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Archive for the ‘womens lives’ Category


John Everett Millias, from Irish Melodies: “An Excluded Woman” — the illustration was not for Agnes, but it fits central aspects of her existence, an outlier, outsider, excluded by belonging nowhere

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just finished reading another of Margaret Oliphant’s neglected masterpieces exploring aspects of women’s lives; I’ve written about these as a group (Novels of Women’s Lives: Marriage and Career) and individually (The Marriage of Elinor: scroll down); tonight I want to bring into play one aspect important to many of them, the widowed heroine. One reason Agnes has been neglected is that its emotional power, psychological brilliance, and just startling accuracy about the way a grieving widow might feel only begins after the first quarter of the second of two volumes. That is, Oliphant does not reach her electrifying content until she’s somewhat more than half-way through. And it does not come to the abyss of despair until her oldest child, an 8 year old boy, is kidnapped by her powerful aristocrat relatives in its concluding chapters.

Why does she take all this time? because the extremis anguish Agnes Trevelyan (nee Stanfield) knows occurs as a cumulative effect of years of life. First her suitor, Roger Trevelyan, after meeting her must contend with his family’s angry objections and threats to disinherit him insofar as they can, and William Stanfield, her blacksmith (as he’s endlessly described) father’s worry that the marriage is not a good idea for Agnes. Only William Stanfield, her noble-hearted kind insightful father (whom most of the genteel characters look down on because he is a blacksmith) finally consents generously to this marriage.

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John Everett Millais — Frontispiece for Trollope’s Rachel Ray (it seems to me appropriate for Oliphant’s first conception of Agnes when we first meet her)

Upon marriage (we are past half the first volume) Agnes begins to grow up: she finds Roger may be above her in rank but he is inadequate as man and a spouse. In Italy at first Roger wants to keep her ostracized, wrongly fearing others will look down on her; she had been framed as a vulgar, low-coarse ambitious woman, stigmatized by the envious of her own class. The couple go to Italy, seemingly for a honeymoon, but eventually (it emerges) as part of Roger’s plan to avoid the consequences of his decision: work for a living, make an genuine effort to integrate his wife into his society, something she is capable of because she in nature, fine, intelligent, and has been educated by her father (mostly through reading).

The result is 7 to 8 years of isolation, with a few true friends for her and him (better types here and there) until illness, which turns out to be fatal drives Roger back to England and his and Agnes’s family, their community, Windholm.

We must also experience more fully what a disillusionment Agnes goes through with his young man; she learns his is a petty, selfish, snobbish, idle nature; one of his few admirable traits is that gradually he learns to appreciate her through their years of “living on nothing at all:” borrowing, cadging, his father-in-law sending lump sums (whom Roger verbally abuses anyway), some gambling.  Oliphant shows us what it is like to live on nothing a year, abysmal, humiliating. Roger sees Agnes’s fine nature but also experiences her as a boring burden (his is a corrosive wittiness), who has also laden him with three children. She contributes nothing to the household as he sees this. When they return to England, they find that her father had built a beautiful house for them when he still expected his son-in-law to make a good living; they move in, and somehow William Stanfield keeps them afloat.

Agnes has known much emotional pain from time, circumstance, her situation and chance: she once had a close loving relationship with her father, and these years have estranged them not because they are angry at one another, but because they are unwilling to be disloyal to her husband, to face up to the realities of their lives. These include her father having remarried a deeply amoral stupid woman, jealous and envious, resentful of anyone who seems to have more than she, someone (we gradually learn) who has lived by semi-prostitution and had two sons born illegitimately from Roger’s own contemptible baronet of a father, Sir Roger Trevelyan.

This is yet another book by Oliphant which has the obsessively recurring male worthless in terms of any work he does, often drunk, often lying, irresponsible; not only does he waste money but he is sexually promiscuous and he lives in a predatory manner — off others. Give him any power and he inflicts himself and misery on others. I suspect this composite figure is her younger brother who she eventually paid in effect to stay away, with aspects of her husband, older brother and specific other men she’s seen or known thrown in.

She also has a cold spiteful sister-in-law, Beatrice, who is presented as also envious, and resentful because she is unmarried, has to live with Sir Roger, somehow (like Lily in Wharton’s House of Mirth) cannot get herself to marry a rich young man simply for his money. Agnes is innocent of malign feelings and has no idea how dangerous Beatrice could be to her or her children. After Agnes’s husband dies, and this sister-in-law and the father-in-law attempt to wrest custody of her beloved boy, Walter, from her, she does know. The court case goes nowhere because Roger did not leave a will specifying his son should be returned to his family for schooling, and because the judge interviews and discovers Agnes to be a valuable mother. Sometime after this Beatrice concocts a plan to kidnap Walter through Stanfield’s wife’s illegitimate children (her nephews though the book never uses this term of them).

Oliphant is not wholly unsympathetic to Beatrice Trevelyan: in her the condition of a spinster dependent on a cold indifferent father who will not give her much money is explored. It is only when Beatrice is discovered to have worked to kidnap Agnes’s son, that the book sees her narrowly as simply poisonous. In fact the portrait of Beatrice at different points of her life across the book is complex.

In this later part of the novel, the kindly noble male, brotherly, who loves the heroine selflessly for years, and turns up in other novels is her as Roger’s old friend: Jack Charleton understands how to navigate the court system, and custody of her child is not taken from her. As with the other male figures of this type in other novels (The Marriage of Elinor has such a male), our heroine does not appreciate Jack. She does yearn for affection from him, and is gradually turning to him, capable given time of becoming his wife, but not once she loses her boy. Agnes blames herself for the kidnapping of the boy because she was writing to a (in effect) love letter from Jack so did not miss her son at first.

There are a few women Agnes meets her or knows who are decent people — serious, truthful, capable of love and concern for others, but the novel’s third central worthy character whose presence is part of the core value to Agnes of her life is her son, Walter. His abduction leads to the tragic final chapters of the book. Her beloved son dies trying to escape from his captors – he jumps out a window and crushes his body.

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John Everett Millais, said to be a print for Trollope’s “A Widow’s Mite” (where however there is not literal widow; the short story is an exploration of this parable)

So to the hidden life in this book as in others (Hester comes to mind) by Oliphant disclosed to us: long passages about widowhood as experienced by Agnes once Roger dies, shorter but heart-breakingly intense once her son dies. On widowhood Oliphant produces the most accurate truthful kinds of utterances, more central than those I’ve ever read — the closest about widowhood is Julian Barnes in the last third of his Levels of Life; the closest about how a mother can die before her body physically dies, just be there breathing on, doing what you are expected for others is in the last pages of Elsa Morant’s Storia, where after her 7 year old son dies of an epileptic fit, brought on by the school authorites, and the murder of his dog (the police) Iduzza is said to live on for 9 years, but only in her body. So too Agnes.

It’s hard to find a single passage (Matthew Arnold-like) as revealing touchstone, for like many fine novels, the language’s force also depends on cumulative effect. Agnes is not in fact literally alone: she has an 8 year old boy, two babies, one an neonate, the other not yet toddling, her father lives in a house within walking distance, and yet she has this experience of “utter loneliness which the most solitary of human beings could not have surpassed … ” Yet her desolation is unbroken, and among the phrases saying why I pick this:

there was nobody to share the burden that was heaviest. Henceforward that closest bond was rent for ever and ever. Nobody in the world could say ‘It is my sorrow as well as yours.’ She had to take it all upon her, by herself and cover it up and keep it from injuring or wearying the others, who had so little to do with it. This was also a thing quite natural, and of which no one had any right to complain.

Oliphant has just before built up to “the only real hardships in existence are those that come by nature — the only ones that are inevitable an incurable, and form which there are no means of escape.” Of course this was Oliphant’s case, surrounded by people — dependent on her once her artist-husband died, leaving her nothing but large debts and three children.

We move through the burial, the funeral and just after and with Agnes discover that she cannot go back and pick up with others what was before her marriage. Like her father, her marriage has altered her and him: Changed circumstances, long absence, and “what was still more important, the character of wife, had made between Agnes and her father a separation which had nothing to do with external obstacles.” She cannot confide in him any longer nor he her.

Oliphant describes the difference of a child’s grief for the loss of the father and hers, the child’s quickly exhausts itself, nothing left after a bit and Agnes “had already gone beyond his reach without knowing it …” — that’s also true if you turn to an animal for companionship beyond a certain point.

Then when Walter is kidnapped, she shows the helplessness of the child against adults determined to bully that child into doing what the adult wants. It is frightening and should be read by all people who vote for leaders who separate families and put children in prison.

From the final two pages of Agnes:

The vicarious life in which most women spend the latter part of their day might still remain for her; but her own life was over and done and she was not one of those who live till they die. So that I have told you all her story, as well as if I had put a gravestone over her and written the last date on it, which may not be ascertained for many years … grant to [women who have no other heritage] at the end of their many days a sweet life by proxy to heal their bitter wounds.

Agnes does have her two daughters, and her father.

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A 19th century engraving, Sorrento

Oliphant knew she was describing complex feelings and realities most novelists of her time eschewed. So she provides a preface in the Tauchnitz editin (Leipzig, 1865) where she warns the reader her book will cover material most novels never get to. She says “the great value of fiction lies in its power of delineating life” and to do this she must depict what happens in the later chapters of our existences. Novels teach us by revealing “sentiments which may be in many minds, but which none would care in their own person to give expression to.”

At any earlier point, before the boy dies, Oliphant felt Agnes needed work; she is at a disadvantage because her father support her — not having to work for a living in effect. Oliphant knows that her writing was what her life became – and had been before too, but differently. The same person living a different life.

I should remark on the beautiful evocative descriptions of Italy, Sorrento, Naples, Florence — it’s clear that Oliphant herself responded on a deep level to the landscape, cultural life, and art of Italy. It’s clear from her life that Oliphant herself loved to travel: she enjoyed research books on Italy and France because she could go there.

Oliphant declares firmly that Agnes’s experience was “no tragic exceptional case … she had only the common lot, darkened by great sorrows, but not without consolation.”  This is one of many places in her writing where Oliphant questions God, and puts before us the difficulty of believing there is a good God, for who, she asks, could “be cruel enough to deprive a mother of her child,” and here “God, who was supposed to be love, had done it.” (Only the more recent scholarly literary criticism of Oliphant broaches this topic with candor).

