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Archive for the ‘women’s art’ Category


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

Friends,

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

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

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

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

An epigram:

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

This stands out:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ellen

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Chawton House and Church

Friends,

The two week set of videos and podcasts, full length essays (mostly as published in Persuasions Online) and linking prompts, found on the Future Learn site offers some worthwhile material to most people who’ve read Jane Austen’s writing, and want to learn about her, her work, and her era. The central target audience appears to be someone who knows little of Austen, and may not have read even the six famous novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817), but the choice of material provides new information and food for thought for serious readers, devoted fans, and even academic scholars. No small feat.

The first week tells Austen’s life by sheer presentation and description of documents published by her family. Henry’s biographical notice, from what’s left of her letters, uncontroversial timelines for early family members, and much from what is made available from Chawton house and Chawton cottage. We are shown a map of places Austen and her family visited and which towns and seashore meant most to her It can and is meant to function as an advertisement (information about) Chawton house, its programs, library, gardens. So someone knowing nothing is not presented with bogus histories or legends or excessive hype. A plain photo of Chawton cottage is used.

The strongest sections where something beyond these primary basics are presented in the first week are thus understandably about Jane Austen’s reading and 18th century social norms for uses of gardens and house landscapes. Gillian Dow (Director of Research at Chawton House and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton) and Daren Bevin (Chawton House Librarian) discuss what is in Chawton House library (1:9).


From Horden House (another private library)

For Austen’s reading, Gillian showed the family copy of Samuel Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, said how Austen’s brother, Henry Austen, said it was Jane’s favorite book, showed the ms of the parodic playlet Grandison in Austen’s own hand, but then said (quietly but repeated it) it’s odd how this copy of Richardson looks like it’s hardly ever been read while Mary Brunton’s Self Control looks very worn. Who is Mary Brunton and what Self-Control? she was a very popular writer of Austen’s era, and someone Austen cites in her letters more than once, and clearly regarded as a peer and rival. The participant is then offered a copy of Self-Control to read online. The book has been reprinted in an inexpensive edition in the 20th century but for those who don’t have a copy, here is a chance to read a contemporary text from the context Austen was part of. The reader given the text of Henry’s hagiographic defensive piece and a couple of comments if listened to suggest how this is shaped to suit Henry’s respectability agenda.

And finally at the bottom of one of the sections, linked in is Dow and Katie Halsey’s essay, “Jane Austen’s Reading: the Chawton Years,” Persuasions Online, 30:2 (spring 2010). It is excellent, much improved on the older one by Margaret Anne Doody in David Gray’s Companion Handbook, or the one in Janet Todd’s JA in context by Alan Richardson (“Reading Practices”). I feel that finally the real particular books Austen knew well and respected are singled out — partly this is the result of their having access to the list of books at Godmersham and the books at Chawton house. It’s the specificity of what is listed and the descriptions of content and book. These are taken from Chawton House and Godmersham libraries, culled from Austen’s letters and novels, and supportive contemporary circulating library lists. What she literally had available during her years living in Chawton cottage, in the Chawton house and Godmersham libraries, what is literally cited in the letters and culled from a close reading of the novels.If you are not “upgrading” (not paying) you can download these immediately, and it’s well to because when the 7 weeks or whatever the time is up, the whole thing will disappear unless you’ve paid them $50 by May 20th.


The Walled in Garden at Chawton

The video of a discussion between Kim Simpson (post-graduate fellow at the University of Southampton) and Stephen Bending (a historian and specialist in landscape gardening) on the gardens and grounds of Chawton offers real insight into the gendered nature of house landscaping. Austen’s representations of gardens and landscapes in her novels replicates what she saw in the cottages, country houses and estates around her. They talked of specific areas in the gardens at Chawton and in Austen’s novels, for example, the wilderness, a place using diagonal paths to suggest something somewhat less formal than a shrubbery near the house. You were supposed to contemplate your relationship with God (said Bending). A ha-ha is a sunken fence, it keeps sheep out of the controlled areas, and gives an impression of far more space than a given owner has when you look from it out to the distance. The garden, walled areas, and wilderness were feminised spaces, outside versions of the domestic spaces inside a house: women walked there and certain kinds of behavior were demanded. Beyond these pleasure grounds, hunting took over and these were considered male spaces. They quoted and explicated texts from Emma.

