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Varo, Harmony (1956)

Friends and readers,

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

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


Varo, Embroidering Earth’s Mantle

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


Varo, A Paradise of Cats

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


Varo, Creation with Astral Rays


Varo, Creation of Birds (1958)

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


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

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


Varo, Exploration of the Sources of Orinooko


Varo, Cosmic Energy (1956)

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


Varo, Outside the Tower (1960)

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


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

This is said to be a reverse Rapunzel:


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


Varo, Unexpected Presence

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


Varo, Spiral Transit (1962)

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

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


Varo, The Souls of Mountains (1938)

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

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

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


Varo, Hibernation (1942)


Varo, Stealing the Essence (1955)

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

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Varo, The Escape

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


Varo, Roulette (1955)

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


Varo, Troubadour

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

Varo, Alchemy: A Useless Science


Varo, [Self-]Encounter

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


Varo, The Flutist

Ellen

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


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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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


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

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


Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), Pastoral


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


Kollwitz, Woman with her dead Child (1963)

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


Meret Oppenheim (1913-85), Fur Lined Teacup

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Ellen

 

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Charlotte Heywood (Amy Burrows), Felicity Lamb (Bonnie Adair) Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan)

Diana’s letter: [Susan] has been suffering from the headache and six leeches a day for ten days together … convinced on examination the evil lay in her gum, I persuaded her to attack the disorder there. She has accordingly had three teeth drawn, and is decidedly better, but her nerves are a good deal deranged … Jane Austen’s Sanditon

Though he had not the character of a gamester, it was known in certain circles that he occasionally played well, & successfully; to others he was better known as an acute & very useful political agent, the probable reason of his living so much abroad — Of Mr Tracy, Anna Lefroy’s continuation

Dear friends and readers,

Today a friend sent me a news item that the first “period costume drama” of Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon is slated to be filmed, in an advertisement that says this is the first filmed Sanditon. Well not so. Chris Brindle’s play from Jane Austen and Anna Lefroy’s Sanditon is, and it’s the argument of this blog it’s probably much more in the spirit of Austen than the coming commercial one.

First, the ad suggests a cosy, creamy film (rather like the recent Love and Freindship), with the completion written by Marie Dobbs. Dobbs turned a satirical and highly sceptical story whose focus is a group of people seeking to make money on the false promises of a seaside spa to cure people, into a melodramatic romance, complete with an abduction, an elopement and three marriages, the accent now on love. Yes box office stars, Holliday Grainger for Charlotte and Max Irons for Sidney Parker have been cast. And much better — reasons for thinking this might be another strong Austen film: the screenplay writer is Simone Reade, who has to his writing credit a fine movie from R. C. Sherriff’s powerful WW1 Journey’s End and the 1997 Prince of Hearts. In addition, the director is Jim O’Hanlon who directed the 2009 Emma scripted by Sandy Welch and starring Romolai Garai and Johnny Lee Miller. And Charlotte Rampling is to play Lady Denham!

Nonetheless, I wanted to recommend not waiting and availing yourself of Chris Brindle’s production of Sanditon, available on DVD from http://www.sanditon.info. I’ve watched it three times now, and went back and reread (as I’ve done before) Anna Lefroy’s continuation, which, together with her aunt’s fragment are the basis for Chris Brindle’s script. It has that Jane Austen quality of telling real truths while leaving you somewhat cheered.

sandition
Shots of the English countryside near the seashore occur between scenes

This interlude between the two acts captures the brightness of the production; the singer is Amy Burrows who plays an appealing Charlotte. She also narrates the good 40 minute documentary available from the site about Anna Lefroy’s life and other writing and relationship with Austen as well as the circumstances surrounding Austen’s writing of Sanditon: Austen, as we all know, was fatally ill knew it, often in bad pain; this was her last piece of writing.


Singers: Amy Burrows and Nigel Parker (click on the YouTube logo to go over to hear the song)

Brindle is an ancestor of the painter of a miniature of Anna Lefroy, and has interested himself in the landscape, houses, and culture of the era.

First some admission or warning-preparation. The people doing the production had a very small (or no) budget and parts of the play are acted in front a black screen; several of the actors are half-reading the scripts. I found this did not get in my way once I became interested in the play and characters and that was quickly. These parts of the performance reminded of good staged readings I’ve attended.

On the many pluses side: like Catherine Hubback’s Younger Sister (Hubback has also until recently not be a favored subject for the Austen family so that it was hard to get hold of her continuation of The Watsons), Lefroy clearly knows more of the direction Austen meant to take the story in than we can see in the extant text. In her Mary Hamilton she captured something of her aunt’s tone in Persuasion: here she continues the peculiar comic feel combining real hypocrisies, delusions, with a comic control from distancing style. Lefroy’s continuation was not widely known until 1977 when it was published in a good edition and is still ignored, partly because Anna’s close relationship is her aunt is downplayed in favor of Austen’s relationship with the richer Fanny Austen Knight.

mrparkerwantsasurgeon
His carriage overturned, Mr Parker demands that Mr Heywood (Adam Bone) produce a surgeon ….

In the film, the parts are very well-acted, especially of the key figures, Mr [now given the first name of] Tom Parker (Vincent Webb) and Lady Denham (Barbara Rudall). What Lefroy did was to bring out the implications of her aunt’s story: Parker is fringe gentry desperately trying to make money to support his gentleman’s lifestyle, overspending to make an impression, a physician-chaser (he deliberately allows his carriage to overturn where he thinks he will meet with a physician whom he can bring to Sanditon to allure the sick into believing the spa will cure them. For Mr Parker, there is just enough lightness of humor to make them sympathetic figures, without overlooking his actual predation, which is however registered by Mrs Parker’s querulous fretting (Bonnie Adair). It’s more than hinted in Austen’s fragment that the sanguine Sidney, the younger brother (played by Pete Ashore), is an intelligent decent man (a sort of Mr Knightley figure) who rescues Parker from bankruptcy. Lefroy’s text adds a villain-friend of Sidney’s, a Mr Tracy (Adam Bone) whom she characterizes in a more worldly way than any of Austen’s heroes: Tracy is rather like one of Trollope’s semi-rakes; he lives high off his rank, cheating just enough on cards and here as a speculator in a local bank, to sluice money off other people; his creditors don’t call his debts in because they keep hoping to be paid in full. Brindle adds further that Tracy also takes advantage of the delusionary conceited Lady Denham (a sort of Lady Catherine de Bourgh figure) to bankrupt her account.

ladydenham

clarabrereton
Lady Denham disdaining Clara Brereton in a scene between egregiously rude dowager and put-upon heroine that repeats across Austen’s oeuvre

This open emphasis on money as the girding understructure of the society is matched by a development out of Austen’s text: Clara Brereton (Lucy-Jane Quinlan) is a paid companion to Lady Denham, who exploits and bullies her; she is also being seduced by Sir Edward Denham, Lady Denham’s nephew. They have to hide this from her and Austen’s text ends with Charlotte spying them seated on a bench where Clara looks very distressed. In Austen’s text Denham is an admirer of Richardson’s Lovelace, and Clara may be seen as a short version of the name Clarissa. Brindle adds (somewhat improbably) that Denham is pressuring Clara to put some poisonous or sickening compound into Lady Denham’s medicines to do away with the old woman. Brindle has picked up a view of Austen’s Mr William Elliot I have and think may be seen in the 2007 ITV Persuasion (scripted by Simone Burke). Mr Elliot pretends solvency but is actually near broke; that’s why he is hanging around his uncle, Sir Walter and is willing to have a liasion with Mrs Clay to have evidence he can use against her if she should try to marry Sir Walter. Sir Edward Denham is in type a Mr Elliot: a really bad man, desperate for money. I found it an ambiguous feel was given this simple characterization when the same actor played both the good man (Sidney) and the bad one (Denham): Pete Ashore. The choices for doubling are effective: the simple good Mr Heywood, the smooth calculating crook Tracy: Adam Bone.

