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Archive for the ‘women’s films’ Category


Ghazaleh Hedayat (2008)

Dear friends and readers,

I’m honored today to have as a guest blogger M. Mansur Hashemi’s essay, “‘Do you hear their hair?’: About a piece of conceptual art” as translated by Fatemeh Minaei

Three months ago, a protest movement began in Iran. It was instigated by the tragic death of a young girl (Mahsa-Zhina Amini) while detained by the “morality police” who arrested her for not dressing according to the rules of compulsory hijab. The media echoed the event that moved the nation in the name of “woman, life, freedom”.

The following is a translation of a Persian writing that reflects some debates over hijab. It was written about nine years ago highlighting the problem through an interpretation of a work created by an Iranian female artist. The author has written other detailed articles criticizing the mandatory hijab, in which he has predicted the present situation in Iran. But this short poetic writing on an artwork (created by Ghazaleh Hedayat) extracts the essence of the matter. Naturally, the discussed conceptual art can be interpreted in various ways. The author has put it in the context of two bans in Iran, trying to emphasize the complexities of a social conflict. A conflict manifested now in the violent confrontations between the government and persevering teens and youth who fight for their freedom.­ Fatemeh Minaei, 2022 December.

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Imagine the broad plane of a wall. From a distance, you might miss it. But if you look closely, you will see nails. Eight nails, to be exact. Getting closer, you will see the eight iron nails connected by four strands of hair. You feel a tension between the stiffness of the nails against the tender strands of hair. It looks as if the strands are chained to the wall. You hear the daunting sound of a hammer that heightens that feeling. But, with all their fragility, the strands of hair are there. They are not destroyed, despite the collusion between the hammer and nails. They are stretched on the hard surface and this tautness on the broad area, this being tied to the iron nails, enhances their presence.

The strings on a musical instrument are stretched on it and tied to its body, just as those hair strands are tied to the wall. Nevertheless, the very tied-up strings make the unrestricted sound of the music. Those four strands of hair are like strings on the wall. We do not even need to hear any sound those imaginary strings would make. We’ll hear them as soon as we take a look. Apparently, the strands of hair are not supposed to be visible. But they are. Just as for a while, under the new Islamic regime in Iran, musical instruments were not supposed to be seen. Showcases got cleared from any musical instrument. Yet the sound kept on coming out from behind the veils the government ordered. Music survived. It survived until one day the musical instruments came back to the windows and now the only place the musical instruments are not seen is on the Islamic regime’s TV. However, musical instruments are not for watching; they are to be heard. And their sound, the music they create, is now filling up even the official broadcastings of the regime. So seems to be the state for the sound of the locks that were supposed to not be heard. Now the sound that sneaks out from under the slipping scarves can no longer be ignored. The sound of the objecting strands of hair that display themselves despite the morality police, despite the violent surroundings. The veil is no longer working.

A piece of conceptual art sometimes represents a situation not easy to express otherwise. “The Sound of My Hair” by Ghazaleh Hedayat (pictured below) can be interpreted as a representation of a situation. A metaphorical visual translation of a conflict.

I grew up in a pious family and spent my childhood mostly in mosques and Islamic schools. So, I understand how much symbolic that ‘sound’ can become. I feel the taboos and their dreadful power. The imposed patriarchal mentality puts unbearable pressure on a religious man. His mind gets overwhelmed by obsessions that are extremely hard to overcome.

People raised outside the religious stratum of Islamic societies would never comprehend the Hijab issue. Just like the issue of music being impermissible (Haram), sounds being sinful, or musical instruments being devices of ‘libidinous pleasure’, makes no sense to them. The hair of Iranian girls and women not raised in religious families is covered by the force of the regime rules. Just as decades ago, a patriarchal government (ruled by Reza Shah) unveiled the hair of religious Iranian women by force because of a shallow understanding of modernity. The value of individual freedom is missed in both cases. And since the logic of force is not convincing, it was and is doomed to fail.

Now the times are changing. Besides women forced to have hijab or those who chose hijab for a while under the influence of the Zeitgeist, nowadays, even many Iranian girls from religious families prefer not to cover their hair. In an ironic turn of events that can be called, in the words of Hegel, “die List der Vernunft” (the cunning of reason), those girls participated in civic life because the Islamic regime prepared the circumstances their families required, and now they do not see the need for veils.

When you wander in the streets of Iranian cities now, it will be strange if you don’t hear the sound of the strands of hair that want to get free. To get their voice heard despite the repressive surroundings. That reminds me of the interpretable work of Ghazaleh Hedayat. She has visualized a situation that I am sure will continue to cause a stir in our society for a long time. The issue is as complicated and intricate as that work of art: The Sound of My Hair.

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Women’s Rights Activist on Protests Sweeping Iran, the Intensifying Gov’t Crackdown & Executions:

https://www.democracynow.org/2022/12/15/iran_protests_sussan_tahmasebi

Sussan Tahmahsebi:

Over nearly 500 people have been killed — 480, I think, is the last figure that the Human Rights Activists Network reported. Sixty-eight of them are children who have been killed. And the majority of those who have been killed — I mean, at least 50% of those who have been killed are from ethnic minority regions, Kurdish areas and Balochi areas. In Balochistan, just in one day, on Black Friday, which was September 30th, 103 people were shot dead. These were peaceful protesters leaving Friday prayers. And most of them were shot in the back, running away from bullets that the police were shooting at them.

Now, as you mentioned, the violence has reached a new level, where protesters are being sentenced to death. They’re being charged with enmity with God or waging war against God, and they’re being sentenced to death in these sham trials that, you know, don’t take very long, where people are not afforded — allowed to have access to their lawyers. And it’s extremely concerning …

On the women’s reproductive rights front: “How quickly anti-abortion activists abandon plans never to be punitive: demand jail time for “pill trafficking:”

https://tinyurl.com/2fzsvd6a

But it is true that the democrats’ solid wins in many states and for many offices, and putting into state constitutions women’s rights to autonomy, care, and choices over their bodies show who in the US are also in the majority

Posted by Ellen

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She announced this briefly last night as a last news item:

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/judy-woodruff-stepping-aside-from-pbs-newshour-anchor-desk-at-end-of-2022

I shall miss her badly. Tears come to my eyes as I write this. I know I watch the show many even most nights to feel a little of her presence (as presented by herself) in my life. She projects kindness, genuine concern for the vulnerable, seeks stories that can comfort intelligent people, and in general is part of the shaping force of the choices of what to run, where to place it, as well as what is said in the segments. Over the course of the pandemic at the end of many of her hours I felt better.

I’m not going to over-praise. To categorize PBS as left of center is too generous because in many of the central interview and some secondary political segments our “correspondents” consistently avoid asking tough questions to reactionary and also (occasionally) fascist (if when on the show seeming courteous) types, do not truly challenge important lies; their even-handedness is the old mainstream liberal-social but conservative=economic (1950s style) republicanism. Some of the people there are harsher than that, bringing in blaming culture: Amna Navaz and Amiche Alcindor to me would be a fatal choices for anchor. Once I watched Judy sit before Mark Shields and David Brooks spout disguised misogyny. Not a peep out of her. The show omits stories, gives slack to where they should not. I concede many of the “human interest” and cultural segments are probing, humanitarian, egalitarian, and useful. The best of these are done regularly by Fred de Sam Lazaro, Jane Ferguson (what a courageous woman), Malcolm Brabant, Miles O’Brien (Paul Solomon is too far a compromiser). Recently Stephanie Sy has been improving: she actually said to one election denier candidate he was not answering her question! Indeed probably I might stop watching it; it does depend on who is the leading shaping force. William Branagh who would be my choice for anchor but I worry he has a slight nervousness in delivery and of course that won’t do.

Here is her rightly proud resume:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judy_Woodruff

I remember her when she was very young, one of the people on the McNeil-Lehrer hour, telling Washington DC news. There was a brief foray into commercial news broadcasts, about which my father said “she won’t last.” He meant the cut-throat politics and subrisively mean tone of some of the networks would cut her out; she was also no Leslie Stahl, a genuine left-liberal newscaster, daring too — so that made Stahl viable on the ABC of those days. Judy was ever a lady.

Who but her could have done all those end-of-shows obituaries during the height of the pandemic. I know nowadays she has a badly crippled son who cannot get about without a super-engineered walker and also about how unscrupulously and callously such people and their wheelchairs are treated at that most abominable of places, airports, where human rights are thrown away.

I remember her crying when Gwen Ifill died. How relieved Fauci was to talk to her. I shall miss her and her show.


A 1981 photograph of her working for NBC

Ellen

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The journey from Norland to Barton Cottage, found in all S&S films, both heritage and appropriations (this from Davies’s 2009 JA’s S&S)

Gentle readers,

As an appendix to my review of Persuasion 2022, plus 4, I’m answering a query I got in three places: what are my choices for Austen films very much worth the watching. I came up with 3 sets for heritage films, and a small group of appropriations. I don’t say others do not have good qualities and interest, but these to me are outstanding.

