her strained heart to sustain. Since then my (temporary) identification, interest in actresses, and curiosity has led to me to read about them, and feel empathy and much respect for both.

I didn’t realize the photo I found (and now prefaces this blog) came from Reynolds’s last appearance to pick up a much-merited reward for a life-time of performance from the Screen Actors Guild in January of 2015. Both American sweethearts at age 19 (that was Reynolds’s age when she famously starred in Singin’ in the Rain): there is something about their particular permutation of the white gene pool — the round face, wide-apart eyes, uplifted nose, blue eye, blonde hair — and the way they presented themselves that lent themselves to this. It was easy to find out this kind of thing and much about both their careers and Carrie Fisher’s writing over the next few days. No less than 5 articles in the Washington Post appeared the day after her death, one of them on the front page and continuing in the front section. There was an obituary in the New York Times.

But the way my younger daughter talked of her, I began to realize she was famous for her writing and what I’ll call her “solo performances” on select stages beyond her roles in the original two Star Wars films (1970s), it sequel (1983) and (very recently, much older) its prequel (2015). These made her, like her mother, before her an icon for a version of America’s sweetheart. After this she became a screenplay writer, wrote fictional versions of her life and relationship with her mother, most notably Postcards from the Edge, made into a film (which won awards that year) with Meryl Streep as Carrie, and Shirley MacLaine as Debbie: how’s that for four icons all at once? But important as these were, partly because she was so candid about her private life (sex and marriage), her depression and drug problems, perhaps the solo performances were the most striking reason for her following.

In the several histories of actresses and the rise of respectability of actresses (see my blog review of Sandra Richards’ The Rise of the English Actress), I concluded that central to the growth of respectability for actresses was the actress-autobiography (a sub-genre of autobiography one might say). The writing legitimized her, she was seen as a serious person; the earliest ones were in the 19th century, but some of these were also by women who also got up on the stage alone and did monologue, solo performances. Why is this important: in these they regularly broke out of the conventional roles they were pushed into in films and stage plays. We are familiar with this under cover of the stand-up comic: Joan Rivers did it with pizzazz, and electrified audiences by breaking tabooes in her talk about sex.

What Carrie (using just her first name as so many do) did was to tie these monologues openly to her life, and include in the monologue people she worked in the industry with (say George Lukacs, the first director of Star Wars). She’d do it unexpectedly and at awards ceremony where the person named and at moments bitterly satirized would be sitting. I noticed she’d quickly turn the talk into more compliment, and by the end seem to buy back into the values of the crowd, but everyone had heard the mordant take on the realities of the movie industry and women’s lives. Married briefly to the thoughtful song-writer and good musician, Paul Simon, with other disappointed love affairs (known) with a daughter too, Billie Lourd (a minor actress), Carrie evolved a character in public, much of it frankly her which girls in the later 20th century could identify with and find solace. She capped it off (so to speak) by dying relatively young.


Carrie at American Film Institute

I’m writing because I don’t see her “act” talked about in this way: we are told her quips (good one-liners) and ceaselessly it’s repeated how she openly talked of her “drug problem” and “bi-polar” (a cant word nowadays) state. It is still daring to present your sex life as she did openly (see my blog-review of Kristin Pullen’s Actresses and Whores.) She is presented as a Dorothy Parker manque: but Parker never acted, did monologues on stage, and her writing was much much stronger, far more consistent, genuinely reaching tragedy (the story, “Big Blonde”), and she was brilliant in verse. This is not to knock Carrie Fisher but say she broke out of stereotypes and was able to talk about what it is to be woman as an “actress” in front of audiences. As far as I can her other two novels were much weaker and her autobiographical books (3 of them) weaker yet: they are put-together anecdotes meant to make money and promote herself to get more opportunities for stage solos and participation in movies. She had a TV show, was in dozens of movies, three worth mentioning as serious (where real acting was called for).

debbiecarrie
Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher — many years ago, when Carrie was still singing as part of her mother’s nightclub act

Carrie also from a very young age, worked with her mother, Debbie Reynolds, on stage. The mother was grooming her to become a singer and nightclub entertainer. In the film, Bright Lights (see right below), we hear Carrie sing twice and she’s very good — a hard yet mellow resonant register like Judy Garland’s. In the film too, one of Reynolds’s rare remarks about herself and her daughter is repeated twice: she is deeply disappointed Carrie did not go in for a career as a singer; Reynolds attributes this to the source (as Reynolds sees this) of her talent, her relationship with her father, Eddie Fisher.

