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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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


18th century lined trunk

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

I’ve put it on academia.edu

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


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

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

And a bibliography.

Ellen

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Portrait of Anne Bronte (Thornton, 1820 – Scarborough, 1849), Emily Bronte (Thornton, 1818 – Haworth, 1848) and Charlotte Bronte (Thornton, 1816 – Haworth, 1855), English writers.


Elizabeth Gaskell, late in life, a photograph

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past couple of months, while some of the new groups of people meeting about authors and books, have quickly returned on-line just about wholly (the JASNA AGM), others have wanted to stay partly online to gather in new people who could not have joined in where they require to travel wherever (the Trollope London Society) and still others have cautiously, stubbornly stayed wholly online (Sharp-l, Burney) or morphed into online experiences at the seeming end of the pandemic even now (National Book Festival in DC). The same pattern is seen in theaters, movies, concerts. Two organizations which have come to put themselves partly online are the people at Chawton, Elizabeth Gaskell House, and those at Haworth museum. So Austen, Gaskell and Bronte events have been still available to me (and I gather will be so still in the near future), and tonight I want to write of few that criss-crossed.

At the Gaskell House, they held an afternoon’s panel on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte, where they brought in lecturers and people at Haworth; and another afternoon it was Gaskell and Scott (whose work, to tell the truth, was not very influential on Gaskell). Haworth hosted an all-day conference on Anne Bronte, which naturally brought in her sisters, Charlotte and Emily, and then Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, which book has helped shape the way we today regard the Bronte family, Charlotte especially. I attended a single lecture on a recent historical fiction-fantasy bringing together Austen and the Godwin and Shelley families — rather like Christa Wolf whose quietly beautiful No Place on Earth brings together as lovers an early 19th century German romantic male writer and woman poet.

I divide this material into two blogs, lest either blog become overlong. This one is on Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, the figure of the governess in Charlotte and Anne’s writing, and the Anne Bronte films. Part Two will be on Anne’s poetry (and Wordsworth and Blake), Agnes Grey, and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

I would like to start with Gaskell’s Life of Bronte as discussed at Gaskell House. Libby Tempest, Ann Dinsdale, Susan Dunne and Lucy Hanks were those discussing Gaskell and her biography of Charlotte Bronte and they cited Patsy Stoneman, “Such a life …, ” Bronte Studies 41:3 (2016):193-206. So five voices. As they begun and sounded defensive and apologetic, I worried they had fallen for the anti-feminist indifference to Gaskell’s biography, were going to attack on the grounds Gaskell was all wrong about the father’s eccentricities, harshnesses towards his wife, their mother, and some intimidating and bullying he used on them. They began with Gaskell’s comment after the storm of objections broke: “everyone who has been harmed by this book have complained,” about the scurrilous articles, but turned round to argue it’s one of the most important of the early great biographies, important especially because by a woman writer, by one, meaning to define that new term. Gaskell, they quoted, told the truth with all her heart and considerable intelligence and sensitivity based on three years of hard research and writing.

Susan Dunne answered the question, Why did Elizabeth take on this task. She had wanted to write a private memoir when she heard her friend had died from a miscarriage and serious bodily condition, but now almost everyone was dead and she felt such grief and a sense of betrayal, that she had not gone to visit Charlotte enough, that maybe she could have saved Charlotte’s life. Well she would save Charlotte’s reputation. Gaskell was seeking to explain away the attacks on the Bronte books, impossible to do as the motive was she was a woman and should not be writing this kind of book. It’s a book about, growing out of their friendship and identification as writers. Gaskell told of how the father would not give Charlotte money when she was younger as a means of control. He opposed her marriage to Nicholls. He said “Had I not been an eccentric person I am, how could my children have formed the way they did. He carried a pistol with him. Gaskell’s relationship with the father, Patrick, became complex; he and Nicholls (Charlotte’s husband) wanted Gaskell to write the book, and then were distressed at the libel suits. But he did tell Gaskell “you’ve never been an enemy of mine.” He was enormously proud of what his children had written. He would say “no quailing Mrs Gaskell, no drawing back.” And her book is fabulous, an immensely absorbing porous book.

Ann Dinsdale emphasized how Gaskell had such rich material to work with. She mentioned Kaye Shuttleworth had been instrumental in bringing Bronte and Gaskell together. She said Gaskell’s biography was “just ground-breaking; a brilliant use in it was the sense of a future to come in the earlier parts. To be sure, there are omissions: M. Heger,” the coping with profound disappointment. It is an inspired book.

Lucy Hanks talked about the manscript. Gaskell would normally create a fair copy after she wrote several drafts of pages; but now, pushed, she produced a messy, involved and disorganized piece. William, her husband, stepped in to offer more perspective. He helped also shape the material itself, thought for her of social pressures. She did mean to be diplomatic, wanted to harmonize the family POVs, and to “shoot down deeper than I can fathom” to reach deeper truths about all four Brontes and the father and aunt. Gaskell found Emily “very strange,” “selfish, egotistic.”  This remote sister was also “exacting.” Gaskell crossed out this sentence: “Her conduct was the very essence of stern selfishness.” Gaskell lived with an enlightened man, and could not easily understand a patriarchal male — very off-putting to see Bronte repress herself. She added that the biography is about how female identity has to be negotiated. A persona would be created by this biography — like one was created in Jane Eyre.

Elizabeth Gaskell liked to be in the center of a room, she liked to bring people together. The biography project was a prize and she was at first naive and optimistic. Volume the first she defended her friend. The second volume is far richer because it’s laden with Ellen Nussey’s letters, and Gaskell let Charlotte take over. She watched carefully for reactions to passages. Lucy thinks this biography changed women’s life-writing, changed the nature of biography, by bringing the person to life — she forgets Boswell did this first with Johnson, a male writer for a male writer too.

Libbey Tempest had the last remark: “without this book we’d know so little of the Brontes.”