My criteria: I think a film should convey the book in spirit: the following films are very well done throughout, add to and enrich our understanding of the books, and are works of art in their own right fully achieved

1st set:

1995 Persuasion, BBC, Michell and Dear (Amanda Root & Ciarhan Hinds)
1996 Sense and Sensibility, Miramax, Thompson & Ang (Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet)
1995 Pride and Prejudice, BBC A&E, Andrew Davies & Langton (Colin Firth, Jennifer Ehle)
1983 Mansfield Park, BBC, Giles and Taylor (Sylvestre Le Tousel & Nicholas Farrell)
2007 Northanger Abbey, ITV, Andrew Davies & Jones (Felicity Jones & JJFeilds)
1972 Emma, BBC, John Glenister & Constanduros (Doran Goodwin & John Carson)


Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price writing from her nest of comforts to her brother William (note his drawing of his ship), one of my favorite chapters in the book (1983 MP)

2nd set

1979 Pride and Prejudice, BBC, Fay Weldon (Elizabeth Garvie & David Rintoul)
2008 ITV (BBC and Warner, among others) Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Andrew Davies & John Alexander (Hattie Morahan, Charity Wakefield)
2009-10 BBC Emma, Jim O’Hanlon, & Sandy Welch (Romola Garai & Johnny Lee Miller)
1999 Miramax Mansfield Park (MP and Juvenilia and JA’s letters), Patricia Rozema (Francis O’Connor & Johnny Lee Miller)


Doran Goodwin as Emma deliberately breaking her shoestring so as to maneuver Harriet and Mr Elton to be alone (1972 Emma)

3rd set
1996 BBC Emma, Davies and Lawrence (Kate Beckinsale & Samantha Morton)
2007 ITV (Clerkenwell in association with WBGH) Persuasion, Snodin & Shergold (Sally Hawkins, Rupert Penry-Jones)


Aubrey Rouget (Carolyne Farina), the Fanny Price character at St Patrick’s Cathedral with her mother, Christmas Eve (Metropolitan is also a Christmas in NYC movie)

Appropriations

2000 Sri Surya Kandukondain Kandukondain or I have found it (S&S), Menon (Tabu, Aishwarya Rai)
1990 Indie Metropolitan (mostly MP, w/Emma), Whit Stillman (Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, and Carolyn Farina, Allison Rutledge-Parisi, Isabel Gilles)
1993 Republic Ruby in Paradise (NA), Victor Nunez (Ashley Judd, Todd Field)
2008 Granada/ITV/Mammoth/ScreenYorkshire Lost In Austen (P&P), Andrews and Zeff (Jemima Rooper & Elliot Cowan)
2013 BBC Death Comes to Pemberley (P&P), Daniel Percival & Juliette Towhidi (Anna Maxwell Martin, Mathew Rhys)
2007 Mockingbird/John Calley The Jane Austen Book Club (all 6), Robin Swicord (Mario Bello, Kathy Baker, Emily Blunt)
2006 Warner Bros. Lake House (Persuasion), Agresti & Auburn (Sandra Bullock, Keenu Reeves, Christopher Plummer)


Olivia Williams as Jane Austen in reverie, during a walk, facing the river (Miss Austen Regrets)

Biopic

008 BBC/WBGH Miss Austen Regrets (from David Nokes’ biography & JA’s letters) Lovering & Hughes (Olivia Willias, Greta Scacchi, Hugh Bonneville)

See my Austen Filmography for particulars

My Austen Miscellany contains links to many of the blog-reviews I’ve written.


Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood wandering: as Elinor is my favorite of all the heroines, so Hattie Morahan is nowadays my favorite embodiment (Davies’s S&S, Part 3)

Ellen

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Arthur Parker (Turlough Convery) and Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) — a convincingly warmly congenial couple: they act out of kindness to one another, actually talk to one another, support one another — I am sure I am not alone in wishing this Parker brother’s implicit homosexuality had not gotten in the way

The three friends: Alison Parker (Rosie Graham), Charlotte’s younger romantic sister; Charlotte (Rose Williams), once again our grave heroine; and Georgiana, wary, distrustful, somewhat alienated

Dear friends and readers,

Two and one-half years of pandemic later, Andrew Davies’s creation of an experimental Sanditon (alas he wrote the last episode only) returned. It resembles the first (see Episodes 1-4: by the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea; and 5-8: zigzagging into a conclusion in which nothing is concluded) by its use of a too many stories at once, one of which is over-the-top melodrama: centered again in Edward Denham (Jack Fox), Clara Brereton (Lily Sacofsky) as his now discarded pregnant mistress, and Esther (Charlotte Spencer) become Lady Babbington desperate for a child.


An aggressive Esther & vulnerable Clara as enemies at the harsh-mouthed tactless Lady Denham’s (Anne Reid) table

Life is again a matter of pleasures in which all the characters participate: this time it’s a fair or summer festival complete with a contemporary balloon ride dared by Charlotte and the Wickham character of the piece, Colonel Lennox (Tom Weston-Jones), rescued by Arthur (this character is the quiet true hero of this season); another ball, afternoon garden party, complete with archery (in lieu of cricket),


The male rivals: Colborne in front, Lennox to the back

with a sequence of magical dancing between Charlotte caught up, entranced and entrancing, her seemingly Rochester-like employer, Alexander Colborne:

Tom Parker (Kris Marshall) is still irresponsible, getting into debt, now at a loss without Sidney; Mary (Kate Ashfield), his long-suffering prosaic wife turned mother-figure by his side. There is whimsy; many individuals walk or ride along the seashore; too many shirtless men.


Tom Parker confronting Captain Lennox over debt — interestingly, this is a motif from Austen’s draft as continued by Anna Lefroy

But it differs too, most obviously in that several of the central actors & actresses had long since signed other contracts when it seemed there would be no second season. Thus this season the first episode is taken up with grieving for the suddenly dead (in Antigua) Sidney (Theo James), and in the last he (together with Arthur) improbably saves all by proxy when his box arrives, with money (he was always good for that in the previous season) and letters exposing villains: Charles Lockhart [Alexander Vlahos] turns out to be no innocent painter seeking Georgiana’s hand, but the nephew of her white planter-father seeking to replace her as heir. Esther has to appear sans mari (Mark Stanley), so we have to endure a silly gaslight story where Edward steals Babbington’s letters, as he tries to poison Esther so his baby son by Clara can be Lady Denham’s only heir. Diana (Alexandra Roach siphoned off to another series) was no longer catering to and making a hypochondriac out of Arthur, much to the improvement of Arthur.

New men were supplied: a lying soldier, William Carter (Maxim Ays) who Willoughby-like pretends to the poetry-loving Alison he loves and writes poetry when it’s the physically brave and truthful Captain Fraser (Frank Blake) who’s the poet and love-letter writer. Alison is, however, an innocuous boringly innocent Marianne with no serious story about sexual awakening (as has Austen’s heroine).


On the beach during one of the many festive occasions, time out to look at one’s cell phone

I did miss Mr Stringer (Leo Suter) — we hear he is doing well as an architect in London. A mildly comic vicar-type, Rev Hankins (Kevin Elder) and his well-meaning sister-chaperon for Georgiana, Miss Beatrice Hankins, spinster (Sandy McDade) thicken the scenes’ comedy nicely (as in a recipe).

The addition with a sense of weight and original presence is Alexander Colborne (Ben Lloyd-Hughes) — his romance with Charlotte had some convincing darker emotions: years before his wife, Lucy, had left him for London, not liking his tendency to a withdrawn awkward state, and been seduced by the Wickham-Lennox who provides obstacles to Charlotte and Colborne’s relationship in the form of lies (he accused Colborne of what he had done). Guilt and anger and depression keeps him isolating himself from Lucy’s daughter by Lennox (Flora Mitchell as Leonora who dresses up as a boy – some hints at a trans person there), and a resentful niece, Augusta Markam (Eloise Webb).

Charlotte has declared now that Sidney is dead, she has thought the better of marriage and will instead support herself and is hired by Colborne by the end of the first episode to care for and teach his daughters. She brings the whole family out of their obsessive cycles of reproach, self-inflicted frustration and loneliness — by her patience, compassion, inventiveness. This is the over-arching story and along with Arthur and Georgiana’s relationship, it’s the most alive and interesting matter in the season. Here is this pair learning about one another at a picnic:


Charlotte and her employer, Alexander Colbourne reach some understanding

What one can say on behalf of this very commercialized semi-Austen product in itself? First the dialogue and language in general is a cross-between 18th century styled sentences and modern demotic talk and is often witty: e.g, “how we are a stranger to our own affections” says Charlotte. Lady Denham’s way of commenting that no one chooses to be a spinster remains in our minds. The actors had to have worked hard to say lines like this in the natural quick way they do. There is a good deal of successful archness and even irony now and again. Andrew Davies’s concluding episode is the most natural seeming at this.