Ellen

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I like the photo of her on this cover; the book written by her over the period she was also writing The Bull Calves


Carradale House, Kintyre, Scotland — bought by Mitchison by the time of WW2 and her home thereafter

Would Jane Austen have known of this incident, oh yes, and probably read Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours of the Hebrides; did she ever mention it, no; but she did mention and read avidly a number of Scots writers who did: Scott (Waverley), Anne Grant (1802 poem, The Highlanders) among them.

Friends and readers,

The last week or so I’ve been working towards producing a first draft of a paper for a coming 18th century regional conference, whose working title is “At this Crossroads of my Life: Culloden and its aftermath.” I read Naomi Mitchison’s novel about this matter where inside two days characters confront central crossroads of their lives successfully (and finished Jenni Calder’s splendid biography of her, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison, which I recommend) and I re-saw a 1994 movie of the famous massacre, said to be much influenced, almost an imitation of Patrick Watkins’s classic 1965 pseudo-documentary, Culloden, and realized for the first time its individual story’s dramaturgy creates a literal crossroads where several beautifully individualized characters experience ironic destruction. The novel first:

Naomi Mitchison’s impressive novel, The Bull Calves, occurs over 2 days, June 16th to 17th, about 2 years after Culloden, 1747, on a family estate, Gleneagles, in rural Scotland somewhere between Edinburgh and Perth. It brings together members of the Haldane family, most of them now Whigs, and pro-Hanoverian, but much conflicted over its past chequered history of complex allegiances to Tory Jacobitism. At the center of the novel is Kirstie Haldane, a woman in her late 40s, previously miserably wed for many years to an abusive husband, and Black William of Borlum, a forward looking (Whiggish) ex-Jacobite, whose father died in prison after fighting in 1715, and who himself spent many years in exiled, wandering in America. William and Kirstie are recently wed, and burdened with secrets; she, that when her husband died, she was accused of murdering him through witchcraft; he, that he was also married for several years to an Indian woman, assimilated to her tribe until their bouts of barbaric violence so alienated him, he fled back to Scotland.

The story (explaining the title of the book) is concerns poisoned relationships. William is distrusted by Kirstie’s family, his family past, a severe disadvantage to them. Several aggressive young male Haldanes, instigated by another Jacobite, Lachlan MacIntosh of Kyllachy, who, jealous of Kirstie’s love and the powerful men of this now Whig family, accuses William of treachery in harboring yet a third Jacobite wanted for arrest in the house’s attic. In this book the past is in the present; conflicted histories, long held enmities, adversarial personalities, and immediate close relationships (Kirstie to her brothers, her uncle, her niece, and nephews) and responsive behaviors and talk are tightly knotted into a densely observed cultural and social environment. What is remarkable is how inward intimate experience is the medium of the book out of which external events are dramatized through memories. The first quarter of the book consists of Kirstie telling her niece, Catherine, of her traumatic previous life in the context of the present events of a family feast and daily life. The whole of William’s time in America is told by him to her lawyer brother as remembered flashback; Mitchison’s long notes form a third instrinsic part of the novel, and the resolution of the novel in favor of compromises and modernity recall Walter Scott. Her idea is mutual loyalty and trust ought to make people achieve together and know content, something they could not do separately.

I found myself fully absorbed by the intensities of the conflicts, the possibility dangerous outcomes (prison, transportation, more exile), a sense of their feelings, and was anxious over what would happen as our chief couple seeks to invent or continue their new life and re-formed identities. The characters seek to escape loneliness by finding sympathy in what they need to tell; and at the end of each part harmonies shape the action: dancing, feasting, going to bed. The book also felt drenched in layers of Scottish culture, mythical, supernatural, and uses Jungian archetypal theories so William needs the Kirstie’s humane inner self (her anima) and she needs his strength and force (his animus).

It is an analysis of the way Jacobitism poisoned the lives of those who got involved at the same time as it shows why they did so: the movement appealed to the underdog, the exploited and powerless, those who could not join in on the new capitalism and forms of power emerging in the 18th century. She defines Jacobitism complexly through a socialist perspective (you must read the book) and brilliantly in her notes and in the novel’s story. We experience how this complicated movement against Whig Hanoverian regime (capitalist lairds) plays out in real life circumstances then and now. Her use of language, a contemporary idiom mixed with a lyrical interplay of Scots 18th century dialect is also part of the book’s enjoyment.

It was written over the five years of Mitchison’s stay in a more remote part of Scotland during World War Two, managing a household, serving a community as its chatelaine; and she uses the Scottish defeat and struggles to express what she was feeling as the dreadful and later more hopeful end to the conflict. She was a Haldane, her brother, the famous JBS Haldane, and a number of the characters are partly modeled on people she knew and loved.  So the book resembles Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General, also written over the years of the war she spent managing a family estate in Cornwall, where a story of the English civil war making heavy use of real historical figures and particulars enabled her to come to terms with and express her anguish and personal experiences; also Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orchia, Susan Sontag’s 1993 Volcano Lover, while mostly set in the 18th century, also occurs a auction room in 1943. It’s not just women who turned to historical fiction: Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark and Demelza are the products of his five years as a coastguard in Cornwall. Diana Wallace says in her book on women’s historical fiction and romance, that in the 1930s and 40s women wrote books about the repeatedly defeated; they were also seeking reconciliation, commitment to compassion and reasoned progress in the face of nightmare. You can call all of these but Ross Poldark heroine’s texts.

Then this unexpectedly poignant absorbing fine film.


Brian Blessed as Major Eliot in Chasing the Deer

Chasing the Deer may be said to be an improvement on Watkins’s film. The line is from a stanza by Burns:

“My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.”

The thrust of the film is to create intense sympathy for the highlanders caught up in this war. The Scottish countryside is photographed with heart-aching beauty, the colors lovely, lots of sparkling water, indigenous plant-life, the usual stags and deer, small animals everywhere. The music by John Wetton (and others) is original and written for the film, with much bagpipe feel. As with Watkins many of the people were not professional actors at all; they were the people crowdsourced to provide adequate funds. The film is done with considerable integrity, nothing over-flashy, nothing ratcheted up for melodrama or sexual scene’s sake.

It is as anti-war (showing the brutality and horror of war) as Watkins’s film but the overall effect is to project the death and a mourning for a traditional Scottish way of life, however impoverished. The film-makers convey the inner experience of the calamites inflicted on immediately a few thousand men and then long range their families and homes all around them. The public story is conveyed by epitomizing scenes of leading generals, famous people discussing where they are just now. The film-makers present Prince Charles Edward (Dominique Carrara) as someone who is foreigner, there without resources or connections, without any initial understanding of the desperate conditions and lack of manpower and wealth in a group of people he has chosen to base a desperate bid for his family’s power on. Cumberland (Dominic Borelli) is made to seem yet worse: a dense cold fat bully understandably determined to make sure no more of these nuisance uprisings will happen again. We see the irrational glorification of the Prince by the crowds and his incompetence; the story of Murray’s inability to avoid the final disaster is doe full justice to and the horrors wreaked on the losers.

I also find the film also valuable for the human story it tells, which suggests all the people involved could be switched to the other side, so the action is senseless from the point of view of those who die or whose way of life is destroyed. For this we follow the story of Alistair Campell (Matthew Zajac) who wants nothing to do with wars, but is driven to go right the war as a Jacobite because his son, Euan (Lewis Rae) is snatched by a group of Jacobites, and he is told the boy has been put in prison and will be kept there or killed (for shooting someone) and only released if his father fights with them. Euan is re-captured by a group of Hanoverian soldiers, made a dummmer boy, and comes to the attention to a Major Eliot (Brian Blessed) still grieving over his only son’s death in India (so Eliot had taken the boy to the colonies as part of his career), who takes Euan as a servant and son and attempt to teach and protect him insofar as this is possible.

We also see the women isolated, losing their men one by one – sometimes carelessly killed. Euan has impregnated a girl before he left; his mother Morag (Carolyn Konrad) when she discoveres her son is taken by the Hanoverians attempts to find her husband to tell him so he will return home. She cannot and it is too late. In the Shakespearean scene I referred to Euvan is cut down early on at Culloden; as he falls Alistair glimpses him and on the Hanoverian side; the father runs to the son as the son lies dying unaware his father is looking down on him; Eliot, not far off, mistakes Alistair for the murderer, so murders Alistair and carries the boy away in his arms in a state of raging grief. The last scene is of the three woman and a new baby in the house, hugging in a circle, waiting for their home possibly to be destroyed.


On the march from Inverness (I apologize for my inability to block out the constant ad logo, an irritant while watching movies played on TV stations nowadays)

I thought of a line from the serial drama Outlander (I don’t know if it’s in the book): what kind of people do we become and how do we remain ourselves even when we think all is lost ….

Ellen

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Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) demands that Gerald Maretti, the busdriver (Mark Ruffalo) confess he is guilty (Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret)


Clare (Aisling Franciosi) and Billy (Baykali Ganambarr) hiding from Officer Hawkins while she seeks Hawkins out (Jennifer Kent’s 2018 The Nightingale)

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods, They kill us for their sport – a line spoken by an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) which he explicates as meaning infinite, varied, and unjust is human suffering …. (Margaret)

Gentle readers,

In this blog I suggest that in recent 21st century women’s films the old humiliation, self-berating girl learns a lesson scene is gone, but it is replaced by the demand for confrontation where the result is counterproductive frustration and anger. Rarely is mutual understanding or acceptance sought, much less reached, in the way you can find in earlier books from Austen through Eliot. I ask why this is; why this changeover, where this insistent demand demand as the crucial climactic scene comes from, how does it function?

This week I saw two remarkably powerful, complex and intelligent women’s films, both of which I urge you to go see — or more probably rent from Netflix, or stream into your computer. Don’t miss them.

To find words to capture and epitomize the achievement and absorption you will experience as you watch Lonergan’s long Margaret, one has to begin with how like a novel it is, how the characters come across as having real human depths. Lonergan’s ability to capture and convey a sense of life happening from and through so many people, the streets and skyline of New York City, seems uncanny: his use of a cinematographer moves from documentary style, to meditate lyricism, to staged dramatic encounters, group scenes, self-reflexive theater and school room scenes; these countless moments form the background to a “coming of age” story. His script is believable and yet subtly meaningful, suggestive all the time. The initiating event: Lisa Cohen (our “Margaret”) partly causes and is close witness to the killing of a woman, a dismembering of her (her leg is dissevered from her body) by a bus going through a red light as she was walking without looking around her, straight ahead. Lisa distracted the bus-driver by half-flirting with him to get his attention and get him to tell her where he bought his cowboy hat.


