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Archive for the ‘women artists’ Category


Claire Foy and Matt Smith as the young Elizabeth and Philip in the first phase of marriage

Friends,

Peter Morgan’s (with a little help from Stephen Daldry) strangely powerful The Crown has been for the past two years among the best serial dramas in the subtle naturalistic BBC English style anywhere. It was nominated for and won a number of prestigious awards and if the critical response was at times ambiguous, those who praised praised strongly. I put this first on my Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two area, but over the two days I’ve had it up, I decided to move it here — as a woman’s film even if the script writer and chief producer are men.

The films depict slowly, at length and consistently a development of inexorable embedded emotional burdens each of the major characters finds he or she has to bear as a result of engaging in life with others. There seems to be no retreat for anyone, and as they age, they grow harder or more silent in order to survive. The individual situations of these privileged people are made to resonate with experiences the ordinary person can identify with, or watch Writ Large. Thus catharsis is achieved, at the same time as the British monarchical system is justified.

It belongs to a large number of films this year where a woman who has a questionable power is at the center of the film: from the PBS Victoria (with Jenna Coleman), Spielberg’s The Post with Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, Gabaldon’s Outlander with Caitriona Balfe the central core strength of all the stories. All tell the same tale of hidden power, power welded quietly, stubbornly and when at a price, still successfully. They descend from the old queen tragedies in the Restoration theater, the 17th century French romances by women, Shakespearean heroines all.

The key characters are Elizabeth (Claire Foy) with Philip (Matt Smith) as her partner, and their performances are extraordinarily convincing. At first I saw the films as a portrait of Elizabeth but by the end of the second season, he had emerged as important in the films as she (if not as powerful), because his presence constantly affects her, hurts her, leads her to betray herself (as does her staff).


Pip Torrens as Tommy Lascelles: he plays the repressive killjoy controlling the royal family (for their own good) — rather brilliantly, convincingly

It is curious how the villains and obtuse people in episode after episode are this household staff, as if the family and many politicians are helpless against them.

The two begin with an idealistic love, and after years where she is driven to not keep her promise to Philip to let him fulfill his desires and have a say in his choices equal to hers, and betray others like her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Peter Townsend (Ben Miles). Elizabeth allows herself to be bullied, as when she lets Philip force their son Charles to go to a school singularly unfitted for his character, so as to vicariously re-live own hard-won unexamined success over a wretched boyhood (Paterfamilias), they are barely able to endure one another. He humiliates her and threatens the monarchy by his semi-revengeful liaisons. She has made some wrong decisions (when she agrees to leave the house Philip was setting up for them and move to Buckingham palace, agrees to control his airplane flying, agrees to forbid Margaret’s marriage to a divorced man), but she remains queen (which is why she obeys) and that controls and gives her space and power.

Matt Smith is the program’s sly satyr, giving Claire Foy rare opportunities to know the pleasures of the appetite (including sex) divorced from duty. We see them come close together and then be driven apart. His advice, often cynical, is often proved right. For me the most moving scenes occur when they interact or their stories are told in tandem (as when at the beginning of the second season he is sent on a world tour). In the closing scene as he kneels and they bend over one another hugging, there is an acknowledgement of also a permanent estrangement, a gap never crossed again.


Ben Miles as Townsend, and we see in this photo how calm Margaret is with him

The other over-arching or major secondary story, which carries on through both seasons, depicts Margaret Windsor as thwarted from developing what talents she had, as not allowed to marry the man she loves and who loves her (except she give up her position and large income, which is of course unthinkable), and thus driven, as it were, forced makes a poor choice of an aristocrat, glamorous, cold, a cad, Matthew Goode as Tony Armstrong-Jones.


He renames her Beryl (second season)

Lesser characters contribute more over-the-top or overt drama. The Churchill myth is kept up by John Lithgow, with Kate Phillips as the in-love girl Friday, Venetia Scott. The Churchill matter seems to have stayed in the public consciousness (if recaps and commentary online tell us anything), and Lithgow is a powerful memorable presence. He fills the screen; like Ralph Richardson, our eyes immediately revert to him.


John Lithgow as Churchill charming Kate Phillips as Venetia Scott (who dies in the episode so eager is she to go to work in the fog)

But riveting also are the episodes featuring the resentful sneering de-throned Edward VIII (Alex Jennings); Alex Jennings is a Duke of Windsor unable to accept the position he choose; his clothes show him as pampered, perhaps rightly bitter at the way his family treats him, but also having lost perspective:


All Alex Jennings and Lia Williams as the ex-Mrs Simpson’s outfits are lavishly appointed and elegant

Maybe the most historically important episode in the series was the revelation of the Duke of Windsor’s knowing collusion with Hitler (Vergangenheit, second season): this is one of several episodes to include real film from the era, this case this Duke and Duchess and Hitler reviewing troops.

Some of the present debased or demeaning outlook on some of the prime ministers, such a Macmillan (Anton Lesser) was a weak cuckold (Sylvestre Le Tousel shows her continuing strength as a capable varied actress, here she is the appallingly mean adulterous wife), or Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) eaten up by jealousy of Churchill — all remind me of the way older historical Tudor dramas work. An re-enactment of Beyond the Fringe shows the public laughing at the ridicule the young intellectual actors threw at them, but the men (prime ministers) are too sensitive and become scapegoats. Emasculated males; once again, it’s the women who become the stoics holding on. On the other hand, the reactionary Mountbatten (Gregg Wise) is presented as kindness, gentleness itself, especially to the young Charles where Philip is asking too much with a narrow definition of manliness.

The expected is preferred, except curiously in the case of the Kennedys where an attempt is made to de-mystify them, which ends in scornful put-down of Jacqueline as utterly phony.

Among the tertiary recurring characters my favorites are the older women, especially Victoria Hamilton as the continuing to quietly grieve Queen Mary. One of my favorite episodes is about her attempt to retreat to a castle in the Scottish highlands and brief friendship with a minor aristocrat there who is not told who she is so that she can have an ordinary relationship with him (Pride and Joy, first season).


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother, Elizabeth

Note how in most of the cases the men are seen with women, with women as protecting, taking care of, or importantly mocking or undermining them. I love all the stills of Harriet Walter as Clementine:

Claire Foy’s face reminded me of Elizabeth Moss in Handmaid’s Tale, Caitronia Balfe in Outlander, Merryl Strep as Katharine Graham in The Post. All nominated or noticed for awards. They are all initially more trusting than most of the people around them. Then a mask forms round their tight jaws. Margaret is the woman gone neurotic, a common type in soap opera:

The two years of this serial drama have been rightly criticized on several grounds. First for the kinds of changes in real history and politics continually set in place. Of course history will be heightened, personalized, and our protagonists made somewhat sympathetic. But the very subtlety with which the actual historical record is interwoven with false perspectives suggests truer perspective could have been put in place.


Elizabeth with Jeremy Northam as Anthony Eden consulting her

Throughout both seasons Elizabeth is made to seem more pro-active than she was, and more compassionately concerned about the average person living in the UK. What is put before us is sometimes the opposite of what happened: thus it was not she who insisted on going to Ghana to mend the relationship but her gov’t ministers who insisted she go. In the first season (damningly), Clement Atlee, the man who did more to reform and make the UK into the decent social democracy with opportunity for all in a large community it became (until Margaret Thatcher put her hatchet to it, and the Tories and then Blair’s gov’t followed suit), Atlee is made into a minor non-entity in one episode, with Churchill’s time as prime minister becoming what was important and the key over-arching secondary story. Elizabeth is made to seem innocent or at least not at all to blame for the understandable revolt of the empire against the English, and that revolt not explained with any sympathy.

And of course it’s a white world: Nasser, the African leaders, I cannot find any stills online of these. It is unblushingly Anglophilic, even if there is perfunctory criticism of how the UK reacted to Nasser nationalizing the Suez canal. Eden’s behavior is seen as well-meaning and a political error. He is misunderstood and he misunderstands a new post-colonial world. A tremendous idealization of George VI goes on, astonishing speeches put into the mouth of the queen grandmother (Eileen Atkins) about the monarchy as if it were a mythic realm placed on earth by God for the good of the English people, far exceeding any divine right exegesis I’ve ever come across.


Eileen Atkins impeccably over-the-top theatrical as the Queen Grandmother — smoking on

I don’t find if marmoreal because of performances like these. Don’t underestimate Jared Harris playing the cancerous George VI, still slaughtering birds as he weeps over his daughter’s “hard” fates and sings “In the bleak midwinter.” Drenched in the sentimental.