I very much enjoyed the imitations of story motifs and patterns in Austen’s novels: beyond those already mentioned, Rose Williams has managed to recapture the feel of the heritage Austen heroines: self-sacrifice, earnestness, perceptive behavior combines with a strong sense of selfhood. She is a kind of Elinor Dashwood blended with Elizabeth Bennet; Colborne is a Darcy figure as much as Rochester — at first Charlotte believes Lennox’s lies. Mr Lockhart’s painting Miss Lambe echoes the picture-making in Emma. The picnic again put me in mind of Emma. When Fraser gives Alison a wrapped book as a present and tells her how he values her friendship is a repeat of Edward’s gift of wrapped book to Elinor in Davies’s 2009 Sense and Sensibility so disappointing Elinor with a similar avowal and retreat.


On the other side of the wall, the other characters are listening, hoping for the proposal that finally comes

The worst: the experience is jerky, not smooth, the dialogues at time absurdly short, and as I felt with the previous season (more than 2 years ago), scenes seem not rehearsed or edited enough. I also concede that much that goes on would have horrified Austen as romance material; nevertheless, Clara’s baby out of wedlock can be found central to an off-stage and on-stage stories (e.g., Charlotte Smith’s) in the era; Charlotte Spencer shows her real talent for acting when she is transformed into a such a sweetly gratified mother upon adopting Clara’s baby. Turlough Convery, Rose Williams, Ben Lloyd-Hughes and Charlotte Spencer all provide credible varied depths of feeling to their scenes.

I noticed the film-makers used the same music as in the first season – very cheerful and sprightly and the continuity as well as the well-drawn paratext animation (cut-outs in the old Monty Python style) brings back memories lingering from the previous season.


Much good feeling

It was filmed in the same or similar places (Wales, Dyrham Park)

Again the series ended with a cliff-hanger. At the last moment when Charlotte is expecting Colborne to propose at long last, he demurs. We are left to surmise he is afraid he will disappoint her as he did his wife (Lennox needles him as also at fault in the failure of his marriage) but Charlotte is now tired of being batted about (so to speak). She took a lot of punishment from Sidney and now she is being twisted and turned off by Colborne.  The sequence goes this way:  his older daughter, Augusta, scolds him for not opening up to Miss Heywood and demands Colborne thank Charlotte deeply for all she’s done:


A family once again (and it does not matter that they are not biological father and daughters)

Colborne is to ask Charlotte to stay by marrying her.  But when he goes off to propose, Charlotte rejects him.  The series overdid this turn and undermined it thematically by having her two months later announce that she is at long last engaged to Ralph Starling (who we heard about as a long-standing suitor back at Willenden).

The sudden new information (from Sidney’s box) that Georgiana’s mother is alive after all and her determination, now that she has been taken in by the Parker family, to find her mother was another obvious bridge: there is an unaccounted for black woman who works for Colborne; she does not behave like an enslaved person. Two people I know said they expect her to turn out to be (what a coincidence! like a fairytale Shakespeare ending) Georgiana’s mother.


Flo Wilson plays the role of Mrs Wheatley (I could not find any stills of her in costume): her last name alludes to the black American 18th century poet, Phillis Wheatley

I will watch Season 3; I even look forward to it. The film-makers are trying to make a sort of Austen sequel-film, a somewhat heritage type criss-crossed by modern behavior and ideas and appropriations. We must forgive them when they pander too obviously now and again: Alison as the princess bride does not do too much harm. It is a series with its heart and mind in the right moral place: any series that can make Turlough Convery, a heavy-set non-macho male who is a superb actor (I’ve seen him as a scary thug, and in Les Miserables he was the most moving of the revolutionaries) the male we most like, admire, and know we can depend on, is worth supporting.


Arthur — the question is, did he really say it was that he was so attracted to Lockhart that he advised Georgiana not to dump him …

Ellen

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Il Figlia oscura as translated by Ann Goldstein (a rare pleasing cover for women)


Jessie Buckley as the young Leda Carusa in the film by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Friends and readers,

The writer (or writers) of the novels who uses the pseudonym Elena Ferrante has become a more complicated person (or two persons) and her books better or more widely appreciated since last I wrote about her and them. I’ve come to some conclusions about the people, the books, their translator, and the now at least five film adaptations made. I think it important to know the true author, context, and helps to have films meant to convey a book in trying to understand, and enjoy that book. I laid out the choices of author and stances we are presented with in the author controversy when I reviewed the first novel of The Neapolitan Quartet, My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale). I’ve finished the Neapolitan Quartet, read and re-read a couple of the novellas, and then a couple of good books of criticism: The Ferrante Letters by five women authors, and In Search of Elena Ferrante by Karen Bojar as well as the obfuscating hostile statistical essays on the books as a scam by Domenico Starnone (Anita Raja’s husband, also a novelist).

What decided me the author, the person who wrote all the material in Italian is Anita Raja are her Italian translations of Christa Wolf, the famous brilliant German, whose novels and memoirs I’ve been reading over the past two to three months while reading chunks of Ferrante’s novels in the Italian.  First, Ann Goldstein is (to my mind) a misleading translator of Raja’s books: Goldstein (like many another recent commercial translator) has turned dense, difficult and ever so richly suggestive Italian prose (very long sentences) into the kind of modern simple-to-read lucid English publishers press translators of older and recent more difficult books to use. Literally it is hard to accuse Goldstein of inaccuracy, but as to the experience of these novels you are losing much that makes her one of the important women writers of the 21st century. I was chuffed when late in Bojar’s book she says how alike are the characters and a number of the plot-designs in the Neapolitan Quartet and Wolf’s Quest for Christa T; Raja’s Lila (Raffaelle Cerullo) is in type and meaning a recreation of Christa T. What’s more the Italian in both books is close in style, feel, sentence structure, and that indefinable thing called presence.

I also read Domenico Starnone’s Ties (Lacci) and, as Bojar claims, it reads like the male’s answer to Raja’s Days of Abandonment (see my review). I felt like I was meeting Nino, the cad-villain of the Neapolitan Quartet, whom both Lila and Lenu (Elena Greco) fall in love with, have babies by, who rises in life to high positions in academia, parliament (with a stint in jail that ultimately does him no harm). Here is this man who thinks so well of himself, and treats women so dismissively (whatever he might say of them when their lover). I could not compare style since the translator is Jhumpa Lahiri (who has left her husband and children and made herself over as a writer of Italian, living in Italy): Lahiri make a hard book, nothing like the flexible fluid style of Goldstein but as to outlook it is a contrast to Raja’s: Ties is a witty book, often sarcastic and ironic; it moves quickly and simply one story at a time; rearrangements of time are clarified; the author is guarded. All very unlike Raja. I am not at all convinced by the statistical studies’ walls of numbers; such studies when applied to Shakespeare have concluded 17-18 of his plays are collaborations, or not written by him at all. But I do think this “answer” to one of Raja’s books, and what I’ve read of his other books and life suggests he has had input: mostly his childhood in Naples, his male outlook. Neapolitan Quartet is so much more outward, and more in control, more mainstream, polished, less raw and openly vulnerable.

It’s my view that Ferrante ought to come out and protect her name and her work – the way George Eliot was forced to when a male claimed he had read it. Perhaps some of the denigration, the condescension, and sheer resentment would be controlled. She is in the unfortunate position of Anne Radcliffe, the later 18th century gothic writer who is today still ridiculed because she could not bear to acknowledge, much less answer her critics.

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Gaia Girace as Lila Carracci (nee Cerullo) in film by Staverio Costanza (among others, Elena Ferrante too)

To the last of The Neapolitan Quartet (Storia della bambina perduta) and Lost Daughter. The closeness in title is true to the content of the very long fourth book and the novella. All four of the novels (very mainstream with two central heroines who correspond to one another thematically) are one continued story (like Winston Graham’s Poldark books) and by the time we get to this fourth, there is so much to resolve, so many ongoing stories (see My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name [Storia della nuove cognome] and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay Away [Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta], that I can’t begin to cover them here (see supersummary and the New York Times review ).  What I’d like to dwell on is the central event (though it comes about 2/3s of the way into the book) that determines the final outcome of Lila’s life: her daughter is kidnapped from her, probably murdered at the behest of the Solares. On “an ordinary Sunday” she and Enzo and Lenu and (for just that day) Pietro are cavorting outside, and they suddenly realize Tina has gone missing.