*************************
A Bronte conference, mostly on Anne, September 4th, all day Saturday, BST


Vera Claythorne, a real governess in the era

Kathryn Hughes, one of the biographers, gave the first, a key-note speech. Her topic was “Anne Bronte, Working Woman.” She found it extraordinary that Anne lasted in this work for 5 years. The deep clashes between the governess and members of the family is really the governess and the mother, who (Hughes thought) had to live with a companion to help her, couldn’t do the job of mothering alone or much better. The governess for the mother (and father too) could become a site of insecurity and jealousy. The governess was ever suspect. She was doing job not called a job. She is given almost no salary, but rather “a home” (not hers at all). Hughes thought no one in most households wanted such a woman there; she made everyone uncomfortable. What Charlotte does is eroticize the governess; Jane Eyre becomes Rochester’s betrothed in a game of power (over what she shall wear for example). Governesses were not supposed to have lovers, and fair game to the male servants.

I felt Hughes was very sympathetic to these upper class families. She was justifying these people. I would say that Anne and then her brother needed the money from the two different sets of families:  Anne had a dreadful time with the first family: the children were selfish, mean, supported by parents. She was courageous to leave — she needed them to give her a character remember.  With the second family the wife’s behavior was disastrous for Branwell. This is a case where the woman had a little power (not enough) and so she scapegoated her servant. In both instances the employers treated the Brontes with contempt.


Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham painting out on the moor (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, 1996 BBC, scripted David Nokes, Janet Baron)

In a talk entitled, “Anne Brontë in Film and Television,” Mateja Djedovic first gave a brief survey of all the many many films adapted from Charlotte’s Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights — by way of contrast, for thus far there have been three film adaptations of Anne’s books. There was a Spanish Agnes Grey, about which he appeared to know very little, but he was taken with both a 1968 BBC and the 1996 BBC remake. Christopher Fry, a much respected dramatist, wrote the script for the earlier film; it starred Bryan Marshall as Gilbert Markham (Marshall tended to play romantic period drama heroes), Corin Redgrave as Arthur Huntingdon, alcoholic, and Janet Munro as Helen Graham. I’ve never seen it. He said it was too faithful, but brought out the austere, and reserved feel of the book; we have a recluse who has revolted, she is escaping a pursuit, and there is quiet happy ending. The later one is much more sophisticated, bringing out the feminist themes of the novel, with Toby Stephens as Gilbert more sidelined (sensitive type) in favor of a remorseful, confusedly angry, yet self-tortured Huntington as played by Rupert Graves.

I thought Djedovic should have gone over the landscape, the camera work, the way the script does follow the involuted plot-design of the book. Yes it’s erotic, influenced by Andrew Davies – who,  however, uses this eroticism to support Anne’s own outlook against macho males and on behalf of teaching humane customs or norms.


Chloe Pirrie as Emily, Charlie Murphy as Anne, and Finn Atkins as Charlotte

He then mentioned there have been several biopics, with all three sisters but all focusing on Branwell and his alcoholism. He briefly talked of a 1979 French film; a 1973 TV serial, where Anne gets one episode as a working governess. The most recent was To Walk Invisible (2017), which stressed the difficulty of being a woman author, how they have to hide their gender, but it also allows a negative picture of Branwell as destroying their lives to dominate the story.

I’d call this biopic a profoundly intolerant movie, using male weakness to explain why the young women so suffered.  They suffered because the water they all drank was laden with filth and sickness. I’d too add it misrepresents the father as ineffectual when he was a strong and intelligent personality; Charlotte as mean, narrow, very hard, with Emily as more than a little strangely mad. In fact prejudiced and as to biographical content nil.  I grant it’s photographed beautifully and well-acted.

I look forward to writing of The Tenant as feminist, as gothic, as grim realism, of Anne Bronte herself as a whistleblower, and of her poetry as at times Wordsworthian (he influenced so many women writers, among them also Gaskell) and at times William Blake-like. Gaskell and Scott and once again an Austen sequel.


Anne Bronte as drawn by Charlotte

Ellen

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Vittorio DiMeglio — Ponte Vecchio in Florence

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been such a long time since the last selection or couple of poems translated by me from Vittora Colonna’s Amaro Lagrimar (Bitter Crying), as I call her immense sonnet sequence – the phrase taken from her first poem, “Scrivo sol per sfogar l’interna doglia” (Englished by me as “I write to vent the inward pain my heart”) that I’m going to announce this small publication here. A representative from John Wiley wrote me to ask permission for a number of my translated poems to be published in a large anthology they will be publishing, Gender in History: Global Perspectives, edited by Weiser-Hanks. The first scholarly biography of Colonna was written in German, and her complete oeuvre has been translated into German. The Germans and the French too (especially later 19th century Romantics) have been drawn to Colonna’s poetry. I admit I know little about it, but then I knew little about the two Master’s theses that have used my translation or the two festivals at which another few were read, or even the couple of other anthologies they have appeared in. Most of this some 20 years ago, for a couple of years after I put them online.

I am encouraged and chuffed because it’s a sign my poetry is still read. Jim (my late husband) had some software program where he kept track of how many hits different part of my website attracted and there was a time there was frequent interest in these poems, and also the poetry of Veronica Gambara, Colonna’s contemporary, and my brief portrait biography of Gambara and chapter on Colonna. Nowadays I think the interest that my website draws is towards the material on Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, Anne Finch, and various individual papers, people, subjects (e.g., Poldark).

I spent nearly 20 years working on Colonna and Gambara and Anne Finch before I put my work on the Internet, and remain fascinated by translation (theory, practice, individual works) and in love with much of their poetry.  Now and again I’ve returned to Gambara.  For Anne  Finch I’ve worked more conventionally within academic conventions and parameters (see two blogs).  So anytime anyone contacts me on any of this, I feel my contribution is valued.