comicanguish
Diana’s anguish (wildly antipathetic comedy found more in Austen’s letters & juvenilia) is counter-checked by the clarity of Alice Osmanski’s delivery

arthurnearby
Arthur (Rickey Kettly-Prentice) nearby reacts

The best scenes though are those which don’t forward the plot directly. One set are those given where we have just Alice Osmanski as Diana Parker talking out Diana’s inimitable letters or place in dialogue with the Parkers, Charlotte and different configurations of the other characters. She was brilliant, vivacious, half-mad and well-meaning all at once. Rickey Kettly-Prentice is too thin for Arthur, but otherwise utterly convincing as this falsely hypochondriacal young man who finds he does not have to work for a living. Working for money in Austen’s novels is presented positively again and again, but Arthur is the first male to himself almost self-consciously enact a drone role.

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Miss Lamb’s hard face while she tells Clara her history

The other are those where the plight or hard circumstances of young women without money or status are made central: the characters who carry this are Charlotte Heywood (not brought out clearly in Austen’s fragment because as yet she is not sought by Sidney Parker), Clara Brereton and Miss Lamb, her given the ironic first name of Felicity. Austen tells us only that she is a “mulatto,” very rich, brought by a governess along with a few other girls in a seminary arrangement to spend time at the seashore. Brindle has her tell a story to Charlotte and Clara that reminds me of the story of in the 1808 anonymous epistolary novel, The Woman of Color. Felicity is the daughter of a slave-mistress of her father, both badly treated by the man, with strong suggestions that she was sexually abused by Lamb at age nine. Fittingly for Austen’s fragment, Brindle has disease (a factor in the West Indies for the English who had not built up immunities) do him in. He loses all his relatives but Felicity, and ends up semi-dependent on her while she is there, and sends her to England in order (in effect) to buy a white husband in order to to produce whiter grandchildren for himself. In her intense conversation with Clara and Charlotte Bonnie Adair as Felicity seethes with anger and hurt and shows no disposition to marry anyone; she wants independence and liberty and the play ends without her having engaged herself to anyone.

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Denham pressuring Clara

Brindle also fills in Clara’s story: Lucy-Jane Quinlan speaks with a cockney accent throughout and is given a sort Dickensian deprived background, which is poignant. As it’s understandable that Miss Lamb should not be keen to marry any man, and want to control her money so it’s understandable the portionless Clara should be willing to submit to Edward Denham’s bullying, insults (there are brief moments of this) in order to marry him. It’s her only way to provide for herself she says to Charlotte.

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Sidney saving the day

Telling it this way brings out the undercurrents of melodrama and harsh realities that actuate the crises and character’s hypocrisies. The appeal of the piece, its piquancy, is like poor Susan’s miserably over-medicated existence (appropriately Susan is played by the same actress who plays the hard-worked maid, Daisy, Ruby O’Mara), kept muted most of the time. Susan and Daisy don’t say much: Susan is continually using a handkerchief, writhing quietly; Daisy is kept busy. Only in the moments of exposure — such as when Sidney saves everyone by exposing Tracy (and declares for more building up Sanditon), or Mr Parker finds he must admit he is nearly without funds, and the hysteria of Lady Denham for whom a proposed income of £100 a month or a year is horrifying. Fatal. Otherwise how have a happy ending for Clara. I’m sure Brindle has also read Emma where Jane Fairfax’s happy fate is the result of Lady Churchill’s sudden death.

This is a play and production which does not turn Austen into complacent romance or uncritical social comedy. Not that Simone Reade’s production necessarily will. Brindle says in the documentary he meant to do justice to Anna Lefroy’s continuation, her writing and life relationship with her aunt. He does so. Perhaps the delight or feeling that this is world where there are good people whose strength has not been undermined or twisted by circumstances inheres most in Amy Burrows’s character and performance. She does not seem at all your moralizing exemplary heroine, just someone (as she says) who has been lucky to have kind (if not very rich) parents. She is given several wry choral asides for turns in the story.

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Delivering an aside

Try it, you’ll like it if you give it a chance.

Ellen

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Giovanni Volpato and Louis Ducrois, The Temple to the Sybil at Tivoli, 1750

Thus is a people gradually exhausted, for the most part, with little effect. The wars of civilized nations make very slow changes in the system of empire. The public perceives scarcely any alteration but an increase of debt; and the few individuals who are benefited, are not supposed to have the clearest right to their advantages. If he that shared the danger enjoyed the profit, and after bleeding in the battle grew rich by the victory, he might shew his gains without envy, But at the conclusion of a ten years war, how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes and the expence of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractor and commissaries, whose equipages shine like meteors, and whose palaces rise like exhalations? — Johnson, Thoughts on the Falkland Islands

When her mind was discomposed … a book was the opiate that lulled it to repose … Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest (from handouts)

Dear friends and readers,

At long last my report on the EC/ASECS conference, whose topic was “The Familiar and the Strange.” Not only have I been delayed, but I will have but two blogs as I missed some panels, and was not able to take down papers from all I attended. I will offer the paper titles of those that sounded especially intriguing that I missed and surmise others might like to know of. Here I also take the step of quoting from some of the excellent handouts I came away with. How relevant are all these 18th century texts, and how they come together under a post-colonial perspective. As usual the reader must remember these summaries only offer a gist of what was said.

I chaired one of the panels of the first session, and I hope it’s acceptable for me to say of my panel, “Finance, Affect, and Gender,” (Friday, 9:30-10:15 am), the papers were excellent, fit together well, and the talk afterwards stimulating. Michael Genovese, “Strangers and Credit in Addison and Steele,” was part of a project where he focuses on the ways in which talking about money and talking about affect intersect with one another. He talked about the early periodical press, especially Addison and Steele, and Defoe’s writing where what is mapped is a relational rather than individualistic form of selfhood. People who are debtors and creditors react through communal sentiments as well as financial exchange and obligation. He suggested such mixtures are with us still; for example, a 20th century commercial about how friendly housing mortgage people in a company are. Sympathy is used to mitigate and soften money relationships from whence people gain status and power (social capital), and this makes catastrophe more bearable. In these texts forms of behavior are adopted which channel feeling. Steele makes the point that this is analogous to textual relationships where the writer owes as much to the reader as the reader owes to him. Some practical results include seeing the “dishonest debtor” as unfortunate, rather than a criminal; through adding sympathy imprisoning someone (which makes it impossible for the person to make up the payment) can be presented more convincingly as destructive as well as irrational. In effect too the subjective response of a creditor (i.e., anger, frustration) is diminished so some form of mutual benefit can emerge from an unlucky transaction.