The disappearance of Tina ruins the rest of Lila’s life. She just never gets over it, partly because despite her many successes in business (making money selling, conquering digital techniques) and her finding a real man worthy of love, Enzo; despite all this, I say, in comparison to all Lenu or Elena achieved (the education, the book writing, the belonging to more upper class and therefore interesting, enlightened, enjoyable worlds), Lila has been defeated. She was turning to her children’s futures vicariously. Her son, after all by Stephano, Rino, is a deep disappointment to her: he could not escape his patriarchal brutal and anti-intellectual environment; and she poured her hope and dreams into Tina. At the same time that Lila gave birth (child by Enzo), so too Elena, truly pregnant by Nino (this cad they have both over-rated), has had a daughter, who comes to be called Imma (Elena’s mother’s name abbreviated). When Tina, Lila’s daughter is (presumably) kidnapped and killed, and enough time goes by that Lila realizes she will never have Tina back, Lila discards the business; and causes (by her angry behavior) her loving partnership with Enzo to break up.  There is only so much punishment Enzo can stand.  Lila estranges herself from everyone but what she finds in her computer and the library. It’s poignant to me how she turns back to the library (so have I, more than once), now to read and learn and write of Naples. Elena/Lenu does try to get Lila to produce a typescript that she, Elena, can edit and give to a publisher.  But Lila will or cannot conform enough.  How I felt for Lila.

Towards the end of Perduta Bambina, in another permutation of this mother-daughter paradigm, Elena finds herself caring for her mother in her mother’s old age, and forgiving her mother, her cruelty, denseness, jealousy of Elena (which but for Maestra Oliviero would have precluded Elena’s education ticket out of working class women’s lives).  We also see that part of the reason for Elena’s success as an author is her mother-in-law’s nurturing of her, a mother-as-mentor – a very ambivalent relationship.  Maestra Oliviero, the spinster elementary school teacher, is responsible for getting Elena’s parents to send her to junior high (this is a US term so I refer to its equivalent in Italy).  Prof Nadia Galiani encourages and introduces Elena to the right people; and lastly, Adele, Pietro’s mother mentors her and publishes Elena’s first novel.  In contrast, no one takes an interest in Lila once she is taken out of school at fifth grade (her father throws her out a window when she demands at age 10 to go); her mother, Nunzia means well but is very weak.  Nunzia dies off-stage.  This mother-daughter paradigm is central to all Ferrante’s work, while the friendship exploration remains almost unique to the four books, however thoroughly gone into — there are other women friends in these books, sister relationships.


Margherita Mazzucolena as Elena — when my daughter Izzy is in her usual skirts, with her glasses on she reminds me of this actress in this part and I am so proud of her

I found myself more than any of the other three identifying with Elena. This changed after I read Christa Wolf.  I finally after I had read Christa T: Christa T is Christa Wolf as open angry rebel, deeply alienated, hurt, striking out, and I can understand that and indirectly have acted that way myself (to the point of destruction of friendships), but the character who came closest to me is Elena. Consequently I got angry with her as I rarely do for characters. I could not understand how she could leave Pietro, a good man, supportive and economic support; yes he did not help her with her work, sabotaged it in part, with him she began to lead the dependent wife-life, but I felt that was forgivable as there was still room for her to go to a conference say, have a temporary liaison.


Jack Farthing (Warleggan in Poldark) as Gianni-Joe in Lost Daughter would also be perfect for Pietro in the Neapolitan Quartet

I found The Ferrante Letters so satisfying to read because all four authors (Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill, and Jill Richards) are open about this bonding; I had not come across this kind of talk about a woman’s book by women since reading Sheila Kaye-Smith and G. B. Stern’s Speaking of Jane Austen. There is not only such a thing as l’ecriture-femme, one of its signs is the woman reader gets into sincere earnest dialogue with the characters and reflects on central issues of her life.


Audible set of the four from the BBC

The end of the fourth book brings us right back to the beginning of the first; we return to the two small girls and their dolls; either Lila or someone else leaves one of the original dolls (or a facsimile) in Elena’s post box, a sign that Lila has not been murdered but chosen finally to find peace in retreat (rather like Mary, Lady Mason, in Trollope’s Orley Farm, which I am now engrossed by). The second book, Nuove Cognome, opens with Elena shockingly and beyond retrieval, throwing Lila’s hard-fought for box of diaries in the Arno, whence her writing of these four books. She acknowledges or believes that all her fiction writing comes out of Lila’s ideas, first child’s book, talk. I think the fourth is aesthetically the sloppiest and overlong. It meanders and repeats itself. It stops and starts — my feeling is Starnone was too much in it, making it too “normalized” with Ferrante struggling for ambiguity, circularity. I know I need to re-read all four and will discover so much more prepared for and anticipating what is to come and see so much more than the first time through. I am prepared to buy a full subscription for HBOMax when the third season of My Brilliant Friend finally comes to US TV.

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Movie Poster


Olivia Coleman as Leda Carusa now 48 at the end of the film (one of the best reviews I’ve come across of book & film by Kayti Burt)

The Lost Daughter is not a satisfactory translation of the Italian title: much closer is The Depressed or Saddened Daughter and it refers as much to Leda and her relationship with her crude unsatisfactory inarticulate mother (it reads like a precis for Elena and her mother). Leda is also identifying far more strongly with Nina, the beautiful young woman on the beach with the spoilt daughter, Elena (the name keeps coming back), whose doll it is that Leda takes away and plays with, abuses, dresses all summer. Nina (played by Dakota Johnson in the film) is headed for a frustrated life with a dense bully of a violent husband, watched over and controlled by the sister-in-law, Rosalia (actress not listed), who is ecstatic at having become pregnant after many years of marriage; Nina is too mindless, and has not begun to break away from a lying culture, so one might say she is a lost daughter too.

The book opening:

Leda is having, or in the middle of a car accident, as the book opens. She is exhausted, wearied (her teaching job is like that of a US adjunct, she never achieved any high appointment as did her husband from whom she is separated) and needs a break. To the hospital come friends, her two daughters, Bianca and Marta and even her husband, Gianni, whom they live with, and who, she says, was a wonderful tender father when he had time to pay attention to his daughters. He won their love far more easily than she has. She remembers as she decides to go to the shore (an Ionian beach, probably middle class, and for privacy), her mother working on her (through fear) to stay safe by issuing threats of how she’s going to get drowned if she goes too close to the water. At the close of the book as the film she comes near to drowning herself.

One there she sees this huge clan of a family, Neapolitan, they are part of the clan she has escaped from. She recognizes they are enjoying themselves, but also that they are godawful in their manners and the whole thing a powder keg waiting to erupt. They push other families to give them more room; she refuses she’s not quite sure why. They become hostile to her and when she leaves someone throws a hard thistle at her back, leaving a painful wound (it is also a plant which, for the superstitious, carries ill-wishes). Soon after she has made a habit of this morning “rest” (she brings papers and books), Elena goes missing; Leda finds her because she remembers the hat that Elena is wearing, her mother’s. Bu the child carries on whining (I find myself using this word for once) and vexing everyone because her doll has gone missing.
We learn in a last sentence of a section, Leda put said doll in her bag. She tells herself she’ll bring it back to the beach tomorrow, put it out there and it’ll be taken as found but she cannot get herself to give up this doll.

We then get a weaving of present time adventures with many memories. Here the book is much more successful because Gyllenhaal will not use voice-over and fears offending conventional women in the audience who have given up their lives to their children and now perpetually lie to themselves to make it seem a far happier and fulfilling choice than it ever can be.

Some of these memories:

An academic truly upper class woman named Lucilla (Dagmara Domińczyk in the film) visits and can cater to Leda’s daughters and win them over because unlike Leda, Lucilla doesn’t have to cope with them 24/7. “The woman did her enormous harm” Leda thinks now. Her children start to hit her and at first she doesn’t respond, then says stop it, and then hits them lightly but repeatedly. They do prey on her. They want her to be their doll, and I’m astonished at her that she permits this. They are jealous of one another and nag at her. At one point she becomes so over-wrought as she tries do her work, she puts Marta outside the room and then somehow the glass shatters in the door. Child not hurt, but the text quivers with her intensity of trauma and upset, she feels herself in continual crisis. But the woman also knew how to network and had connections and sent one of Leda’s papers to a Professor Hardy and at a conference, he praised her highly, got the paper published (of course they went to bed together). She remembers the difficulty of using opportunities at the university to work towards being considered for positions – how hard that is. Tell me about it. I never knew how. She wanted to act out rage but nowhere to act it.