Lisa running alongside the bus

What happens is over the course of the movie, Lisa realizes that nothing has been done to redress the loss of life, to make clear a horrific event has occurred, a deep injustice to the woman who died. Unsure of herself, and afraid from what her mother, Joan [J. Smith-Cameron) warns (she could cause the driver to lose his job), she says the light was green when he drove through. We see it was red, but the truth is she cannot have clearly seen the light because her focus was the driver,  and the moving huge bus was in the way. She comes to the conclusion that life is going on just as if this did not happen, except for the woman’s grieving friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin) who organizes a memorial service, which Lisa attends. She thin ks that nothing was done to somehow register this event because she, Lisa, lied about that light.

All around her much life happens: her mother is in a play, begins an affair with a wealthy Columbian businessman, Ramon (Jean Reno), Lisa herself de-virginalizes herself by inviting a high school boy, Paul (Kieran Culkin) to her house, into her bed, has a relationship with another boy, Darren (John Gallager) where he is very hurt; she and her mother fight (she is obnoxious to her mother), her father and she talk on the phone (he lives in California with another woman and has invited her to come horseback riding), school classes go on (we see how argumentative, aggressive, uncooperative she is), she almost develops a friendship with Emily. But like most relationships in the film, this pair of people never really listen to or understand one another’s point of view (though we the viewer are invited to). One of the many remarkably suggestive brilliant moments show Joan coming out of a bathroom, her chest naked as she finds herself having to go to bed with Ramon when she is not sure she likes him. A fleeting few seconds conveys so much.


Emily and her mother in typical side-by-side moments but without much communication (Margaret)

Jim Emerson on Roger Ebert’s site writes the best review of Margaret, the most generous, and it is her who thinks to print one of those many scenes where the story is not going forward, exactly, one of several mother-daughter fights: Lisa has begun to talk of opera as Ramon is taking her to Norma and asks Margaret if she would like to accompany them:

LISA: I don’t like that kind of singing.
JOAN But you like classical music.
LISA Yes. That’s true. But I don’t like opera singing.
JOAN But when have you —
LISA It’s like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be. I don’t really find that very interesting.
JOAN Yeah… I know what you mean. I don’t like that really loud opera singing either. But it’s not all like that… You like “The Magic Flute”…
LISA OK, I guess I’m wrong. I guess I do like opera singing. I just didn’t realize it.
JOAN What is the matter with you?
LISA Why are you pushing this? I don’t want to go to the opera!
JOAN Yes! OK! It’s called an invitation. I’m not pushing anything. All you have to say is “No thanks!”
LISA I did! And then you were like, “Why not?” So I told you, and then you like, started debating me, like you assume I’ve never thought this through for myself — which I really have. Many times!
JOAN OK, well, that was a really contemptuous assumption on my part. I don’t actually like opera that much myself, but I’m trying to expand my mind… Maybe that’s wrong. I’m sorry..


Matthew Broderick as the English teacher

Some of the most important scenes occur in the English classroom. Among other topics the students discuss the meaning of King Lear, and it’s evident the discussion is meant to be applied to the film. Here the Hopkins’ poem to Margaret (“Spring and Fall”), which gives the film its title, is read aloud.

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.


Margaret high on “weed” with her friend, not going to class, the English male teacher’s POV

The compelling thrust of the plot-design seems at first Lisa’s desire to soothe her conscience by telling the truth. When the adults and authorities recognize she lied, & the new evidence is given in, she is told that still the busdriver will carry on driving the bus, because the verdict is the death was an accident, & there was no criminality involved. This is not enough for her. What she wants is to confront the bus-driver and wrench out of him an admission he is guilty, that together they killed the woman.

The center of the film in time and structure is her visit to this man’s house and demand he confess to her. A confrontation. He won’t of course — he fears losing his job, and he begins to explain to her how this accident happened from his stance. She doesn’t realize a bus is a physical object hurtling through space and it was already too late for him to brake as he was going through the light just turned red. Of course he should have paid no attention to Lisa, and put his brakes on much earlier; he implies this was already past doing, and repeats it was an accident. As she gets more excited and angry, he begins to sense that she is out to get him — and by the end of the film she couches her demand in confronting others that she wants him fired, arrested, punished. But no one will do this.


With Emily, Lisa gets advice from a lawyer to hire another lawyer

What the refusal of this guy leads her to do is hire a lawyer to sue someone. She discovers the only “compensation” the law will offer is money for “damages” (or loss) done to a relative. The MTA she is told more than once is in a labor dispute with the union, and it is they who would be sued. She accuses the police of insufficiently interrogating the (now) unfortunate bus-driver. The relative hardly knew the woman but contacted, and having visited NYC, at the end she is demanding the $350,000 the MTA offers to settle out of court — and over the phone seems to feel that it would be unfair or unjust for the driver to lose his job. There are shots of Maretti looking as scared as she, even towards he end (a fleeting still of his second interrogation.

The most convenient thing to do is done: no one is declared guilty. No one ever says aloud the truth that the woman herself wasn’t looking carefully and alertly where she was going herself: we are told she had lost a 12 year old daughter to leukemia, and she calls for this child as she dies. Lisa becomes hysterical, angry, over-reacts with emotionalism as if she is grieving for this woman she never knew, with more and more strident demands the bus-driver be punished.

I did become frustrated myself until near the end of the film Lisa suddenly bursts out that she (not the bus-driver) killed this woman by her behavior. It was good to know she recognized her error, but beyond that all we see is a kind of controlled chaos. That recognition does not improve her behavior: she is as frivolous and obtuse as ever at times: she gets back at the teacher, Mr Aaron, she has seduced, by telling him she had an abortion. . A central theme, as David Edelstein of NPR writes, of the movie is no one fully connects ever.


Here we see Margaret deliberately starting a quest for Mr Aaron (the math teacher, played by Matt Demon) where she goes back to his sublet, and overtly seduces him — then when she tells him before another person, if she had an abortion, it is either he, Paul or maybe Darren who is the father, all she is doing is hurting or worrying him. How much this is a male point of view is worth considering, sometimes Margaret is treated as if she were an aggressive young man ….

There is no closure. The film ends with mother and daughter at the opera watching (a close-up of) Renee Fleming looking awful in over-heavy make-up and ludicrously lavish decorated gown singing expertly, and then mother-and-daughter crying and falling into one another’s arms. The music itself has so stirred them in their fraught lives.

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Clare


and Aidan from early in film

I would not have noticed the centrality of the scene where Margaret confronts the busdriver had I not the next day gone to see The Nightingale. This is a harrowing tale where we see what can be done to inflict pain, misery, humiliation, rape, beating, death (whatever) when a group of people are deprived all rights (convicts, aborigines) and subject to the will of a few men who are not held accountable to anyone else. Read Robert Hughes’s great and crucial book, The Fatal Shore, about the founding of Australia through convict transportation and settler colonialism (with ethnic cleansing too). The villain, Hawkins (Sam Claflin) begins by refusing to give Clare her earned ticket of leave, raping her nightly, abusing her. When her husband, Aiden (Michael Sheasby) also an Irish ex-convict, protests, Hawkins brings his man to their hut to beat them, gang-rape her; and when the baby begins to cry loudly, Hawkins bullies a soldier into killing the child.


Hawkins confronting Billy

Hawkins has been told he will not be promoted and leaves the camp for Launeston with five men to try to negotiate himself into a captaincy. At the same time Clare, in a state of stunned grief, after asking others to bury her husband and child, takes the husband’s horse and rides after him. She is persuaded to enlist an aborigine, Billy, to lead her to the town; without him she would die in the bush.

What emerges is a quest of the two parties across a deadly wasteland, where meeting one another is the greatest risk. We see another woman, aborigine, grabbed, raped, forced to leave her child to die by Hawkins and his vicious or obedient men. Clare has lied to Billy and told him she is seeking her husband in Launceston but gradually he learns she has lost her baby, the husband is dead, and her goal is to kill Hawkins — far from avoiding this pack of killers, she is trying to reach them. As with Margaret, other incidents happen, we see aborigine people living, we see convict gangs in chains, a rare white old man gives our pair of friends shelter and food, Billy performs rituals, helps Margaret repress her milk with some concoction, but the compelling thrust of the plot-design is her stubborn determined attempt to reach those who killed her beloveds. By this time too Hawkins has become in behavior a sadistic psychopathic killer, killing people on whims, including the elderly aborigine man who is his guide, and who is Billy’s uncle — they come from the same village.


A passing scene of a house burned down — a war between the aborigines and the colonialists is said to be going on

What happens is ironically the man who killed her baby because he was forced to is left behind. When she comes upon him, and his apology is the morally imbecilic defense the baby was noisy, she begins frantically to stab him to death, beats him with the gun, takes an ax to him until her rage is gone. What neither she nor Billy realize is when they do finally have a chance to shoot the captain, she will now hesitate, and that gives Hawkins his chance to escape, get to town, and then, if he can, blacken her and turn her back to becoming a “convict whore” and simply kill Billy. Aborigines throughout are shot the way cats are said to have been shot in 18th century Europe.

Nonetheless, she again returns to her aggression and now drives Billy with a gun to carry on to Launceston, and then what does she do? at great risk to herself, to Billy (with whom she has now formed a touching friendship), she goes to the tavern where the captain is sitting with all the men, and just like Lisa before the bus-driver, she demands a confession of guilt, an admission he has done horrific wrong. Hawkins scorns her; we can see he is worried that the commanding officer is beginning to suspect him of evil-doing but before Hawkins can try to turn the situation around, she repeats her claim, says what he did, and flees back to Billy in hiding, and the back to the bush.

The striking thing is she appears gratified at having had the confrontation itself — though it is so unsatisfactory and dangerous — from the other white unenslaved, unconvicted people in the town.

The movie is a tragedy; Billy now understanding what has happened fully, and knowing Hawkins murdered his uncle, enacts another ritual, puts on war paint and goes to town and himself with a spear, using the technique of surprise, murders Hawkins and Hawkins’s cruel sidekick, but not before Billy is shot through the stomach. the last we see of Billy he is sitting looking out at the river as he dies; nearby him Clare stands by her horse. She seems to have no hope of any decent life unless she were somehow to return to Ireland.