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From the BBC 1996 Moll Flanders (scripted Andrew Davies): Moll (Alex Kingston) in partnership with another woman

Kristin Distel’s paper, “Bastardy, Shame, and Property: Moll Flanders, Crime and the Governess as Entrepreneur.” She began by pointing out that Defoe’s governess is not a realistic depiction. She is there to serve as a sort of pawnbroker where illegitimate pregnancy and theft are equated. She can operate a profitable business because she understands how to cope with shame through impudence. Shame is, she noted, is a discipline, a social and psychological tool rendering women powerless: they are led to internalize humiliation (this is Foucault). Thus they are kept in subjection. People in this era perceived that crime was on the increase: population was on the increase; options for paid work were limited. Suicides increased; women were indicted for theft more than men (she suggested punishments were actually lenient). We see Moll and her governess work together to survive, for profit, theft becomes their trade. Their vocabulary emphasizes (without explaining) “success” and while they report, they ignore name-calling like “shameless,” “immodest” and “unblushing.” She then looked at how by contrast punishment for women for illegitimate children, especially if the baby died, was remarkably harsh. The way the law was formulated the presumption was infanticide if the baby died; women did naturally try to miscarry; they would give away their babies when they could. Here in Defoe’s fiction the governess’s help is crucial as Moll suffers much more from this socially induced natural fear than shame. The two threads of Kristin’s talk came together as she discussed the ending of the novel where our heroine’s financial success frees her from fear, shame, and dependence.

NIGHT. Now Ev’ning fades! her pensive step retires, / And Night leads on the dews, and shadowy hours;/ Her awful pomp of planetarv fires, / And all her train of visionary pow’rs./These paint with fleeting shapes the dream of sleep./These swell the waking soul with pleasing dread; /These through the glooms in forms terrific sweep, / And rouse the thrilling horrors of the dead!/Queen of the solemn thought – mysterious Night! /Whose step is darkness, and whose voice is fear!/Thy shades I welcome with severe delight, / And hail thy hollow gales, that sigh so drear!/But chief I love thee, when thy lucid car /Sheds through the fleecy clouds a trembling gleam,/ And shews the misty mountain from afar, /The nearer forest, and the valley’s strream: / And nameless objects in the vale below, /That floating dimly to the musing eye, / Assume, at Fancy’s touch, fantastic shew, / And raise her sweet romantic visions high … Ah! who the dear illusions pleas’d would yield, /Which Fancy wakes from silence and from shades, /For all the sober forms of Truth reveal’d, /For all the scenes that Day’s bright eye pervades! — Ann Radcliffe

Rivka Swenson’s paper, “Making the Darkness Strange in Ann Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest. Darkness is what we expect in a gothic, and this novel begins in a dark wild flight, but as it progresses what emerges is the story of a man who has run away to the forest, a young girl who writes poems to the night and finds a manuscript which tells of an imprisoned and therefore murdered man. In the book flight and a transcendant darkness beyond society’s eye are embraced. The last third of the novel does introduce a good man living in tranquillity whose name means light, but in the novel as a whole safety and quiet are found in obscurity. Rivka then talked of the female sublime, suggesting that we replace Caspar Friedrich’s familiar male staring into the iced distance with a female. We move from Aristotelian/neoclassical ideals to Burkean. Adeline’s poetry moves from evening and darkness to the coming of dawn, but Radcliffe’s prose leaves her in the dark still night where meditation provides intense inspiration to write the book.

There were lots of questions for Michael. People brought up (as a counter-examples) the story of Yarico and Inkle where he sells his beloved; he cannot feel a personal connection for someone of a different race and such low status; in Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling, sentimental characters show no interest in money. On Kristin’s paper, Did not Moll feel overwhelming Christian guilt at turns in the novel? how does that relate to the secular idea of shame?

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An illustration from an edition of Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho: The Devil’s Bridge

I went to the session on Samuel Johnson (10:30-11:15) chaired by Anthony Lee. Greg Clingham’s “Sex and the City: Johnson’s Erotics of Reading,” was a meditation on one of Boswell’s striking metaphors: Boswell says that he’d write after his mind became strongly impregnated with Johnson’s “ether.” He was looking at the ways erotic content is redirected into reading: he loved conversation and worked hard to convey the talk. Johnson’s male biographers presented Johnson in ways that kept him separate from sex; yet sex was ubiquitous in Johnson’s life, not glamorous, not scandalous, rather human: from his wife, Tetty, to his relationship with Hester Thrale, Hill Boothby; he was comfortable with the prostitute, Bet Flint. When he writes of Rochester, he is not content to stay with the vigor of his colloquial wit, but looks at the poet’s mind, tracing a sexual degeneration and debasement: Rochester died at 31, exhausted. Dryden’s poetry is not overtly erotic, and yet we find Johnson reaching for a female metaphor to describe it. In Rasselas Johnson looks at sexuality in the harem of Pekuah where her assumption of agency enables her to triumph during her imprisonment. The question is, Are the demons of depression and loneliness (both Johnson and Boswell’s) kept at bay by fantasies of conversation in this biography? Well, Jorge Luis Borges saw the erotic in Johnson and Boswell from the depth of a human heart and mind on display.

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Reynolds’s famous portrait of Johnson, reading, taking in a text ….

John Radner felt his paper, “Johnson in the Hebrides,” was in conversation with Greg’s. Johnson and Boswell began their trip as teacher and pupil, substitute father and acolyte, and came back as an intertwined subject and writer of the biography. The two shared fantasies; both missed other friends and longed for letters and must’ve kept up journals for their later twin books. Hitherto Johnson with Boswell talked of his guilt, his wide range of knowledge not being used, but the sort of grim tone Johnson often had was lifted and he was usually gay, sort of off-duty and yet out of the trip came the Journal of the Western Islands Johnson had argued that traveling was a waste of time; civilized and barbarous people are the same. He had talked of Culloden as sheerly pernicious for all, but when he met a clan chieftains, and they talked of all sorts of intimate beliefs, he changed his mind. This unfamiliar experience and place for two men in an evolving love relationship produced great books as an unintended consequence. This morning I was thinking Wordsworth and Coleridge are a parallel male pair.

Anthony Lee’s “Strangely ‘sudden glories:’ Johnson, Hobbes, and Thoughts on the Falkland Islands was journey through a series of startling utterances by Johnson strongly relevant to our political situation today. He was delving complex words in various relationships. He began with Johnson’s strong disapproval and refutation of authoritarianism as found in Hobbes. He inveighed against Junius for the falsity of a man who won’t reveal who he is (a sneak), or anything about himself. Both men’s laughter is rejected on the ground that “one of the proper works” of a great mind is “to help and free others from scorn,” comparing themselves “only with the most able.” Johnson’s animus at Milton (a republican) comes from his repugnance at demonizing. In Johnson’s Falkland Islands we find this castigation: the colonialists are “men who, without virtue, labour, or hazard, are growing rich as their country is impoverished; they rejoice when obstinacy or ambition adds another year to slaughter and devastation, and laugh, from their desks, at bravery and science.” (I thought of Trump’s vile tweets at scientists, professional learned people, at John McCann.) Then Tony quoted Addison and Steele on the meanness of “laughing at our own dishonour.” Tony suggested that Johnson’s idiom is both transparent and opaque. What Johnson admired was a life commitment.

Johnson and Boswell would have liked the talk however brief afterward. Many in the room were Johnsonians who know each other well, others new to Johnson, some there from studies of Johnson’s friends and associates (Frances Burney, Hester Thrale). We stayed into the 15 minute interval.