Here then are three of those chosen: the first of the sequence (this is common), a highly erotic one (ditto) and one connecting her to Michelangelo.

I write to vent the inward pain my heart
feeds upon–I seek nothing else–surely
no-one can think I mean to add to the
splendor this buried gladiator cast.

I am right to obey my urge to mourn;
though the thought I damage his fame hurts me,
I am leaving to other pens, wiser
heads the task of saving his name from death.

May rooted loyalty, love, and a weight
of sorrow, this anguish neither reason
nor time can lessen–excuse me to each of you.

Bitter crying, a song which is not sweet,
bleak sighs, a disquieted voice: I’ll boast
not of my style but of my suffering.

****************************

Like a ravenous bird who sees and hears
the whirr of his mother’s sheltering wings
as she descends, embraces, and feeds him,
who loves the food and her, and is happy

inside the nest, but frets too, consumed by
his yearning to follow and fly like her,
and so thanks her by singing such songs as
seem beyond the tongue’s power to release,

am I when God’s sun strengthens my heart with
a warm ray–like the lightning’s flash felt
and vanished before we have half-glimpsed it–

the pen moves, pushed by a surge of love from
within, and without realizing quite
what I’m saying, I write in praise of God

****************************

That which the human mind can comprehend
of eternal truths we can teach ourselves,
through long study, guided by rare insight,
I believe your soul has comprehended,

so it’s not that I mean to add a prop
or light to your massive near unique faith–
so obvious to anyone who learns
from your work that there is another world–

in offering you this image of Christ
offering his heart up to the spear as
he hangs on the cross to stream holy life

from His body to you, but because, Sir,
a more learned book was never opened–
this will give you your immortality.

**********************************

As I read over my poetry, I can see it is very beautiful, a true projection of the spirit and meaning of Colonna’s poems in appropriate modern English.

This is what I have to say about my choices and arrangements of the poems:

For Vittoria Colonna there are over 50 different manuscripts which contain sizable numbers of poems; there are considerable variants between individual texts and orderings. Unlike Alan Bullock who has taken what A. E. Housman calls an uncritical stance by choosing one copy text and mostly sticking to it — I have studied all the texts available to me, including the many studies and analsyses of Colonna’s poetry that have been published since 1538 and Ruscelli’s important first commentaries. I can here only refer the interested reader to the recent work of Tobia R. Toscana (Sonetti : in morte di Francesco Ferrante d’Avalos marchese di Pescara: edizione del ms. XIII.G.43 della Biblioteca nazionale di Napoli / Vittoria Colonna [1492-1547] (Milano: G. Mondadori, 1998) who has herself returned to the manuscripts, carefully examined Bullock’s tables and arguments together with new evidence and studies by Carlo Dionosotti and Danilo Romei (whose work on Colonna I have not been able to see); she concludes that Bullock’s edition is flawed by his decision to follow a single manuscript for the opening phase of Colonna’s poetry and is not substantiated by Tordi’s studies (as Bullock had simply assumed). I studied all the documents Tordi and Reumont had unearthed; referred myself to their texts for Vittoria’s life. I also used the newer studies (e.g., Carlo Ossola, Mila Mazzetti, Paolo Simoncelli, Massimo Firpo) placing Vittoria’s poetry in the context of evangelism and politics of her period and the poetry of her friends. In many cases I have followed Visconti: his texts are frequently exactly those of Bullock with different punctuation or grammar. In those cases where they are not, they are sometimes superior. When Bullock’s are more precise, more polished, I chose Bullock’s as my main copy text, but always kept Visconti in front of me. When Visconti has a “bad” text that clearly contain mistakes, I follow Bullock. Uniformly the first Italian line quoted at the top of my pages and in my index is from Bullock’s edition: this is for the convenience of the reader who may own Bullock’s 1982 edition.

I also arranged them for the first time. I divided the poems into those in which Vittoria is communing with herself; and those where she addresses herself to imagined others. For the first part, I followed a slow trajectory of emotion which can be discerned in the sequence from erotic enthrallment to disillusion, to a turning to God and after many struggles with despair, a conversion experience and some tranquillity and health. For the second I followed the discernable story of Vittoria’s life within her family, in public, and as a writer. I made it much easier for readers to find those poems which are directed to her friends and written in response to other poems by putting them in groups in accordance with their interlocutors. Her devotional meditative sequences are similarly arranged. Finally, Vittoria made several starts as a poet: all those poems which justify her sequence, which apologize for it, and are intended as prologue are placed first; those poems which show the early planning of the sequence, and are close literary imitations are placed just after her husband’s death. While my arrangment is subjective, the result of long reading and translating these poems and documents on Colonna’s life, I think it is makes sense of the relationships among the poems and between the poems and Vittoria Colonna’s life for the first time. I am convinced that the present disarrangement, the result of happenstance and mistake, is one of the reasons Colonna’s poetry is not more frequently read and not thought well of. At last a reader will be able to find a poem by knowing something about its provenance, who is its interlocutor, or its nature

Here is my theory of translation as applied to Gambara and Colonna. Simply put, I gave them everything that was in me at the time.

I have been re-studying Italian once again by reading Elena Ferrante’s Storia di chi fugga e di chi resta (The Story of Who Leave and Those Who Stay), about which I hope to write eventually (how the Italian is far superior to the English, which smooths out, modernizes somehow, simplifies and loses the original densities). I had given the studying up once again as the term started, but now I’ll hold out for an hour a day.

Last spring I had begun to read carefully the most recent biographies, Ramie Targoff’s conventional safe Life of Vittoria Colonna (but accurate in the main) and Maria Musiol’s brilliantly empathetic and daring portrait of the woman out of the poetry as well as the life, Spurs and Reins: Vittoria Colonna: A woman’s Renaissance. I will now try to get back to them — perhaps in December so I can write a dual review.