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19th century French edition of Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield

I enjoyed the first part of this second week especially. Dow travels to France to speak to a French scholar, Isabelle Bour, Prof of English Literature at the Sorbonne, Paris, who has studied Isabelle de Montolieu among many other 18th and 19th century French women authors. They describe Montolieu’s career (she was the famous woman), and how her translations of Austen differ significantly from Austen’s texts. I’ve read Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility and can vouch that they say is accurate. They talked about translation in general and touched upon Montolieu’s extensive oeuvre in original and translation work. One claim did puzzle me: Dow believes that Austen knew nothing of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. It maybe there is no proof or document showing Austen did know but from my research and (others I’ve read) and a line from an original source we know Austen read Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, gave a copy to Fanny Knight advising her to read it. I’ve argued (and so have others) that Caroline de Lichtfield is a direct influence on S&S.

I have a whole region of my website dedicated to two French women authors, later 18th into 19th, who influenced Austen and I put a novel each on in the French: Sophie Cottin’s Amelie Mansfield and Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield. I wrote a short biography of Montolieu and my etext edition of Caroline and scholarship there have been commended in a peer-edited French journal. I know it’s been read by the equivalent of two high school classes in France. I reprint Montolieu’s preface to her two translaions: Raison et Sensbilite; or Les Deux Manieres d’Aimer. I discuss the preface to her La Famille Eliot, our l’ancienne inclination where Montolieu shows she has read all Austen’s novels and discerned repeating patterns in them (like the heroine experiencing agony from a tabooed and necessarily secret love for one of the heroes).

Dow and Professour Bour discuss translation in general briefly, and then go on to the idea of adaptation as a form of free translation: arguably Montolieu’s text is an adaptation: she adds passionate and sentimental scenes where Austen has none, and she changes the ending: Willoughby’s wife dies and he marries Eliza Williams.
Prof Bour was indignant at how Montolieu’s text is sold as a straight translation this year still (2018). Dow remarked that Montolieu’s translation of Austen’s title as Raison et Sensibilite takes into account the the two are not opposites in Austen’s book. She and Bour said the recent and the best translation of S&S so far as La Coeur et La Raison makes the opposition emphatic. I agree. I also agree La Coeur and La Raison is the best translation: it’s published by Pleiade; I own and have read it. it’s by a French scholar who understands Austen very well: Pierre Goubert.

Nancy Mayer and I discussed the idea that Austen did not know of Montolieu’s translation of S&S. Unless Gillian Dow has some proof that Austen did not know of the translation of her book I will continue to believe she did. Gillian may feel that’s Austen should have been indignant. But there was no copyright respected across nations. We also are missing many of Austen’s letters; may one did record her discomfort. I’d feel uncomfortable being told someone translated something I wrote until I saw the text or unless I knew the person’s work and could trust the person to translate without violation or false distortion. Part of my disbelief also comes from my sense Austen knew French literature of the period. She will carelessly (effortlessly) refer to French texts in passing. circulating libraries included French texts; as English texts were published in Paris so French texts were published in London. Friends shared books too.


In my judgement the best translation of Austen into French thus far: Felix Feneon’s late 19th century Catherine — see my published essay, “Jane Austen in French,” Ekleksographia Wave Two, October 2009

I’m not saying Austen read her novel in Montolieu’s translation, only that she probably knew of it. She and her family members seem to have been so tight on money when it came to “luxury” expenditures. Nowadays we’d say why does she not obtain a copy and read it. Think about how she did not pay back that 10 pounds that in 1803 the publisher gave her for Northanger Abbey until 1816 when she had had 4 successes and was determined to rewrite and publish the book. I suspect that was she didn’t want to spend the 10£ – nor her family! she clearly had a manuscript of her own as she threatened to publish it unless the publisher sent it back; he responded insultingly he would sue her unless she paid him the money he had bought the copyright with. Imagine such a state of finances. We might conjecture that the French S&S never came to London because why should it? it stayed in France and was sold there.


Stephen Frye as Mr Johnson coping with Jenn Murray as Lady Lucy Manwarring and Xavier Samuel as Reginald de Courcy (2016 Love and Friendship, scripted and directed by Whit Stillman)

After the interview with Isabelle Bour on Montolieu’s and other translations of Austen into French, there was an attempt to define a set of qualities or elements in a film that might made it “Austenesque.” You might ask why the speakers did not simply say “like Austen:” they wanted to define characteristics that are not necessarily in or like Austen at all but have come to be thought to be like her: one example I’ll give is romantic. Many Austen fans associate her books with romance and strong sentiment and yet this is not her quality or tone. They had in mind qualities films have made Austen associated with. The speakers in a video were Dr Will May and Dr Stephanie Jones, Dr Shelley Cobb and Kim Simpson

One problem for anyone listening is that they were talking on a level of high abstraction and generality: I felt that was to avoid offending: by not becoming concrete or giving examples, they could be less held to adverse response. They also could extend the idea widely – so widely that they came to the conclusion that Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan is Austenesque and so is Clueless, and it’s arguable that within the Austen film canon two films could not be more unalike. Considered against lots of films that cannot at all be said to have anything to do with Austen (action-adventure) they might be seen as alike : women centered, about falling in love and getting married. They included clips from Clueless and Metropolitan.