Then I went to lunch with friends who were also going to Mary Ball Washington’s (George Washington’s mother) house (a small museum nowadays, but set up as closely to what the house was as time elapsed with all its changes allows).

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1941 print on a postcard

I could make out how dependent this white woman was on her black slaves, how surrounded by them, and thought to myself how do you make people accept such a status and stealing of their lives. The evolution of the house’s rooms was explained. So too that she was long lived and (as Austen might say) held up admirably under the vicissitudes of her eventful heroine’s life.

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Agostino Brunias’s “West Indian Creole Woman with her black servant” (the frontispiece for Lyndon J. Dominique’s edition of The Woman of Colour)

I arrived late for the early afternoon panel I had planned to attend, “Politics and the ‘Other’ in the British and American Novel (2:30-3:45 pm). I was able to situate myself and begin taking notes only for Emily Kugler’s paper on the anonymous epistolary 1808 The Woman of Colour,” which she called “Beyond the Marriage Plot: Friendship and Creole Companionship.” The novel is about a mulatto young woman, Olivia, whose father sends her to Britain to be married to a rich white man in order to provide himself with grandchildren who are only one-quarter white and to provide her with a high status husband. She writes to a friend. The model is Charlotte Lennox’s 1790s epistolary Euphemia where two woman friends pour out their hearts to one another and themselves literally travel, one across the Atlantic, both through typical women’s lives. In Lennox’s novel Euphemia has to endure an irresponsible and stupid husband. We travel to Canada and discover a colonial place which is contested. Maria Frawley, the second heroine has an absurd guardian who tests her; she manages to be obedient and gain a measure of space (to be let alone). The happy ending is they are reunited, but their lives have been badly damaged. Lennox’s is a pessimistic book predicting a failed patriarchal empire. By contrast, Olivia disobeys after she discovers that her father’s choice for her was already married, even though she loves the man because her marriage was bigamous: she refuses to remarry and returns to Jamaica. There is much anguish over skin color, much exposure of “how civilized behavior comes from the body” (a quotation from Dominique’s study, Imoinda’s Shade where he discusses the novel), of what passes as love, over trying to understand these communities. She helps her maid who is more vulnerable than she, and sticks steadfastly to widowhood! Her correspondent, Harriet, ends a suicide (Emily likened the character to Goethe’s Werther and suggested the lesson to be learnt was the danger of too much sensibility), but Olivia ends up free and independent, lasting into old age, caring for a little boy. Both novels show women seeking to make an identity and life for themselves, caring very much, in need of sister-friendships.

I’d add both novels show the intermix of cultural and gender relationships in evolving new-old countries, the problems of race and status intersecting with law and custom. Emily did not bring up that in Lennox’s novels the two women are sufficiently in love with one another to be considered lesbian, so another dimension in Lennox’s novel matches the unexplored because over-idealized slavery issue in the anonymous optimistic book. It’s an interesting exercise to think about which stories are withheld in both novels, hinted at but never told. The traditional story of the unmarried (virginal or not) white heroine, no matter how oppressed, at the end marrying, with a contented future (or not), cannot teach us much, however alluring they may be.

From Nick Dear’s screenplay out of Jane Austen’s Persuasion:

Mrs Musgrove: ‘What a great traveler you must’ve been, ma’am.’
Mrs Croft: ‘I have crossed the Atlantic four times, and have been once to the East Indies, and in different
places about home: Cork, and Lisbon, and Gibraltar. But I never was in the West Indies – we do not call
Bermuda or Bahama the West Indies, Mrs Musgrove, as you know.
Charles Musgrove: ‘I do not think mama has ever called them anything in the whole course of her life, Mrs Croft. [Interior. A Great house, night, around a dinner table]

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One of the last stills in the 1995 BBC Persuasion (scripted by Nick Dear): Anne Elliot (Amanda Root) has found some fulfillment and independence aboard her husband’s ship, doubtless on its way to either to East or West Indies ….

Ellen

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Bath House, for Mrs James Henry Leigh by John Adey (1755-1860, Humphry Repton’s son)

“Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. There is the parsonage: a tidy–looking house, and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people. Those are almshouses, built by some of the family. To the right is the steward’s house; he is a very respectable man. Now we are coming to the lodge–gates; but we have nearly a mile through the park still. It is not ugly, you see, at this end; there is some fine timber, but the situation of the house is dreadful. We go down hill to it for half a mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill–looking place if it had a better approach — Mansfield Park, Chapter 9

“… the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest-trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again to make the worth of Lyme understood — ” Persuasion, Chapter 11

Dear friends and readers,

I thought before going on to notes from my last conference this fall, “EC/ASECS: The Strange and Familiar,” I would devote a working blog to my project and thinking about “Ekphrastic patterns in Jane Austen.” After all this is supposed a blog focusing on Jane Austen.

For the past month, I’ve been slowly making my way through Austen’s famous six novels alongside many studies of the picturesque in landscaping, about landscape architects in her era and their debates, on how literary people, gardeners, historians have approached the mode (especially different when it comes to the use of enclosures to take the land from the propertyless and vulnerable), and how writers about Austen in particular place her and her novels in these debates. One might expect her outlook to change because the worlds of her books have different emphases, and since her stance towards life changed over the years: from (generalizing) a mildly rebellious, personally acid (as a woman) point of view to seriously politically grave and questioning, to acceptance, ever with irony, mockery of the very gothic mode she had loved, to late melancholy over what she wished she had known, and a new valuation of the sheerly aesthetic.

Yet I find broadly across the thirty years of writing life (1787-1816/7) a sameness, a steady holdfast to a point of view. This may be voiced as a strong adherence to judging what is presented as aesthetically pleasing or true by its usefulness. How far is what is created useful for those who live in or near it — use includes how much comfort and pleasure an individual can have from art, which seems to depend how far it works with the natural world (or against it, destroys the natural world), at what cost does this use come, and she counts as cost not only the removal of people and destruction or neglect of their livelihoods (especially in Mansfield Park and Emma), but how far it erases history or the past which she sees as giving meaning to the present through group memory and identity. She excoriates those who seek only status through their purchases and efforts, shaping what emerges from this motive as hypocritical at least as regards joy in all the aspects of the natural world, and disrespectful of animals, plants, whatever has been built. There’s nothing she despises more than someone who professes to love something because it’s fashionable — as say the gussied-up cottage. She has little use for celebrities: partly she is too snobbish and proud to chase after someone whose work so many profess to admire but in fact understand little of. To appreciate any art, no matter what it is, from drawing, to singing and playing an instrument, to curating (as it were) an estate, you must do it diligently and caring how it will turn out for its own sake, not for the reward you might personally get.

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John Linnell (1792-1882), Gravel Pits in Kensington (1812)

This is what I found to be true of the implied author’s attitudes and to account for the treatment of pictorialism wherever it be found in her works. I began with the idea that she found very funny viewers, readers who approach art and judge it insofar as it literally imitates what happens in life: walking in the autumn or death of the year, sitting in a garden in the cool fall, working in a kitchen, aboard a boat — these three are the subject of aesthetic conversations, however brief, in, respectively Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. Now I see she partly wants to take aboard critiques from characters who never forget the practical realities of life, so remain unable to engage with improbable conventions of design, typical scene drawing, and what’s left out and/or assumed. The aesthetically naive or obtuse reaction has something direct to tell us about what is the relationship of what is seen to person seeing. I originally saw in the gap between artistic convention in a medium and what it’s representing in real life as allowing for enjoyment in contemplating how the convention is just a convention and we could presumably choose another. So we are free in art. Now I’m seeing the importance of going outside convention, our own enjoyment of whatever it is, to understand ourselves better. Then we can do justice to others who may not be able to respond imaginatively on a sophisticated level but have other valuable traits.