Present time:

One day she actually tells the older pregnant woman, Rosaria about abandoning her children for 3 years. The woman of course is shocked. She actually longs to confide in Nina because she (mistakenly I feel) bonds with Nina and thinks Nina could be someone she could confide it. How wrong she is she discovers at the film’s end when Nina stabs her with the hat pin she bought for Elena. The older handyman, Gianni (Lyle in the film, Ed Harris) has come to visit and they discuss wives and husbands and their children. He offers to cook a fish he has caught; he is a good cook. He stays at first (she thinks) so he can lie to his friends about having sex. They end up confiding in one another about their relationships with their children, he boasts about how good his has been despite his early separation from his wife. He sees the doll, recognizes it, but chooses not to tell. Leda talks of how her own mother would disappear once in a while and scold the harder when she returned (this is a memory in the book transposed into this dramatic scene). In both book and film Leda tries to watch a movie one night and is made fun of by the young men who ridicule the film (one I couldn’t recognize, a sentimental one Towards the end of the story there is a dancing sequence with Nina dancing with her boor of a husband after having spent the afternoon having sex with him, and Leda, first Giovanni and then Gino (the young man who wants to go to bed with Nina and for whom Leda is ready to give up her room). It’s strange that Leda should see herself as in competition with this woman or even reach out to her –- it is so useless. But such is life.

The book returns us to the beach for her last day; she is warned that as she has produced the doll and given it back, she should get away as now the Neapolitan family will feel they have a right to have a grudge against her. The film has the near car accident that occurred at the opening of the book occur now, together with a near or acted-out suicide (to spite her mother who so threatened her not to go near the shore). In both she rolls back, and the very ending has her calling her daughters (or they call her) and we see the intense relief she experiences when they say they were worried about her. She is cheered, gladdened, and finds strength to sit there and gather herself together emotionally once more to return home to her apartment, probably in Turin — where Elena ends up, nowadays a center for Northern writers. Either way as in life nothing is resolved though much experience inwardly and some outwardly has been traversed, considered, perhaps understood better.


Naples, Old Neighborhood in My Brilliant Friend


The two girls as children reading Little Women together (same film)

Ellen

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For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Days: Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 am,
Jan 26 to Feb 16
4 sessions online, zoom meeting style (location of building: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Virginia) 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: F407 is Retelling Traditional History & Tales from an Alternative POV

We will read two books which retell stories and history from perhaps unexpected and often unvoiced points of views. In War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo (a British-Italian biographer and memoir-writer, and literary OBE) retells the story of World War Two from the point of view of a woman taking charge of her estates in Tuscany during the war. Then Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf (a respected East German author who won numerous German literary-political prizes) tells the story of Troy from Cassandra’s point of view, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. The second book was written after the war was over and after a trip the author took to Greece. The immediate context for both books is World War Two; long range, they are anti-war (a particular aim in Cassandra is nuclear disarmament): they tell history from a woman’s standpoint; one mythic, the other granular life-writing.

During the time covered by Origo’s diary, she takes in and creates a school for 23 refugee children; she and her husband hide partisans, and protect various disconnected endangered people; a real problem is the German disproportionate and terrifying reprisals & their dropping of landmines everywhere across Italy. So one BBC serial (1979), Danger UXB, we will discuss is made up of a story of a bomb disposal unit and I may suggest watching a couple of episodes (TBA); among other parts of her life, Christa Wolf was coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi, so I will urge people to see the powerful film, The Lives of Others directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck by the fourth week of term; the heroine’s story is said to be partly based on Christa Wolf.

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Origo, Iris. War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, introd. Virginia Nicholson. NY: NY Review of Books Classics, 2017.
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, trans. from German Jan Van Heurck. NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1984.

Note: War in the Val D’Orcia has not been out of print since it was first published in 1947; there are a couple of other editions, which could cost less, but this one has an introduction, notes and photos. Cassandra also has not been out of print since first published (1983, German) but this is the only edition; what’s happened is there are editions of just Cassandra available (same translator) but you miss a lot about the book if you don’t read the four afterpieces, two travelogues, one diary, and some thoughts on the book and other 20th century European women writers.


Iris Origo in later life


Christa Wolf, 2007 (Berlin)

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

Jan 26: Introduction: Iris Origo, Life and Work, the Diary in the context of the war all around the estate

Feb 2: Her earlier diary, A Chill in the Air, an Italian War Diary, 1939-40; her essays on the fascism build-up in Italy; other diaries, e.g, Norman Lewis, Naples ’44; Eva Figes, Little Eden, A Child at War. The reprisals and landmines (Danger UXB)

Feb 10: Christa Wolf’s Life and Work, Cassandra and Four Essays, in the context of usual tellings of Iliad/Aeneid story, including Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (play where Cassandra and Agamemnon are killed by Clytemnestra), Euripides’s Trojan Women, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Feb 17: More discussion of Wolf’s Cassandra, the four afterwards (especially travel in Greece and diary); women’s novels & memoirs from the era (historical fiction); The Lives of Others: on an autocratic gov’t and society (Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, what living in a fascist dictatorship is like).


An actress playing Cassandra from recent translation of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, as translated by Robert Fagles

Suggested outside reading or watching (a bibliography):

Du Maurier, Daphne. The KIng’s General, introd. Julie Picardie. 1946; rpt. London, Virago, 2006. Historical fiction retells history of seige of Menabilly and war in Cornwall 17th century.
Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir, trans. Barbara Bray. NY: Pantheon, 1986.
Feder, Lillian. A Handbook of Classical Literature. 1964; rpt NY: Da Capo, 1998. Very accessible.
Figes, Eva. Little Eden: A Child at War. NY: Persea, 1978.
———–. The Seven Ages [of Women]. NY: Pantheon, 1986. Fantasy retelling of all history in England, from Neolithic to 20th century by unfamous central women types (e.g. midwives, one is an aristocratic woman, Lady Brilliana Harvey who really held out in 17th century siege of her castle-like manor house)
Finley, M. I The World of Odysseus. Middlesex, Eng: Penguin, 1954; 1984; rpt. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Finney, Gail. Christa Wolf. Boston: Twayne, 2010. Short biography and survey of her writings.
Holden, Inez. Blitz Writing: Night Shift and It was Different at the Time, ed Kristin Bluemel. 1941; rpt. London: Handheld, 2017.
Lewis, Norman. Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1978
Lochhead, Liz. Medea: After Euripides. London: Nick Hern, 2000; rpt. Glasgow: Theater Babel, 2007.
Moorehead, Caroline. Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia: A Biography. Boston: Godine, 2002.
Nightingale, Florence. Cassandra, introd. Myra Stark, epilogue Cynthia Macdonald. NY: Feminist Press, 1979.
Origo, Iris. A Chill in the Air, An Italian War Diary, 1939-40. introd. Lucy Hughes-Hallett. NY: NY Review of Books classic, 2017.
———–. Images and Shadows: an autobiography. Boston: Godine, 1970.
———–. A Need to Testify, foreword Ted Morgan. NY: Books & Co, 1984. On history of biography, and portraits of people she knew in the 1930s, who worked as anti-fascists
Weil, Simone, trans, ed. James P Holoka The Iliad or the Poem of Force: A Critical Edition. Peter Lang, 2003.
Wolf, Christa. Medea: A Modern Retelling, trans. John Cullen, introd. Margaret Atwood. 1998; rpt. NY: Doubleday, 2005.
————-. Quest for Christa T, trans Christopher Middleton. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1970. Semi-autobiographical.
————-. Parting with Phantoms: Selected Writings, 1990-93, trans, notes Jan Van Heurck. Univ. Chicago, 1997.
————-. Patterns of Childhood (sometimes titled A Model Childhood), trans. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1980.

Movies:

Danger UXB. Developed John Hawkesworth and John Whitney. Various writers and directors, based on stories by Maj A.B. Hartley. Perf. include Antony Andrews, Judy Geeson. Available on Amazon Prime.
A French Village. Developed by Frederic Krivine, Phillipe Triboit. Various writers & directors. 7 year French serial set in occupied Vichy France, 1941-1946, with fast forward to 1975; 2002. Amazon prime, also to buy as DVD sets.
The Lives of Others. Dir. Script. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Perf. include Ulrich Mulne, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch. Independent. Available at Amazon Prime, as DVD on Netflix, to buy as DVD
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf. include Benjamin Whitlow, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden. BBC 1981 movie. Available on Amazon Prime.


Montepulciano, town, commune (history begins in the medieval and Renaissance eras) close to Origo estates, to which everyone who can flees & takes refuge during a particularly dangerous period

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Hung Liu, The Year of the Rat (2021) – this is one of the last portraits she did and it is downstairs in the lobby to lure you upstairs

Friends, readers,

Another woman artist, this time a woman photographer and painter whose work I saw in the DC National Portrait Gallery a couple of weeks ago. The following video where a curator takes you through many of the paintings and photographs in the exhibit, you learn so much about Liu’s life story, the images she made in the different phases of her existence, and hear Hung Liu talking about what she is trying to achieve in general, and what were her aims and circumstances in each of the works she is led to talk about — that the usual blog I would do for a woman artist feels superfluous. Click and see and hear. Hung herself talks in the interview clips of the importance of remembering people, especially to the person who remembers and the one remembered.