Aubrey Rouget aka Fanny (Carolyn Farina) and Tom (Edmund Clements) discuss Lionel Trilling’s essay on MP: Aubrey says she finds Fanny very likeable (1990 Metropolitan, Stillman)

But to me at least terms extended so far become far less useful. Also I thought of P&P and Zombies where a film type — the horror film – and actions so endemic to American films nowadays – grotesque cruelty and violence – are now in the Austen canon. Yet I felt as they talked the term was not invented just to reify their ideas into some academic like category – it had a kind of usefulness to carve out an area of feeling and thought viewers associate with Austen. OTOH, a little while later it had the same feel of emptiness or barrenness or maybe thinnness I felt in other parts of the two weeks’ materials. This time it was not a result of the target someone who knew very little about the topic because clearly the people decided to one-third of only two weeks into movies because they expected the people who registered to know a lot of these Austen movies.

They also asked if Mansfield Park was a radical novel and the consensus seemed to be yes, sort of. No one objected to the idea that Clueless is Austenesque; there was no discussion of Emma in relationship to Clueless. This was just the sort of thing that was disappointing. For myself Clueless is one of my least favorite of the more famous Austen films (there are now more than 35 of these): I feel it’s a descendent of the 1939 MGM Pride and Prejudice, more Hollywoodized and celebrity-worshipping than anything in Austen and those films influenced by it similarly misleading. Yes she can be broadly comic, but in the spirit of burlesque as in her Juvenilia.

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A detail of Cassandra’s drawing of Austen: her face

I didn’t try to engage in any conversation after I realized so many of the “learners” there had not read much beyond Pride and Prejudice and maybe one of two others of the novels — just the six and nothing else seems to me a basic expectation for anyone saying they have an interest in Austen. Also as I skimmed in the first what they said, I realized the talk was often a mirror of popular unexamined attitudes. As such, for example, the interest they displayed in a “Radical” Austen showed why publishers are eager to publish such books. I noticed very quickly the word “austenesque” was objected to as snobbish; why do we need such a term? In the first week the whole idea of examining someone’s reading offended a number of people as elitist. So one couldn’t say anything that was not centrally public media mainstream while they were also aggressive in unexpected (to me) areas. Like their resentment at discussions of what Jane Austen read. I can’t figure out what is the going cant sometimes. And if it’s particularly pious or anti-pious someone will defend it. In the second week there was more content from those commenting, more people contributed who had read Austen and some criticism and history, and I noticed people doing their dissertations. Then there appeared “mentors” replying to them, but I felt who was responded to was carefully chosen and words.

I did tell of my page on Montolieu, where you could find her Caroline de Lichtfield, a short biography, information about her, an essay-review of my etext edition as well as her preface to her translation of Sense and Sensibility. Eventually I had 18 replies, one from one of the mentors and one from Gillan Dow (Herself!), very generous of her to take time. I include her comment and my reply in my comments here over whether Austen may have known of Montolieu’s translation of Sense and Sensibility. It’s not just ego that makes me persist, but that it’s an important question if you are interested in the interaction between French and English literature of the 18th century and would like to make a convincing case for Austen having been immersed in the French memoirs and novels of the period just as much as she was in the English ones. And for the record I did spend the $50 so I could have continual (as long as Future Learn lasts and keeps this feature going) access to the material offered in the course.

Ellen

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Grant, Duncan, Parrot Tulips

[Not long after reading Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial] The disease gained rapidly upon him now in his solitude. He would read often six hours into the night; and when they came to him for orders about the slaughtering of cattle or the harvesting of wheat, he would push away his folio and look as if he did not understand what was said to him. This was bad enough and wrung the hearts of Hall, the falconer, of Giles, the groom, of Mrs Grimsditch, the housekeeper, of Mr Dupper, the chaplain. A fine gentleman like that, they said, had no need of books. Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying. But worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing [what’s biographer to do?], Orlando Chapter 2.

Friends and readers,

I’ve finally come to a conclusion about what the book by Virginia Woolf, Orlando is: an experimental novel. I must hold to this and not let go as I’m committed to teaching it this summer.