Ellen

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Nanci Griffith: 2012/many years ago (probably 1990s) (1953-2021)

I grew up listening to Nanci Griffith in my mother’s car. I still remember seeing her live. I’ve loved her music to this day. #RIP — Izzy on Twitter

I have to remember the next time I do a video and then watch once (I never watch more than once) and find myself wincing at the sounds of my voice and accent: “Your own voice is the voice that carries you through life best” — Nanci Griffith —

Friends and readers,

Yesterday when I read on Twitter (to which news comes the fastest) that Nanci Griffith had died that day, I felt — somewhat to my surprise — so grief-stricken. I began to cry. I thought of all the hours I had spent over the years listening to her singing first on audiocasettes and then CDs in my car. I used to spend a lot of time in my car, and often Izzy was with me (especially during her elementary and junior high school years). I just had to go over and listen to one of my favorite of her songs: “It’s a long long way from Clare to here:”

Now don’t misunderstand me — I am intensely relieved that I need no longer go back at all, the best day of my life was the one where I left the USA for England … and came back with Jim and an alternative life I could live as myself

I then rushed over to the New York Times for an obituary, and was fobbed off by a brief one, which said she had asked that no one write about her until a week after her death (I saw that on several sites yesterday), but today there is far from truly adequate, but at least an informed one about her life and her career. It is true to say that she never achieved the wide popularity others did. I think too that she hid her more troubling insights under “a deceptive prettiness.” Early on, like Willie Nelson, she presented herself as a innocent sweet young white girl who was just dropping these unexpected ironic and satiric remarks, and seduced by romance, as in her famous “Love at the Five and Dime:” her opening remarks are to be treasured too:

My British mother-in-law told me of how she worked from 5 am to 11 pm as a servant, a lower-governess in a great house (later 1920s), a form of enslavement, and when she finally fled, and got a job at Woolworth’s how liberating it was — just 5 and 1/2 9 hour days a week, a salary of sorts, all Sunday and evenings free and off. The real life details the New York Times writer refers to resonate in this way with ordinary vulnerable working people

Rolling Stone magazine had an obituary featuring her musical career yesterday. I know all the songs mentioned; my favorite album is Other Voices, Other Rooms. I also would play There’s a light Beyond These Woods. She did voice political points of view, mostly strong humane, leftist-liberal, from what I’d call a “soft” or emotional stance: she presented herself as deeply hurt at injustice, racism, and told stories of individuals variously stymied, thwarted, and then making do with what they had. An underlying thread, not made explicit ever, was about women, abused as girls, deluded themselves. A rare tragic song: “Tecumseh Valley:”

I can never listen to this too many times. Never tire of it. Caroline is what I could have ended as

Surely this next one — “The Great Divide” — is utterly characteristic and when I listen to it tonight tears come to my eyes – one of her themes is the pain of cherished memories:

While I found real variety in her songs and music, she had a particular personal feel to her angle on country music, which included yodelling (which I loved when she accompanied it) because she presented country in ways that felt old-fashioned, with the kinds of instruments, voice sounds, and stories one expected from early on. NPR says her original inspiration was Loretta Lynn (I’ll add EmmyLou Harris & Linda Rondstadt & Patsy Cline); that she was the interpreter of other people’s songs, but it is also true that a song she originally wrote or was the first one to sing became a hit when done by some more mainstream personality — for again she retained in her music a strong sense of her origins in Texas, and working class rural American life. “When you can’t find a friend, listen to the radio” speaks to us all in the cities too: from Austen City Limits: here she names some of her favorite female predecessors

Izzy came with Jim and I to the Berkshire in the early 1990s, when she could still not command a mass crowd: it was a small venue for people sat at tables eating and drinking (in Annandale) and her personal style, seeming unassuming friendliness went over very well. But we also went once to Wolf Trap, and she filled the Filene Center — that must’ve been not far off from summer 2000. She was a big hit in Ireland and often sang with the Chieftains — this Irish group is a real favorite of mine. I love listening to Irish and Scots music.

My friend, Nick Hay, wrote on Twitter: “She always said either ‘I will always believe’ or ‘I still believe’ which was I always found intensely moving. So I still and will always believe Nanci.” I agree with him that it is vital not to forget her political commitment which is summed up in “It’s a Hard Life:”

Ellen who grieves for the loss of her very much

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New Penguin Edition


Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on plans to build cottages for tenants on her and relative and friends’ properties (never actually done by her)

“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it … the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone” (the last page of Middlemarch)

“Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life──the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within──can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances” (Bk 8, Chapter 73, Middlemarch)

Dear friends and readers,

The high moments of this summer (more than half-way over now) have been an eight-session hour-and-one-half class given online from Politics and Prose bookstore (Washington, DC) where Prof Maria Frawley (of Georgetown) held forth and talked of George Eliot’s transcendent masterpiece, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. I didn’t think I would but under Prof Frawley’s tutelage and inspired by her class, I reread it for a third time — it was my fourth time through if you count listening to it read aloud beautifully by Nadia May while I was studying and writing on Andrew Davies’s film adaptations.

The first time age 18 in a college class on the 19th century novel, the second on Trollope listserv with a friend, Martin Notcutt and a few others around 1998 (I was 52), the third listening in an early year of the 21st century, but none of them was the experience I just had where I know my attention was alerted sympathetically to much that intelligently and idealistically apprehended on the many realistic (psychological, social) levels of this novel’s language.

I became far more open to what is in the novel than I ever had before — as in the depiction of the Garths, which I had been inclined to see as simply unconvincingly exemplary. I reveled in the movie serial twice through(!) with a renewed enthusiasm. Saw its hour-long feature along with a BBC4 special: Everything is connected (on Eliot) . I reread some of the criticism, and biography, including the now famous My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Had there been no pandemic, I might have re-listened to the CDs in my car.