Which brings me to the crucial background out of which Carrie’s career, character, personal fulfilment and crises came: Debbie is not so much Princess Leia’s mother as Carrie is the daughter of the woman Eddie Fisher deserted for that vamp, Elizabeth Taylor. Anyone alive in the later 1950s and 60s who doesn’t remember the extraordinary publicity Reynolds manipulated on her own behalf to make herself the ultimate victim probably never read a newspaper or watched the news or went to a movie. I admit there too I had a lot to learn over the past couple of days. As I thought the extent of Carrie Fisher’s significance was as this skewed icon — America’s sweetheart no longer the girl next door, but first some bizarre fantastic innocent girl who is made the victim of a sadist — remember the metallic outfit and a chain around her neck, and then a general. (To this in our fascist militarized culture are actresses reduced who want to be seen as strong miscalled feminism sometimes: they need to be as violent as American macho heroes at vital moments. Princess Leia strangles the fat [naturally] monster who is imprisoning her with the very chain holding her down.)

So I thought Debbie Reynolds had made a career out of enacting unexamined American ideals: the unsinkable Molly Brown. She was the all-American mother and wife in the honeymoon-like Bundle of Joy. After Fisher left her, she had married twice badly (I had read somewhere), both times seeking glamorous men with money, and both times the relationship ended badly. The second husband, millionaire businessman, Harry Karl, turned out to be an addictive gambler, who lied to and bankrupted Reynolds. The third a very wealthy real estate developer. From what is said in newspapers I had the impression of someone ambitious, determined, and capable: she re-made herself each time through working in nightclubs and more popular movies. Like Ginger Rogers, she was hired for her looks, not her skill as a dancer, and like Rogers, Reynolds made herself superb. For “Good morning” she is said to have endured bleeding feet (recalling Hans Christian Anderson’s poor mermaid). She sang songs one of which became as great a hit as any of Eddie Fisher’s: Tammy from Tammy and the Bachelor.

But as with her daughter, the popular perception of her is inadequate: though not as badly. She had a career on the stage (won a Tony), could really act, especially in comedies (she’d win Emmys for TV shows) and developed her own act and material. She too did solo performances, but here the resemblance ends. She stayed doll-like all her life, at the edges of her monologues making fun lightly here and there of American values, and in her later years referring to her daughter and herself, but never telling much, much less anything untoward. From what I read it seems that part of the conflicts between mother and daughter were precisely the mother pressuring her to be intensely conventional. She was the kind of actress most familiar since actresses were allowed to be respectable, only instead of enacting on-stage female stereotypes, she kept to them off-stage too. Not that I’d knock this: she was ultimately supremely successful from a financial standpoint, and in the film Bright Lights we can see that both Carrie and Todd are comfortable due to her efforts. Her act has become grotesque at moments, especially when with her body she tries to enact the old coquettery, the kind word is gallant.

Bright Lights, which, while I regret to say is a weak film, can end my portrait of these two apparently admired and well-known actresses because more is revealed there than was intended certainly by Reynolds, and perhaps by Fisher.
There is a good recap of the film by John Boone at Entertainment Tonight. I watched the film on HBO at the appointed time (both rare acts for me: I didn’t even know what channel HBO occupied) fully expecting to weep as I had felt emotional over the imagined relationship of a supportive mother-and-daughter. I also thought the new perspective or new context of their shared death would affect me and the material.

I remained dry-eyed throughout. Like Fisher’s solo performances, finally it was not that deeply revealing of Carrie Fisher, though the suggestions that were made by Carrie about her character and history were frank, believable, had an honesty not common: she was throughout presented as when all is said and done, the obedient daughter, taking every care of her mother, good-hearted, well-meaning, forgiving her bastard of a father at the end (“reaching out” it’s called). No hard truths beyond the citing of her “bipolar” problems — we learned how she has had to lose weight for the coming Star Wars roles. Nor was it admitted that Reynolds preferred to live the naive life, and pretend to not examine anything, unless called upon for some explanation of something really bothering her (like her daughter did not take up the career of a singer).

By contrast Joan Rivers’s bio-pic of herself, A Piece of Work, is multi-faceted, novelistic, and Rivers presented many unpleasant, suposedly unadmirable aspects of herself; she asked interesting questions about values underlying celebrity careers, showed us the cost of ambition itself, which was to end up alone, except for her loving daughter, Melissa Rivers, whose career she fostered. Rivers was glad she had re-vamped herself to display ideals of gorgeousness as long as she could. We also saw her kindness to the vulnerable, unlucky in small ways (she collected street people she knew for Thanksgiving), her real philanthropic activities, and good working relationships with those who helped her keep her career up. Nothing like this is in Bright Lights.