This is called Father’s Day: it is Liu with her father — he was taken from the family when she was five, imprisoned, enslaved, treated harshly and strictly for 50 years at the time when she learned where he was, and visited him. He told her that after so many years of such barbaric treatment that he can no longer show emotion.

She was proud of her mother and her grandmother’s stoicism in the face of such hardships:

All the information you need otherwise is provided in the marvelous catalogue book of the exhibition (Portraits of Promised Lands), with three essays and many beautiful plates, which I recommend buying. To be honest, and iconoclastically I think you can have as deep an experience as felt in the galleries, maybe more deep reading this book as going to the gallery. The difference is the size of the images and you have to imagine the thick impasto you eyes register as you gaze.

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Here I just suggest emphases and perspectives, single out the most striking images.

She seems to have derived her passionate devotion to the deeply hurt by society and the vulnerable, and desire to give all her subjects quiet dignity, from the way her family was treated in her early life: her father’s fate (see above) was the result of his having fought in the army of Chiang Kai-shek; the family destroyed all the photographs and memorabilia of their lives they had lest any be interpreted against them. They didn’t flee, rather marginalized themselves, hid their individual identities, and only gradually as Hung’s gift emerged sent her quietly to the best schools and then art college in China available. She had herself to do two years farm work, and traveled, everywhere she saw thwarted and hurt people, she painted, and then later took photographs and painted these in her own distinctive way (the film will tell you of this) within terms of the imposed social realism of China. Like many others in such a situation, she learned much but felt constricted, that she was not fulfilling her art’s potential. They are not just downtrodden people, but people whose identity is at risk, like this one:


Summoning ghosts — the woman is beautiful but she resists us by turning to the side, she is dressing her hair and wearing that outfit to please another

She was both fortunate and her family maintained some good connections (her grandfather had been a scholar and botanist), and was able to travel to the US, go to an art college in California, and become part of the art worlds there. She became a resident artist at Capp Street Project in San Francisco in 1988; she eventually married a fellow art student, Jeff Kelley, who became her curator. She went onto graduate school, became a citizen, a Professor Emerita herself, had a child, a boy. In her earlier life she took many photographs as she traveled around China tracing the changes or just the events and behavior of people working out the cultural revolution. These photographs have to be experienced in the order they are placed in a narrative. In the US she resumed such travels down south (where both white and black, but mostly black lived hard lives), to places Asian people made communities in.

Here are some of these: she identifies with a plow-bough young man (black, living down south),


A plow-boy in the American south

A hopeful African-American woman — see the way she swings dangling feet or shoes


Dangling Feet

She talked with ex-Comfort Women in Korea:


This is from the cover for the book cited above (Promised Lands)

Here is a less well known portrait of comfort women:

There is also a portrait of an aged woman with bound feet, who cannot walk — very distressing in its ordinariness.

Much more hopeful: I love her monumental portraits of children, here are two young ones, the one helping the other to eat. I love the small pictures of small creatures, and how her linseed application visibly drips:

Here are two leaning against a wall:

She has a large portrait very beautiful of a black woman with flowers all around her.

She is famous for painting over or up, the photography of Dorothy Lange, whose perspective is coterminous with Liu’s. So here is Migrant Mother made somehow less grim by the coloration and a slight change in the woman’s expression or face and also making the pair further back in the picture space:

Her Dorothy Lange types are when original with her more poignant, as in this Father’s Arms:

Another too distressing to reprint, but found in Promised Lands is of a half-starved woman, with very narrow breasts, who has a baby clinging to one of her nipples. She is dressed in an undershirt with work shirt over, to her left a sad-faced child, a man who shades his face with a hat, another looking to the right as if far in the distance ….

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I was strongly taken by this exhibit and went back a second time; that’s when I bought the book, the first large art book I’ve bought since Jim died. Hers is a redemptive art. She is paying attention to people others usually only register as a number who needs to be checked off, as it were “visible,” finishing what work they were given: it does not matter if their participation is active or genuine. There are few landscapes alone. Such images were thought very self-indulgent in her early training: consequently they are the circumstances against or in which the person pictured must live or work in most of her images.

But she did a series called My Secret Freedom, which are curiously pastoral, very conventional except for the objects and houses she invents (look at the grey boat):

Individual objects painted in her more usual way, very large, turn up now and again: Blue slippers; a bed; a comfortable desk chair with pillow; a grey phone, titled Telephone January 20, 2012:

This wikipedia article is useful. There are short insightful essays on-line on individual images. We are told of her crucial contributions, given thoughtful descriptions of the art techniques she uses to make her memorable portraits; how she’s summoning and commemorating ghosts

Ellen

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An eighteenth-century mask

Friends and readers,

Another report on the papers and panels at another virtual conference, this one the fall EC/ASECS, to have been held at the Winterthur Museum, with the umbrella subject matter: “Material Culture.” Happily for each time slot there was only one panel, so I missed very little. On Thursday evening, we began our festivities online with Peter Staffel’s regularly held aural/oral experience. Excerpts from two comedies were dramatically read, and various poems. I read two sonnets by Charlotte Smith, and probably read with more feeling the first, No 51, because I thought of Jim and how I have dreamed of going to the Hebrides and got as far as Inverness and a drive around the northern edge of Scotland where across the way I saw the isle of Skye (or so I tell myself it was):

Supposed to have been written in the Hebrides:

ON this lone island, whose unfruitful breast
Feeds but the summer shepherd’s little flock,
With scanty herbage from the half cloth’d rock
Where osprays, cormorants and seamews rest;
E’en in a scene so desolate and rude
I could with thee for months and years be blest;
And, of thy tenderness and love possest,
Find all my world in this wild solitude!
When Summer suns these northern seas illume,
With thee admire the light’s reflected charms,
And when drear Winter spreads his cheerless gloom,
Still find Elysium in thy shelt’ring arms:
For thou to me canst sov’reign bliss impart,
Thy mind my empire—and my throne thy heart.

The next morning at 9 am we had our first panel, Jane Austen Then and Now, chaired by Linda Troost, and I read my paper “A Woman and Her Boxes: Space and Personal Identity in Jane Austen”.

Next up was Elizabeth Nollen’s “Reading Radcliffe: the importance of the book in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. After the publisher had held onto the manuscript for six years, she wrote an angry letter, but he refused to return the manuscript unless she paid back what he had paid her brothers (£10); her family wouldn’t fork out the money. Nollen retold Udolpho in a way that emphasized its comforting and inspirational components. Her argument was Austen was re-writing Udolpho to make Radcliffe’s book into a bildingsroman. In Northanger Abbey we go with a heroine on a journey into womanhood. Henry and Eleanor Tilney, kind and unselfish friends, invite Catherine to back with them to their ancestral home. Ms Nollen (to my surprise) at the close of her paper inveighed against Catherine marrying Henry, finding in him much offensive man-splaining, seeing him as a man who will domineer over her. Catherine is exchanging one boss for another was her take, and that Catherine’s new future life is that of a dependent. (I feel that at the novel’s end, we are expected to feel how lucky Catherine is to have married such an intelligent, cordial, for the most part understanding man — and at the young age of 18, but of course it could be the narrator’s closing words are wholly ironic.)


Felicity Jones as Catherine Morland escaping her friends and social duties by reading (paratexts from the ITV Northanger Abbey)

B. G. Betz’s “Pride and Prejudice and Its Sequels and Variations: a Gift to the Humanities.” She began by asserting that for Elizabeth Bennet is the favorite heroine of most readers, that Elizabeth and her novel provoke a passionate response in people. Why else the endless retellings of the E&D story? I’d say this is certainly so in the film adaptation Lost in Austen. (Here’s the plot of Pride and Prejudice to refresh your mind.) She then told us she travels around to libraries doing Library Hours (reading books to younger children) with the aim of getting more people reading, reading Jane Austen and also all the modernizations and adaptations, and appropriations of Austen books into written sequels, other (related?) romances, and many many movie adaptations. BG emphasis was “As long as I get them reading!” She probably is alive to Austen’s distinctive language and intelligent text, but what she aims out is to re-engage common readers with books, using Austen and romance. She went over several lists of sequel-writers (naming them, citing titles), told of which characters did chose this or that as central to the story line of a particular novel or series of novels, and the dates of publication. (I sometimes wonder if I miss out because I so rarely read sequels, and admit that the most recent Austen adaptations [heritage as well as appropriation] do not attract me because the film-makers seem no longer to assume the viewership includes a sizable population who have read Austen’s novels).