Vanessa Bell, Design for a Screen: Figures by a Lake

This after three sessions of discussing the book with a group of retired adult learners; watching Sally Potter’s movie of Orlando (and the features on a DVD where Potter and her fellow film-makers explain what and why they are doing what they do in the film); browsing many essays and scattered statements, and finally coming upon two genuinely helpful chapters, one from Julia Briggs’s Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life and Avrom Fleischman’s The English Historical Novel, not to omit a couple of perceptive blogs (one source is Sackville-West’s little girls’ book, A Note of Explanation), and emailing with friends.

I’d compare it with other experimental modernist fiction: Dorothy Richardon’s Pilgrimage; Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; Jorge Luis Borges’s novellas; Umberto Eco’s later fantasy magic realism. Think too of Elena Ferrante’s little girls’ picture book, a graphic novel of a young girl’s nightmare, The Beach at Night where the doll is thrown away. In the learned Woolf there is a sheer density of intertextuality (worn lightly): she scoops up an ever-expanding (as you tease the references out) literary imaginary, with a few specific authors and heroes from the 16th through later 19th century who appear (sometimes outside their period); much allusion, reference, parody, critical commentary: Jane Austen there, she channels Boswell on Johnson (there are references to the Hebrides and Scottish hills seen at a distance in the final peroration of the book) through Orlando’s conversations with Nick Greene: how tiresome are authors on authors.

She combines biographical and autobiographical fantasy about Vita Sackville-West (the genius loci of the book, her house, Knole, its habitas) and herself with a time-traveling historical tale (each era has high violence, imperialist events, and in the corners of life disaster goes on: “a poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on the fire,” Chapter 5). The story line (picked out by Sally Potter) about a search for a gratifying identity by Orlando a frequently writing, brooding, thinking man-as-woman writer stymied by in impossible trammels of male and social demands, including marriage, diplomacy in world cities and withdrawn gypsy tribes.

As to the biographical sources:  Sackville-West visited Russia a number of times, loved the place apparently and enjoyed snow, so the story of the love affair of Woolf and the Russian countess is a transmutation. Her continual diary keeping and “The Oak Tree” represent two Georgic poems Sackville-West wrote: The Land and the Garden. Her husband, Harold Nicolson spent much time in Constantinople and other places as a diplomat, when the choice of Istanbul. In gay literature Constantinople, Venice and Turkey have become known tropes of homosexuality or gayness. Set a story there and you are suggesting your book is about transgressive sexuality, fluid sexuality. In her ancestry her grandmother was a gypsy, Pepita, who had a married a Spanish gentleman, Juan Antonio de Olivia; the marriage broke up and she went to live with Lionel Sackville West, the heir to Knoles, and Vita’s grandfather, Sackville II (2nd Lord Sackville). They had 5 children, all illegitimate. The youngest and a daughter, Victoria (Vita’s mother), married the nephew of the next heir-at-law or in line, Lionel 3rd Lord Sackville (the eldest son of 2nd Lord Sackville’s brother, William Edward). He was legitimate. Did Victoria marry him to secure Knoles? There were two court cases over Knoles; one for the property, and one to wrest money from an old man who lived there for decades with Victoria. The mother won both.

It’s a continual satire on culture (Boswell and Mrs Williams at worship of Johnson; Pope as tiny dwarf writing salacious poetry, deeply anti-feminist), on the rituals of life as contradictory social dysfunction or downright lies, through free-wheeling history and magic realism geography. I entertain the idea it’s book of struggle on the part of Woolf to find and come to terms with her transgender self and reach some plateau of sexually mature enjoyment — with other women, with a husband, through a child. The art of living is hard to master.


Roger Fry, Barns and Pond at Charleston

The clue seen everywhere in the labyrinth, the word tapestry of Orlando is its lack of verisimilitude. That gives Woolf the liberty to present herself as on holiday (at one point she finds herself in a modern department store, what fun for women at the turn of the 20th century), to invent grotesqueries too and senseless jokes on Orlando’s partners. Perhaps Woolf’s use of absurd and silly names and the swift changing back and forth ofgender of previous women lovers to undermine, mock heterosexual solemnness. Shes seek one authentic self so earnestly and at the close discovers there is a new self at every corner. I loved the many subversive and beautiful (with imagery) meditations, just the sudden soaring from all sorts of sudden thoughts and images pour out:

At every step she glanced nervously lest some male form should be hiding behind a furze bush or some savage cow be lowering its horns to toss her. But there were only the rooks flaunting in the sky. A steel-blue plume from one of them fell among the heather. She loved wild birds’ feathers. She had used to collect them as a boy. She picked it up and stuck it in her hat. The air blew upon her spirit somewhat and revived it. As the rooks went whirling and wheeling above her head and feather after feather fell gleaming through the purplish air, she followed them, her long cloak floating behind her, over the moor, up the hill. She had not walked so far for years. Six feathers had she picked from the grass and drawn between her fingers and pressed to her lips to feel their smooth, glinting plumage, when she saw, gleaming on the hill-side, a silver pool, mysterious as the lake into which Sir Bedivere flung the sword of Arthur. A single feather quivered in the air and fell into the middle of it. Then, some strange ecstasy came over her. Some wild notion she had of following the birds to the rim of the world and flinging herself on the spongy turf and there drinking forgetfulness, while the rooks’ hoarse laughter sounded over her. She quickened her pace; she ran; she tripped; the tough heather roots flung her to the ground. Her ankle was broken. She could not rise. But there she lay content. The scent of the bog myrtle and the meadow-sweet was in her nostrils. The rooks’ hoarse laughter was in her ears. ‘I have found my mate,’ she murmured. ‘It is the moor. I am nature’s bride,’ she whispered, giving herself in rapture to the cold embraces of the grass as she lay folded in her cloak in the hollow by the pool … [I could go on and on].

Our narrator tells us poetry is voice answering to voice in secret transactions. There’s even a Tristram Shandy turn as the book ends on the day the author is writing it presumably on the last page.


Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf

I’m not sure which costumes and colors in Potter’s movie are my favorites; perhaps the Victorian outfit Tilda Swindon emerges from the hedge maze in. What Sally Potter does bring out the latent story: in the movie Tilda Swinden as Orlando is seeking to find her identity, to create a space or way of life for herself that she can be herself in, she seeks liberty from stifling conventions at the same time as she finds it impossible to escape them altogether.

Side details: throughout Woolf’s books old poverty stricken women are seen, lonely, looking out windows. Sally Potter includes these, e.g., [except for] an old woman hobbling over the ice as in Woolf’s book: some old country woman hacking at the ice in a vain attempt to draw a pail full of water or gathering what sticks or dead leaves she could find for firing, not a living soul came their way.


Marianne Werefkin, Winterland

The book has parades of terrifying cruelty at its close (glimpsed now and again in the book’s anecdotes), but it ends in semi-celebratory mood, a vision of pageantry. Sally Potter ends her sweet and upbeat movie with the wildly caricatured angel returning to Orlando once again sitting against a tree, this time with a young daughter nearby, singing this hopeful vision:


Orlando


her daughter


Jimmy Somerville as the counter-tenor angel:

… I am coming.
I am coming. …
… Here I am. …
… Neither a woman,
nor a man …
… Oh we are joined,
we are one …
… with the human face …
… Oh we are joined,
we are one …
… with the human face …
… At last I am free. …
… At last I am free. …

NB:  The images from all the paintings on this blog but the one by Werefkin came from the Net, but I learned of their existence and titles from a superbly insightful and informative book: The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone, mostly on and filled with pictures by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant.

Ellen

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The Great Picture by Jan Van Belcamp: it takes three panels to suggest Clifford’s outer life

We should ourselves be sorry to think that posterity should judge us by a patchwork of our letters, preserved by chance, independent of their context, written perhaps in a fit of despondency or irritation, divorced, above all, from the myriad little strands which colour and compose our individual existence, and which in their multiplicity, their variety and their triviality, are vivid to ourselves alone, uncommunicable even to those nearest to us, sharing our daily life … Still, within our limitations it is necessary to arrive at some conclusion, certain facts do emerge … Vita Sackville-West, Introduction, Diary of Lady Anne Clifford (1923)

The knowledge that his arrow pointed to that impossible mark [‘a duplication of an image in the mind’] was Boswell’s source of confidence. Other biographers might forestall his book, but that they could rival it he never, in his most sombre moments, conceived. Those others did not know that biography is impossible … Geoffrey Scott, in the Malahide Papers, as quoted by Iris Origo, in “Biography: True and False” (1984)

Friends,

This is me again working out evolving thoughts about biography and the relationship of Samuel Johnson and Virginia Woolf as modernist biographers. I’ve gone on to consider Maurois’s Aspects of Biography and define Woolf’s Flush as a canonical modernist biography. I’ve been reading Iris Origo’s short biographies and her essay on biography as well as Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage and Vita Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles as two true sources for Woolf’s Orlando. And I’ve spent two to three weeks teaching Woolf’s Orlando.