I’ve just cited some of what’s revealed. We also see that in the last couple of years Debbie Reynolds had become senile and very frail. It’s often said how they lived next door to one another for years, in semi-bohemian (but very luxurious) compound in Hollywood. We see Carrie taking her mother food; reminding her to eat; immediate memory loss is bad. Reynolds’s last appearances in nightclubs (where everyone in the audience is very old) required the help of many people (and a scooter); and the picking up of that last award was engineered by both Carrie and her son, Todd. For that last they got her dressed, got her to get into the car, up the stairs, onto the stage. Carrie was next to her mother because she needed to be. Carrie talked of how good a time they had had, but they were hardly there at all; upon receiving the award, the Carrie and her brother drove the mother safely home, and then had dinner, drinks, and good talk (and singing) with a couple of close friends.

So one reason Debbie wanted (as she said in her last words as recorded by her son) to “be with Carrie,” is cagey to the last, she knew without her daughter she could have no independence. The two women film-makers had given no sense of this, of what the woman was under the mask. I envied her the day she died because I too have experienced “broken heart syndrome:” about 5 months after Jim died, the faux heart-attack, but I recovered. I am now weak on the right side. I am not as strong in my need and determination as she. There is a real person beneath that mask — we could have seen it daily in her daughter and her relationship.

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As Boone says, Eddie Fisher’s is the absent-presence, appearing in clips from his career, one of him interviewed later on TV saying he had not been a father “there” for his children, and one recent film of him near death looking terrible, hardly able to do more than agree with the aging daughter sitting near him and talking and making gestures of love. If both children knew much psychological distress and apparently opted out of full careers (having money enough from their steely finally successful mother), this was not just a function of being the children of an hard-working actress who demanded conformity of herself on stage and probably off. He disappeared, he deserted them and their mother too. It was traumatic. Again we are told Carrie had a voice, could have been a successful, belting out sorrowful songs; Todd sings for couple of minutes, showing he too inherited, in his case the light tenor that underlay Eddie Fisher’s voice. But as if they had been stung by an adder, they turned away — both at times to drugs to get through. His career was not destroyed until after Taylor left him for Richard Burton, another marriage, and his inability to adapt to the somewhat changed mores in the mainstream by the later 1960s. Which Debbie managed, just. He couldn’t act it seems.

The content was mostly the slightest of story-lines: the two women are preparing to go to collect Debbie’s last award; by the end they have achieved this feat, are home again, and Carrie belts out a song, partly to please her mother. Before their death it might have felt celebratory. Now it came across as nostalgia, melancholy. Along this is strung home-movies taken by Todd Fisher or Debbie. Todd, her son by Eddie Fisher, came in about half-way through, and we see his devotion to the mother too, and his candor. He too has had drug problems; he did not have near the career his sister has made; he was frank that the source of his core money is his mother’s legacy. Boone omitted the clips from the movie, Postcards from the Edge, as the relationship of its matter to Carrie and her mother was not gone into. One could see that Carrie Fisher was aware of how she when much younger enacted the worst grotesqueries of the hegemonic male culture as it imprints itself on women and that from around the 1990s she refused to do.

By the time my brief foray into this pair of women was done I was no longer sentimental over them, no more identifying than I did for Joan Rivers. Better than this I saw and see in them the difficulties of being an actress in the 21st century remain similar to those actresses had from the later 17th century. How they survived was similar. Where they suffered — from the relationships with men sexually that on the screen they had to control to draw audiences to them. I would not claim for Carrie Fisher anything like the original work and political vision behind the careers of say Helen Mirren, Harriet Walter, Emma Thompson (to cite familiar names) or the many women from the 19th through 20th century who wrote, worked as soloists, directed. But she belongs to their honorable group.

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Carrie Fisher not far from her Princess Leia role: note how Debbie’s smile never changes

There is lurking in my findings an possible essay on the mother-daughter relationships in acting where both mother and daughter are fellow supportive players. I liked this joke in one of the many articles to have appeared: by Ann Hornaday:

If St Peter is waiting, one can’t hep but imagine him a bit intimidated by Fisher — coolly observing the scene and taking notes for mordant future reference — and Reynolds, adjusting her hair and makeup one last time before wowing him with a showstopper of an opening number.