Children with George VI admonishing them

All that said, the films function to build compassion and understanding, reciprocation as a basic stance towards experience. The good characters hold onto some kind of integrity and honesty not just because to make the public think they are so keeps them in power. They mean well, they feel guilt, they see themselves as involved in bargains. Each of the episodes is character driven, and while different recurring characters emerge as dominant in this or that or a couple of episodes, there are major presences we care about and watch age and mostly harden or grow old and move into retreat, often stubbornly trying to hold onto what they thought their lives were about when younger.

The scripts are superb and found online. One of the curiosities of the films is how little happens in any given one, at least outwardly. Yes sometimes there is a Suez crisis and we see much action, but more commonly we watch Claire Foy drink coffee. I often cried over a resonating pair of lines towards a given closure, such as Pilgrim’s Progress. This is typical of the woman’s film based on a woman’s novel. Elizabeth gives a new turn to old lines about how she is paying a heavy personal price for the sake of some larger whole or ideal, and I find myself unbearable touched.

The first season shows us the making of a woman, Elizabeth into a queen, from a young girl in love, engaged, dependent on her father (Lilibet), to her walking alone, alienated from those she loves in order to be this symbolic figure. The second season traces a gradual hardening where she is presented as now and again scolding (in effect) her prime minister and urging them onto a course of action she thinks the wiser: they don’t always obey but they don’t ignore her either. She grieves alone.


Elizabeth in the last episode, pregnant with Andrew, aware Philip has not kept his word to be sexually faithful

Even if by logic and space, we actually follow Philip’s story (including his young years in flashbacks) as much as Elizabeth, and the outer political world whether through the weather or political or economic crises, it is Elizabeth the film focuses on again and again, at each stage of her life. Here she is reading Walter Bagehot as a child and learning about the theatrical, the ceremonial (her) and the efficient, the legislative, the instrumental (everybody else):

Even if there are major parts for males, they are seen as the domestic woman experiences them, from a home-perspective. Other favorite episodes: on safari (Hyde Park Corner, the first season)

When Elizabeth hires a tutor to improve her academic knowledge (Scientia Potentia Est, the first season): I loved the actor who played the mussed-up uncomforable tutor clutching his briefcase.

The episode where we see her relationship with Porchester amid the horses today with memories of what was meaning a great deal more to her than him (she phones him, and he puts her off as an American lover walks into his room). This episode also includes the painting of Churchill in old age by Sutherland and Clementine’s burning of the canvas (Assassins, first season).


The Queen and Porchie

Some may like the episode where Mike Parker’s wife rebels and sues him for divorce based on adultery (A Company of Men, second season). What emerges for me are women standing alone. The bitterness of Margaret when what talents she had are not wanted and she finds herself living with a cold cad (Mystery Man, second season), so she renovates her quarters without regard to others. Most evidently Elizabeth by herself, apparently surrounded by aides, servants and of course swathed in money and protection, and yet somehow isolated and holding on. Finding herself pushed and prodded by conventions, turned into a statue, and having to pick out which customs are still operative and which no longer.

When I first started to watch the films, I loved the 1950s outfits,so carefully studied and accurate but gradually they are just the way one dresses, un-costumy.

I’m reading slowly the excellent thorough study of the time and film, Peter Lacey’s The Crown: The Official Companion. The history is corrected there. The changes justified. One of the pleasures are the photographs of the actual historical people juxtaposed to the actors: we see how closely aligned the choices for actors were, how their costumes are often recreations of the originals.

Some representative reviews, mostly ambiguous: The Telegraph rounded up a bunch and linked them in; from the New York Times on the second season (Goode was born to play the seductive Armstrong). Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair wanted to dislike the film but found it bloody compelling


Not quite gawdy?

I look forward to the third season, with a little trepidation that the change of actors will change the chemistry of the films too much or in directions I won’t care for. I don’t know the work of a number of the new actors: when I do, as Helena Bonham Carter for the aging Margaret, I can see it. I loved Olivia Coleman in Night Manager and can see her as a warm fundamentally sound older Elizabeth. Tobias Menzies (late of Outlander) as Philip when older is worrying: he often plays hard mean and cold people, yet he has his gentle psychological side as Frank Randall too (Paul Bettany said to have been considered would have been better at that).

It has emerged as something of a scandal that Smith was much much better paid than Foy; both my daughters informed me he is much better known, a star, while she with her superb performances as Amy Dorrit in Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit, the younger Nazi sister in the return of Upstairs Downstairs, as good as unknown. Even Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall doesn’t match Dr Who. I wonder. At any rate we are assured next year salaries will not be so gender unequal.

Ellen

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Pilgrim children dressed for church (17th century American art and dress)

Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours (Bradstreet, “The Prologue”)

In darkness foundering
Words fail the troubled mind.
For who, I ask, can light me
When Reason is blind? (Sor Juana, “On the effects of Divine Love”)

Dear friends and readers,

Among the delights I knew this early winter was to hear for the first time ever some American women writers I once spent hours and even weeks reading in the Library of Congress talked about intelligently and in words I could understand for the first time. It’s an odd feeling to have felt and thought about these women writers and their texts in the silence for long periods, shared my pleasure and thoughts with no one, and then suddenly confront a living constituency. I took a course at the OLLI at Mason in Early Modern American Women’s Writing. Four sessions of reading.

Not only the professor from George Mason, Tamara Harvey, had studied them thoroughly, but this was no dumbed-down course:  she cited articles, books, and talked of colleagues and students who also had read with interesting comments they made and perspectives written about. Had clearly discussed them in conferences, taught them to coming scholars. She took a perspective I had not thought of, and chose quite different poems from the ones I had so loved when I read their work in the 1980s on weekday nights and weekends in the Library of Congress reading rooms. I had looked at each as an individual and was absorbed by their life stories, chose the immediate personal texts, or texts that immediately appealed by their easy eloquence or wit or humor or pathos. Prof Harvey chose texts which could show the reader the origin and development of the American imaginary that is with us today. For all of them were born or writing or lived out their lives in the North American colonies and then US states.

There has been written a good sympathetic biography by a modern American woman poet, Charlotte Gordon: Anne Bradstreet, The Untold life of America’s First Poet. Anne emerges as a reluctant American, and you gain her full personal context:

I’ve never written about these American women writers in public before. The first two wrote texts which even at their most attractive show them thanking their God for dire punishments inflicted upon them personally, or when they try to assert their love of writing or desire to express themselves, they have first to argue for a right to write in the first place (which they seem to have to), in language so self-berating, so without any overt sense of their strong value, it’s hard to find several verses altogether unmarred. In her A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf complains the problem with 18th century poetry by women (in the UK) is they cannot forget themselves, are continually so aware of harassment, of embittering experiences as women, of obstacles set in their way for any kind of individual fulfillment, they are ever writhing with complaint. What about disfigurement and deformity & miseries which you feel you are forced to be thankful for? Religion has not just veiled and repressed the minds of women writers in the US, it makes them express patently perverse ideas.

That’s why I never made a foremother blog for Anne Bradstreet 1612-72). She’s a strong poet with an individual voice, as in this opening of some vereses upon waking up to find her house burning down (July 10, 1666):

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look …
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old

She writes of her children as chicks in her nest — she’s another woman poet who identifies with small vulnerable non-human animals:

I had eight birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest,
I nursed them up with pain and care,
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare … (“In reference to her children, 13 June 1659”)

She writes so intensely about her love for her husband, and what a good man he was (as all as her father), is guilty about the trouble she caused her (apparently) incessantly pregnant (and bodily miserable) mother, her fear herself of death from childbirth:

And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thy arms (“Before the birth of one of her children”)

I had stayed with the domestic woman’s art, her private life. Well, now I branched out over the week in my reading. I read four poems on the four seasons (summer “with melted tawny face, and garments thin”), filled with wonderful home-y imagery of her life. Tamara Harvey said her favorite of Bradstreet’s poems is “Phlegm,” which she said was about medical science of the era, and which I discovered when I went home and read my one paperback (The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Jeannine Hensley, foreword Adrienne Rich) is unqualified angry at the behavior and language of most people she encounters

Patient I am, patient I’d need be,
To bear with the injurious taunts …
I’ll leave that manly property to you,
I’ll love no thund’ring guns nor bloody wars …. (from “The Four Humors”)

It was still to me counterproductive for the professor to have picked out to concentrate on the worst stilted poems (admittedly by Bradstreet probably thought her most serious), as Bradstreet in epic form at length retells some Biblical or ancient history, and I thought to myself the other women around me (there was but one man in the class) will never seek out this woman’s book, but in these the professor found assertive feminist ambition (interwoven with the usual half-thwarted ambition) and comments allusive of American experience historically.