One of the characteristics those who first wrote and theorized about biography after 1910 (the year when, we will remember, the world changed) as such, described the history of the genre, its development between the early modern period and 19th century, and then outlined and defined the type they were writing as “modern” all come to when they discuss the genre is its impossibility. It is impossible to write a text that truly accurately tells the life of an individual. It’s arguable that the way modernist biographies were written in the wake of Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zélide, and longer examples of the same sort of thing (it’s not true that modernist biographies are always concise) like Stefan Zweig’s Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, and self-reflexive experiments, A.J.A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, were attempts to overcome the considerable complicated obstacles in the way.


Two chapters are inserted fragments of an autobiographical memoir by Sackville-West about her sexually free marriage, her lesbianism and love of her husband, whom she nonetheless exploited hard

Most of the time this continual reassertion is dismissed because the plain reality is that these writers and others (colleagues, friends, rivals, people privileged by living knowledge of the subject) went on trying to achieve such impossible feats in words, sometimes accompanied by pictures, anyway. My feeling is this blithe sliding over is also done because at the same time it has proved also impossible to persuade the countless readers of fat popular biographies (“great men,” lurid women) to stop looking at the text they are devouring as a compilation of facts from unquestionable documents that add up to what is seen as an existence telling to know about. The “common reader” so strongly yearned after by Samuel Johnson and then supposedly targeted by Virginia Woolf also will not accept frank fictionalization in their intake of biography, and are on the record (on the Internet and elsewhere) as regarding another modernist tenet (admission) that the greatest biographies are autobiographies in disguise as a convenient way to dismiss a book that contains a perspective or whatever information they might not want to consider seriously.

It will be part of my iconoclastic argument that the value of examining Johnson and Woolf’s biographical art in alignment from a modernist point of view is that both worked hard in pursuit of their repeated self-appointed or commissioned biographical tasks conceived in the most high-minded way, all the while coming up against their own bedrock accurate perception that what they aimed to do was highly problematic, if not quite impossible. It is important to see where they failed in order to recognize where they succeeded, not just to do justice to to under-recognized because not well-known or long texts, but to grasp in what biography inheres. I want to write up first how they understood the biographical process, its aims and its problems, which they never solved. My belief now after reading so much (including Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale) is that someone’s biography is a product in the mind of the reader and writer after a process of induced identification and empathy: this process requires several texts taken together.

How about that? a biography and autobiography does not end where the text ends at all? I have to return to Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in Fictional Woods, which was so essential for my chapter on Trollope’s Autobiography in my Trollope on the ‘Net.


Taking it down form its shelf

With this kind of outlook or basis, one can then move into biographical texts by them that have attained the status of masterpiece biographies, Johnson’s Life of Savage and Woolf’s Roger Fry: A Biography. These two texts have seemed to do the essential required core of biography, convey a complex living presence, mind and body, in the context of, or emerging from a historically accurate portrait of their society as these people experienced it. I admit to loving the Roger Fry after having read some of Fry’s writing and Frances Spalding’s biography of Fry as an artist and art critic, connoisseur, museum person, curator. Woolf also wrote biographical fantasies one of which post-modern attitudes would include a legitimately biographical: Orlando: A Biography. It’s a woman’s time-traveling fantasy perhaps inspired by the idea behind a tiny girls’ book by Vita Sack-ville West (A Note of Explanation). I’m not sure how I feel about Orlando. At some level I even dislike it, it’s too frivolous for me, at times silly, and deeply elitist. How should a biography be written? is some form of verisimilitude necessary? I think so, so Orlando doesn’t make the cut at all. In some of Johnson’s unfair Lives of the English Poets he allows the political perspective of the whole set or his own personal distaste for a kind of personality or literary style or stance to lead him into fictional biography, the most obvious his life of John Milton — where Johnson gets away with what he writes by using verisimilitude with a seemingly practiced novelistic art.