Ellen

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Carrington when young (photo)

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The river Pang, Tidmarsh

I long for the wings of an owl that I mighty FLY — Carrington,1930, “after a frusrating domestic crisis that kept her from painting” (Hill)

I see my paints and think it is no use to me, for Lytton will not see it now (quoted by Noel Carrington)

Dear friends and readers,

I return to a final two essays in this second series calling attention to women artists after I had gone to one too many exhibits of groups of artists under this or that rubric where there were either none or a token or one or two women, often the same couple of pictures. I managed twelve from the Renaissance into the 21st century for the first series, and Carrington is the eleventh of a second fifteen. I’ve found in this second group many great and beautiful and meaningful pictures and other forms of visual art; but also that even the better known women are hardly famous outside a narrow selection of people or only known for their connection with a man or notorious life event; and their art afterwards underestimated. In many individual or personal fulfillment was thwarted by gender expectations, at least two died young from childbirth. Their self-esteem as artists was battered; nonetheless, they developed female-inflected genres, made art different from that of their male counterparts, and succeeded wonderfully well as artists. Carrington’s life and art fits these patterns.

In Carrington’s case what she is famous for gets in the way of people seeking out and appreciating her art. First, for her devotion to Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and suicide soon after he died because, she asserted, she could not imagine or endure life without him.

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Carrington’s Lytton Strachey (1916) — one of her finest characteristic portraits and one of the finest by anyone of him — it’s a study of sensitive hands, of meditative reading

Then there’s the still widely-assumed belief that she self-flagellatingly destroyed or painted over many of her pictures, and indulged herself in non-save-able non-prestigious immanent arts (on house walls, for signboards, craft-y things, book marks, covers, and illustrations), so that hardly anything truly fine and great and permanent survives. Her intense reluctance (refusal) to have an exhibition of her art reinforces the idea her pictures were not good enough.

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The Mill at Tidmarsh (Lytton and her first home together) — perhaps her most famous masterpiece

That she killed herself is out of doubt, but why is not so sure. Jane Hill’s reprinting of the ceaseless art-making Carrington did around Strachey in the last three chapters (phases) of Carrington’s life (in her The Art of Dora Carrington) to see to his every comfort argues a tender idolization (the above two black swans can be seen as standing in for herself and Strachey), but Carrington’s brother, Noel Carrington, (in his Carrington: Paintings, Drawings, and Decorations) makes a strong case for understanding that several factors beyond her adjustment to life through Strachey’s kindness and congenial intelligence led to her killing herself: she suffered a lifelong distress from her mother’s rejection of her, naturally vulnerable in relationships, sensitive, of a depressive temperament: she painted to make herself happy and her images show her reaching out for security, tranquility, stability.

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An Artist’s Home and Garden

She did wipe out and destroy many of her works (sometimes because she lacked money for paper, sheer supply problem), but since she seems to have made art as continuously as she breathed, as it were constantly, no task too trivial she produced as large a corpus as many a major artist and a lot survives.

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A giraffe scene Carrington created for the nursery door of Rosamund Lehmann’s children (John Lehmann her brother was a central editor at Hogarth Press — about which see below)

She would not allow exhibitions of her art (we glimpse a complex psychological disability), so her pieces did not begin the trail of circulation and discussion the way most artists become known, and given her inclusion (however marginally) in the elite English art and literary coteries of her era, much went into and remains in private hands. She did use unusual media:

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Harmony: Labador Coast — made from painted tin foil on stained glass

You might say her marvelous letters are used against her as superior to her visual art instead of seen as another manifestation of her strong projection of her vividly perceptive experience of a self-chosen unconventional way of life that allowed her to create visual art continually.

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David Garnett — her portraits done as a matter of course of whoever visits capture inner qualities through color, line, shadow

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The drawings of herself are in the letters

In the last twenty years three excellent ground-breaking books have been written about her: Hill’s, Noel’s and Gretchen Gerzina’s biography, Carrington. These and an exhibition (at last) prompted superb essays, three of which reprint pictures and enter the heart of her vision. Them there is Carrington, the film, based on Christopher Hampton’s screenplay (a kind of outline of Carrington’s life out of Holroyd’s and Gerzina’s book), with its virtuoso actors uncannily capturing the inner life of some of the people around Carrington (Samuel West as Gerald Brenan, Rufus Sewell as Mark Gertler) and inimitably Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce as Carrington and Lytton:

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A photo of Lytton reading to Carrington