I now reread Rich’s introduction and found for the first time she too was interested in Bradstreet’s early depiction of the American experience: Rich stayed with the poetry one can read (descriptive) and we end up with Hart Crane by way of Cotton Mather. All those many years ago I had compared her to Anne Hutchinson, persecuted (like the French women of the 1790s,e.g., Madame Roland), speaking out, acting publicly on behalf of radical political beliefs. Now I see Bradstreet much more in a line with the political learned Lucy Hutchinson, down to having written an epic poem too (Lucy’s is actually readable), who, happily I have written a foremother blog for.


Sor Juana, portrait by Miguel Cabrera (see essay by Elizabeth Perry in Early Modern Women, a Disciplinary Journal, 2012, Vol 7, pp 3-32)

The professor chose the same kinds of high ambition poems to stress in the case of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95). These are truly awful, some plays where allegorical Catholic figures declaim and dance, again with the twisted self-accusatory, self-assertions. Sor Juana was much worse off: illegitimate, the child of small landowners, she’d have no dowry and (reminding me of Galileo’s unfortunate daughter) was made a nun, and for a while let alone to read and study and write love poems to imaginary lovers (the poems reminded me of Andrew Marvell, somewhere between the metaphysicals and clarity of later 17th century verse). These were those I read, plus a few others to Mexican aristocratic women, sometimes on classical myths I could recognize (Pyramus and Thisbe!). I did remember one where she justified the enslavement of a girl. I seem even to have tried to read a book on her poetry, and got half-way through her life and religion (!) by Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, on “the entrapments of faith.”

No one to talk to, I somehow did not realize that what happened was she defied a bishop (guardedly, qualifiedly) and that was enough to lead all around her to quash her gifts, stop her writing; silenced, made to “do penitence,” no surprise she didn’t live long after this. Prof Harvey revealed also that Sor Juana was strongly hostile and aggressive towards native people in the US (for savage reprisals, strong nationalist), wrote blood-thirsty choruses,reminding me now of the sequences of “savages” dancing in the Americas in the film adaptation of Outlander (so we haven’t gone far in popular conceptions of African-derived rituals or native Americans, it seems). I began to see why I read only a third of the one volume of poetry I have (A Sor Juana Anthology, trans. Alan S. Trueblood, foreword by Octavio Pza) and never opened one of these half-crazed vision books (Sor Juana’s Dream, trans., intro, commentary Luis Harss), filled with guilt, agony, torturous versions of mystic neoplatonic readings of ancient kingdoms.


17th Century Spanish church (American, Yucatan, San Pedro)

Poor woman. I now think what I managed on my own was from her short period of joy, and reading over the week came to the conclusion she was a lesbian, and her bitter encounter with the bishop was preceded by equally crushing relationships with court women. She began as an innocent with a kindly good heart, naively reaching out to people expecting reciprocation:

And although loving your beauty
is a crime beyond repair,
rather the crime be chastised
than my fervor cease to dare.

With this confession in hand,
I pray be less stern with me.
Do not condemn me to distress
one who fancied bliss so free.

If you blame me for disrespect,
remember, you gave me leave;
thus, if obedience was wrong,
your commanding must be my reprieve …(“Excusing herself for silence, on being summoned to break it”)

So this time I read on into two-thirds more of my anthology of her poetry. It is equally hard to find a whole poem to share that is not painful. The fantasies of herself with the imaginary beloved in natural landscapes (reminding me of Anne Finch’s reveries) are lovely. There are long winding verses with deep grief at separation from the beloved, relief in his company where she can tell of her cares, “insidious memories,” awareness of the fleetingness of their beings. Some are addressed so directly and intimately to a lover (sonnets like Vittoria Colonna’s, but better, less repetition of the same imagery and more truthful) where she imagines him strangling her with a rope, teasing, vexing her with vacillations; in one she is widowed in a series called “Vicarious Love.” In the English translation, she’s at her best in short lines with four line rhyme schemes:

That my heart is suffering
from love pangs is plain,
but less clear by far
is the cause of its pain.

To make fancy come true
my poor heart strains
but, thwarting desire,
only gloom remains …
I yearn for the chance
to which I aspire
yet when it impends
I shrink ….

She has so few color words, I share this stanza for the sake of that word “green:”

Return, beloved one;
my weary life is suffering decline
from absence so prolonged.
Return, but if you stay away,
although my hope is fed by tears of pain,
I’ll keep it green till you return.

There’s a series on the relationship of convent to court. Any individual stanza gains its individual meaning from context so again it’s hard to convey why anyone would be drawn into these. There’s one on music which attempts to imitate music, a series on the self in the world (things are pretty bad, even learning is harmful for many). She recognizes the great cruelty of people, but also that hers are imagined troubles too, so some are “happy in their unknowing.” Paz finds her not so melancholy as I do since he follows her astronomical poetry and, through his religious belief, enters into her Dante like visions where she transfigures her longing spirit for love and understanding.

When it has come to the desired place,
It sees a lady held in reverence,
And who shines so, that through her radiance
The pilgrim spirit gazes on her (Paz, “Council of Stars”)

Nonetheless, in the dream book I mentioned, now opened and at least skimmed, this self-insight is not uncommon:

… to the undaunted spirit
that, disdaining life, determines
to immortalize itself in ruin.

I thought of the Renaissance poet, Margaret of Navarre’s Prisons, but perhaps for the modern reader, Emily Dickinson, Gabriela Mistal, and Elizabeth Bishop (drunk, lesbian, living at the edge of a world that did recognize her) would be more helpful in situating her among women. For art work, Remedios Varo (see my blog series, women artists) who spent her last years in Mexico and ended making surreal mystic fantasias.


Varo’s The Escape

I’ve four more, long 18th century women writers from this course on American roots, for our imaginary. The writer of a once widely-sold captivity narrative, Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711) and the neo-classical verse writing Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), in a deep sense a captive all her life; then journalist, essayist, playwright, poet, advocate for women’s rights (an American Mary Wollstonecraft), Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), playwright and still in print and read novelist.

I’ve spent this evening in the company of two great spirits.

Ellen

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Opening scene: Henry-Mirabell (Luigi Sottile) and Charles-Witwoud (Brandon Espinoza)

A remarkable adaptation of William Congreve’s The Way of the World at the Folger. As part of the on-going women’s festival of plays in DC, Theresa Rebeck updated Congreve brilliantly and then directed it with bravura and panache. Very effective. Interesting for anyone who has read or seen Congreve’s play and equally great fun for anyone who has not. Strongly recommended

Witwoud: “Truths! ha, ha, ha. No, no, since you will have it. I mean he never speaks truth at all — that’s all. He will lie like a chambermaid, or a woman of quality’s porter. Now that is a fault. (Congreve, Act I)

Friends and readers,

Although it’s too late to get to this surprisingly apt and often funny-cruel adaptation of Congreve’s The Way of the World by the successful woman playwright, Theresa Rebeck, at the Folger (tomorrow night is the last performance), I write to say hurry out to see it if is is revived anywhere near where you live. You need never have read or seen Congreve’s The Way of the World, so thorough going and consistent is the adaptation, though if you have, the parallels and comparisons reinforce the bitter things that happen and are said in Rebeck’s play. They also show the timelessness of Congreve’s types and situations which seems so easily retrofitted in 2018. The lavish costumes (over-the-top priced shoes, handbags and accessories) reflect actual realities in shopping today. Rebeck’s wit is penetrating as her doubles for Congreve’s players enact the aimless luxurious self-centered lives of the 1% to be experienced in the Hamptons on Long Island.

Three out of four reviews give it high marks

for fitting into other smash hits she’s engineered and written

Nelsson Presley: “What’s a hard-nosed Hollywood survivor like “NYPD Blue” and “Smash” writer Theresa Rebeck doing inside the cool, Shakespeare-ghosted marble of the Folger Theatre?

Letting blue language fly in her update of the Restoration comedy “The Way of the World,” for one thing. William Congreve’s takedown of money-grubbing nuptials is being updated to the Hamptons in a voice that sounds like pure Rebeck: energetic, contemporary, funny and brutally honest about gender and leverage.

for screwball cynical farce:

Jayne Blanchard: “The characters in The Way of the World are pros at sniping and subterfuge and show us peons how snark can be done with style … In other words, it’s a bitch to be rich.

No one feels that more acutely than Mae (Eliza Huberth, grounded and gleaming with goodness), an American heiress who wears her $600 million fortune like a giant price tag on her head. Well-meaning and altruistic, Mae feels—and rightly so, the way she is treated by family and friends—that no one really sees her, only a bunch of dollar signs and zeros.

and a paradoxical feminism, appropriate for this play, part of a festival of women’s plays going on in DC:

Caroline Jones: “As the male characters trip over themselves in search of sex and money, the women reveal that they, in fact, hold the power in most situations. It’s an appropriate theme for the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which celebrates the work of tenacious female playwrights from around the world … Thematically, it’s clear that Rebeck wants her adaptation to focus on the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. That idea comes through, but what makes the play fascinating is the relationships between the characters and the ways they abuse the people they love. Their desires, both long-term and temporary, are wrapped up in other individuals, something you don’t typically see in a comedy that includes regular uproarious laughter.”