The morning’s second panel, Women in the World: Shaping Identity through Objects and Space included four papers. I can offer only the gist of three of them.
The chair, Andrea Fabrizio’s paper, ““Small Town Travel and Gossip: Earthly Obstacles and Spiritual Agency in The Narrative of the Persecutions of Agnes Beaumont, was about a slender book, that because of my lack of knowledge of the topic and perspective, was difficult for me to follow. It’s short (only 50 pages) and vindicates a woman’s right to a spiritual choice. The general issue is one of control. A young woman’s father will not allow her to belong to a Bunyan-like church group, during their perpetual struggle, he dies and she is accused of murder (!) and then acquitted.

Ruth G. Garcia’s “‘Affect nothing above your rank’: Social Identity and the Material World in Conduct Books for Servants” focused on Edgeworth’s Belinda as a novel. Ms Garcia sees the novel as one which manifests and explores anxiety over servants sharing space with their employer (Belinda is Lady Delacour’s companion; another servant is insolent). The novel might seem to uphold conduct books which insist on controlling servants (in among other areas dress), but we are shown how servants have little right to live. Lady Delacour’s is a troubled marriage and accedes finally to Belinda’s influence. By contrast, Lady Anne Perceval is an exemplary character who is her husband’s partner. She cited Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost, an important book about women servants. (I have read essays which interpret this novel quite differently, seeing it as a lesbian text, as about a mother-daughter relationship.)

Xinyuan Qiu’s “Affection or Affectation: An Alternative Way of Reading Pamela Provided by Hogarth’s London Milkmaids” is described by its title: she used Hogarth’s satiric depictions of milkmaids (which do resemble the ways Richardson dresses Pamela) to argue that the text is salacious but not to satirize or critique it in the manner of Fielding but rather to argue that the milkmaid figure used erotically challenges traditional hierarchies.


A drawing by Hogarth featuring a milkmaid — this is a more chaste image than several of those examined

I could take in more of Elizabeth Porter’s ““Moving Against the Marriage Plot: London in Burney’s Cecilia because I have studied Burney’s Cecilia, as well as her journal writing (and of course read Evelina). This seemed to me a study of Cecilia as an instance of urban gothic used as a critique of the way this young woman is treated. As defined by Ms Porter, urban gothic, associated with the Victorian gothic, presents a state of disorientation in urban spaces; male authors tend to write this kind of gothic (I thought of Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White and No Name.) It is a development out of Radcliffe (whom I remember Burney commenting upon in her journals). Cecilia ends in a psychic breakdown running around the London streets, near the novel’s close she experiences horror, imprisonment, living in darkness. In marriage laws and customs where women lose personhood in marriage, which provides a happy ending which seems more like succumbing. We are left with feelings of stress, strain, haunted regret, resignation.

I was able to attend to only one of the papers on the third afternoon panel, a miscellany of papers, “Susan Howard’s “‘Born within the Vortex of a Court’: Structural Methodologies and the Symbology of Possessions in Charlotte Papendiek’s Memoirs. This was a reading of Papendiek’s 1760s Memoir. Her father had been a servant in Queen Charlotte’s court, and Charlotte constructs a dual narrative telling about her private life as a child and grown woman at this court. Ms Howard read material realities as manifesting aspects of social realities. Things, and especially gifts, are emissaries between people. She discussed Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of the queen and of this Assistant Keeper of the Queen’s wardrobe (as well as Queen’s reader). After her talk (during the discussion) Ms Howard talked about the problem of gauging how far what Papendiek wrote was literal truth, but suggested if it wasn’t, the journals are as valuable for telling us of the values, norms and general events at the court. (I feel the same holds true for Burney’s journals and diaries, which have recently been shown by, among others, Lorna Clark, to be often highly fictionalized.)

I came in at the end of Jessica Banner’s “Women behind the Work: Re-Thinking the Representation of Female Garment Workers in Eighteenth-Century London,” which was a study of the realities of the lives of female garment workers in 18th century London (methods of production, pay, who and where were they located?, their re-organization between the 1790s and 1815). There is a Liverpool directory, an alphabetical list of names.

The second day ended with an hour-long very enjoyable talk by Deborah Harper, Senior Curator of Education, Winterthur Museum and Library, working there for over 30 years. She took us on a tour of the keyboard instruments in the Dupont collection at the museum, focusing on 18th century elements and what seems to be one of the most cherished treasures of the collection, a 1907 Steinway owned and played upon by Mrs Ruth du Pont (nee Wales, 1889-1967); her husband, Henry Francis Dupont was the Dupont who developed the museum into the premier collection of American decorative art it is today. Although not mentioned by Ms Harper, his father, Henry Algernon du Pont, was a US senator for Delaware, a wealthy Republican businessman and politician who promptly lost his seat when senators were no longer appointed but elected. I wouldn’t presume to try to convey the rich detail and explanations in this talk (accompanied by interesting images). Ms Harper covered what are harpsichords, pianofortes, owners, collectors, specific histories of the different keyboards, how they fit into the culture of their specific place and era, stories of estates, individual players, where the keyboard has been and is today in the buildings. One group of people mentioned, the Lloyd family who owned Wye house and Wye plantation, owned large groups of enslaved people, among them Frederick Douglas.

The longest section revolved around the Steinway at present in a beautiful front room, and how it was loved and used by Ruth du Pont, who, Ms Harper said, loved musicals and Cole Porter songs. Ruth du Pont is described on the Winterthur website as “the Lady of the house,” “a social figure, talented musician, and hostess of four houses” and “devoted wife” and mother. “Photographs and documents from Winterthur’s vast archive document Mrs. du Pont’s life of hospitality, music, and travel.” I found elsewhere a full and franker life of high privilege than you might expect (with many photographs). She had to endure various tensions throughout her younger years (in each life some rain must fall), and later in life would go into angry tirades at FDR as “a traitor to his class.” So she would have resented my having social security to live upon? It also seems that her husband didn’t like the color of her piano; he wanted to paint it gray-green to match the 18th century colors of some of his collected furniture. When he decided against this (wisely, or was persuaded not to), he kept the piano from view for a long time (placing it for example in a concert hall for a time).


Used for Christmas concerts today

One of two blogs,
Ellen

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18th century writing-slope: sometimes called a writing-box, or writing-desk

Hans Mayer had written: “Identity is possible only through attachment.” Christa Wolf responds: “What he does not say in so many words but knows from experience is that identity is forged by resisting intolerable conditions, which means we must not allow attachments to deteriorate into dependency but must be able to dissolve them again if the case demands it (Wolf, Parting with Phantoms, 1990-1994)

Austen could not dissolve these attachments but resisted mightily and yet without admitting resistance. This idea can be also applied as a general summation of part of D W. Harding’s famous essay on Austen’s satiric comedy, “Regulated Hatred.”

Dear friends and readers,

You may be yourself in your own life tired of virtual life and longing to turn to in-person life: I am and am not. Over the past two weeks I had a number of wonderful experiences on-line, virtually, which I would not have been able to reach in person: a London Trollope society reading group, a musical concert at the Smithsonian, a good class at Politics and Prose, held at night when I cannot drive. I also longed to truly be with people too — it’s physical places as much as communicating directly with people, casually, seeing one another’s legs and feet, but for even most the alternative was nothing at all. I think I am enjoying these virtual experiences so because they are laid on a groundwork of memory (I’ve been there or with these people), imagination (extrapolation), much reading (shared with the other participants) and visual and aural media.

All this to say I’ve been attending the Bath250 conference, officially held or zoomed out from the University of Liverpool, for several late nights and for the past evening and two days I’ve attended a full virtual version of the EC/ASECS conference. I’ve gone to EC/ASECS almost every year since 2000, and since Jim died, every year. This is the second year in row we (they) have postponed the plan to go to the Winterthur Museum for our sessions, and stay by a nearby hotel. Our topic this year has been what’s called Material Culture: A virtual prelude, but there was nothing of the prelude about the papers and talks. I will be making a couple of blogs of these in order to remember what was said in general myself and to convey something of the interest, newness and occasional fascination (from the Educational Curator of Winterthur) of what was said — with one spell-binding Presidential talk by Joanne Myers, “My Journal of the Plague Year.”


18th century lined trunk

For tonight I thought I’d lead off with the one talk or paper I can given in full, my own, which I was surprised to find fit in so well with both what was said at Bath250 and the topics at EC/ASECS, from costumes in the theater as central to the experience, to libraries and buildings, to harpsichords and pianofortes now at Winterthur. This is not the first time I’ve mentioned this paper, but it has undergone real changes (see my discussion of early plan and inspiration), and is now seriously about how a study of groups of words for containers (boxes, chests, trunks, parcels, pockets) and meaning space shows the significance for Austen of her lack of control or even literally ownership of precious real and portable possessions and private space to write, to dream, simply to be in. I’ve a section on dispossessions and possessions in the Austen films now too.