The film is also extremely brutal, with the only character (besides the old man) seemingly capable of tenderness, caring for others, & real friendliness Billy.

Both films have received strong praise, if in both cases there is an accompanying chorus of doubt. Kent is too violent; Lonergan too self-indulgent and ruined his film’s chances for distribution by fighting with the studio. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post finds the Nightingale explores and questions its genre. What is not noticed is this central plot-design. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian finds the movie provocative and brilliant, a depiction of today’s life. What higher accolade than an essay in he latest issue of PMLA: Alicia Mireles Christoff, Margaret and The Victorians, 134:3 (May 2019):507-23.  Christoff argues that Margaret (this is why the title) is another Victorian afterlife film; it is finally dissatisfying because it is still mostly relying on Victorian film pleasures instead of seeking a new film aesthetic and patterns.

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Brianna (Sophie Skelton) walking along just after she is raped (Outlander Season 4, Episode 10)

And now I must confess that I noticed this new confrontation pattern in women’s movies recently because I’ve also been puzzled by just this demand for confrontation by wronged heroines in several other period and high quality video drama when the central characters are women, or the films are by women, or the expected audience is majority women. The Nightingale has a woman script-writer, director, and producers, and its central presence is Clare, its her POV except in a few places where it’s Billy watching for her. Margaret is a feminine counterpart to Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea; it is about a young girl-woman growing up, learning painfully her own insignificance. The secondary relationship is with her mother, a pattern seen in woman’s literature and movies. The difference is these more “pop” films make the confrontation explicitly central — and the anger, frustration, resentment.

However many men are writing, directing, producing the video adaptations of Outlander, many key roles of writer, director and other central functions (costume design, set) and the author herself are all women. Brianna (Sophia Skelton) is raped and possibly impregnated by a wantonly cruel criminal type-pirate, Stephen Bonnet (Ed Speleers) in the fourth season. When she is finally brought to safety at her aunt Jocasta’s to have her baby, I was startled when Brianna not only at the risk of everyone else (a friend in jail, another friend who is being hunted down as a regulator [tax-avoider] and trouble-maker), and herself not only demands but is taken to the jail to do what? confront her rapist (now in chains) and demand he confess his guilt, admit to her he has done wrong and to her. He won’t of course.


Bonnet listening to Brianna’s demands

This time (Bonnet being a witty man), laughs at her, mocks her stance, parodies a rueful apology. She falls to scolding, and then the story takes a worse dive when he shows an interest in the coming baby and Brianna seems to think he has some right to. All is interrupted by the attempt of other friends to free those in the jail by throwing a fire-bomb in. They all escape, just, with their lives


Demelza remaining angry

But the central scene is this demand – and Brianna made this so explicit, and uselessly & causing risk to all, she seemed over-the-top.  What gratification could she imagine herself to get from this man? Even three swallows do not a summer make, so more briefly now: one reason Horsfield’s Demelza’s first response to Ross when he returns from bedding Elizabeth all night (after begging him not to go that night) is to slap him in the face so hard he falls to the ground.  (Brianna also slaps people : she is again explicit, crying out that no one has more right than she to be angry). Then utterly unlike Graham’s book/Demelza, Horsfield’s heroine turns snide, sarcastic, making nasty comments, with her face tight and resentful, each time she sees Ross. Yes he raped Elizabeth, but how is demanding that he confess his guilt, and repeatedly acknowledge he has wronged her help matters? She seeks revenge by going to bed with Captain MacNeil, but when she feels she cannot, she still seems incapable of reaching a mutual understanding by listening to him or talking herself openly of her hurt; instead she openly refuses to forgive when he does apologize and behaves embarrassingly abjectly (Poldark, 2017, the third season). She says all she wants is for him to say the truth, but the truth is complicated and that she does not concede at all.

Needless to demonstrate, June-Offred (Elizabeth Moss) of Handmaid’s Tale fame hungers for confrontation, and sometimes gets it — violently.


Elizabeth (Jennifer Ehle) and Darcy (Colin Firth) walking and talking together just as he proposes (1995 Pride and Prejudice, scripted Andrew Davies)

I thought back to Austen and to the woman writers of the 18th through 20th century and women’s films of the 20th century. I rue the repeated use of the humiliation scene (it’s there is Austen too) in films where the heroine either in front of others, or herself and the audience admits she has been all wrong, scourges or berates herself, vows to do better, but the “girl learns a lesson” is far more varied in the books.

As to confrontation, in Sense and Sensibility Austen’s Marianne is pulled away from Willoughby. Elinor worries about she and Marianne being shamed in public. Marianne likes to hear she was not altogether wrong in her judgement of him, but from afar. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth never writes back to Darcy. She reflects constantly about his letter, over and over, but she has no need to confront him when they finally meet. At the end of the novel, they discuss their relationship and attempt to come to terms with one another. So too in Persuasion Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth. In Emma Mr Knightley confronts Emma after she insults Miss Bates and it does have an effect — he says he has a need to but he is not asking for a confession or admission of guilt. He needs none. He is shaming her. And Emma becomes the young woman who has learnt a lesson.

Why do these 21st century women need this explicit admission of guilt or confession to them, why do they seek a mostly frustrating, often counterproductive, rarely useful confrontation? The counter-examples in Austen prompt me to realize how rarely the couples drive towards mutual explanation. When in the Poldark books Ross and Demelza try to explain their points of view usually towards or in the last chapter, what happens is they get angrier, and reconciliation comes from admitting there is a gender fault-line here, from exhaustion, and real need and love of one another and a mutual resolve to carry on with forgiveness quietly.

One couple do successfully explain themselves in these 21st century films: Jamie and Claire Fraser.  I’ve come across two reviews of these programs which make this their central argument for why they like Outlander, and why the love story and frank graphic sex are a good part of the shows – because before they have sex they have a mutual explanation, which sometimes begins as a shouting match but eventually they are listening and have recognized & acknowledged one another’s point of view as understandable. Before proceeding to a gratifying & tender sexual encounter …

In Austen, in Elizabeth Gaskell, in George Eliot, in other women authors I particularly like such scenes of reconciliation and acceptance come from more than kindness: it’s a belief in the ability of someone to care for someone else, to listen to them, and to respect (in Austen’s language, esteem) them without having to inflict on the good and mixed nature characters all around them more risk and pain.


This is called a mood piece from Margaret: but it is Margaret walking along in a hard kind of isolation

Ellen

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Latest version of Little Women opens with  a deeply intimate-feeling scene of adolescent girls in their bedroom privacy trimming and curling the long hair of one of them (2017 BBC, scripted Heidi Thomas, directed Vanessa Caswell)


A version of this iconic scene, the four girls circled around the mother reading aloud the letter from the father away in the army Christmas time, is what usually opens the movie (this from the first 1931 George Cukor film)

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men) by mature women too …

Friends and readers,

It’s no wonder I feel as if I’ve been reading a good deal of Anne Boyd Rioux lately: I have! I did not mean to read her study of four 19th century American women novelists together with her study of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (by which throughout this blog I also mean Good Wives), but I ended doing so when TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io decided to read this book. I didn’t mind; Meg Jo Beth Amy seemed an extension, a particular case in point of the lines of thought of Writing for Immortality.


This is the outside of the edition of the book with just these illustrations that I read and gazed upon for hours at age 10-11

While the book is presented as another of a recent favored genre, the biography-of-a-book as autobiography of this author (remember Michael Gorra’s masterpiece study of James and The Portrait of a Lady; think Rebecca Mead on Eliot and Middlemarch), it is more a defense of the book, something neither Gorra or Mead could possibly find necessary. Rioux argues for the depth, maturity of understanding conveyed, and original creativity in Alcott’s Little Women, and for including it in the curriculum of junior high school good books for both boys and girls, and in women’s studies in college. Beyond telling how the book emerged from Louisa May Alcott as an individual and in the context of her life and era, of its extensive and profound influence on countless people, about the stage, film and post-text legacy, and offering an array of interconnected readings, and of course retelling her own and her daughter’s experiences with this book, Rioux goes about to seek and finds very rare even today another or other books dramatizing and exploring problems experienced by adolescent girls and young women. If it were that a woman’s powerful book of genius could receive the kind of serious on-going attention and respect that such books by men regularly do, it would be recognized that Little Women changed the expectations we come to great children and young adult literature with.

Cut off from attention, marginalized or labeled as it has been into a “sentimental for-girls classic (in one of her chapters she shows how consistently teachers choose boys’ or apparently gender-neutral books for classroom texts), Little Women has still achieved remarkable longevity, respect, consistent readership (if most of the time not acknowledged by men). One of her chapters (longish, the fifth) is simply a recounting of many famous people’s (mostly women’s) praise and precious memories of reading (and nowadays), seeing, acting it out. I admit that by the time I got half-way through that I was relieved to be told Hilary Mantel “hated” it, Camilla Paglia saw it as “poison,” and Edith Wharton “avoided” it. I began to wonder how many people were just repeating cant. Surely there must be something wrong when there is such a uniform chorus of praise. But no she persuaded me her witnesses meant it.

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The “prologue” where Rioux claims this is a book women share with their daughters just invites an autobiographical response so I’ll oblige again: yes Little Women is a book I shared with my daughters, and both read it. Laura went on to further Alcott and it turned out preferred Little Men mightily, identified with Dan (ever getting into trouble), but it was not given me by my mother as a book she cherished. She never read it, but gave it to me as an appropriate gift-looking book for an 11 year old girl; I went on to read Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, but began to balk at Rose in Bloom. Laura (at age 15) and I also shared Gone with the Wind, while Izzy took up Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion (before she was 13-14). I might as well get Rioux’s other assertion that comes up so quickly about Little Women (and she never quite leaves) over with: I never wanted to be tomboy or a boy; I was a reading girl. I also loved the romance of Prof Bhaer in New York City and when he comes to the March home to become Jo’s beloved partner, a tenderly loving older man seemed so perfect for her maturity. I did not want her to marry Laurie who seemed a boy in comparison, nor did I demand she remain unmarried since she did not seem happy up in her attic writing on alone.