Rene-Lady Wishfort (Kristin Neilsen) and her super-rich niece Mae-Millamant (Eliza Huberth)

What I enjoyed most was the superb comic-acting, which in a couple of cases is suggestive enough to make one feel sorry for the character. The brilliant timing, wild-letting go, and seeming unself-conscious self-expose of Kristin Nielsen as the lascivious aunt who is grieving for her loss of beauty and lonely is the power-house at the center. Truly funny soliloquies by Ashley Austin Morris, the desperately over-worked, rich-people worshipping and thieving waitress who is snubbed and taken advantage of, sometimes in a very ugly ruthless way — Mirabell is turned into an utter stud: Henry fucks every woman in the play and one of the men threatens to take her to the police unless she uses her Foible-like talent for manipulation to help him corner Mae-Millamant.


Henry oddly venomous as after fucking Ashley Martin Morris as the waitress-Foible

The critics above all write of Mae as effective, but I thought the part made her silly: she wants to give all her money to Haiti but seems to have no idea how to go about handling or keeping her money herself, much less disbursing it to anyone. After the terrific anger she displays at Henry, and she utters the most lines taken straight from Congreve that I recognized and some of the best in Rebeck’s play, she becomes blandness itself, almost a silent woman, saved for comic effect by her tasteless golden-hard wedding gown, which she keeps complaining is “too tight.”

For witty lines Rebeck did much better with the modernized Mrs Marwood, Erica Dorfler as Katrina, the ex-mistress (old-fashioned word but “previous love” doesn’t seem right either) of Henry, one of a trio there to needle the other characters. She gets some hard lines.


Erica Dorfler as Katrina-Marwood, Daniel Morgan Shelley as Lyle (a fop?) and Charles

I found myself remembering that in Congreve’s play Mrs Marwood was the bitterest and the most hurt of the characters: she has carried on adultery with male named Fainall, who has used, abused, and reproached her for betraying her friend, his wife; he hates being married, but she cannot bear that she has been “vicious” on his behalf and only gotten punishment for it (Congreve, Act II, lines 145-220).

Both Charles and Lyle are given wry lines reflecting on our world today: both are gay and would much prefer to go to bed with Henry, but that he prefers women. Not all of Congreve’s characters are transposed. The Fainalls (Mr and Mrs) are missing, and there is no fop (unless Lyle is meant to be), but there is a clown-fool: Elan Zafir as Reg, the bumpkin from the country is a Trump male type, crude and concerned to protect his manliness. When he goes to bed with Rene, he manifests intense distress lest she tell anyone.


Reg-Witwood is the one with the crass jacket and beer in his hand

All four didn’t have enough to do with the story of Henry’s quest for Mae and her money — unless that was the point. Much of the skilfull manipulation is done by Henry in a final battle with Rene over who knows more than whom and can therefore cheat and exert power over the other. As in Congreve’s play this one ends with a final duel of words and threats and compromises between Henry and Rene (Mirabell and Lady Wishfort). Some of the themes were startlingly apt for the year 2017: everyone lies and it’s asserted repeatedly there is no such thing as a truth that counts if you can shove it out of sight and delude others. Money conquers all.

Congreve it’s not. Nowhere as deep or thorough, or angry or pessimistic or deeply felt — or witty. But I hope it doesn’t disappear because it is more than a flippant rancid-stew. There is feeling now and again. Katrina or Mrs Marwood is really hurt when Henry escapes quickly after their night together and never phones. She is told by Charles (Witwoud) that men do not feel about phones the way women do. Other characters want someone to phone them back — this is not a group into texting though they walk around with cell-phones.

Most of the emotion is felt by snubbed waitress and the ridiculed Rene, who gives a final speech which would seem to contradict the whole play: Rene asserts what makes life worth while is devotion, relationships, loyalty, even love. This is not let to stand for too long, but it is part of the plot-design that what the heroine, Mae, wants is for the hero-stud, to be concerned for her feelings, truly in love with her, not to lie, and to be sexually faithful.

Ellen

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Ciarhan Hinds as Wentworth lifting Amanda Root as Anne Elliot into the carriage with the Crofts (1995 BBC Persuasion)

Henry: ‘Condemn’d in lonely Woods a banish’d Man to rove’
Emma: ‘That I, of all Mankind, will love but Thee alone’– Prior, Henry and Emma

Friends and readers,

Still on this question of how intertextuality’s layers deepen the meaning of a text (or film).

Last time I wrote of Persuasion, I traced the threads Austen wove therein from Charlotte Smith’s elegiac poems and Austen’s knowledge of Smith’s difficult life (betrayed by a husband, impoverished, crippled) in the context of other intensely romantic poets and texts (Byron, Shelley, Edmund Spenser): the characters from this angle in the novel present themselves as melancholy, plangent, drenched in irretrievable loss, with anecdotal counterparts presenting a prosaic buoyant hope in renewal.


Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot cracking under the strain of remembering what was (2007 ITV Persuasion)


Helen Schlesinger as the cheerful disabled Mrs Smith (1995 Persuasion)

Tonight I want to write of another briefer skein of allusion in Persuasion, which if examined turns out to reach across the novel, and offer readings about loyalty, male obduracy and suspicion of women, female abjection, constancy in love, sex, men and women’s natures and circumstances from Pride and Prejudice through to this last sixth full novel. This time it is a case of a text redolent with a cynical realistic disillusioned wit, which connects to the most plangent poignant moments of Persuasion and its comic-ironic, and burlesque elements too.


Dancing at Uppercross (1995 Persuasion) — one of the lighter moments in the film

I move to the first half of the 18th century, to Matthew Prior whose forte in lighter verse, tales and narratives, and lyrics was ironical sentiment. Once very well-known, to 18th century audiences and perhaps into the early 19th (I surmise Byron could have enjoyed his poetry, and his more serious philosophical metaphysics continued to be read), technically speaking, Prior is said by some to be the best male poet between Dryden and Pope. His Poems on Several Occasions (1709) appears to have been well-known until late in the century, and printed there are the two poems we will deal with, The Nut-Brown Maid (1503?), followed by Henry and Emma (by Prior), as an imitation (an invitation to the reader to compare), frequently alluded to.


Prior’s Collected Poems (1719), with featured frontispiece an imagined moment from Henry and Emma

There is another edition of Prior that Austen could have read these two poems in. At the close of an honorable career as a diplomat (if competence and producing useful treatises hard to negotiate means anything), in 1719 underpaid, undervalued partly because of his original low rank, Prior found himself near broke. His many influential political and poetic friends, Pope, Swift, Harley, Bathurst, Arbuthnot (see Ripply, Matthew Prior, a Twayne Life, Chapter 1), using Tonson as publisher, helped him produce an immense volume of poetry by subscription (a large handsome folio, 500 pages long, 1,445 people subscribing for 1,786 copies). The sale made Prior independently secure (it’s thought he may have made as much as 4,000 guineas at 2 guineas each volume). Prior’s poems were reprinted in the 18th century and Austen could have read his poem elsewhere (the type of thing is exemplified by Dodsley, A collection of Poems in Six Volumes by Several Hands with notes, 1748, reprinted and enlarged numerous times, which however does not contain these poems). She probably read Prior in the 1709 edition where the medieval poem is included, but the 1719 reprint is as much a possibility.

Austen mentions Prior twice, both times in the posthumous sister volumes of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion published by her brother and sister after her death. In the famous Chapter 5 of NA she inveighs against the over-valuation of male pseudo-scholarly texts over novels:

… while the abilities of the nine–hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.

If by chance a female reader is found reading a novel, she is shamed into self-deprecation and condescension:

‘It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. ‘It is onlyCecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda;’ or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best–chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of The Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbable circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it (1:5).

Not a very high recommendation. In his “Life of Prior,” Samuel Johnson is not keen on Prior’s comic and witty poetry about sex and love either. By this time in the century what was wanted in a lyric was something emotionally deep, and the libertine and pessimistic are never openly popular. Prior’s verse linsk to the vein of John Gay’s insouciant wit. Austen might have concurred as the poetry of sensibility was apparently her preference too: Cowper, Johnson himself, Crabbe, Charlotte Smith.