I’ve put it on academia.edu

A Woman and Her Boxes: Space and Identity in Jane Austen


Marianne Dashwood (Charity Wakefield) packing her writings away in the trunks in what was their Norland bedroom (2009 Sense and Sensibility, scripted Andrew Davies

At the last moment I added a section on women’s pockets and pocketbooks in the 18th century and as found in Austen’s novels. An addendum to the paper.

And a bibliography.

Ellen

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Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1927-2013) when young

One has to convey in a language that is not one’s own, the spirit that is one’s own, one has to convey the various shades and omissions of a certain thought-movement that looks maltreated in another language — Raja Rao

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been on an on-and-off long bout of reading Jhabvala, short stories (especially East into Upper East), novels (The Householder, A Backward Glance and Heat and Dust) and screenplays (Shakespeare Wallah and Howards End), as well as about her (older books by Laurie Sucher and Jasmine Gooneratne, and recent by Rekha Jha, Rishi Pal Singh, Ramal Agarwal), not to omit the great pleasure of watching Merchant-Ivory films, most of whose screenplays are by Jhabvala. I would very much like to read and see more of these. Her oeuvre is enormous, and her latest critics generalize about phases, from the early books where it’s a question of “western” or English eyes and characters trying to assimilate into Indian culture, and basically being destroyed; to the middle books and stories where there is a romantic entry into Indian life from a spiritual or imaginative, a quiescent passive point of view, to the latest stories, where we see cross-cultural clashes and exploitation between western values and behaviors and traditional Indian. Older writers compared her to Jane Austen (and point to Jane Austen in Manhattan, a Merchant-Ivory film), Chekov, Thackeray, newer ones to other Indian and Anglo-Indian writers: Kamala Markandaya, Naipaul, R. K. Narayan, Raja Rao — and E. M. Forster.

Her writings belong firmly in the colonialist and post-colonialist genres. She herself shows this migrancy – born of Jewish Polish parents who lived in Germany, numerous members of her family were killed in concentration camps, they moved to England where she got a degree in British literature, but then she married an Indian man and spent 25 years in India, last quarter of her life in America. I found myself very drawn to her autobiographical essay, “Myself in India,” where she tells the truth about the isolated existence she endured in India, the impoverishment of the people. It can be found in this collection:

For myself until two days ago when I led a class at OLLI at Mason in discussing her stories the best I could do was come up with generalizations. Jhabvala’s stories, novels, screenplays (original, not adaptations) are mostly set after 1947/48, Indian independence after the dissolution of the Raj. These are about Indian people trying to make it in a modern contemporary world – ambitious cool – whose roots though are in the traditional Indian culture. That’s the key – minds and bodies in two worlds. Jhabvala’s stories are also strongly feminist at times. Traditional cultures are very hard on women. Subtitle to some of them: Women amid snares and delusions. You might expect the women who emerge from these imprisonments (my view) to thrive far more, do better, and here in the US I’ve see it in students (but they are already living here with parents who brought them here), but in Jhabvala’s stories while many of her women thrive at first, are social successes, succeed at high management and political positions (often unofficial) eventually they self-destruct as the two did early in her famous Heat and Dust. The enemy of these women is internal (as Woolf said was the enemy of westernized women too – the angel in the house) – but it’s not angel that bothers these women. They find themselves in an exploitative, cynical and amoral world and retreat from it — to stasis, boredom, and illusion.


I think this is now the best book on Jhabvala — the older Sucher and Gooneratne are too western-oriented

Jhabvala is fascinated by the fake Guru, this manipulation on the part of supposed holy or tranquil or utterly unmaterialistic and spiritual people (I don’t have a better word) to draw to them the belief and trust of Indian people brought up in traditions seeking to experience some transcendent divine place, eternal, complete with notions of reincarnation, to release the soul into this divine (supernatural is my word) realm by various practices and rituals. Many of the Indian characters who don’t do well in Jhabvala and other Anglo-Indian writers (especially women also deprived of agency by law and custom) look for this non-individualistic realm and will pay money and support holy people they think put them in touch with these realms. Or they become a seer themselves. She also shows that westerners with a rational, pragmatic, scientific and materialistic set of assumptions can be equally taken in. It’s not such a funny comedy of delusions, because these patterns of behavior in her fictions are linked to what I’ll call masochistic patterns of behavior where people become dependent on one another (again especially women with a man in charge), some of these dependencies might seem bizarre, unmotivated, unexplained, gaining very little and giving up all. One explanation is Jhabvala is characterizing the social milieus of her stories, not probing individual psychologies – but some of this comes from this attempt to cross over – to get into this other culture while remaining in the modern one.

Her stories are epitomies or microcosms of the clashes between these world views. She looks around detachedly. Hers is an attempt at objectivity, yet so many of the stories are so sad. People are so betrayed, so hurt. Ironically several of the stories in East to Upper East present us with women as powerful people. Where they are held back it’s from marital customs found also in the patriarchal arrangements of the western world. The women who are most fulfilled are those who never marry, or if they do, end up (in effect) leading individualist lives based on their own agency.

I’m writing this brief survey blog posting tonight because of the class that went so well. I had dreaded it — three people who usually talk were not there (I knew they would not be), and I was not sure what to say about the particulars of the stories. I found their commentary and responses intelligent, sharp, with much understanding of the motives of Jhabvala’s driven ambitious characters. I’ll tell in brief concise form a little about the best stories we discussed from East into Upper East, “Independence,” “Progress and Development,” “A New Delhi Romance,” “Husband and Son,” and “Two Muses.” Sumitra, the heroine of the first, rose to heights of power, influence, and did some good in her time, but ends in angry despair. Her granddaughter wants to do a documentary about her life in order to record what was the truth of gov’t in India, but we see what kept the woman and the man she sustained afloat would never be acceptable in published forms. The four heroines and hero of “Progress and Development” begin life with high idealism; they will marry for love, have careers where they do good; they all end embittered and disillusioned, the male finding meaning in his family and children, only one of the women, Pushpa, a Mary Wollstonecraft kind of character sustaining the necessary illusions to keep going. The one who makes the best marriage as to status and the the apparent nature of her husband ends a suicide.

The last three are more domestic stories. “A New Delhi Romance” could be a story about two teenagers in the US, only it ends in an arranged marriage for the girl, selling herself to shore up her father’s scandalous fall from power and wealth. “Husband and Son” is about a woman whose society allows her no agency at all; she tries to find an outlook by becoming socially involved with a scoundrel dance teacher who when he seduces a young girl in the school is exposed for the fake he is; she ends caring for her profoundly depressed and ill husband who himself retreated from corrupt power. Last “The Two Muses,” the most autobiographical of the lot. The theme is here the distance between an artist’s life and his work, and how much an artist who is said to be creating masterpieces should be allowed to shirk his responsibility to others in real life; we watch a probably useless man being catered to by his wife, Lilo, who never reads a word he writes, and his mistress, Netta, who is responsible for his continued solvency and reputation.


I would like to read more of her autobiography and these stories are autobiographical

I feel I learned about the author in ways I just could not without live talk and give-and-take. At first Jhabvala is like this wall of guarded matter, but after a while if you persist and especially today I saw that they are in effect a real accurate commentary on the failure of Indian society to reform itself and provide meaningful modern and comfortable lives for most of its people. The politicians inhabit all the right roles, make liberal, well meaning comments, have wonderful luxurious times with one another on the tax money they get for salaries, but do nothing for infrastructure, land reform, re-distribution of income, general education. I found myself imagining Arundati Roy who won the Booker for her The God of Small Things written an invented language, half-way between a native idiolect and English –- as a candid and excellent journalist she writes for The Nation about India – very bitter at this recent turn of events with a religious bigoted dictator in charge. She would have no trouble recognizing what Jhabvala is realizing in words and exposing. As to moods, the stories can be felt as neutral or disillusioned ironic satires or melancholy bleak romances.

Next week we’ll spend a half hour on Mira Nair’s 2006 Namesake and Jumpha Lahiri’s 2003 novel of the same name.

I have put in a proposal to teach the following course in the spring at OLLI at Mason; I will do it at OLLI at AU too

Anglo-Indian Novels: the Raj, its Aftermath & diaspora

In this class we will read E.M.Forster’s A Passage to India, Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown (Raj Quartet 1), Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s Heat & Dust, & a couple of short stories &/or essays by Jumpha Lahiri (from Interpreters of Maladies) & V.S Naipaul. We’ll explore a tradition of literature, colonialist and native cultural interactions; migrancy itself, gender faultlines, what we mean by our identity, belonging, castes. We’ll include in our discussions Anglo-Indian movies as a genre (e.g., Mira Nair movies, to wit, her Namesake out of Lahiri’s masterpiece), & specifically David Lean’s Passage to India, the BBC Jewel in the Crown (by Ken Taylor and Christopher Morahan), Merchant-Ivory’s Heat & Dust. We’ll take historical and contemporary perspectives on this rich material.


From David Lean’s 1984 A Passage to India

Ellen

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