The first part of the book (Chapter 1) offers a biography of Alcott in the context of portraits of her complex family members, their transcendental “high literary” milieu, and because of her father’s inability or refusal to conform to mainstream US norms to be able to make a living, hard poverty, strained physical existences, continuous work outside the home for all the daughters, but Lizzie (=Beth) who withdrew psychologically from what must have been an often silently traumatized scene and died young. As a group of readers, we hauled Bronson Alcott over the coals. Then Rioux recounts the extraordinary early and continual success (the “phenomenon”) of the book, the early editions, the re-printings, the way contemporaries talked of it, the two direct sequels (Little Men, Jo’s Boys), and the illustration history. This prompted several of us to describe the books we had read Little Women in and retell our favorite memories. Also what other children’s books we read: Elsie Dinsmore, What Katy Did. I talked of The Secret Garden and Nancy Drew.


Although of the elegant lady variety, Jessie Wilcox Smith’s pictures are felicitious


Prof Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) and Jo (here Winona Ryder) have the iconic umbrella moment but I prefer this of them going over her story in the lodging house (1995 Miramax Little Women, directed by Gilliam Armstrong, scripted by Robin Swicord)

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June Allyson as Jo has some very real moments (1949 Mervyn LeRoy, directs — this one includes the girls putting on a play)

The second part of the book, “The Life of a Classic” offers a long chapter (4) on the stage plays and films made from the book from the very first up to the most recent, as well as an opera and Broadway musicals. As someone who has seen many of the films I found her analyses (the text is not soppy memories but genuine film study) enjoyable and accurate. It moved me to know the first stage production began with the words “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” and the performance had to stop to allow the “fervent applause” to finish itself out. She rightly goes on at length about the 1931 film, since it has been so influential and is still watchable; at the same time she’s right to say Katherine Hepburn (who is so paid attention to by critics) postures too much, jars as exaggerated, and we never forget the actress in the role. It was spoofed by Jack Benney as “Miniature Women” or “Small Dames.” The 1949 MGM film (June Allyson as Jo) and the 1995 again rightly take up much space (both genuinely thoughtful productions making of the characters evolving role models for adolescent and young women). I want to put in a good word for the old 1970 many episode BBC serial drama: for all its embarrassment at itself, it is the only film to give time to the later part of the story, Jo’s (Angela Downs) hard experience as the daughter left caring for two parents


Meg (JO Rowbottom) and John Brooke (Marvin Jarvis) were credible as young lovers in the 1970 BBC serial

The filmic artistry of all the films could have been paid more attention to; Rioux is rather interested to discuss whether the films convey the living power and emotions of the book, and both films are problematic: the MGM film is so lavish, the images highly magazine-commercialized, and women’s ambitions given short shrift; Armstrong and Co were so afraid to be seen as feminist, that the film is oddly bookish and stilted, too idealizing, no struggle, no anger, no gender ambiguities, to me recently it felt like a pretty Christmas card.

Of all I’ve seen (and not because it is the most contemporary) I find the BBC 2017 the closest to the spirit and themes of the book, and admire specifically how the women director and writer put Marmee on the scene re-experiencing her daughters raw emotions (as a kind of reflexive framing), and I’ve never seen Beth so empathized with as she tries repeatedly to get herself to come into the Laurence’s house and play on the piano as invited to.. Maya Hawke is not a celebrity so she has not been made a fetish of in the ads but she is pitch perfect as a sort of tomboy, as a girl who wishes she had been born a boy, as someone ambitious for a life outside being sexually a woman. At the movie’s end, we fast forward to see her running her school with Prof Bhaer (Mark Stanley) the one playing with their children.


She is Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter — why and how she got the role — as well as good acting, here her face has a convincing hard edge of understanding as she grows older

But the meat or core of Meg Jo Beth Amy — why we should read this one by Rioux and Little Women by Alcott — is in the sixth chapter of this part and the seventh and eighth of the third. Most of the films end in a romantic arch that makes marriage the center of all three living daughters’ lives; when we look at the debates over its meaning and how it has functioned in American and English-speaking and European cultures, we find a very different story. Rioux covers in details how different critics across the 20th century and intelligent readers have discussed the book. It emerges as a deeply feminist (l’ecriture-femme) book which explains and defends young women’s natures, and goals in taking on those of life’s burdens suitable to them. One of the people in our group, Nancy Gluck, directed us to a blog she had written when reading Little Women with others as a feminist classic: A Feminist Book. There are conformist and feminist strands in the text, and Nancy distinguishes her terms carefully to emphasize what is liberating and valuable about this book:

“These are real girls, not models of perfection. Whatever your concept of feminism may be, for me it is the belief that women define their own natures; they are not defined for them by the male half of humanity. If women are entirely noble and good or entirely evil and dangerous, that is a patriarchal construct which separates females from the rest of the human race where everyone is a mixture of good and bad characteristics.

She also has ambition for herself, for her own sake.

“I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle, — something heroic or wonderful, that won’t be forgotten when I’m dead. I don’t know what, but I’m on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous: that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream.”

This is important because so often, in stories about girls or biographies of women, their accomplishments are portrayed as done entirely for the sake of others, to fulfill a helper role. Jo does not reject being a helper, but she also wants her own satisfactions and achievements. Within the realities of 19th-century life, Jo gets them. She rejects the suitor she does not love, she leaves home to support herself, she sells her stories, she writes a good book, and, finally, she does marry, but it is an unconventional union which enables her to become the manager of a school.

To me the absolute hallmark of masculinist and (one step further) misogynistic literature is this presentation of women as “noble and good” or “entirely” (or almost entirely) “evil and dangerous.” It so bothers me when I have to listen to exegeses (or just do read) of Poldark where the women lambast Elizabeth as almost entirely malign, ill-meaning, awful, with Demelza as an ideal close to that of Meg, Jo and Amy wrapped into one.

Another member of our group, Judith Cheney, wrote: “I am convinced that the Alcott’s aspirations for her Little Women are ones that young women today might still find helpful guideposts in their growing up out of girlhood years.” This is the chapter where Rioux goes over modern post-texts for Little Women.

Rioux looks at how far feminist and in what ways. She wants to defend the boo from the same modern thoughtful feminist point view that she uses in her Writing for Immortality and against the same wall of indifference by respected critics: a book can be sold widely, paid attention to by enormous numbers of people, made money off of and still not achieve the kind of recognition of (however temporary the earth) immortality (to use her words in the other book). By end she is discussing recent scholarly editions by Elaine Showalter the Library of America which printed the “Jo” trilogy (so to speak) and arguing for regarding all three together, even if the other two are not as central, as Alcott’s masterpieces. I found myself drawn to the sharper criticism: by Patricia Meyer Spaces: it’s a “glorification of altruism” – this would hit at the above as too soft, not telling the hardness of life and the people we must deal with and the money we must have to live. See Jill May’s “Feminism and Children’s Literature: Fitting Little Women into the American Canon,” CEA, 56 (1994):19-27.


This one has her novel, Work, about a young woman who during the civil war works as nurse, seamstress, governess, actress and companion
Alas it lacks Hospital Sketches and perhaps her short masterpiece, “The Brothers,” sometimes titled “Contraband,” which appears to be no longer available for free as a pdf on-line (it was for years, but greed never ceases).

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The first two chapters of Part 3 are rousing — one can get excited and even angry reading them. “A Private Book for Girls: Can Boys read Little Women?” is about the truth that Little Women will not be assigned in junior high to high schools, it is about how endlessly the books chosen in high school for all sexes is either by a man or focused on a boy, or, in the rare cases by a woman, she has a pseudonym, and they are mostly about boys — rare, Hunger Games, it’s about violent aggressive girl. Rioux mounts a convincing demonstration of at the core of this is an insistence on instilling macho male values (one parent catching a boy reading Little Women screamed, someone is making a “faggot” of his son), and refusing to acknowledge the interior life of women counts — and yes this all leads directly to rape culture. There is an attempt to keep LW private again, hidden — women belong in the home where nothing matters. She makes an attempt to show if permitted (not shamed or bullied of this) many boys will like and appreciate Little Women she describes individuals. They have to cope with seeing boys put in the marginal position in the book. A reasonable list of well known men loving Little Women follows — it includes Orwell, who I would not have expected to like LW. The opera composer, Adamo feels that LW is about “balancing our fear of vulnerability with our need for love.” That’s one theme but I doubt the central one.

“Being Someone (Chapter 8) treats Little Women as this educational “courtesy”‘ book (what they used to call these kind of book in the Renaissance). The situation and character types are made to do the work of situations and people analogous to girls’ situations as they are becoming mature. Not little girls, not fully grown (already married) women, but in-between, that time that books apparently still mostly avoid.


There’s been a TV movie and there is even a 25th anniversary Audio reading — on CDS, MP3s, downloads and you can find the audiocassettes too

But there is a problem with using Little Women this way — and it comes down to sex. None of the March girls is attacked sexually, harassed, none of them sexually shamed — I would maintain these are central experiences for all girls — probably then once they were allowed away from chaperons. Fanny Burney and various French women writers of the 18th century show incidents of harassment, mortification and rape.. Madame Roland shows how the aftermath can be as bad as the experience: her mother harrowed her with guilt and put her in a convent for a while and her sex life with a man never recovered: it took her years to marry.  Jenny Diski was raped at 14 and the way she describes this is just so usual. That does not mean she got over it or forgot. The experience shaped the way she behaved thereafter. I was raped at age 12-13 and can vouch for the experience shaping the rest of my life.

Rioux admits that sex is left out and “For girls, maturation has … always been closely tied to sexuality or the loss of purity or innocence.” Girls were preyed upon by masters, bosses, and yes (she omits this) family members. So how can Little Women be a central text? it can’t as despite dealing with other issues admirably (if too upbeat I’d say) it omits sex.

Rioux then deals with a second text whose popularity in the 1990s and continued sales power surprises her: Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia. I read it for the first time in the 1990s and I cried. Had this book been written in the 1960s, given me to read, what a difference in my life it might have made. It is the first book I ever read which tells the truth about girls’ sexual experience in their teens. Rioux dislikes it because it shows girls to be victims. I’ve got news for her: they are. Rioux admits that ours is rape, misogynistic, stereotyping culture but not that Pipher does all she can — by telling the truth so we shall not be alone — about what happens to girls who complain and how they cope. Has Rioux never had such an experience? how about her daughters? her students, have they never written of this? Jo’s time in NYC cannot be a version of college or modern girl working because there is no sexual threat anytime anywhere in any way.