For myself I find Middlemarch a transcendent book because of the in-depth understanding of human nature all its complicated ideas are based upon; and the intent to offer this kind of knowledge, which the reader can use to find some happiness or ways of coping with unhappiness in his or her life. The deeply humane and forgiving point of view is one human society is in need of — as long as the line is drawn at giving into evil and harm to people to gratify the greed and cruelty and egoism also found in groups of people who band together or individuals who inflict pain on others. It must also be drawn at self-immolation and self-sacrifice of the type we find in Dorothea at first, and Lydgate at length driven to. So on my own statement, the heroine who comes closest to staying with the good is Mary Garth; the heroes Farebrother and Ladislaw. Not that Lydgate does not do some good when he writes a treatise on how to cope with gout.

This blog is rather about the content of the class and how the book emerged through that.  So what can I convey of such an unfolding and complicated nuanced conversations (the class was filled with thoughtful readers too).  I shall have to revert to my compendium method for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala because there is far too much to tell of what was said.


Douglas Hodge as the yet unbowed eager Dr Lydgate (his is made the central shaping story paradigm of the serial)

As luck would have it, the online Literary Hub led this week with a much linked-in couple of columns, “George Eliot begins writing Middlemarch this week.” The site tells the familiar story of how Eliot began by writing the story of Lydgate (an aspiring young doctor), then separately “Miss Brooke” (an ardent young woman with no outlet for her intelligence, imagination, desire to do something for others in the world with her wealth), with Eliot afterward seeing how the two characters’ personalities and stories could be situated in one place, and then fit together in a artful design.

But it adds that there was a fragment written earlier — about Mr Vincy (Walter, the Mayor of the town, and hard-working merchant) and old Featherstone (the miser the Vincy family hopes to inherit a fortune and a house, Stone Court, from). Featherstone torments his young housekeeper, Mary Garth, who links to Mr Vincy because Featherstone enjoys humiliating the Vincy son (Fred) who loves and wants to marry Mary, among other things bringing her books, like Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein, which Featherstone forbids her to read, lest she have any enjoyment of her own during the time she is supposed working for him. So there are the three story matters. Eliot did keep a notebook of quotations, so you can try to follow her creative process just a bit. She meant it to be a study of provincial life.

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From Book I: Now Prof Frawley emphasized the metaphoric and inward perspectives embedded in these stories and ethnography. And I here present her ideas as they worked out during class discussions in which I participated too. Eliot presents herself as watching human lots (in the Greek sense of your fate, what cards you were handed) organically inter-related. Yes the biological connections are real: Lydgate is deeply erotically attracted to Rosamond Vincy, the Mayor’s daughter; his patron, the evangelical town successful man, Nicholas Bulstrode, is married to Vincy’s sister, Harriet. Dorothea becomes enamoured of the aging scholar, Casaubon, whose nephew, Will Ladislaw, comes to work for Dorothea’s uncle, Mr Brooke, who, running for public office, hires Ladislaw to edit and write articles in a newspaper on his behalf; Ladislaw is emotionally drawn to the idealistic Dorothea, and flirts with Rosamond Vincy once she marries Lydgate.

But Eliot is representing the interactions between their inner worlds and realities of outward life (class, money, rival ambitions); the way society distorts (town gossip is central to what happens to these people) their awarenesses and conscience; how their consciousness distorts what they see of and in society, how they understand it. Mirrors are an important metaphor in this novel (as is tapestry, webs of interconnections). Casaubon also shows an ability to feel for Dorothea when he realizes he has made a mistake in marrying her: she is too young, too eager for him to be a great hero, and the mirror she shines up in his face mortifies him so he strikes out to silence her.

We have characters to compare: three central women: Dorothea (Dodo), Rosamond (Rosie), Mary Garth, heroines, and with them Celia (Kitty), Dorothea’s sister, Rosamond Vincy, Fred’s. Three men: Lydgate, Casaubon, Ladislaw, and against them, Bulstrode (as a hypocrite, hiding his criminal past used to rise in the world), with them, Rev Farebrother, Mr Brooke, Dodo and Kitty’s uncle. We see what six center presences do with their lives, what they make of them. We are led to ask by the narrator, Who among us could stand close scrutiny? to think pride is not a bad thing as long as you do not hurt others or yourself with your own. Some of these characters are given beauty in their thoughts, aspirations, generosity, but others show them unable even to understand the person right in front of them at all and no toleration at all for anything that might endanger their position in the world.

Both Lydgate and Dorothea make bad choices for their first marriage. Lydgate cannot escape his partly because of his conscience; Dorothea when she realizes she has make a mistake, recalibrates (like a GPS). The petty perspectives of a Rosamond, the small ones of the local rector’s wife, Mrs Cadawallader, and Celia’s husband, Sir James Chettam, a conventional county leader, matter too. We looked at beautiful statements in the first book about self-despair; Farebrother, the vicar, who while a humane man, has no real vocation to be a clergyman, found himself in studying insects, but he is deeply thwarted in his secular scientist study because he must spend time as a vicar, gets such low pay and is trying to support his mother, her sister, and an aunt. But also the inner rapture as the self involves its consciousness in study, which will also result in nothing practical. We are seeing the ways people struggle with their lives. We see our friends change, grow, mature as they try to follow a career.

From Book II: It is a novel about vocation; and for me, it is also about the enemies of promise that stand in the different characters’ ways. I loved how Eliot captured inner moments that can mean so much to us as we define who we are and follow a road possible for us — as when Lydgate realized he wanted to be an original researcher in medicine. Eliot writes:

“Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within (Bk 2, Ch 15, p 143)

I did tell of how after I read a moving passage in Wordsworth’s Michael, I knew I wanted to be an English major, to study literature.

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would break the heart … “

The intense emotional pain caught up in those lines took my breath away. The pain for me comes in how the words capture also the opposite reality: that few feel this love, and since Luke (Michael’s shallow son in the poem) had not, the lines are also about how at times we come near into breaking or our hearts are broken and we can scarce understand how we bear up.


Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw

While in Rome with Casaubon, who is spending most of his time researching in the libraries, Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw, there to study art, and he glimpses in her a buried, a repressed depth of emotion; Dorothea will find it like death, like a nightmare of dread when Casaubon attacks her for her nature. Prof Frawley said many times the book explores what it is be alive. The deeper question here is how we know others; a lot of 19th century novels are about characters some characters thought they knew but did not; how we really get to know who somebody is: in the case of Lydgate and Rosamond, they knew so little of each other, they understood so little of each other’s character. Rosamond is not interested in any character or desires but her own, and her dense tenacity triumphs over the sensitive Lydgate who yearns for her validation of him, and cannot bear her misery, no matter how stupid (he knows) the causes. Of course it is Lydgate who choose her, who is dismissive of women and yet she becomes his trap. The often-quoted passage is about how were we to be able to know the miseries of others (including the animals around us), we could not keep our equanimity

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity (Bk 2, Ch 20, p 194)

We had talked about the novel as historical, set back in time from the era Eliot was writing in; it is also devotedly realistic, turning away from romance, ever aware of actualities (as an artful norm discussed by her in Adam Bede). You can see her practicing her awareness of the natural world around her in her Ilfracomb journal. The question here is what can a novel do? how does one make a character resonate with a reader? She says her mirrors are doubtless defective however earnestly she commits to faithful accounting. The mirror is a mediator, not the thing itself — now it’s Dorothea who remembers Rome so intently vivid; it is an epoch to her, while to Casaubon, absorbed in his own central self in years of arcane study, cannot respond with any immediacy to what is around them, is imprisoned in self-preoccupation, thoughts of gaining fame and respect from others, fear he never will.

From Books 3, 4 and 5: We moved into how Eliot works up, depends on our responding with sympathy so that we may pass over this egoism. She shows us Dorothea aware of what another character is feeling through her sympathetic impulses; sympathy just erupts, but equally characters fail in sympathy. Frawley defended Eliot’s narrator as not intrusive, and there in the text tactfully, but also rightfully there, to thicken out the novel, to share things with us. She numbered the ways the narrator adds to our understanding and pleasure in the book. I remembered the narrator’s sense of humor at the auction later in the book where we invited us to laugh with her at the absurdity of the inflated descriptions, what the seller said about the items from people’s houses to push the price bidding/war up. She lends life to all the minor characters in the Featherstone story, the Garth family: Caleb sees the potential and real goodness in Fred, Mrs Garth feels the loss of money she has saved for months to enable her boy to become an apprentice


Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy being bullied by Michael Hordern as Featherstone, Rachel Power as Mary Garth looking on, Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond Vincy keeping well away

The medical history context as such becomes more important as Lydgate becomes part of the Dorothea/Casaubon story after his heart attack. Specifics go beyond Lydgate trying to institute reforms as Lydgate gets involved in individual characters’ health (like Fred’s, which leads to Lydgate’s engagement with Rosamond). Gossip begins to play a major role — how we come to talk and to know about one another (Book 4, Ch 41, p 412: the world as a “whispering gallery”). Last debt and obligation — how we can be saddled with moral as well as financial debt. Invalidism as a form of identity emerges in Victorian novels; epidemics are part of the this 19th century realistic world, and we see Lydgate struggling to be professional, to be taken seriously. Now the question is, What good can people do for one another in this world. We did talk of a Medical Act trying to set minimum criteria before a man can call himself a physician.


Ladislaw, Robert Hardy as Mr Brooke, and Stephen Moore as Mr Vincy on the hustings

Where does progress happen? Certainly Mr Brooke makes no progress on his estates nor does he help his desperate tenants to live at all better lives. Prof Frawley saw Brooke’s disastrous speech as an example of how hard it is to to get a society to support progressive legislation. She pointed to a debate between Lydgate and Ladislaw about measures, men voted in to pass them (Bk 5, Ch 46, p 465), which did remind me of debates between characters in Trollope’s political Palliser fiction, only here it did seem to me that the measures the characters were talking of were genuinely capable of helping vulnerable individuals (to be honest, I’ve never seen that in Trollope’s fictions — perhaps in his travel books, yes). The existence of (stupid) gossip connects here: ignorant people attributing malign motives to other people; people who make a living selling useless products. Change is therefore glacial. Lydgate finds himself attacked for dissections.


A Middlemarch grocer appeals to Lydgate to prescribe Mrs Mawmsey’s strengthening medicine, next to Lydgate, Simon Chandler as Farebrother

Prof Frawley called Eliot’s a “curative vision,” and admitted there is a conservative thrust to her work; she takes a retrospective POV and sees elements in community life as entrenched deeply. Middlemarch as a community is a social body. What can you change among such people? what do they value? (I’d say speaking general individuals their position and status first of all.) Characters find themselves powerless to stop ugly gossip. Dorothea can act once she is a wealthy widow, not before. She can decide on what she wants to do as social obligations once Casaubon has died; she would have obeyed him out of a deep feeling of pity and duty she had to him, but we see in her meditation how she is alienated at long last when she realizes how he thought so meanly of her. Meanwhile she is coming to defer to Ladislaw as he proves himself to her, and she wants to think so well of him. I’d put it Dorothea needs to, as part of her make-up and the way she needs to see the world. She applies an ethical compass to what Mrs Cadwallader tells her of others; at the same time she is realistic about people around her, and we see her hesitate when Chettam or Farebrother advise caution.

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From Books 6 and 7: I’d say the central most fascinating character in the last books of the novel is Nicholas Bulstrode; Frawley showed how Eliot’s analyses here are extraordinary for insight as well as compassion for a distasteful often petty cruel and power-mongering man in the way she enables us to see how he sees himself. (Cont’d in the comments.)