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John Crome (1768-1821), A Heath

This is a very serious or moral way of putting this matter but I think in what seems to be the beginning of an era of indifference to the needs of others, to previous understood relationships, to truth anything less is a further betrayal.
I found myself so strengthened by Austen as I went along (as I have been before) this time because in contrast our world outside is seeing remorseless attacks on the natural world, most people inhabiting the earth, worship of pretension, competition for rank and accumulation of money at whatever cost to others and group loyalty (never mind what to). A different version of these latter probably dominated the world-centers and made the later 18th century world the suffering-drenched place it was, but there were at the time groups of reformists, revolutionaries who were (to use FDR’s formulation) for a much better deal for all, even including animals.

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George Morland (1763-1804), The Artist’s Cat Drinking

I’m going to hold back on working this thought pattern out in close reading of appropriate places in Austen’s books for my paper, and here just briefly survey one old-fashioned book published surprisingly recently (1996) for the way Austen is treated as knitted to and writing for her family.  Matey belongs to those who read Austen’s books as non-critical of her era, to some extent unexamined creations (staying away from “politics”), belonging to a closed small world of what I’d call rentier elites. I thoroughly disagree with most of this; I think Austen’s outlook to be so much larger than this, and critical of her world and family too, but Batey understands what is provable by close reading and relevant documents (which recent published critics seem not to). Matey’s book is good because Matey uses the particulars of Austen’s family’s lives and their neighborhood (and its inhabitants), their properties and how they treated them wisely.  She looks at how authors that Austen is known to have read or from her novels probably knew and how their topics and attitudes are treated in Austen’s books. Her documented sources  are books Austen quotes, alludes to, or are unmistakably part of her text). She researched about these common sensically and with discrimination, ever thinking of what is Austen’s tone as Batey decides whether this or that text or garden place or drawing could be meant to be part of Austen’s discourse.

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Contemporary illustration: Box Hill

Each of the chapters is attached either to a period of Austen’s life or one or a group of her texts; they all have beautifully appropriate reproductions of picturesque landscapes; they all pick up on some aspect of debates on the picturesque in the era, often closely attached to, coming out of the particular Austen texts (but not always). “The Background” (1) tells of Austen’s family’s life briefly, how they lived in picturesque landscapes, how Edward the third brother was adopted by a rich couple who gifted him with immense wealth in the form of two country mansions and wide lands with all the patronage, rents, and power and education that came with that. The Austen family is presented as highly intelligent, wanting few personal relationships outside themselves (unless it be for promotion) and their gentry world. Austen wrote for her family is Batey’s assumption. We learn how Austen grew up inside “The Familiar Rural Scene” (2), loved Cowper, band egan her first long novel as epistolary narrative .  Batey dwells on Austen’s love of Cowper and how his poetry educated her into the kind of writing she did. Cowper is much quoted, how Marianne is passionate over his verse, Fanny has imbibed it in the deepest recesses of feeling and memory.

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Selbourne today —

Batey swerves slightly in “Agonies of Sensibility” (3): as she is herself politically deeply conservative, she makes fun (unexpectedly given how she’s presented Austen thus far) of the writers and the texts she says influenced Austen profoundly: Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther (where, I suggest, the hero kills himself as much because he has to live in a sycophantic court as any love affair he has), Charlotte Smith’s deeply depressed poetry and more desperate novels (highly critical of the social and political arrangements of the day): as with Cowper, Batey quotes at length and Smith’s poetry does justice to itself. Batey shows how the family paper, The Loiterer mocks “Rousseau’s half-baked” (her words) ideas. She goes over the juvenilia she can link directly to the family members: “Henry and Eliza” where she uses names and places of people close by:

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Lady Harcourt’s flower garden in Nuneham Courtenay (based on precepts in Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise)

The same paradoxical pull-back shapes her “The Gothic Imagination” (4):  Batey talks of “the whine” of this material: the graveyard poets, the grand tour, Ossian, Blake. Batey does not take seriously any of this as deriving from contemporary anguish; her perspective is that of the aesthete (very 1950s American); she discuss the sublime from Burke apolitically, the lucky landowners, and even (or perhaps especially because ever sceptical). Samuel Johnson is hauled for his sceptical assessments (no sign of his Journey to the Western Islands). So Batey’s outlook on Northanger Abbey is it is about this “craze” which Austen saw through. Nonetheless, she quotes tastefully, and you can come away from this chapter with a much richer terrain and Austen text than Batey herself allows for. And she combines, so Smith’s Emmeline now comes in. She quotes from the effective presence of the abbey, the Tilney’s conversations on the picturesque and history, Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest as found in Austen’s text (amply quoted with illustrations appropriate).

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Thomas Jones (1742-1803), The Bard

Batey has not heard of feminism but she does know these are women’s texts and includes a reproduction of an landscape by a woman I’d never seen before but alas tells nothing of the artist, not even her first name:

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Lady Leighton, a watercolor of the gothic seat at Plas Newyd where the ladies of Langollen (a famous lesbian couple) read Ossian together (it was said).

I must start to condense. “Enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque” (5) and “The Beautiful Grounds at Pemberley” (6) contain a valuable discussion of Gilpin, who he was, how he came to wander all over England and write books on landscape and accompany them with evocative illustrations. She goes over the flaws in these (they are semi-fake, omitting all that is unpleasant, like exhausted hard-working human beings, and “eyesores” like mines), his theoretical works, of course the mockery of him (Batey is big on this). She does tell how Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price exposed the way these landscapes avoided showing how exploitative of the people and landscape products (for use) these enclosures and picturesque-makers were, but does not apply this to Austen: rather she quotes Marianne either engaged with the sublimely or critical of hypocritical cant. For the Sense and Sensibility discussion (where Batey stays on the surface again) she includes many lovely black-and-white and grey illustrations of real landscapes (ruins that real, i.e., crumbling buildings), tourist sites (Netley Abbey to which Austen’s family came). The productions for Pemberley are gorgeously colored: a Turner, a Joseph Wright of Derby, photographs of vast green hills. For Pride and Prejudice Batey simply dwells on the visit to Pemberley saying how unusually detailed it is, without asking why. She does notice Darcy has left much of the original placement of streams in place, and invites gentlemen to fish there; but how is it that every window has a gorgeous view from it, how did this come about, were these specifics originally related to some discussion (in a previous longer P&P) of how Darcy made the landscape never crosses her mind.

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Batey thinks Ilam Circuit walk gives us a sense of what was to be seen outside Pemberley windows

No matter how much was “lopp’d and chopp’d” says Batey, we have all in place that we need.

Batey approves of the chapters on Mansfield Park, “A Mere Nothing Before Repton (7)” and Emma, “The Responsible Landlord” (8), because there is so much serious criticism of the picturesque which Batey finds herself able to enter into in the first (land should be useful, should honor history, the church). She has a fine thorough discussion of Stoneleigh Abbey which Mrs Austen’s cousin tried to take over when its owners died so took his aunt and her daughter with him, possession being nine points of the law: the letters are quoted and they feel like a source for Northanger Abbey. Repton’s work for the Austens as well as generally is done far more justice to than Mr Rushworth ever understands.