A side issue: I object to the idea in Beth we have an anorexic, or party an anorexic. First off, anorexia is not just a response to sex, to sexual maturation, it’s not just an avoidance though it is that. It is a response to a high pressure culture and family life. Why shouldn’t girls “want out,” as Hilary Mantel has written. Rioux does not know anything for real or fully about anorexia and she treats it and Beth as fundamentally very strange. Well in the book she is – because she is presented as super-religious and since Alcott dare not question that, she can’t make sense of Beth Apparently Louisa did not understand what was going on with Lizzie – it was more than a wasting disease like TB.

I suggest it might have been a hysterical response to living with a man (Bronson Alcott) who insists you drink water and eat bread, wear inadequate clothes, worship God all the time, and a mother who obeyed this nonsense. She was punishing herself because she was taught punishing was good – she needs to read books about the centrality of the family and what goes on in schools to the development of anorexia. I recommend to her and anyone coming to this blog Mara Selvini Palazzoli, Self-Starvation: from Individual to Family Therapy in the treatment of Anorexia Nervosa.  Very bad are the way sports are conducted: coaches humiliate, girls are mocked who are the least bit chubby and not competitive. To ask that this be forbidden is like asking a group American cultural norms to reverse themselves right now. And perhaps Lizzie was autistic – I’ve a hunch Bronson Alcott was – and suffered badly from misunderstanding.


Marmee (Emily Watson) watching over the daughter Beth (Annes Elwy) who cannot bear to go to school

I’d say if you gave a girl Little Women as an adequate educational treatise, you had better back it up by Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia and tell for real what girls experience in adolescence. Rioux is not willing to do this. Is the fundamental conflict of a girls life “how to love and be loved without losing oneself? What ideal world did Rioux grow up in? Girls are pressured into making money, having a career and this presented as easy – Jo has no problem getting a flat, writing away – this is unreal. Add some Naomi Wolf on beauty and Promiscuities and don’t omit Anne Oakley on Subject Women (in colleges, offices). Rioux appears sheltered, an emotional conservative, and disingenuous: only once does she remark that Jo is a comfort to lesbian girls. And then she leaves the remark there. She’s not telling a crucial destructive truth that matters about adolescence and young womanhood for women today.

Her last chapter “Little Women and Girls’ Stories Today” (9) is weak again. We are in the area of popular wide readership and popular literature, and to me it’s no surprise (if a matter of regret) that the genre of serious domestic tale investigating real lives of girls has been replaced for most or many girls by fantasy tales, action adventure dystopias. Genre analysis of fantasy and science fiction as such shows that this is an optimistic genre where good people win out (however good is defined).  Hunger Games is so different from LW I cannot take seriously her allegoresis. Girls are also offered easy reading chick lit and mean girl books.

She then (in effect) forgets she has male readers (or has already forgotten) and moves to TV shows where she finds comparisons: I never saw The Gilmore Girls; after the second episode of Girls I tired of it– it was too much about how dismaying real sex is, and the startle and energy gotten by the expedient of suggesting fellatio and other practices dims quickly (for me at any rate). The girls needle each other towards the end of the series (HBO), and we see how (in Rioux’s own words at the opening of this last chapter) how maturation is seen as “walking the line between being sexy and being taken for a whore.” Until near the end the situations depend on ideas about how privileged girls are sheltered by parents.

Rioux seems to want books for girls growing up which teach companionate marriage and sisterhood as an ideal and “how to connect selflessly with another human being.” She wasn’t so keen on companionate marriage in Writing for Immortality. Maybe she is assuming most girls readers will not go on to be writers, but does that mean the self-sacrificing social life ideal that under-girds modern norms of motherhood are primary makers of a good life? Tertium non est?

Rioux also needs to read Rebecca Traistor’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.. Traister argues mature women have always had long periods alone, not with a man, they just had no way to support themselves, no validation from the culture whatsoever (“redundant”! was the outcry when they came out of their closet in the mid-19th century) and thus live a life an individual person who happens to be a woman might want.

Ellen

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Fonny (James Stephen) and Tish (Kiki Layne) as we first see them walking together


Gradually appearing intertitle introducing the film

Friends and readers,

If Beale Street could talk, book and film, tell the same terrible tale we learn about in When They See Us. A system of incarceration whose structure and rules give African-Americans no hearing, only injustice and the felt hostility of blind chance & dependence on other vulnerable frightened people.

I began with the film, which I’ve wanted to watch for quite some time:  we are thrust into the story of two lovers walking down a paved alley in a park, and they vow love to one another, and determine they will tell their families, who, it seems, may not approve. Cut to Tish’s voice saying “I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love…through glass:” we now see her sitting in a prison visiting room on one side of a glass waiting for Fonny to be brought out to sit on the other side. They cannot touch one another, they cannot hear unless they pick up the phones attached to each side of the booth they share. We are puzzled for a long time: why is he in prison. He seems utterly upstanding, he makes little money as a sculptor, but he is the son of church-going people, not an alcoholic, not drinking, trying to get together money to bribe someone willing to rent to them. Much of the film is interwoven flashbacks and we see in one: someone finally offers them a concrete garage space that is described as a loft (so the man can charge more). Most of the time no one will rent to them.

Gradually the story unfolds bit-by-bit: flashbacks interwoven and a narrator’s voice to connect is the mode: so throughout with increasing poignancy we see their ecstatic first days and nights of love.  But then after he is jailed, she finds she is pregnant, then (something she dreads) she has to tell her family and then his without him, because he is in prison (still unexplained): her family accepts the baby and coming marriage:

His mother does not, nor his sisters who speak in ugly spiteful ways using church dogma as a cover.

More time goes by in the ongoing forward time narrative as Tish gets a job selling perfume (one she is told she should be grateful for as she is black), and then one night in a flashback while they are walking in the street we see how from out of nowhere Fonny was accused of raping a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), he never met and was nowhere near. They are told she singled Fonny out in a police-formed row of men; and are gradually led to a white lawyer (Finn Whittrock), well-meaning, who tells them the woman has fled to Puerto Rico. Fonny is beginning to become angry, frantic, violent, resentful, half-crazy in the bare cell room.

Then finally, either as flashback, just before or after, we see a brief encounter between Fonny and a sly angry-looking, resentful white police officer whose name we learn is Bell (Ed Skrein) grows livid when after he accuses Fonny of stealing, the store owner vindicates Fonny. Fonny himself is proud, often hot-tempered and has to be controlled by Tish. Bell warns Fonny he will get back. Early on Tish remarks what happened was the result of Fonny’s strong pride. Yes and it took just one resentful white man.


The police officer, seen only once, his sneer hardly has time to register

And all came clear to me. This white officer incensed at Fonny has lied, pressured the woman into accusing him, probably helped her to flee. There is no way Fonny can clear himself of this crime unless the Puerto Rican woman comes back to refute her testimony.

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The movie seemed to me and now I know is a deeply felt adaptation of a novel by Baldwin, both of which (book and movie) dramatize as the on-going story the need African-American people have of one another. Again we see the two family groups early on, and Fonny’s mother and sisters are incensed, cruel and corrosive in what they say. After Fonny is imprisoned, the two fathers getting together to steal little-by-little to get up the money for Sharon Rivers, Trish’s mother (Regina King) to go to Puerto Rico to speak to the woman.

Mrs Rivers is so brave, ever changing her clothes, her wig, wanting to look presentable, right somehow, so intense, worried, tight, hopeful still, goes and at first is rebuffed by the woman’s older male relative, but eventually he yields (perhaps a bribe) but then Victoria becomes hysterical and refuses to go back to withdraw her testimony. She asks Mrs Rogers if she has ever been raped. This is the desolate climax of the film.


Mrs Rivers appealing to Victoria


Victoria herself angry, impoverished, resentful

When it’s clear they can’t count on any evidence in their favor except there is no evidence but the identification by a woman who won’t come to the court, at first the lawyer holds out, but we see the case is going nowhere, there is no trial set.  Tish gives birth to her baby; fast forward and Tish tells us that he plea bargained and it’s clear they are waiting for the years of prison to go by as they meet regularly in a freer prison room for visitors. His son is a small child and they try to act as a family during the time they have together. Eat, play a board game, tell each other how the week has been. This is how the  film ends; the family in a visiting room in a prison, with the wife’s salary and will power holding them together.

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I waited until I got hold of and read the book, David Leeming’s commentary and quotation of Baldwin in his James Baldwin: A Biography, and Joyce Carol Oates’s review for the New York Times of the book and film before writing this blog. Why? No one in the feature that came with the film never anywhere said that Fonny was framed; that he will spend years of his life behind bars helplessly. Not one person said it was the spite of a single police officer. I wanted to read the book to make sure (since in the film this is never made explicit) this a parable about how vulnerable black people are at any moment to be plunged into non-life, death in prison. Why keep silent? This is supposed to be Beale Street talking at last, telling.

It’s an instance of what we experience in When They See Us: it is the same story writ little. In the US if you are black and someone somewhere with some authority who is white can destroy you. I’m told Get Out is a crucial recent film about black life in America. It’s next on my Netflix queue.

Baldwin emphasizes the story is a parable about “the black man’s bondage … everywhere; and “the emotional imprisonment of whites.” I again admit I didn’t see that much, only that the lawyer was as helpless as his client finally. In David Leeming’s biography, Baldwin says he also meant to show how isolated black are at the same time that they recognize they must be involved with one another, recognize their need of one another, share and bond experience in a way of imprisoned (if often invisible) life. The context is a “battle for integrity” in a world where the struggle to survive makes them have painfully to give integrity up — or compromise reality.

Joyce Carol Oates, like the people in the feature to the DVD, seems to want to make this an affirmative story about the endurance of African-American people helping one another Oates says it is a “traditional celebration of love:” and it is all she says, including a portrait of the white lawyer as sympathetic and doing his weak best.


Regina King as Sharon and Colman Domingo as Joseph as Tish’s parents


The white lawyer

Her review doubts the wisdom of using Tish as a narrator (voice-over) retrospectively — there seems to me her doubt of this young girl having gravitas enough doubt about a woman’s gravity and seriousness, and a black woman. I admit Oates goes over and makes plain the horror at the center of this disaster, but did she have to say “so patiently,” of course the police officer is a villain (who has killed a 12 year old black boy some time ago), and to de-emphasize this seems racist to me.