Clive Russell as Caleb Garth, Peter Jeffreys as Nicholas Bulstrode, and John Savident as Raffles

From Book 8: how we find all the preoccupations and themes brought together in this deeply felt consoling vision of acceptance (also Cont’d)

The 1994 serial: one of the best adaptations of a novel thus far ever made — if faithfulness, wonderful artistry appropriate to this book’s tone and feel, and depth of understanding matter (third continuation).


The coach loaded down with people and whatever goods they can carry, bringing people into Middlemarch and out again — the first thing we see when the film begins ….

Ellen

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An eighteenth century trunk — probably more elegant than a woman’s typical “box” where she carried her things with her


Virginia Woolf’s writing desk

Dear friends and readers,

I have been wanting to report two more virtual conferences I’ve attended online, both stimulating and about two women writers who are strongly connected to Austen’s work, and who, coming from the same milieu and similar large families, evidence real parallels in how they lived their daily lives, both writers of genius too: the annual International Virginia Woolf Society’s conference was held in mid-June (2021), originally intended to be at Vermillion, South Dakota, it was instead transmitted online through the University of South Dakota’s software and auspices; and the Frances Burney Society’s AGM, early June (it just ended today, and I am not sure where it was launched from). Both were for me extremely enjoyable — and instructive.  I’ve written many blog-essays on Woolf and Burney, and published professionally on Burney.

It was the first Virginia Woolf conference I have ever attended (though many years I did go to their sessions at MLA and attended a party one evening where there were many Woolf scholars), and it was of great interest to me to see the people who are today in the forefront of Woolf scholarship, to participate in the atmosphere and listen to the kinds of papers/talks they gave. Here is the Society website. I was very touched by the openness with which they discussed the difficulties facing anyone who wants to have a well-paid career and do serious writing and editions and a myriad of kinds of work promoting the work of Virginia Woolf.

Two papers stuck out for me, one by Catherine Hollis, on the relationship of Woolf’s forms of life-writing and her attitude towards privacy.  Hollis argued that Woolf tended to favor impersonal writing, not telling intimacies, partly because she saw that as more respected, partly her own unwillingness to reveal aspects of her experience she didn’t want to or couldn’t deal with directly. The other paper, by Diane Reynolds, was on allusions to Austen in Between the Acts, one skein connecting the pageant to Austen’s poem upon St Swithin’s day, and the other connected Miss LaTrobe, the spinster who writes the pageant to Miss Bates. It is, then, yet another novel where major components connect back to Jane Austen. One I cannot find the attribution for (perhaps by Shelby Dowdle) was on To the Lighthouse, and how its melancholy poetry is deeply expressive and an underlying series of events make a parallel with Jane Eyre (as when the women are drained by the egoism of others).

There were a number of personal ones, where the speaker connected something in Woolf or her work back to the speaker’s life, especially during the pandemic: one woman who was nurse talked of how she now reads Woolf’s accounts of mental illness (in Mrs Dalloway for example) and death, and her own scary ordeal where so many were gravely ill or died in front of her. I began to contribute to the talk then: I told of a number of books I’d assigned to students in my “Adv Comp in the Natural Sciences and Tech” over the years about doctor training, about the realities of illness and medicine put into human language rather than obscuring abstractions; how necessary to get emotionally involved to understand a patient and help.


Fanny Burney, an engraving by John Bogle (1786)

I have been to Burney conferences before: once in NYC, a stand alone like this one, and a few times as coupled with the JASNA, the EC/ASECS, and ASECS; but I know they have smaller conferences across the year, and this one was like those, more intimate, with long-standing friends and fellow editors attending. I know the kind of work they tend to do (coming out of the kind of writing Burney and her family and associates left, heavily life-writing), but this these three days were a kind of retrospective, with papers on the history of the creation of the society (Paula Stepankowsky), carrying on expanding the purview to other Burneys so papers on Frances’s brother, Charles, in Scotland (by Sophie Coulomumbeau); on her brother James, as a midshipman (Geoffrey Sills), on her father, Charles’s use of his antiquarian tours for his history of music (Devon Nelson); much this time on the Court journals and journals themselves in lieu of focusing on the novels (a more common approach). Of papers on Burney’s novels, Alex Pitofsky argued the raw violence in Evelina is meant to criticize the characters who inflict this on others (all women).

By the third day everyone had begun to relax – the group was small (say 25 at most), and we descended to gossiping about Stephen Digby, one of the courtiers, hurt Fanny by his wavering non-courtship of her, and then one of the males defended him — he was driven away from Fanny by his family who wanted him to marry money and high rank.


The house in London where Frances Burney was born, 35 St Martin’s Street

Here, though, one interesting paper has at last made me think of a paper I can give at the coming (virtual again) EC/ASECS this October: using Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Francesca Saggini took us on a tour of the houses (and larger buildings) Fanny lived in across her life, showed how details from these figure in her imagination and writing, how much each of her homes meant to her, especially of course Camilla Cottage, which she had built with the money she made from her novel, Camilla, and was (even tragically) driven from because she did not own the ground it was built on and had depended on the Lockes to retain at least the length of her life. It was the detail about how Burney kept her papers, and how much the Professor “would give” that we should have some of the actual furniture the D’Arblays used in their writing life that set my mind working.


Amanda Vickery reading Dudley Rider’s diaries (At Home with the Georgians)

Ever since watching Amanda Vickery’s At Home with the Georgians and reading her Behind Closed Doors I’ve remembered the scene where she points out how the average women owned or controlled very little of her own space. Even married women had to owe as a privilege her husband provides her bedroom, her parlor. Unmarried women carried their very identities (all the things that made up their lives and which they cherished) in a box. She showed such a battered box (one from the 18th century), and I remembered the scenes in Wolf Hall (book and film) where Anne Boleyn, having to go to the tower, fills her box with her cherished things. I returned to Lucy Worseley (Jane Austen At Home) who would not have such a melancholy slant, but offers much material for demonstrating one. How Austen moved about and about, sometimes staying in castles and sometimes in houses near destitution (not far any way, as on Trim Street, how little control she had over the space she had access to or lived in.