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Stoneleigh Abbey before (Batey includes an “after” too: all the animals, the gardening work are removed as unsightly)

Batey believes Mr Knightley is modeled on Austen’s wealthy brother, Edward, who did work his own land, who valued his cows, who was conscientious — within limits: she does not bring out how later in life Edward was among those who refused to pay for a share of improvements of roads as he himself would not profit from it (we can’t do that, must not share). She does not seem to realize the earlier portrait of John Dashwood is also Edward nor that Edmund (whom she also identifies with Edward) is more than a little dense. But yes Mr Knightley is our ideal steward of land, working hard to make sure all can get something from nature (though, let me add, some do get more than others as the pigs in Animal Farm said was only right), and has not bowed to fashion, kept his trees, his house in a low sheltered place, has not spent enormously for “an approach.”

It comes as no surprise that Batey’s last chapter, “The Romantic Tide” (9), does not concentrate on Persuasion or Sanditon. These do not fit into her idealization of wealthy mansions, landscapes of and from power (I’d call them) . The aesthetic debates of MP and Emma set in a larger social context do not reach her radar. Thus that the Elliots have lost their house as Austen’s sixth longer book begins, the money basis of the economy, of war (Wentworth’s business like William Price’s is when called for killing and grabbing the property of others) and increasingly transient nature of existence for the fringe gentry are not topics here. We begin in Upper Cross but move to dress and harps in Mansfield Park (Regency costume enables Batey to bring in Fanny Knight and Austen’s times together in London). The furor over cottages orne probably represents an association from Mary Musgrove’s house, but the details are now all taken from the satire on Robert Ferrars’s despising of large buildings, worship of cottages and hiring Bonomi (without further context) in Sense and Sensibility. Sanditon‘s seaside gives way to “the insufferable Mrs Elton’s” lack of a real abode, her origins in trade in Bristol, and Lydia Bennet’s vulgarity. Batey’s text turns snobbish itself.

Where originality comes in again is not the sublimity of the sea, but in how the Austens enjoyed themselves in summer after summer of Austen’s last few years on the coast, “undeterred by threats of invasion.” Batey thinks the source place for Sanditon Bognor, which made a great deal of money for its entrepreneur, something what we have of the fragment suggests Mr Parker will not do. Anna Lefroy’s apt continuation has him going broke but for brother Sidney, a hero only heard of in the extant text. Jane Austen, we are told, disapproved of challenges to the traditional way of life, was against exploiting sickness and hypochondriacs like the Parker sisters. Batey seems to forget Austen was herself dying but includes the idea she “had little time for the socialistic propaganda of William Godwin”! In Sanditon Austen is harsh towards Burns and (we know from her letters) was strongly enamored of Crabbe — he has a hard look at nature and the rural landscape. A Fanny Price, name and character type, the story of a couple separated as imprudent with no retrieval are found in Crabbe. However, as Batey acknowledges in her book’s last few paragraphs, in Persuasion Austen revels in Charmouth, Pinny, Lyme.

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William Turner, watercolor of Lyme Regis seen from Charmouth — Austen stayed there in 1803 and 180 and Anne Elliot discusses romantic poetry with Captain Benwick there

Batey’s is a useful book if you don’t look in it for any perception of why Austen was compelled to write and the full complicated nature of her texts. If it seems to be, it is not much different from Janine Barchas’s comparable History, Location and Celebrity, recent, respected: Barchas’s book is not filled with matters of fact in Austen, but in other books (of genealogy), in Barchas’s case buildings Austen never mentions (interesting if lurid), in amoral people not connected to her except by chance of first or last names (of which Austen does not have much variety). A “proof” can hinge on a number: Thorpe and Catherine have driven seven miles to one place, well seven miles in another there is this other gothic place, and Barchas has her subject matter. Both give us historical context, and between the two, Barchas remains speculative, a matter of adding one speculation to the next, and then crowding them around a text that never mentions them; Batey has the merit of writing about texts and movements Austen discussed, alludes to, quotes from, places we know for sure she visited, lived in. Both have good bibliographical references and you can use them as little encyclopedias.

Ellen

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Shefali (the Harriet character in Aisha, Amrita Puri)

“Jane Fairfax has feeling,” said Mr. Knightley. — “I do not accuse her of want of feeling. Her sensibilities, I suspect, are strong – and her temper excellent in its power of forbearance, patience, self-controul; but it wants openness. She is reserved, more reserved, I think, than she used to be — And I love an open temper.”

“She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself.” [Emma thinking] –Jane Austen, Emma

Friends and readers,

It’s now way overdue for me to share those few papers and talks the set-up of the recent JASNA conference allowed any particular participant. A friend who is a long-time attendee of these JASNA conferences urged me to think of the meeting as a sort of sorority party cum-conference. I’ve never been in a sorority and have regarded myself and my daughters as fortunate all of three of us went to colleges where there were no sororities (Izzy at Sweet Briar) or they constituted a very minor presence (me at Queens College, 1964-68, Laura, my older daughter at George Mason, in the 1990s — both colleges at the time basically commuter-inhabited). Topics include Emma and sexual assault; a history of the book illustrations, and recent adaptations of Austen’s Emma strongly influenced by (deriving from) Heckerling’s Clueless. So, what one was permitted to reach on the mornings and afternoons allotted (I did not return for the mid-morning light lecture on Sunday):

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Johnny Lee Miller as Mr Knightley, doing the bills, trying to get through to Emma (2009 BBC Emma, scripted Sandy Welch, where Mr Knightley is the over-voice)

On Friday, after the plenary speech (began at 1:00 pm), there were two break-out sessions, each of which had nine different papers and discussions going on at one time. Eighteen altogether of which any particular participant could get to hear/see only two. It was impossible to choose with any one over another. I chose for the 2:45 time slot, Jessica Richard’s “What Emma Knew: Modes of Education in Emma, because I had heard papers given by Jessica in other venues and knew she would be clear. Jessica’s argument was Emma is (another?) novel by Austen about education. She surveyed educational theories in the period, especially through a contrast between Locke’s Thoughts Concerning Education and Rousseua’s Emile. Austen herself had little formal education. Her presentation of Mrs Goddard’s boarding school in Highbury is an element in a plot-design intended to question how female autonomy is experienced in pre-marriage young women. The novel itself suggests that Mr Knightley has had little influence on Emma’s education, and that Mr Knightley like Mrs Weston, fails to control her. He is motivated by jealousy of Frank Churchill. What Emma does right comes from her own self-correction which is somehow finally innate. Jessica asked the group, what lessons has Emma learned?

To sum up, Jessica was suggesting that Mr Knightly not the great teacher — as he says himself. Here the audience soon went off-topic to gossip about the characters. (For my part, I thought Emma had learned no lesson that truly punctured her sense of herself as overwhelmingly important, her values in themselves as impeccable. Yes she had made mistakes, but obviously her world’s order was not at all disquieted (about say how Jane Fairfax had almost gone down the tubes or Harriet ended up a desperate spinster at Mrs Goddard’s).