Now I see that the film, through an integrated back-and-forth series of flashbacks tells the story of both Fonny and Tish since they were children bathing together, the stages of their earliest life in black-and-white photos. I thought of Daphnis and Chloe, Paul and Virginia. We see his friendship with a man who gives evidence him (coerced); moments of Fonny doing sculpture, Tish selling things, coping with customers, the two of them begging a meal when they have no money, fixing their apartment, but I suggest a thread through the love affair is Tish’s mother’s support of them, of her; Tish’s sister gets the lawyer but Tish’s mother helps her to give birth and bathe the baby first. And especially Tish coping from pregnancy to still waiting.


Suggestive of giving birth: actually Tish’s mother is helping her bath the new born baby

The film rightly was nominated for many awards; it should have won more.  At least Regina King won for Best Supporting Actress.

It’s a beautiful book and wish I had known about it before; I’ve placed it in this Reveries under the Sign of Austen because the narrated voice and point of view is that if the young woman and her mother. It has many scenes of intimate domestic life: the kinds of furniture black people can afford; Fonny and Tish doing all sorts of things in their lives: he with friends, she in the subway. But much more (on the whole) she. The book is a heroine’s text. A poignant romance where courage is holding out (like Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop). It is a woman’s film using the characteristics of women’s art to powerful effect.

Ellen

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Cassandra’s depiction of Jane Austen, said to be at the seaside, 1804


Kynance Cove, modern photo

Janeite friends.

As I hope to get onto a plane and fly to Cornwall tomorrow evening in order to spend a week there with a Road Scholar group headed by Peter Maxted (naturalist, environmentalist, author of among other good books, The Natural Beauty of Cornwall), I’ve been looking to see if there is any mention or connection by Austen of herself with Cornwall. I found one specific concrete mention, to which a friend has added another in the comments:

In a letter to Cassandra, from Castle Square, Southampton, dated Saturday Oct 1st 1808, Austen writes:

You have used me ill, you have been writing to Martha without telling me of it, & a letter which I sent her on wednesday [sic] to give her information of you, must have been good for nothing, I do not know how to think that something will not still happen to prevent her returning by the 10th — And if it does, I shall not much regard it on my own account, for I am now got into such a way of being alone that I do not wish even for her. — The Marquis [of Lansdowne] has put off being cured for another year; — after waiting some weeks for the return of the Vessel he had agreed for himself by a famous Man in that Country [Cornwall], in which he means to go abroad twelvemonth hence (LeFaye, 4th edition, pp 147-148).


A contemporary print of the high street in Southampton: the Austens rented a house in Castle Square

I feel for Jane: she has been used ill: anyone who does not tell of information or acts they have been getting or about, but leaves their friend to act as if they were not in possession of information vital to both, betrays that friend, makes a fool out of her. Cassandra has done wrong, not a big betrayal, but she has gone behind Jane’s back to do something she hoped Jane would not find out about. I am moved by Austen’s statement that she has “got into such a way of being alone” that she no longer wishes even for Martha Lloyd, whom Jane loved. I have just had such an experience of a “friend” not telling me of information she has had and so in effect misrepresented a situation. But I will no longer be misled.

Of course I also feel for her as a woman “got into such a way of being alone” that she no longer wishes for a beloved presence.

LeFaye’s typically insinuating note tells of John-Henry Petty (1765-1809) who was “widely travelled but rather solitary” who came to Southampton “to indulge his passion for yachting. He bought the ruined castle within the city walls, and enlarged it “into a gothic fantasy,” selling off the father’s library and art collection at Bowood house to pay for this rebuilding. He became Marquis in 1805, married his mistress, Mary Arabella, daughter of Revd Hinton Maddox and widow of Sir Duke Gifford. LeFaye then recounts nasty gossip about how Lady Gifford was “fat,” and as “strange” as the house Lord Lansdowne created, because she, in supposedly eccentric dress, went walking one day with her three daughters in wind, rain, on stony and mud-filled cobbled streets. LeFaye follows this with the more charitable account by James Edward Austen-Leigh, who turns a carriage this woman went round in into a “fairy equipage” (pp 542-43).

But we have had to take several turns to get there.

For the second I am indebted to Diana Birchall and her use of google, a reference in Mansfield Park, the mention is direct, including the word Cornwall.

“To be so near happiness, so near fame, so near the long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, the seat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course have immortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth!”

The upper classes in Cornwall behaved the way they did in Northampton: put on private theatricals and then wrote in absurd praise of themselves.


The Mansfield Park players hard “at work” (from the 2007 Mansfield Park, scripted by Maggie Wadey)

Another more speculative literary connection could be Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall; an Elizabethan antiquarian, he wrote the first intelligent thorough vivid description of Cornwall and its people; it was valued and reprinted in 1769 and 1811; Davies Gilbert provided an index. It has been reprinted in our era by Halliday.

Austen never mentions it, but it is the kind of book we find her reading: histories, travel books, culture, memoirs, and in good 20th and 21st century accounts of Cornwall’s history and culture and geography Carew is still quoted as an authoritative source. The mid-18th century sees the beginning of archeaological digs and accounts of them in books. I would like to assume she read it, for if she did, she could have known as much about Cornwall and more as most general readers would today.

For a fourth and speculative type, Austen could have read some of the sources Winston Graham used, like reformist exposés of prison conditions. See The History of Bodmin Jail, 1779, compiled by Bill Johnson (2006). We know she visited another prison with her brother and was too appalled to describe what she saw.

She would have known of the Wesleys and clearly knew of the spread of methodism (in its evangelical reactionary phases in Hannah More and elsewhere); but again we are up against mostly silence or no specific evidence.

On religious radical religious movements, emigration and myths and legends associated with or rooted in Cornwall gaining new ground in her period (Arthurian, Druidic), like some sceptical or careful Enlightenment types of her era, she might have shown little interest; like others newly interested in the history of poetry, e.g., Thomas Warton in his History of English Poetry, she would come across Arthur in Chaucer and Spenser. We know she read the poets of the later 18th century.

We can find some specific authors and books from the peripheries (so to speak) where we know for sure she read well-grounded observations, in this case mostly about Scotland: Johnson and Boswell’s twin tours and Anne MacVicar Grant)’s memoirs. Here is one of my favorite of Grant’s poems, from her Poems on Various Subjects, a “familiar epistle” to Anne’s good friend of many years, Beatrice, remembering when they were young and aspired to be poets:

When to part us, loud storms and deep gullies conspir’d,
And sublime meditation to garrats [sic] retir’d;
To the workings of fancy to give a relief,
We sat ourselves down to imagine some grief,
Till we conjur’d up phantoms so solemn and sad,
As, if they had lasted, would make us half mad;
Then in strains so affecting we pour’d the soft ditty,
As mov’d both the rocks and their echoes to pity [but]
The cottage so humble, or sanctified dome,
For the revels of fancy afforded no room;
And the lyre and the garland, were forc’d to give place
To duties domestic … (reprinted in Breen, Women Romantic Poets, 1785-1832, pp 88-93)

In Austen’s active life, she traveled all around the coast of southern and once to western England — once as far as Wales, about which (again) we have some sketch-y knowledge: see Diana Birchall’s Jane Austen at the Seaside.

So we can sort of connect our 18th century Austen with Cornwall: “philosophical” studies, and history; poetry and memoirs of travel-writers and others telling of life in the peripheries at the time, the newly burgeoning genres of survey and archeaological analysis, and her own summer travels.

And we can place her against a backdrop of 17th through 18th century history in Cornwall from our own modern perspective: here we have a cornucopia, and from a virtual library of books I recommend F. E. Halliday, The History of Cornwall, Philip Payton’s Cornwall, Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground; Winston Graham’s Poldark novels and The Groves of Eagles, and DuMaurier’s several novels set in Cornwall, especially Jamaica Inn and The King’s General, grounded in the real doings of the civil war, its aftermath and the Grenville and Rashleigh families, and 17th into 18th century history of Menabilly in Cornwall. I’ll bet Stevenson’s reading of DuMaurier’s novel is absorbing and enjoyable.

And we can go there ourselves.

Ellen

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Miniatures of Philadelphia and George Austen — Jane Austen’s aunt and father


Five Dancing Positions

Dear Friends,

The second half of the Jane Austen Study DC hosted by JASNA-DC at the American University Library, as “curated” by Mary Mintz. In the morning we listened to excellent papers on some realities and perceptions of religious groups and servants in Austen’s day; the afternoon was taken up with the equivalent of photographs, miniatures, and drawn portraits, and how dance was so enjoyed and a source of female power in the era.

After lunch, Moriah Webster spoke to us about miniatures in the era; her paper’s title “Ivory and Canvas: Naval Miniatures in Portraiture [in the era] and then Austen’s Persuasion.” Moriah began by quoting Austen’s pen portraits in her letters on a visit she paid with Henry Austen to an exhibition in the Spring Gardens in London, where she glimpsed

“a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. I went in hopes of seeing one of her Sister, but there was no Mrs Darcy; — perhaps I may find her in the great exhibition, which we shall go to if we have time. I have no chance of her in the collection of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s paintings, which is now showing in Pall Mall, and which we are also to visit. Mrs. Bingley’s is exactly herself -— size, shaped face, features, and sweetness; there never was a greater likeness. She is dressed in a white gown with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite color with her. I dare say Mrs. D. will be in yellow… Letter 85, May 24, 1813, to Cassandra, from Sloane Street, Monday)


Samantha Bond as the faithful Mrs Western, next to her Mr Elton, to the back Mr Knightley (Mark Strong) and Emma and Mr Woodhouse (Bernard Hepton), trying to lead a discussion of picture looking to favor Emma’s depiction of Harriet (1996 BBC Emma)

The detail and visual acuity reminded me of many other verbal portraits in Austen’s letters and novels, which I wrote about in my paper on “ekphrastic patterns in Austen,” where I went over the attitudes of mind seen in the way she explained her own and others picturing process, both analysing and imitating the picturesque seriously, and parodying it. She asks how does the way we think about and describe, the language we use and forms we absorb enable and limit what we can see.

Moriah was not interested in the philosophical and linguistic issues (which were the subject of my paper)

“He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side-screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape (Northanger Abbey, 1:14)


One of the many effective landscapes from Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility (director and screenplay-writer and Elinor n Miramax 1995 film)

Marianne argues passionately “that admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was. I detest jargon of every kind, and sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning (S&S, 1:18)

but rather the real miniatures and drawings we know about in Austen’s life as well as how the way drawing is approached distinguishes a character’s traits of personality, and the way pictorial objects function in the plot-designs of her novels.