Louisa has just fallen and Wentworth and Anne are the first there (1995 Persuasion)

The second reference is in Persuasion. Louisa Musgrove has just fallen on her head and all are gathered around her, at first fearing a death from concussion. When Louisa is seen to be still breathing, everyone around her appears in a state of distress about her mental faculties, motor skills, general health from here on in. Anne has just felt rapture at overhearing Captain Wentworth describe her value as a nurse and organizer over Louisa (“No one so proper, so capable as Anne!”), but when Mary Musgrove, pettily meanly ceaselessly actively jealous insists on taking Anne’s place, and Anne observes Wentworth so crestfallen and indifferent to her, Anne; caring intently about Louisa it seems above all, the “mortifying” conviction arises in Anne’s mind that she was “valued only as she could be useful to Louisa.” Prior again comes to Austen’s mind as partly narrator partly Anne:

She endeavoured to be composed, and to be just. Without emulating the feelings of an Emma towards her Henry, she would have attended on Louisa with a zeal above the common claims of regard, for his sake; and she hoped he would not long be so unjust as to suppose she would shrink unnecessarily from the office of a friend (1:12).

Anne is intensely conflicted but the parallel makes plain that while (as is implied) not quite as fanatically in love as Emma towards “her Henry” (it is clearly a case of love), Anne would have done everything she could for this girl that Wentworth seems to love so — in place of her whom he was once so devoted to.

The matter alluded to is, as I’ve suggested, Matthew Prior’s rewrite or sophisticated ironic imitation of a medieval ballad, The Nut-brown Maid turned into Henry and Emma, one of the more popular poems of the 18th century. Prior rewrites the medieval enigmatic narrative fully, adding all sorts of concrete circumstances in a spirit of part ironic mockery part sweet love tone. Both versions of the poem are stanzaic. In both Henry tests Emma: they have fallen in love and maybe have had sex (unclear in both medieval and Prior’s poem) and in the 18th century poem have hunted, danced, and courted to their heart’s content. It is over-time to marry.

In the medieval and then 18th century poem Henry tells Emma (a lot more is made concrete in the later poem) and the narrator provides believable background that, Emma’s father has rejected him. He is now “Condemn’d in a lonely Woods a banish’d Man to rove.” She will have immediately to elope with him if they are not to be parted and if they are to marry. He tells her they will have nothing if they wed. He outlines a series of terrible deprivations: she will have to live in forests, go hungry, be despised for running away with him. In both poems, Emma says nothing of this matters. She throws all caution to the winds and trusts to him and time. She of “all mankind” will “love him alone.” That’s the dual refrain. He keeps at it and names sacrifice after sacrifice, and at the last says he has another mistress and loves her too. Is that all right? Will she still come? She will have this other woman as rival. Well, she’s up to each turn of the screw: she will herself care for this other woman. At that Henry is satisfied and tells her in fact they will be okay; there has been no such forbidding, he has no other mistress. The reader the first time through is fooled too (rather like Austen’s novels at first often leaving out information). Henry had decided to test Emma’s loyalty to him, her resolve, her faithfulness, chastity, if you will. She has proved herself faithful and worthy of him. In the medieval tale he had pretended to be a peasant and now reveals himself as a prince. Of interest is Prior’s tone. Unlike the melancholy wildness of the ballad, it’s sort of tongue-in-cheek.


Anne musing climbing the stairs (1995 Persuasion)

Is Austen likening Anne Elliot to Prior’s Emma and that original nut-brown maid? If so, because the Prior poem is satiric, is she partly mocking Anne Elliot. One critic, Galperin (The Historical Austen) argues the whole novel is burlesque, and we have been misreading it. The cancelled ending is in fact the true and better one, and there we see how comic it was supposed to be. Galperin insinuates not only did Henry and Cassandra misname the books, but they chose a different text than Austen intended. Persuasion was supposed to be a send-up of the serious issue that Crabbe had a closely analogous poem about in his Tales: in’Procrastination’ (and other tales too) a young couple are made to wait prudently and in this one never get together and live out their lives apart in grief and desolation. I think Persuasion is not burlesque (though there is much comedy and one ribald moment, oddly enough over death), but Austen does make gentle fun of Anne’s high musings of constancy and romance as she walks the streets of Bath. All the while (as in Mansfield Park and Austen’s treatment of Fanny Price) on my pulses I know it’s deeply felt.

Is Austen then at least saying Anne over-does it? Anne Elliot is not quite an Emma but she is coming close because she is so in love, so desperate and so abject. Now Wentworth is not deliberately testing Anne: Persuasion is no literary stereotypical non-serious text. In the 18th century this testing theme is used in mostly misogynistic texts where the assumption is woman are fickle, promiscuous, can be turned like weathercocks. Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte (thus do all females) is only the best known. These are misogynistic texts about women and Austen is concerned to defeat the whole idea of the test.

The misogynistic perspective is one Austen may be eager to counter. This is confirmed in a long dialogue at the close Persuasion that links to the theme of inconstancy, using the 18th century language we find in Persuasion, loyalty to an attachment after the person has died. All will recall how at the White Hart Inn, Anne finds Wentworth’s friend, the disabled Captain Harville grieving openly for the death of his sister, Phoebe, because he is hurt for her: “Poor Fanny! she would not have forgotten him so soon!” Captain Benwick had claimed he would never forget Phoebe, or know another love, but has nonetheless within a very few weeks fallen in love with Louisa Musgrove. Where was his vaunted depth if he could forget so soon? Harville has not forgotten his sister. One could say (were one privy to scenes not dramatized in the book) Benwick took advantage of Louisa, however half-unconsciousy in his own need. Louisa was susceptible because she was emotionally and physically weak and vulnerable after falling from a stone stairway. Harville explains that Wentworth is taking the framed miniature of Benwick that had been meant for Phoebe, and having it re-framed it for Louisa so Harville need not do this (Persuasion, 2:11).


Robert Glenister as Captain Harville and Anne having their talk over the re-framed miniature

The word used is “inconstancy:” Benwick has not remained in grief, and out of this incident Harville and Anne debate over who is the most inconstant: men or women. Paradoxically, in the face of his assertion that Fanny Harville would have been more faithful, Harville insists men are most constant, most in need of their families and emotional support because they must sail far away and spend so much alone (it seems) on a ship. All literature proves this. Anne objects that literature proves nothing of the sort as it is written by men and eloquently protests that precisely because women don’t go out and endure wracking and dangerous adventures in the world, but stay at home, they are “preyed upon” by their feelings. They have no other outlet, cannot forget, as they are given no other object. Still Harville is not convinced and she not contented with defending women based on the idea they have no way to be inconstant, pivots on the idea on the need for an object. She has not read Donald Winnicott but she knows how central to women the need to feel attached and needed:

‘I believe you [men in general] equal to every important exertion, and to every domestic forbearance, so long as — if I may be allowed the expression, so long as you have an object. I mean while the woman you love lives, and lives for you. All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone! (2:11 or 24).

This extraordinary compelling moment of Anne asserting the privilege of something self-destructive, deeply hurtful to the personality structure shows Austen has moved full circle. Are we to value that which has ravaged Anne? Austen began with alluding to Prior comically over abject love to finding something deeply disquieting in the pains of unreciprocated love which still holds out. Constancy is not a matter for misogynistic testing, and if it truly exists in women (quite contrary to what men claim), it’s because they are given nothing else.


Joseph Mawle as Harville and Rupert Penry-Jones as Wentworth half-discussing Wentworth’s change of heart (2007 Persuasion)

Why Anne does not use the instance before them of an inconstant man (Benwick) and probable constant woman (Fanny) I do not know.

As it turns out, in fact Wentworth by seeing everyone’s response to what happened to Louisa after she falls, and that he is now expected to behave like a bethrothed, realizes he has gone too far. He wakes up to feel he is not in love with a girl who had such a simplistic understanding of what he was getting at in his lectures on not being persuaded away from what you had determined upon. He does not want to spend his life with her, but is now in too deep. When he leaves Anna off at Uppercross and returns to Bath, he wants out. We never see the scenes of his return and realization. Anne finds out only much later that he visited his brother — leaving the field open to Benwick. Anne is not quite an Emma. Anne (and Lady Russell) had been hoping for Benwick to come to her as he seemed about to propose to her. Benwick for reasons that remain unexplained until this later time says he cannot come. Louisa not deeply committed to Wentworth (as her nature is not to be) cannot be accused of inconstancy. The attachment was superficial and she easily moves to Benwick. Wentworth’s removal of himself succeeds.