It’s out of these I dared this blog. Genevieve Sanchis Morgan on Carrington’s art as “forms of masquerade” (Mosaic 31:4 [1998]) proves Carrington transferred her private life and most unspoken feelings, her transgressive attitudes (towards marriage, children, social performance as self-promotion, sexuality) into her pictures (landscapes especially and why she did not want to exhibit). She made for public consumption (as it were) the familiar images of herself as a devoted domestic servant and cook,

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Cook and Cat

with her pets,

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At Ham Spray

walking talking sitting by the side of Strachey,

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Her innovative household art was her own real life giant dollhouse to hide in, and keep continually absorbed and busy in her private world shared with Lytton. She defflected her literary ambitions (and some satire) behind playful distractions (trompe d’oeil bookcase with titles that mocked contemporary and her associates’ books as well as Jane Austen), and found desperately needed loving reassurance in sexual partnerships with like-minded people. Gerald Brenan she loved, and returned his visits,going to Spain with Lytton and alone

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She created great pictures there, continually protecting herself through these social performances. These come from her times in Spain:

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A hill town in Andalusia

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A Spanish woman, ink and silver foil on glass

Gillian Elinor’s essay on Carrington and Vanessa Bell (1879-1962) in Woman’s Art Journal (2016), as near contemporaries, working aesthetically and developing content in the same kinds of and actual domestic milieus (“Bloomsbury Painters” the title), argues their art is crucially like that of other women (tropes, themes, the relationship of their works to them and their lives)

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Vanessa Bell, The Nursery

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Carrington, Bedford Market (1911)

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Carrington, A Footbathing Party — much like Bell’s

Jane Marcus (Women’s Review of Books, 12:1 [1994]) pays attention to Carrington’s loaded playful interiors and pictures an crockery as evoking a witty primitivism, working against mainstream (male) art to produce village-English delicate dreams and objects (recalling Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), as in this

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Rouen Ware

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Beanie Bags — the paired figures are typical of lesbian art

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Self-portrait (1910)

Her life can be told in terms of phases of her art. The fourth child of a Liverpool merchant who had spent decades in India, to bring back an easy competence, he married a narrow-thinking rigid woman and for Carrington this meant much conflict over the years. She loved her father, was tormented by her mother. There are no portraits of her mother:

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Her father (painted much later)

But her mother was artistic, valued art, and she and her siblings early on were encouraged to use their hands, and Dora (she later insisted on dropping this first name she regarded as too feminine, silly, like Dorcas, an archetypal shepherdess) learned to love to, spend hours drawing.

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Noel her brother — much later

After High School, there was her period at Slade where she made life-long girlfriends, with one of whom, Constance Lane, she completed a cycle of of three large frescos “on the library wall of Brownlow Hall” (Hill 23). She began to paint strongly colorist and cubist-like bucolic landscapes and scenes, won a scholarship, and came under the influence of Roger Fry and Mark Gertler (not just his art but as a sexual partner). Finding she could not live in a repressive Victorian-style home (only visit) and have a career and mature adult life, she moved and tried to support herself in London. This period is filled with marvelous small line portraits, comic cartoons

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Very Stevie Smith like

and the earliest of the bucolic snow and tree landscapes with their high wide great bowl top areas.

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Hills in Snow at Hurst Tarrant (Hampshire), 1915

This is the time of her immersion in the Omega Workshops (1914-16): playful woodcut art, and riots of color and decorations of ordinary everyday things, which while they didn’t sell to the larger public, are the foundation for the way Carrington would later cover every inch of Ham Spray, her and Lytton’s second home. She didn’t do well at Lady Ottoline Garsington Manor (“I am out of favor now! completely!”), but met others who (if not as much, like Lytton) were important to her: Augustus John’s household (whom she turned to as easy companions); individual people whose character struck her favorably:

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920
E.M. Forster

Like Vanessa Bell, Carrington took to engravings and book illustrations

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Lytton she first met in 1916 at Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Asheham House — and to fast forward their Hogarth Press provided another place for her woodcuts small animal drawings, and remunerative work for Ralph Patridge, the first of her lovers whom she married to keep him near Lytton (and please Lytton). By 1917, she and Lytton were making a home for themselves at Tidmarsh, and by 1918 he achieved his first of several commercial successes, Eminent Victorians.