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Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax realizing how she is being teased with the alphabets on a picnic (1996 Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

That there was only one hour each for the two sessions was felt as severe limitation in the second session I went to — at least the speaker kept hurrying us and herself along to be sure to end “on time.” I found I chose Celia Easton’s “The Encouragement I Received: Emma and the Language of Sexual Assault” for reasons similar to most in the audience. Her topic was felt as electrifyingly relevant since just the day before or so, the video and tape of Donald Trump, soon to be President of the US, showed Trump to be a boaster of grossly aggressive sexually predatory behavior to any woman he deems attractive; the Trump language of sexual assault includes “grabbing her pussy;” and far from ashamed, when accused he either mocked the women as not attractive enough to lure him (thus liars), or didn’t literally tell the truth (he sued 12 women who came forward after two decades of nightmares and anguish and loss of possible jobs and a thriving career). Since then when he won the election, we have learned that 60 million Americans did not think his typical behavior or many sexual assaults and actual court accusations of rape disqualified him from the presidency. Obviously this is an important topic. She brought up this immediate context frankly. So what did she have to say? that the experience of 18th century women is analogous to that of 20th and 21st century women, with the job market then for genteel women functioning as a metaphor (like today) for how the male patriarchy (to use a supposedly out-of-date term) works.

Celia said she put her proposal in a year ago so the immediate relevance was unintended but its deep-seated one all the more there. Celia felt that for many women readers rape stories make women into victims or opportunistic liars. In courts rapists attacked women’s credibility (as they do today), as showing her moral failure; people still credited the idea that if a woman became pregnant, she had willingly complied; except among the highest in rank, such cases were virtually impossible to prosecute. It’s sometimes surprising the people who raped women: George Cheyne was found guilty of raping a young girl. Writers used rape as a literary device, once in a while showing the depravity of the rapist (when victim had relatives high in UK gov’t). As most of us know Fielding’s Shamela is a burlesque of Pamela, accusing women of manipulating men’s desires to lead them to rape so they may be entrapped somehow or other. In his late last novel, Sir Charles Grandison, Richardson can still be found shoring up ideas that women lie about rape, seek to entrap men through sexual desire. While there is no overt rape in Emma, there are many instances where female characters feel themselves under a kind of direct assault.

In Emma we learn what language is used, what realities individual words testify to matters. Austen’s first scene of sexual assault occurs in the carriage between Emma and Mr Elton on their way home from Mrs Weston’s Christmas get-together. Celia suggested most readers today do not find the scene funny; they feel Mr Elton has been more sexually aggressive than he or the text he’s embedded in admits. In Emma Mr Elton learns to hate Emma. It’s not only her disdainful rejection of him in the carriage, but the whole of her behavior before and after he sees as arrogant, cold, manipulative (when she is just naive, dense, obtuse). In Austen’s Emma, fear of attack by gypsies as the destitute become brutal, and the real attempted assault on Emma’s friend Harriet may be seen as damning these desperate people without trial. Harriet is scared, she clings to Frank Churchill: we see how little contact she has had with people who have no income (like herself in that). In Jane Fairfax’s case, Mrs Elton is trying to imprison her in a humiliating job. Jane specifically forbids Mrs Elton to look for or push her into a governess post, but Mrs Elton won’t listen. (For my part I think Mrs Elton is intensely resentful of Jane’s subtlety, high culture, and wants to degrade her as well as show off her power over such a cultured woman. It’s a form of sexual dominance which is so deeply painful to Jane who feels much of her life afterward would not be so different from a chattel slave. We may say this is an over-reaction but if we look at the exploitation and destruction of Fanny Price’s vulnerability and self-esteem and how in Mansfield Park the parallel is made with slavery, perhaps Jane is voicing how Austen sees what job market there is for genteel women.

In effect Celia had covered the psychological assault on Jane Fairfax. The audience response was intense and for once stayed on topic. The popular readership in fan cults hardly ever talk on line, but unlike academics they will talk in sessions about what they feel about a favorite book or author. There was or would have been much questioning and raw discussion after the talk, but the clock (and hotel) were relentless and all was over at 4:45 so discussions were closed down before any points could be much explored. I get the feeling these people long to discuss Austen and their views and hardly ever get a chance to do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if social mores prohibit real talk in their small book clubs. Well they had less this year than previous ones.

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A watercolor by Humphrey Repton from the Red Book he made for Stoneleigh Abbey (owned by the Leighs, where Austen and her mother had a flying visit, perhaps a model for scenes in Austen’s fiction)

Susan Allen Ford’s keynote speech was the high point of the conference for both myself and my daughter. She began with the idea that Emma is about reading just as surely as Northanger Abbey (whose extent text may be regarded as worked on directly after Emma). Emma’s list of books she means to read and will never get round to, what we do hear and see quoted as reading matter in Highbury, the likening of Mrs Weston to the Baroness of d’Almane and Emma to her daughter-pupil, Adele or Adelaide in Mme de Genlis’s Adele et Theodore (Englished as Adelaide and Theodore), and how we see everyone behave in these contexts, if explored, offer us ways of understanding what Austen wants us to take away from her novel.

We can get to know the kind of mind each character has through their reading and reading lists; the books and texts cited and and alluded to across the novel also capture a cultural moment among Austen’s class. I cite just one of the several groups of texts Susan went into. Harriet Smith’s is a jumble of compliance and imitative cant. She prods Mr Martin into genuinely trying to obtain Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest, and Regina Maria Roche’s Children of the Abbey, though for his serious mind (as Austen sees this) much more meaningful and useful are the Agricultural Reports (serious farming and economic news and treatises). He likes poetry well enough and reads extracts from a popular anthology of the era, Elegant Extracts by Vicesmus Knox.

If we explore these books, we discover that Knox intends his volume to be read aloud, to provide elocution lessons, teach poise. The Vicar is a story of a family on the edge of destitution, a fragile situation sexually, where much misery is experienced until near its close. Prevost rewrote it as enormously popular Le Doyen de Killerine (almost immediately Englished) The two romances have no imaginative hold on Harriet as she cannot apply what she reads, but Austen knows we can see what they are: Radcliffe’s is a gothic novel with a male predator at the center; male tyrannies also dominate the sentimental romance in Roche’s book. Both give us glimpses into the interior life of genteel women at the turn of this century. Emma looks upon Mr Martin as clownish, gross, vulgar and disconcerted by the strength, concision and authenticity of his letter proposing marriage to Harriet, Emma has to resort to attributing it to his sisters — at first. But it is Mr Elton who attempts (mild) predation, and Frank Churchill a clandestine engagement whose seriousness for Jane he does not seem to take into account.

The whole subplot shows how entrenched is Emma’s prejudice, how little she understands how to use what she reads — beyond the unexamined pleasure she seems to get out of vicarious matching. We are asked to believe that at the end of the book she has been cured of her delusionary match-making. Her real virtues (as seen in this conservative reading) are those she begins with the book with: loyalty and care for her father, family, intuitive concern for vulnerable people when class and other issues do not blind her.

Susan’s talk was thorough and took up most of the time allotted. We then again had two sessions, nine papers and discussions going on at once, so eighteen altogether of which any one participant could attend only two.