What is the gain of this layering of meaning interwoven here? The first allusion provides a hard edge to the text: in this November fall Wentworth has been flirting with Louisa and holding dialogues over people who are over-persuaded from seizing their heart’s desires. He has Anne in mind during these. Then when Louisa takes this too seriously and has an accident as she attempts to proving her determination, uses Anne as nurse without truly thinking of her as a person. Anne is overly abject, but pulls up just in time as she feels resentment (however slight) for being valued only for what she can do for Louisa. Anne is also conflicted, wanting to do what Wentworth wants, for him and for Louisa. Again, strikingly the example of constancy for Harville is the dead Fanny (so we cannot know), and we see how Wentworth torments Anne and almost marries Louisa, and yet Harville argues men are the most loyal to an attachment.


A scene from the BBC 1971 Persuasion: Anne not strong almost falls (early in this not-well-known film)

The second makes us look more deeply into this notion of constancy: why is it not true what Harville contends (and the medieval and Prior Henry assumed), i.e., that women are inconstant. Not, according to Austen, because they manipulatively make themselves over to men as possessions for male pride to show off. No. Their circumstances and psychology makes them vulnerable to emotional attachments, however painful and potentially destructive to them. After 8 years of Wentworth’s absence, Anne has aged and became haggard. She has been given no adequate substitute our narrator says. She rightly does not like the superficial Bath, and Charles (offered as an appropriate partner at age 22) is not an adequate partner for her.

The novel does not discount the harm that may be done by marrying someone unfitted to our temperament — without saying there can be only one partner. Charles is much the worse as a character for having married Mary. So constancy as an ideal has also to be questioned. We are given enough to suggest that in future Benwick and Louisa will be another of the many mismatches in Austen. For the moment sex, love, emotionalism takes both over but as time goes on, Wentworth says, Benwick is a thinking man and (it’s implied) will be bored and Louisa will want someone far less sensitive, and show she cares little for books for real. It’s the non-thinking Charles who mistakes his sister to think she’ll change her nature and they’ll be ever so happy. In the assembly rooms in the spring Wentworth of course is also thinking of himself and Anne as he speaks to her, trying to reach her:

‘I confess that I do think there is a disparity, too great a disparity, and in a point no less essential than mind. I regard Louisa Musgrove as a very amiable, sweet-tempered girl, and not deficient in understanding, but Benwick is something more. He is a clever man, a reading man; and I confess that I do consider his attaching himself to her with some surprise. Had it been the effect of gratitude, had he learnt to love her, because he believed her to be preferring him, it would have been another thing.'(2:8 or 20)

Eventually, not so long as a few years from now Louisa and Benwick will be another of Austen’s several mismatched couples who were drawn together originally by sexual attraction and over-emotionalism and youth: from Mr and Mrs Bennet, the Palmers, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, to perhaps Mr and Mrs Woodhouse, Admiral Tilney and poor Miss Drummond that was (Mrs Tilney’s birth or maiden family name), and Sir Walter and Lady Elliot. In the earlier novels the intelligent men mismarry; in the later, the women. We never do see Benwick and Louisa together after we leave them at Lyme.

Not only are there these complications of very different nuances coming out of this intertextual embedding of Prior, but the novel has another whole skein, which I began with, of very different sources and memories. The poems of Charlotte Smith, the story of her life, the poetry of Byron, of Scott, and if we want to extapolate what is not specifically alluded to, but in the 18th century grain: Crabbe’s stories of struggling poorer and middling couple who are deprived of joy altogether out of too much prudence. We all remember the famous marginalia of Cassandra scratched out next to Austen’s line: “She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older — the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning:”

‘Dear, dear Jane! This deserves to be written in letters of gold’ (quoted in Tomalin, JA: A Life, 260)

Not that the intertextualities take precedence over the naturalistic art in the book and how it mirrors Austen’s own self. The book does not stay autumnal, nor is it called Melancholy, Abjection nor Constancy, but Persuasion. Persuasion opens the book up to wider themes than erotic passion: it includes Austen herself as someone over-persuaded. It is limiting to see this as her remembering her youth when she was deprived of Tom Lefroy, or say remembering her own decision not to marry Brook Bridges (if Nokes is right and this romance as played out in Miss Austen Regrets was a second serious possibility), or give herself utterly to some other partner, we don’t know about, man or woman, for example, the mysterious romance by the seacoast Cassandra dreamt of, or Martha Lloyd. The cancelled manuscript reveals that her mother had given her a hard time over how she presented authority in the person of Lady Russell.


Fiona Shaw as Mrs Crofts (1995 Persuasion)

The book’s deepest theme and its grief is over allowing oneself to be thwarted, to be repressed: how bad it has been for Austen to stay at home and have her feelings preyed upon. Austen herself as a writer and woman is involved, how she has allowed herself to be over-persuaded, and now that she is ill (for that is felt in the novel too) longs to have had or have more from life than has been granted her as a woman. She could have written more. She dreams of going to sea in the figure of Mrs Crofts (so beautifully acted by Fiona Shaw in the 1995 film). I find the final moments of the 1995 Persuasion with Amanda Root as Anne in the sun on the bridge of the ship pitch perfect


Amanda Root as Anne looking out to sea aboard a ship with Wentworth (1995 Persuasion)

Ellen

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John Radner (1939-2017)

Friends,

Christmas is upon us, and I’ve yet to transcribe my notes on this year’s early November EC/ASECS conference, held at Howard University! I did not stay at the hotel but took the Metro each of the three trips (one evening, two days) so I arrived a bit late and left earlier than usual. We had our usual Thursday evening (Nov 2) of reading poetry aloud with a reception of drinks and snacks. It was the first time I had been to Howard University and I walked around campus too. I have about two blogs worth of papers and readings to tell of. This first one is on the first three sessions of the first day. The theme of the conference was “Capital culture and cultural capital.” I’d have loved to give a paper on Anthony Trollope’s stay in DC and his thought-provoking description of the city and surrounding environs during the civil war (including Alexandria and near where I live) but he’s not eighteenth century ….

I arrived on Friday morning, November 3rd, in time to participate in the tribute to John Radner (9:00 to 10:15 am). He was a great scholar who devoted his life to study and teaching, with his central interest in Johnson and Boswell. Last year as a culmination of a life-time of reading and thinking he published his book, Johnson and Boswell: A biography of a Friendship. He taught at George Mason for many years where I knew him. His office was across the hall from mine and we frequently talked during a few years when we were both there at the same time. He was an active and long-time member of EC/ASECS and also taught at the OLLI at AU where I teach too nowadays.


Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson (intensely reading)

The tribute consisted of four papers read aloud and talked through by four close friends of John’s. Each paper had a theme dear to the heart of Johnson and/or Boswell. Ann Kelly was just finishing hers on her first trip to the Hebrides, with her children, commemorating John through how Johnson and Boswell’s have text stirred her (and many others) into visiting the Hebrides islands, and making friends there. Henry Fulton who has just published a massive biography on John Moore used an incident where Moore and Johnson came together through a poem by Helen Maria Williams. The poem was given to Burke, Burke shared it with Moore as did Reynolds who then showed it to Johnson. Henry’s point was to show the connections between these people whom John had been so engaged with over the decades. Linda Merians then spoke: John knew more of Johnson than anyone. Walter Jackson Bate who wrote the great biography of Johnson was John’s mentor. She talked of how John empathized with both Boswell and Johnson, and wrote of how each thought “I am never with this man without feeling better and rendered happier.” Melancholy united Boswell and Johnson who had a deep fear of breakdown. Beth Lambert whose biography is on Burke spoke of the failed friendship of Burke and Boswell. They remained aware of one another is as far as it got, Boswell transgressed by using some private confidence; Burke’s Irishness made him more sensitive to spreading gossip which could be turned against him. Burke in turn doubted Boswell was “fit” (not smart enough) for their weekly clubbing. In each case the speaker talked of his or her memories of John. It was a very touching hour.


Fanny Burney by John Bogle (detail)

The panel I was chairing, “Portraits of Frances Burney” came after a short coffee break (10:45-noon). Kaitlyn Giblin’s paper, “To nobody belonging, by nobody was noticed:” Navigating the bounds of Feminine Authority and Female Authorship in Burney’s Evelina. Kaitlyn examined the depictions of motherhood in Evelina; Caroline, Evelina’s mother, is not married and thus her daughter has no identity. Her very existence is to be hidden. Evelina gains some status when she is revealed to be her mother’s daughter, but she knows a seachange only when she marries. Mr MacCartney’s story fits into the same trajectory: he too needs legitimacy, recognition, acknowledgement. Kaitlyn’s paper fit into the rebellious but 18th century Johnsonian figuring of a public reasoning Burney. Noello Chao’s “The Arts and Indifference in The Wanderer” produced a different sort of portrait. Noello made the unexpected point of the price artists have to make when they practice their art. Her spirit is annihilated when she does practice because she is not appreciated and feels profoundly divorced from herself as she tries to play in front of others wholly alien to her. Burney presents the failure of art to inspire or make others feel meaningful; Juliette feels little pleasure or solace in what she is doing; she cringes because she has to sell herself. The novel is about the hidden costs of producing art. We also see how limited are the choices upper class women are given; susceptible to assault and invective. High continental forms do not satisfy; instead Stonehenge with its ancient natural space offers calm and a quiet place to feel herself. Burney does not reject labor but wants it to have a chance to be meaningful.