I offer a few examples of what interested her — though these were not delineated in her paper:


Irene Richards as Elinor Dashwood is a fairly serious artist (1981 BBC Sense and Sensibility) who can be hurt by people’s dismissal of her work


Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price dreams over her brother’s precious drawings of his ships (1983 BBC Mansfield Park)


For Kate Beckinsale as Emma drawing is a way of manipulating situations, defining her relatives, a vanity she does not work hard enough at (again the 1996 BBC Emma, with Susannah Morton as Harriet)

She did dwell on Persuasion. The novel opens with Anne cataloguing the pictures at Kellynch Hall; and has a comic moment of Admiral Croft critiquing a picture of a ship at sea in a shop window in the same literal spirit as Mr Woodhouse objects to Emma’s depiction of Harriet out of doors without a shawl.

Here I am, you see, staring at a picture. I can never get by this shop without stopping. But what a thing here is, by way of a boat! Do look at it. Did you ever see the like? What queer fellows your fine painters must be, to think that anybody would venture their lives in such a shapeless old cockleshell as that? And yet here are two gentlemen stuck up in it mightily at their ease, and looking about them at the rocks and mountains, as if they were not to be upset the next moment, which they certainly must be. I wonder where that boat was built!” (laughing heartily); “I would not venture over a horsepond in it.” (Persuasion 2:6 or 18)


John Woodvine as Crofts regaling Amanda Root as Anne and us with his reaction to a picture in a shop window (1995 BBC Persuasion)

More crucially we have a cancelled chapter and one about a miniature of someone who Captain Benwick was engaged to and died (Phoebe Harville), and is now prepared to discard and use the framing for a miniature of her substitute (Louisa Musgrove); this becomes the occasion of a melancholy and passionately argued debate over male versus female constancy and prompts Wentworth (listening) finally to write Anne Elliot a letter revealing the state of his loving mind.

What Moriah concentrated on was who had miniatures made of them, for what reasons and how much individual ones cost; how these were made, and who they functioned as social and cultural capital in these specific people’s lives. All the miniatures we have testify to the status of the person pictured, a status (I remark or add) that Austen (apparently) never achieved in the eyes of those around her.

Although she didn’t say this it’s obvious that Austen’s brothers had miniatures made of them because they rose to important positions in the navy; her father was a clergyman; her aunt became the mistress of Warren Hastings.


Francis who became an admiral and Charles in his captain’s uniform

She did imply the irony today of the plain unvarnished sketch of Austen by her sister, located in the National Gallery like a precious relic in a glass case in the National Gallery while all around her on the expensive walls are the richly and expensively painted literary males of her generation.

I regret that my stenography was not up to getting down the sums she cited accurately enough and the differing kinds of materials she said were used to transcribe them here so I have filled out the summary with lovely stills from the film adaptations — it’s easy to find many of these because pictures, landscapes and discussions of them are more frequent in the novels than readers suppose. Miniatures as a subject or topic are in fact rare.


Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth during her tour of Derbyshire with the Gardiners (1995 BBC P&P) is placed in a clearly delineated landscape (1995 A&E P&P scripted by Davies) and is reminiscent of


A William Gilpin depiction of Dovedale

There was some group discussion after this paper, and (as seems to be inevitable) someone brought up her longing for a picture of Austen. She was reminded that we have two, both by Cassandra. But undeterred she insisted these were somehow not good enough, not acceptable. Of course she wanted a picture that made Austen conventionally appealing. At this point others protested against this demand that Austen be made pretty, but she remained unimpressed by the idea that women should not be required to look attractive to be valuable.

It is such an attitude that lies behind the interest people take in Katherine Byrne’s claim a high-status miniature (the woman is very dressed up) that she found in an auction with the name “Jane Austen” written on the back is of Jane Austen. See my blog report and evaluation, “Is this the face I’ve seen seeking?”

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Dancing in the 2009 BBC Emma: at long last Jonny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley gets to express himself to Emma

The last talk was delightful: Amy Stallings on “Polite Society, Political Society: Dance and Female Power” dwelt on the dances themselves, how accessible they were, the social situations, how they are used in Austen’s books, and finally how in life they were used to project political behavior or views in assemblies and private parties and balls too. Her perspective was the political and social functioning of dancing (reminding me of Lucy Worseley), going well beyond the literary depiction of dance in Austen. She scrutinized ballroom behavior and dance to show that the ballroom floor was a kind of stage on which a woman could find paradoxical freedom to talk with a young man and older women might project political agendas and alliances (especially if she was the hostess).


If we look past the movie and see this scene as filming a group of famous admired actors and actresses we can see the same game of vanity and power played out (everyone will distinguish Colin Firth as Darcy in this still from the 1995 BBC P&P)

Her talk fell into three parts. First, she showed how dance was made accessible to everyone in the class milieu that learned and practiced such social behavior. This part of her talk was about the actual steps you learned, the longways patterning of couples, how it enabled couples to hold hands, made eye contact. Longways dancing is a social leveller, she claimed. I found it very interesting to look at the charts, and see how the couples are configured in the different squares. As today, it was common to see women dancing in the men’s line. People looked at what you were wearing and how well you danced. She quotes Edgeworth in her novel Patronage (which like Austen’s Mansfield Park has both dancing and amateur theatrics). There was pressure to perform in dancing (as well as home theater).


Dancing difficult maneuvers in the 1983 Mansfield Park: Fanny and Edmund

The second part dwelt on dancing in novels of the era. She quoted from Henry Tilney’s wit and power over Catherine in their sequences of dancing:


JJ Feilds as Tilney mesmerizing Felicity Jones as Catherine (2007 ITV Northanger Abbey)

Her partner now drew near, and said, “That gentleman would have put me out of patience, had he stayed with you half a minute longer. He has no business to withdraw the attention of my partner from me. We have entered into a contract of mutual agreeableness for the space of an evening, and all our agreeableness belongs solely to each other for that time. Nobody can fasten themselves on the notice of one, without injuring the rights of the other. I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. Fidelity and complaisance are the principal duties of both; and those men who do not chuse to dance or marry themselves, have no business with the partners or wives of their neighbours.”
“But they are such very different things!–”
” –That you think they cannot be compared together.”
“To be sure not. People that marry can never part, but must go and keep house together. People that dance only stand opposite each other in a long room for half an hour.”
“And such is your definition of matrimony and dancing. Taken in that light certainly, their resemblance is not striking; but I think I could place them in such a view. — You will allow, that in both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of its dissolution; that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbours, or fancying that they should have been better off with any one else. You will allow all this?”
“Yes, to be sure, as you state it, all this sounds very well; but still they are so very different. — I cannot look upon them at all in the same light, nor think the same duties belong to them (Northanger Abbey, I:10.

and alluded to (by contrast) how Darcy will not permit Elizabeth to achieve any power over him through dance or talk; in his downright refusals and more evasive withdrawals he robs her of status and any hold on him. So she becomes grated upon, frustrated. Amy discussed Scott’s Redgauntlet as containing a particularly effective pointed description of a tête-à-tête; the disruption of walking away, walking out and its potential to humiliate is drawn out in this novel.

One of Jane Austen’s most memorable masterly depictions of social humiliation and kindness is in the scene where Mr Elton deliberately sets up Harriet to expect him to ask her to dance, and then when Mrs Weston takes the bait, and asks him to ask Harriet to dance, he can publicly refuse her. I thought of a similarly crestfallen hurt in the dancing scene in the unfinished Watsons where a young boy is carelessly emotionally pained and (as Mr Knightley does here), so Emma Watson there comes in to rescue him at the risk of herself losing social status by dancing in the lead position with a boy.


Mark Strong as Mr Knightley observing what the Eltons are doing


The expression on Samantha Morton’s face as she is drawn up to dance by the most eligible man in the room is invaluably poignant (once again the 1996 BBC Emma)

Amy’s third part was about the politics of the dance floor and particular assemblies in particular localities. First she did insist that Austen’s novels are explicitly political in various places (including Fanny Price’s question on slavery, Eleanor Tilney’s interpretation of Catherine Morland’s description of a gothic novel as about the Gordon riots &c). She then went on to particular periods where politics was especially heated and cared about, often because a war is going on, either nearby or involving the men in the neighborhood. She described assemblies and dances, how people dressed, what songs and dances were chosen, who was invited and who not and how they were alluded to or described in local papers in Scotland and England in the middle 17th century (the civil war, religious conflicts and Jacobitism as subjects), France in the 1790s (the guillotine could be used as an object in a not-so-funny “debate”), and in the American colonies in the 1770s.

Amy went on at length about particular balls given in 1768, December 1769, May 1775, where allusions were made to loyalist or American allegiances, to specific battles and generals. One anecdote was about a refrain “British go home!” While all this might seem petty, in fact loyalists were badly treated after the American colonists won their revolution, and many died or were maimed or lost all in the war. Her argument is that women have involved themselves in higher politics (than personal coterie interactions, which I suppose has been the case since people danced) through dance from the time such social interactions occurred in upper class circles and became formal enough “to be read.” We were way over time by her ending (nearly 4:30 pm) so no questions could be asked, but there was a hearty applause.

Again I wish I could’ve conveyed more particulars here but I don’t want to write down something actually incorrect. I refer the interested reader to Cheryl A Wilson’s Literature and Dance in 19th century Britain: Jane Austen to the New Woman. The early chapters tell of the many dances known at the time, the culture of dance, and what went on as far as we can tell from newspapers and letters at assemblies, with a long chapter on doings at Almack’s, where Jane Austen just about whistles over Henry her brother’s presence. Frances Burney’s Cecilia, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Thackeray’s Vanity Fair are among the novels mined for understanding. Wilson goes over the quadrille (squares) and how this configuration changed the experience of hierarchy and then wild pleasures of the waltz. Here Anthony Trollope’s Can You Forgive Her? and The Way We Live Now are brought in. Lady Glencora Palliser and Burgo Fitzgerald almost use an evening of reckless dancing as a prologue to elopement and adultery. I imagine it was fun to write this book.


At Lady Monk’s ball Susan Hampshire as Lady Glencora and Barry Justice as Burgo Fitzgerald dance their way into semi-escape


He begs her to go off with him as the true husband of her heart and body

It was certainly good fun to go to the Jane Austen Study Day and be entertained with such well thought out, informative and perceptive papers very well delivered. I wish more Austen events were like this one.

Ellen

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