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Michael Gambon as the aging Mr Woodhouse (2009 Emma, scripted Sandy Welch)

I decided to go to “Where Health is at Stake:” Fictive Ills, Invalids, and Healers in Highbury” because the degrees of two of the three presenters suggested a real knowledge of medicine in the era. Drs Cheryl Kinney and Theresa Kenney had that but I didn’t realize they were giving three separate presentations and since they had only an hour altogether, and wanted to give some time for discussion, there simply was not enough time to say discuss gynecology which was in the description said to be her specialty (which I perhaps foolishly hoped for a serious outline about). She was very general about Marianne, Jane Bennet and Louisa Musgrove, and seemed unwilling to say anything untoward about any of the characters, so Mr Woodhouse’s “cognitive impairment” showed us how good a daughter Emma was. Nothing much about the realities of old age. Despite the implicit feminism of the titles of Theresa Kenney’s books she produced a set of upright moral lessons (she quoted Kant’s Doctrine on Moral Virtue) exemplified by the very kindly treatment of various ailments in the novel.

Liz Cooper pointed out that we never see the one physician (actually an apothecary) in Highbury, Mr Perry, whom she likened to (and seemed to think was based on) a well-known physician in Bath, a Dr Caleb-Hillier Parry (1755-1822). She first quoted Austen’s caustic remarks about this man in her letters (showing Austen was aware of this man). She then presented a positive portrait of his discoveries (in autopsy, in clinical work, about angina pain in the human heart); the work he did in a Royal Mineral Water Hospital, his friendly relationship with Edward Jenner; Liz saw Parry as unfairly ignored by the medical establishment. She did not want to end by saying how unfair Austen had been if she aimed her character at this hard-working doctor, so like the two previous speakers she ended on how much a model of daughterly forbearance Emma is. It seemed to me in all this the tone of Austen’s novels, the thrust was lost, and the often embittered desperate commentary (and walking) of her time in Bath as a spinster in her letters.

Isobel had gone to Deborah Barnum’s talk, “Illustrating Emma,” and enjoyed looking at the many illustrations Deborah discussed. Deborah (according to Izzy) discussed book illustration in the early 19th century and Victorian period, the technology of print-making, engraving and then she surveyed editions of novels from Bentley’s 1833 through the nineteenth and twentieth century up to the recent Marvel comic book renditions, Manga Classics, and fine art depictions of an imprint like the Folio society. Questions discussed included which scenes or characters would people have liked to illustrate, how strictly to keep to the text, should they comment on and foreshadow the story. Does an illustration that seems to go against your interpretation of the book “ruin” it for you (analogous to a movie). She offered a good bibliography of secondary studies.

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One of Empress Josephine’s dresses (in a Paris museum), presumably an aspirational costume ideal in Austen’s era

The second and last session, which ended at 2:30 (so the rest of the afternoon there was nothing) had a number of topics I longed to have listened to (e.g, Catherine Ingrassia on “Slavery and Cultures of Captivity in Emma“). But since I have published so much on film adaptation on Austen, once dreamed of publishing a book on the film adaptations of Sense and Sensibility (“A Place of Refuge” — I’ve five finished chapters), and still keep up and love them, I chose Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield’s “Multimedia Emma: Three Recent Adaptations.” They often give a witty and informative lecture which explicates Austen’s texts too and did so this time. They began with what they argued for was the centrality of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless as an influence on Emma films, and then proceeded to show interconnections between the recent Emma films apart from their debt to Clueless.

Their first, the 2009 Emma (scripted Sandy Welch, BBC mini-series for TV) was a reaction against Clueless, which nonetheless picked up on the thorough build-up of a past, lost mother, child-like Emma (in Romola Garai’s performance) and took Miss Bates seriously. They dwelt on how toys are emphasized in various scenes and how Emma seems to be dependent on Mr Knightley as much as her father is on her. Everyone but Mr Knightley (and perhaps Mr Martin) seems to react to occupations in life as so much passing time with toys. The point that Emma is made childish until near the end of the film is important: the Emma in the book would be off-putting with her cool cruelties to Jane and stupidity over Harriet and Elton so Welch makes her child-like (naive) to enable us to tolerate here.

It has been noticed that Aisha, an Anil Kapoor film (2010) is modeled on Clueless (see my blog on Aisha as a redo of Clueless for example): the point in Clueless and Aisha is to make Emma contemporary. Again there is a seriousness about poverty; this time the Harriet character, Shefali upbraids Emma for using her, for looking down on her as a toy (again dressing up enters into this). It’s interesting that both Clueless and Aisha pick up on how paradoxically place does not matter in Emma: though the atmosphere and claustrophobia (ennui) of Austen’s book is central to our experience of it, central paradigms can be transported in place and time. In 2016 as we watch, we feel the pursuit of fun has been relentless, is punishing, in all three films there is flamboyance in the costumes, the parties, which is cheerless (seen also in Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice). Everyone working so hard at being happy by the end they are exhausted and the Austen heroine accused of being unfeeling.

The third “film,” Emma Approved influenced by Clueless they took up is a 2014 digital multimedia interactive blog. This seems to consistent of many videos, webpages which you can spend huge amounts of time clicking through. Now Emma wants to document her lifestyle on-line to show how excellent it really is. As with Clueless, each of the Austen characters has its 21st century type (teenager or college student) equivalent. Knightley (no Mr) is again the somber character who is out of sympathy with the frivolity of all the convivial, conformist fun. The triumph in this universe is to have and keep a boyfriend or girlfriend. It is much influenced (of course) by the Lizzie Bennet Diaries (also a series of blogs made by the people playing the roles). Again the parallels are made contemporary (email is used, a wedding for the Dixons — would not want to be without a wedding). Linda and Sayre discussed how vlogs are made. The overall effect is to celebrate materialism, its bright, hard and technologically impressive: they gave examples from the characters’ behavior. Emma is a good girl and what she approves of is good. Lifestyle choices replace morality, but still above all one must marry to be regarded as successful in life.

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I found this anonymous (as far as I can tell) depiction on-line presented as “the ideal Jane Austen world”

And so the sessions and panels of the conference ended. 36 papers set up in such a way as to permit someone to listen to and join in a brief discussion of 4. Think about it. Watch what people do, not what they say to grasp what they value. 36 papers divided into nine sessions could be comfortably got in for mornings and afternoons over two and a half days. Who is that does not value the sessions? not the generality of the members. Since the actual get-together starts on Tuesday for some, Wednesday for many (thus effectively at conflict with the Burney conference), there would be plenty of time for tours, private (now we reach where the sorority party metaphor kicks in) meals or get-togethers elsewhere, evening events (public and private) and networking for publication, teaching events … If you read her novels with any attention, Jane Austen was not one for conspicuous consumption — what the fees and hotel prices and time there sustains.

I’ve been working on a paper for a coming conference on Jane Austen and the Arts, have after a week and a half reread for an umpteeth time Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and am now well into Mansfield Park. I’ve been delving into contemporary works on the picturesque, Maud Batey’s beautifully packaged and illustrated study, Jane Austen and the English Landscape (heavy art paper, gorgeously colored reproductions), Duckworth’s old but still invaluable The Improvement of the Estate, and wonder to myself with Austen’s tones and tastes strong in my head what she would think of this set-up, and those papers I’ve described, which she’d have liked, been amused by, or recognized herself in.

“Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. There is the parsonage: a tidy–looking house, and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people. Those are almshouses, built by some of the family. To the right is the steward’s house; he is a very respectable man. Now we are coming to the lodge–gates; but we have nearly a mile through the park still. It is not ugly, you see, at this end; there is some fine timber, but the situation of the house is dreadful. We go down hill to it for half a mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill–looking place if it had a better approach.” — Maria Bertram, showing off Sotherton, Mansfield Park

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. — Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)

Ellen

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

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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


Carrie at American Film Institute

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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