Lorna Clarke’s paper, “Juvenile Productions in the Burney Family” She discussed her discovery of the early writings of several members of the Burney family. They were an artistic group living in a vibrant atmosphere, in a sophisticated London culture with professional and amateur theatrics around them. It was wonderful to listen to Lorna’s enthusiasm as she described these works; they did resemble the Brontes in how they invented a magazine and shared their writing, inspiriting one another. They drew frontispieces, made indexes, were imitating published books. The experience (as practised by these children) was educational socially; they think of their audience. Lorna then read passages to show how these works are funny, nervy, uses legends; there is a 34 stanza ballad the children seek freedom as their narrators find their voice. They incorporate violence meant to be funny; and also have blood baths at the end of a tragedy. Sophia Elizabeth produced her own anthology; we know Frances wrote a novel about Caroline, mother of Evelina. The vividness of her style is there in the earliest of her journals. You can see gender at work. The figure of Persephone is used for melancholy and romance. There is ambiguity about being a writer. One of the children writing died relatively young after a period as a governess. There are also letters.


William Hogarth, The Graham family (children)

The papers had been so interesting, full of details and varied there was much talk afterward (as moderator I didn’t get to write it down so have no details). Several questions on the Wanderer and attitudes towards art in Burney’s family. Lorna seemed to have made us all want to peruse these juvenilia far more than I have ever wanted to read the Brontes’s famous tiny-lettered children’s lurid romances (until recently when in another context I heard a paper quoting from these, showing that in there are more passages than one might expect which anticipate their adult novels). I was reminded of the March family in Little Women who produce a Christmas number (a reflection of the Alcott family); the Austens, much older, wrote a periodical which had circulation among adult readers.

We adjourned for lunch and I went with two friends to a nearby Asian fusion restaurant where we had good talk and food.


Charlotte Ramsay Lennox (1730-1804)

For the first session of the afternoon I went to Eleanor Shevlin’s panel, “Collection, Curation & Classicism.’ It had a miscellany of papers. Hilary Fezzey talked about autism in the heroine of Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote and Hugh Blair’s letters. Her argument was an interesting and worthy one, as her point seemed to be how neurotypical (as she called the non-autistic) people are treated as a norm which all others have to be like. Which is unfair. People who are autistic may be said to lack social capital. She said that from Hugh Blair’s letters we can see he was socially very awkward, dressed differently, lived a wholly interior life, did not follow social “rules.” He had no sense of social inhibition where he should have been inhibited; seemed very innocent to others. He was married for a time. She felt the explanation for Arabella’s obtuseness and obsession with later 17th century heroic romances was that she is meant to be autistic. Even if Lennox would not have used that term, Hilary seemed to feel Lennox meant to describe autism as a type of person. She does not pay attention to other people, has no idea of social conventions, and the novel condemns her at the end.

Sylvia Kasey Marks’s paper was on the 20th century great playwright, Arthur Miller and the 18th century forger, Henry Ireland. She discussed them as both appropriating the work or understood persona and style of someone else. In the early phase of his career Miller wrote radio plays, and some of these are dramatizations of someone else’s novel. She demonstrated that in Miller’s case we see him consistently change his original to fit his own vision. Unlike Ireland, Miller was not trying to find a new space in which he could create something unlike what others were writing at the time. He was building his career and operating within a considerable group of constraints (which include pleasing the audience). Sylvia told the whole sad story of Ireland, including a conflict with his father, and how we may see popular attitudes towards Shakespeare in some of Ireland’s writing.


Arthur Miller when young (photograph found on the Net)

Bill Everdell gave a detailed historical paper, excellent, on “the evangelical counter-Enlightenment.He discussed the relationship between ecstasy and doctrinal fundamentalism in 18th century Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. He was exploring powerful social and psychological currents in the era. He went into the more learned treatises, attitudes towards self-determination, equality, passion, calmness. I couldn’t begin to take down the details.

There was not much time for discussion afterward so I was not able to register the serious doubt I had about analyzing a character in a novel according to 20th century diagnostic criteria in watered-down ways. I know from experience before someone is diagnosed for autism, they are interviewed and must have 2 characteristics out of six sets of them on six sheets of paper. Arabella is a naif figure in a Quixote satire. Hugh Blair’s self-descriptions are closer to possibility as he was a real complex person but we’d have to have more evidence from others. People did attempt to ask about Miller and also the Islamic Enlightenment.

More on the later afternoon and Saturday in my second blog.


George Morland (1763-1804), study of a cat

Ellen

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Dear Friends,

It is gratifying to be told that one of your blogs has prompted another blogger to write further on its subjects: the woman in question was part of my two series thus far of women artists: Ellen Epps Gosse.

Roger Wotton, Professor Emeritus of Biology at University College London, was moved to write about the woman he calls (as did many people she knew) Nellie as Nineteenth-Century Wonder Woman. He grew up in Devon and his book is on Philip Henry Gosse, Ellen’s father-in-law, Edmund’s father: Walking with Gosse, Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts, the introduction by Sir Patrick Bateson may serve as a review as well as short biography of Prof Wotton. His blog concentrates far more on Ellen and Edmund’s relationship as well as (understandably) Edmund and his father’s, while mine sets Ellen in the context of the remarkable number of other women artists in her immediate family and nearby kin: Ellen’s daughter, Sylvia Gosse (1881-1968):


The Semptress by Sylvia

Ellen’s sister, Emily Epps; another sister Laura Epps ,later Alma Tadema (1852-1909), and Laura’s daughter, Anna Alma Tadema (1867-1943)


Eton College Chapel by Anna

If you go over to my blog you will find I have supplied at least one picture by each of these Epps-related woman (with the exception of Emily). I was demonstrating the truth of Deborah Cherry’s argument in her Painting Women that in the 19th century women artists emerged in connected groups from connected families. When we are talking of the photographer artist, Julia Margaret Cameron, Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf, and Angelica Garnett (the last two writers, as was Ellen Epps Gosse occasionally). We don’t see Cameron, Woolf, or Bell, as a somewhat self-enclosed family group, but this more famous Bloomsbury group fits this Victorian pattern too. I mentioned in the blog and here add a few pictures by a third less-well known group come from the Hayllarr family: Little Stackpole, Edith


Edith’s Feeding Swans

Jessica:


Jessica’s Peonies

Kate:


Kate’s Sunflowers and Hollyhocks

and Mary. Although very different in style and presentation, if you look at Vanessa Bell and even Dora Carrington’s paintings, you will find similar subjects, attitudes of tranquil stillness in reverie (scroll down to see Vanessa’s family group).

I’ve not forgotten my series of women artists. for the first series I made a linked in handy list; for the second my reader will have to be content with names you put into the search engine. I’ve been so busy with projects that will lead towards published papers, reviews, or a book to write anything new since then, except for my review of the powerful movie, Maudie, about Maud Lewis (1901-70), who now ends of the second series.

Sofonsiba and Lucia Anguissola (1535/6 – 1625; 1536/8 – 1565)
Giovanna Garzoni (1600-1670)
Mary Beale (1633-1699)
Anne Killigrew (1660-1685)
Angela Kaufmann (1741-1807)
Henriette Ronner Kip (1821-1909), Posy Simmonds (b 1945)
Joanna Mary Boys Wells (1831-61)
Florence Ann Caxton (1838-1920)
Ellen Epps Gosse (1850-1929)
Beatrix Potter (1855-1943)
Ethel Reed (1874-1912)
Dora Carrington (1893-1932)
Remedios Varo (1908-1963)
Maud Lewis (1901-1970)

I have tonight at least made up a group of candidates for a third series: Anna Dorothea Therbusch, Adelaide Labille Guiard, and Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun for the 18th century; Mary Ellen Best English and German, naive art, American looking, includes illustrations, 19th century

Elizabeth Nourse and Marie Spartali Stillman for the 19th century; Emily Carr, Vanessa Bell and Paula Regno for the 20th. If I can find material, Giovanna Fratellini for 17th into 18th century Italy; and Helen McNicoll and Elin Danielson for late 19th into 20th century (the same cusp as Helen Allingham and Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes).