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Tidmarsh Mills, the meadows

The story of her life becomes a story with Lytton triangular sexual and working relationships with a series of men, and travel (to the continent, around England) and perpetual art-making (from pictures to bookcases, fake and real). Hampton’s movie dramatizes the pain Carrington knew when she felt she had to force herself to act out different selves, and when she felt Lytton did not reciprocate her loving care, efforts catering to his every whim, only to see him distance himself, become at times remote. At the same time her correspondence with Strachey, and especially over her decision to marry Partridge are among the most genuine openly confiding trusting letters I’ve read. They understood and supported one another in many other areas beyond the reading of books and living the larger routines of life. The pressure from the different worlds Carrington found herself in was also offset by the art-making: she repeatedly creates idyllic peaceful and playful beauty in personally felt landscapes (with funereal images)

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and stuffing and covering every available inch of her literal surroundings, over and over:

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A fireplace tile design

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Birds above a cornucopia of flowers

She made signs; this half of a Circus horses reminds me of Watteau’s famous shop sign of people examining pictures in an art shop:

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This is severe in its way: the horses are still and in a row

In her later years she allowed herself to be used by a rough sportsman type, Beakus Penrose (played by Jeremny Northam in the movie): she did love to sail with him (she writes of her “Shelley craving to sail & leave these quiet rural scenes for Greek islands), as witnessed by her remarkable tinsel on glass picture, the deliberately child-like Bon Voyage (1929):

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She became pregnant by Penrose, a (to her) deeply distressing because repulsive condition (she never adjusted to her female body), and Lytton stepped in to find and pay for an abortion. Her end is well-known: Strachey developed pancreatic cancer, and died, and within three months, despite many friends’ efforts to prevent this, Carrington shot herself through her mouth with a gun on a Friday, March 11, 1932. She meant it.

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Tulips in a Staffordshire Jug (1921) – she painted many flower still lifes

That Carrington’s gender was female played a central role in her difficult life, withdrawals, and long neglect. John Rothstein in the introduction to Noel Carrington’s book says rightly that Carrington’s “remoteness from he impulses which moved” most of her contemporaries (ambition for money, high rank, fame, fashionable luxury, admiration from the admired) set her apart (13). Carrington herself also said of participating in contemporary schools of artists to Gertler over post-impressionism that “this ‘culture’ and group system is partly the reason for the awful paintings produced” (35).

But what her mother couldn’t bear (perhaps where her overt troubled life started) was Carrington was not conventionally beautiful. When Carrington is hiding her pictures, or dressing like a boy, she is hiding her body. Gertler wanted her to give up her painting and devote herself wholly to him as his wife. She resisted this fiercely, but could only find a stable life with the daily rhythms and calm expectations that she needed for creation of her art on Lytton’s income.

In talking of a career, she repeated Frye’s warning early on about how hard it was going to be to practice great art as a woman. How she will be regarded by others. She wrote Gerald Brenan about “how difficult it was to be a ‘female creator'”

the few that did become artists, I think you will admit were never married or had children. Emily Bronte & her sisters, Jane Austen, Sappho. Lady Hester Stanhope. Queen Elizabeth and even lesser people like the French female artists Berthe Morissot [who did have a daughter], Le Brun [ditto], Julie de Lespinasse & Dudeffand [? is this a reference to George Sand whose legal name was Dudevant or Madame du Deffand?] … If when I am 38, I am not an artist, & think it is no good my persevering with my painting, I might have a child …

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Spanish Boy (1924) — in her two portraits of adolescent boys she captures their vulnerability

This is an important statement if we realize that she was also much influenced by painters no one else was, for example (according to Hill), the Renaissance painter, Joachim Patinir:

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The Hermit

Patinir’s Flight from Egypt does recall Carrington’s landscapes:

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Carrington’s candid utterances to Brenan about being a woman (“You know I always hated being a woman” [Elinor 31]) are so sad because she never was not an artist, always alive to the art of others, in groups or as individuals. She did hate being pregnant (and thus perhaps deprived herself of a raison d’etre once Lytton was diagnosed with inoperable cancer). When she painted Lady Strachey (Lytton’s mother) it’s said she caught the inner strong woman, but she also masculinized her, made her monumental in doctor’s robes:

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Of her depiction of a group of young girls marshalled by two female teachers, one a nun on a beach to play (On the Sands at Dawlish Warren), Carrington wrote: it was “a study of the misery of authorized fun” (110). She escaped the world’s invisible prisons but at great cost

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Annie Stiles — her servant whom Carrington depended upon and painted, and drew frequently — she describes herself as with two servants eating or by the fire when Lytton is gone away

Ellen

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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Another 19th century illustration of a woman with a book

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Richard Rothwell’s Mary Shelley (1797-1851)

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“STANZAS”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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