All these texts stand up to scrutiny only in the context of more recent biographical, autobiographical, critical and even fictional texts on and by the subject — they are printed with long notes and annotations. In the case of Johnson’s Life of Savage, I am convinced after reading Tracy Clarke that like Boswell, concluded Savage was at first simply lying and then became a self-deluded impostor. Johnson’s text is also egregiously misogynistic towards Anne Brett (who appears as Lady Easy, a bullied woman in Cibber’s The Careless Husband). Johnson captures the pity of this gifted man never being given a real chance to enter the aristocracy or gentry he was so determined to belong to; his strangeness in some ways, the angry, the mysteries, that he was thrown away. But what was he? Tracy comes much closer to capturing the real man. Woolf’s Fry cannot pass muster without Diane Gillespie’s long introduction and annotations (two thirds again as long as the book). It should be considered a literary biography, the kind I can hope to write about Winston Graham. Orlando just won’t do (I shall write on it separately next week): it’s a time traveling wish-fulfillment fantasy, telling of the life of a woman writer seeking an identity in society. For Johnson’s Thomas Gray two modernist concise biographies: one by Edmund Gosse and the other David Cecil can function as touchstones on what’s lacking in Johnson: they are both so much superior, as is Frances Mayhew Rippy’s Matthew Prior (an unassuming Twayne book).

Which are or what kinds of other biographical texts constitute Johnson and Woolf’s problematic attempts and successes? Thus far from my reading Johnson’s Lives of Dryden, Pope, Thomson and Collins, and Virginia Woolf’s short biographical essays about obscure and unknown women (one of Geraldine [Jewsbury] and Jane [Carlyle] is superior to Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights, gathered in the Common Reader, others in other collections (especially Memoirs of a Novelist) and still more in the Collected Essays. In all these the needed background, the panoply of other texts are the paradoxically long biographies of the treated literary figures which fail to address central cruxes of these lives which Johnson and Woolf do.

Flush: A Biography is a wholly successful modernist biography if we take what Woolf says in her two essays on biography seriously. (Another would then qualify: Jenny Diski’s Apology for the Woman Writing, a fictionalized life of Marie de Gournay from the point of view of her maid. A fictionalized biography.) So is Jane Stevenson’s The Winter Queen more insightful than Josephine Ross’s.

I’ve also been questioning the assumed great worth of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, thinking about how good John Wain is, how original and questioning Nokes, and the respect I once gave to WJBates’s book. About 2/3s the way through the listening to Bernard Mayes reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson, I’ve tired of it. Johnson is there all right, but I have realized I have been mis-remembering, elevating him, forgetting how he regards women as instruments for men to make children with, yes an obsessive Christian; Boswell further skews the portrait by his constant justifications, idealizing, omitting Johnson’s sex life (very troubled), misrepresenting Mrs Thrale. Every once in a while a letter by Johnson brings his deeply humane character through, his comments his sensitive morality towards everyone (an off-the-cuff argument showing how slavery can never ever be justified in human arrangement, a deep violation). Johnson nails precisely that something is deeply wrong with a society where the homeless and sick are simply ignored — with the leaders he says, as they must act first. But I’ve stopped listening (gone on to Gabaldon’s Outlander 3: Voyager, read by Davina Porter). I probably much prefer Johnson straight than Johnson through Boswell.

I ought to decide which of the several still respected biographies of Woolf stands up: Julia Brigg’s Inner Life, Phyllis Rose’s Women of Letters, Hermione Lee’s old fashioned huge tome, whose aims are nonetheless those of modernist biography. I admit I need to read through the first two.

Not everyone fails; indeed my favorite form of reading is the literary biography and many masterpieces exist in the genre. This summer I read one: Claire Haman’s Charlotte Bronte, and Iris Origo made a career as a writer because she wrote great biographies and diary-journals. One of the great books for me of the later 20th century is Richard Holmes’s Footsteps: The confessions of a Romantic Biographer, which I taught three times in a class called Advanced Writing on the Humanities.

And I still believe that the key to understanding any one’s art is to understand their lives and that means reading the life-writing coming from and attached to the subject in all its forms. Wrong-headed biographies if they are intelligent and written out of sincerity and original thought are important in understanding writers too, e.g., David Nokes on Johnson and Austen.

This is where I’m at tonight on this project. I think I had better give this one up for a while. Put it away. And come back to it in May when the heavy teaching and most courses end. My thesis as far as I can manage is the value of studying these two writers seen as modern biographers is in what they teach us about biography in their successes and their failures, brilliant insights and misapprehensions and along the way about the people they create or misapprehend.

I hope I have not bored you, gentle reader, and invite any commentary on what you think of biography as a form or any of the texts I’ve cited. These have been thoughts I pushed out of myself with difficulty and then added to late at night and then early in the morning before dawn.


Isabel Coddrington (1874-1943), Evening 1925

Next up: blogs on Woolf’s Orlando and then (if I can only discipline myself once more to it) women artists.