Two self-portraits: women often do self-portraits


Giovanni Fratelli, a Self-Portrait (1720)


Elin Danielson (1861-1919), a Self-Portrait (1890)

I would also like this time to write about women illustrators, especially Elizabeth Shippen Green (1871-1954)


One of Green’s An Old Woman

Ellen

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Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) and Maudie (Sally Hawkins) early on in film

Dear friends and readers,

A few days ago I saw a extraordinary movie which had a moment so uplifting that it caught my breath: Sherry (Kari Matchett) asks Maudie (Sally Hawkins) what has sustained her, enabled her to survive to paint these marvelously colorful expressionistic depictions of gardens, people, landscapes. Maud says with a deep sincerity, she has had windows to sit by and look at the world out of, and these experiences which she paints and from which painting and interaction within herelf give her such fulfilment, it’s enough. What more than this core does anyone have. Words to this effect.


An image of one of the real Maud Lewis’s paintings

She is living with Sherry because Sherry has taken her in after she left her partner-husband, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke) because his latest form of obtuse bullying includes trying to stop her from talking of the baby she gave birth to many years ago, and how it was taken from her immediately by her aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) and brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), how they claimed the baby was born deformed and died, but was in fact (her aunt has now out of guilt and respect for Maud told her) perfectly formed, and lived. Her brother “sold” the baby, says Ida, because the couple was a stable, good pair of people and they thought this was for the best. They cannot have had Maud’s feelings in mind: we now realize she experienced an agon of grief, loss, and despair (she was led to believe she should never have children).

This is just one of an at first ever-growing pile tragic traumatic experience visited upon Maud (that we get to see): when we first meet her, she seems old, wizened, badly disabled by arthritis or some such condition, and despite this painting gay flowers. Flashback (the rest of the movie) to her in say her twenties when she is living a stifled life with this same aunt, no money, no access to any enjoyment, spoken harshly to, ripped out of her mother’s house (which her brother has now sold — he is into selling things) and left to rot with this aunt. Late at night, she quietly leaves the house and haunts a nearby roadhouse, where people are drinking, dancing, talking, and she can cage cigarettes, a glass of beer, and dream amid the noise and stars. She finds (most improbably it might seem) liberty, and then creates her life as a painter and loving companion with a silent seemingly “retarded” (he is autistic) fish-peddler (precarious living) she sees in a general store asking someone to write an advertisement for him for a “housemaid.” His house is a filthy shack. Ignoring the aunt’s protests, sneers, predictions she will be a “love slave” (which she laughs at astonished), she approaches this man and gets permission to become his housemaid.


Everett at work

More oppression is what she finds: giving her hardly any tools, no money, he demands she clean the house, cook for him (he is clearly impoverished from the state of his kitchen pots, utensils, stove), is barely civil. She has nowhere to sleep but next to him in his bed in an attic room. He speaks of an orphanage, and we gather his abominable behavior is what he learned there: he seeks control as a way of stablizing his environment. It gets so bad, he is so distrustful of her encroaching on him, taking power, that when an associate of his (also staking out a precarious living) speaks to her, and she responds, he hits her hard across the face. Her startled scream of anguish made the single slap and its sound means more than 100s killed in other movies. I thought to myself, if this keeps up, I can’t stay, and wondered if my friend (I was with a new friend) would mind if I insisted on leaving. But this is the nadir of the film.


Ride in the Snow (the movie landscape is filled with ice and snow)

Gradually she wins him over, by her patient improvements of this cottage and then her cheerful naive paintings celebratory of all around them, the natural world (we learn eventually we are in Nova Scotia, Canada), everything in the cottage, him, her, invented anecdotes. First the walls, then we see her making her painful way to a shop, grudgingly he buys her paper and paints because she has begun to use one can of paint to paint on discarded boards of wood she found outside the shack. The state of their relationship may be measured by his beginning to follow or go before her with his wagon, and then his putting her in the wagon while he pushes it ahead of him. It is Sherry’s first visit to complain that Everett has not delivered the fish she paid for that effects the first transformative change: Sherry sees the paintings on the wall, and asks Maud to paint postcards for her. She will pay Maud. Out of his first success, and Sherry’s advertising Maud to other people, telling her NYC friends, associates in gallery, Maud’s first enlarged custom comes. By this time Maud is regularly lying with Everett at night and when once he is moved to try to have sex with her, she has told the story she was told of the birth and death of a deformed baby. At that, he moves back, but he is not turned off. She has begun to write down an accounting of his business (money taken in, fish promised), and he has begun to do some and then gradually more and more of the household chores while she paints. He is alive to the money she is bringing in. The film is not sentimental. They form a partnership.


The marriage day — outside the church

But it is touching even if we feel that the roughness from him, and abject acceptance from her never goes. If I were to characterize their developing emotional relationship for the rest of the film I would use the word tender: a vein of tender affection is drawn out of him as he increasingly compensates himself for what she cannot do easily. They do make love in that bed, and (very characteristic throughout) she says gingerly and then repeats the idea they should marry, and eventually we see both of them dressing themselves respectable and carefully and then with the original friend-associate and his girlfriend coming out of a church a married couple. The mood of their life is cheerful, because very unexpectedly as soon as she is treated with minimal decency, a kind of laughter comes out of her eyes, her face shines with eagerness; she is quietly buoyant and I was reminded of the first time I saw Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh’s Happy-go-Lucky (as long ago as 2008), which was about a stalwart happy community (that I now associate with Tim Firth’s Calendar Girls). Hawkins has the unusual ability convincingly to bring joy out of anguish (that is what she did as Anne Elliot in the 2007 Persuasion). Aisling Walsh, the director gives them plenty of room for inward-outward display; Sherry White’s script is both simple and subtle.


Maud Lewis in front of the small house where she lived with Everett

Not until the end of the film did I realize that Maud Lewis was a real Canadian artist (1903-70), that this was a deeply empathetic biopic of a beloved artist, who had indeed been arthritic, disabled, and rescued by while she rescued, an isolated man, also disabled. Just as the credits are about to roll, photographs of the real Maud and Everett Lewis appear (and we see these actors modeled their bodily appearance on the original people). As Glenn Kerry puts it, “This film fits into a particular kind of sub-genre: the story of two lonely people, societal outcasts, who find comfort and solace with each other.” But it does not treat this theme (or any other) conventionally. It’s not a story about how wonderful is fame — indeed I as a viewer kept worrying that somehow the increasing number of people showing up at the cottage, and eventually the crooked brother, would somehow break this couple up. The suspense of the film comes from our fear they will lose one another because they remain inarticulate: each concession comes unexpectedly, not prepared for. After Maud returns to Everett, and a scene between them where each has trouble acknowledging love (for different reasons):


she listens to him, pays attention

After they come back together, he seemingly suddenly drives her to a respectable looking house outside of which is a young 20 year old woman and her husband. Everett says “there is your daughter.” He has found the girl and Maud begins to cry. They also do not move from this isolated existence, so towards the end when her arthritis is much worse and she falls in the snow while Everett is off selling fish, she is in danger of freezing to death, of badly hurting herself.

What breaks them is aging, her disability gets worse. She cannot walk far, can hardly hold her brushes. She has throughout the movie smoked and now she can’t breathe. A doctor shows up, and declares she has emphysema and must stop smoking. Everett declares (in his usual bullying manner) she already has. But it is too late. One night together in their now electric-lit, heated, comfortable home, she falls over unable to breathe. He rushes her to a hospital, where she gradually dies. Hawkins performs her usual spectacular acting (she was an inimitable Duchess of Gloucester, jealous, foolishly playing with superstition, then blamed and tortured, gone mad in the Hollow Crown), but Ethan Hawke is not far behind. He looks different, thicker than his usual types, gradually utterly convincing. As he walked away from the hospital to loneliness in this cottage filled with her things, her absent present I remembered him when young in Sunrise, and then five years later Sunset with Julie Delpy, then ten years on, Midnight, and somehow this movie seemed another phase, with his beloved partner now deeply aged and quietly much wiser.

I write this detailed review because the blurbs on IMDB are so distorted (this is the story of an arthritic housekeeper who makes good in her community one runs — what community?) and the reviews few and uncomprehending or uncomfortable. It seems disabled people living in poverty need to be prettied up more. Manola Dargis sees the film as “about the fantasies we make of our lives as we spin beauty and hope from despair.” There is a book, Lance Woolaver’s Maud Lewis: The Heart on the Door where he shows a desperate life. Everett Lewis was a far more difficult man to live with than the film makes out. The movie softens, but it’s often through remembering and emphasizing the paintings, the imagery, the artist painting.


Cats

I often despair, I’m alone much of the time, and it was good for me to have validated the kinds of moments (mine literary) I have which make all the hard and tiring parts of life, the awareness of how excluded I am, still worth enduring for me. This has come to be another in my series of women artists. Maybe I will find the spirit to return to these yet.


A slightly sadder picture

Ellen

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