Ellen

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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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Photo of Virginia Woolf by Barbara Strachey (1938)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Day: Eight Mondays, 1:45 to 3:15 pm,
March 5 to May 9
4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW. Washington DC

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

We will read and discuss four of Woolf’s later books: two playful satires, Flush: A Biography [of a Dog], owned (so she thought) by the Victorian poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; Orlando, a biography cum novel, which is also a time-traveling tale through literature and culture and gender changes from the Renaissance to our own times; two books written during the crisis time just before and as World War Two began: Three Guineas, an essay analyzing the origins of war and suggesting how we may prevent future wars; and Between the Acts, a novella in which a group of characters put on a historical pageant. The contexts will be literary (about biography, fantasy, historical novels), political, and biographical. We will see clips of the film adaptation, Orlando, in class. Our aim is to understand and enjoy these original, delightful and serious books.


Virgina, Leonard and Pinka Woolf

Required Books & an essay (in the order we’ll read them):

Woolf, Virginia. Flush: A Biography, ed. introd Trekkie Ritchie. Harcourt, 1983. ISBN 0156319527
Woolf, Virginia. “The Art of Biography:” online https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter23.html
Woolf, Virginia. “The new Biography,” available at the Internet Archive in Granite and Rainbow. I will send this by attachment.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography, ed. introd Maria di Battista. Harcourt, 2006. ISBN 9780156031516
Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas, ed. introd Jane Marcus. 2006. ISBN 9780156031639
Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. ed. introd Melba Cuddy-Keane. Harcourt, 2008. ISBN 978015603473

One film: Sally Potter’s 1992 Orlando, featuring Tilda Swindon, Billy Zane, Quentin Crisp, Simon Russell Beale.

Harvard has digitalized Virginia and Leonard’s photo album of life at Monk House, their home, and you can view the album here. Many of Woolf’s central long and shorter texts may be found on Project Gutenberg Australia:


Tilda Swinton as Orlando as a young Renaissance man

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

March 5: 1st session: Introduction: Woolf, & the art of biography, Begin Flush

March 12: 2nd session: Flush: Non-human animal point of view; Elizabeth Barrett Browning

March 19 & 26: Class cancelled: Read essays, “The New Biography” and “The Art of Biography” on your own.

April 2: 3rd session: begin Orlando: Knole & Vita Sackville-West, as and about biography

April 9: 4th session Orlando: history, time-traveling novel, tranvestite tale;

April 16: 5th session Orlando, we’ll see & discuss clips from the movie; begin Three Guineas

April 23: 6th session Three Guineas: political context, anti-war, anti-patriarchy, anti-colonial

April 30: 7th session Between the Acts as historical pageant, as history

May 7: 8th session Between the Acts: as a novel with story & characters. Last thoughts.


Vita Sackville-West photographed to look like Orlando in 1840

Suggested supplementary reading:

Barrett, Elaine. “The Value of Three Guineas in the Twenty-First Century,” online at Academia. edu: http://www.academia.edu/7822334/The_Value_of_Three_Guineas
Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life. Harcourt, 2005.
Fleishman, Avrom. On “Between the Acts,” “Experiment and Renewal,” The English Historical Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1971.
Karlin, Daniel. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett: The Courtship Correspondence. Oxford: OUP, 1989.
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. NY: Knopf, 1997.
Forster, Margaret. Lady’s Maid. Penguin, 1990. A novel from EBB’s maid’s point of view.
—————–. Elizabeth Barrett Browning: A Biography. Doubleday, 1988.
Maurois, Andre. Aspects of Biography. 1929; rpt. Ungar, 1966.
Nicolson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. New York: Bantam, 1973. (Important text for understanding Vita Sackville-West).
Orr, Douglas. Virginia Woolf’s Illnesses. Clemson University Press. 2004. Online as a pdf: https://tigerprints.clemson.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1017&context=cudp_mono
Raitt, Suzanne. Vita & Virginia: Work and Friendship of V. Sackville-West and V. Woolf. Clarendon, 1993.
Rose, Phyllis. Woman of Letters: A Life of Virginia Woolf. NY: Oxford, 1978.
Rosenbaum. S. P. The Bloomsbury Group: A Collection of Memoirs and Commentary, rev. edition. Toronto: Univ of Toronto Press, 1975.
Sackville-West, Vita. Knole and the Sackvilles. Drummond, 1948.
——————–. All Passion Spent. Virago Press, 1983.
Snaith, Anna. “Of fanciers, footnotes, and fascism: Virginia Woolf’s Flush, Modern Fiction Studies 48:3 (2002):614-36.
Trombley, Stephen. All that Summer She Was Mad: Virginia Woolf, Female Victim of Male Medicine. NY: Continuum, 1982.


Knole, Sevenoaks, Kent (2009)

Ellen

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