Sydney Place, Bath, today, a holiday rental — where Austen lived with her family in Bath while her father was alive (from Lucy Worsley’s At Home with Jane Austen)

And no one would think to save such a box — this kind of true relic of a specific person does not come down to us — .

Title: “The importance of Her Box.” Women did not own the spaces they lived in; they could not control what was done with their papers after they died. So how could they form an identity: it is not to be found in the furniture they had around them but inside precious things (like a desk) or the box itself they put their things in when they moved about. I shall write about this as the core of an essay on Austen and her heroines moving about.


One of the papers at the Burney conference focused for a time on a pair of elegant lady’s shoes: well here is another ….

Vickery has written a number of essays on clothing and bags and shoes women wore — -these I have and they will be grist for my mill.

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Jocelyn (an Emma) reading for February (Jane Austen Book Club)

I do have plans for August. Since I won’t be going away and the two OLLIs I teach and attend courses at will be closed, I should have time and will try to discipline myself. Like I’ve seen other bloggers do, I will carve out such and such week, or these several days, read away consistently a set of books and then post about them.

I’m going to set aside one week for Austen sequels or post-texts. I want to reread Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, Jo Baker’s Longbourn (wherein I try to think about what makes a good post-text), and for the first time read Diana Birchall’s The Bride of Northanger. I read a first version many years ago, and she is my friend so I shall try to remember the first for this last. I recently read a review of another post-text by Baker (she makes a business of these), and as for The Jane Austen Book Club


An appropriate figure by Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun

I watched Robin Swicord’s Jane Austen Book Club with a friend for the first time in a long time about a month ago. It seems more innocent post-Trump, post-pandemic. Mary Lee her name, appeared to enjoy it mightily She had read the 6 once each, but was able to remember them enough, for she remarked that you would not get anywhere near what you could from the movie unless you’ve at least read them all once or most of them. I said it was a movie that like Austen could take several viewings to get it all. I’d say the central ones to the movie are Emma, P&P and Persuasion — which are today’s most popular — you can’t miss NA (the gothic stuff), & Mansfield Park is directly quoted and attached to a character; Sense & Sensibility once quite popular has lost ground but clearly there explicitly for the mother and daughter and the same daughter and her female lovers. There have been many movies of S&S, at one time almost as many as P&P— though Emma is beginning to outstrip S&S, especially when the basic content is stripped from it (like the latest true travesty) and then others (alas) follow suit.


Rachel Cusk — photograph by Adrian Clarke

For another week I’ll read all three of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy: Outline, Transit and Kudos. Here’s Heidi Julavitz’s review for the New York Times. I had registered for a course at Politics and Prose to get myself to read them, but when I could see the course was going to be taught by an irritating fool (I tried one of her two Jumpa Lahiri sessions), I said to myself, you are the fool. The young woman, though said to have an MFA or some degree like that (her real qualification is she sets up lectures from acceptable/popular authors for P&P stores), approached the stories without so much as suggesting any overview of the author, any perspective on her work, but plunged into intense reactions on her part, and encouraged the others to do the same — as if her subjective “annoyance” with this character’s deeds for that character’s ideas is literary criticism or knowledge. I know people do this online all the time, often in unrationalized sudden bursts, but not the better responders. This is no way to conduct a class in literature so I dropped the course and will attend to no more of her solemn subjectivities.  I’m listening to the third of Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) and maybe I’ll be into the fourth of four by that time, and I can compare the two sets (roman fleuves?)

So gentle reader, how shall I end this summer blog? By telling you I have returned to my review of the Cambridge Edition of the Works of Anne Finch (I now have both volumes), and will thread this in too — though I imagine this will take several months, even — if I am to do it right. Today I began again to go over the major manuscripts and printed books and the minor ones and other sources for the poetry, in order to clarify it all for myself. This time I will take good notes. I don’t doubt Finch had a box too, for as a girl, and again as a maid of honor at the Stuart court, then Capt Finch’s lady, she went on many a trip before she became Lady Winchilsea — and not a few afterwards.

So much to live for I have to remind myself as I look at a beautiful book called Virginia Woolf at Home (by Hilary Macaskill). Tonight I’m retiring to Jenny Hartley’s Millions like Us: British Women’s Fiction of the Second World War (I’m loving it), one of the first non-fiction books on women’s literature that Virago published — this press was among the first to build something called Women’s Literature as an idea and then an imagined true reality.

The truth is I have been despairing these last weeks as I watch others go out and know I won’t and can’t the way they do; I should instead write blogs like this where I write myself into apparent cheerfulness, encourage myself to go on. I have no long-term projects any more because they are impossible without Jim’s help in traveling or merely compositing documents to the level demanded by most editors. I am bereft of joy and the deep sense of security he gave to me. I’m with Maggie Smith in this: since her husband died about 25 years ago (the marriage lasted 25 years), she says “it’s seems a bit pointless, going on on one’s own, and not having someone to share it with.”

Ellen

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An Austen family tree

Dear friends and readers,

An article with new significant information about the Austen family and slavery has been published by the Times Literary Supplement for May 21, 2021: Devoney Looser’s “Breaking the Silence.” Unfortunately it’s behind a paywall, and, as a TLS paper and digital subscriber, the only way I can access the online article is through an app on my ipad (which I have never succeeded in downloading). A complicated app arrangement effectively prevents me from reading, much less sharing the text (History Today plays the same game). I have read the paper version and so share the article by summarizing the content — and offering a few comments on the article and topic. I add material as well.


Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire; one of a number of country houses who are currently candidates as inspiration for Mansfield Park

It’s been long known that Jane Austen’s father, George had economic and social ties to a West Indian plantation through his familial relations and friendships. Looser sets out to correct misinformation, exaggeration, and confused muddles. Briefly, George Austen met James Langford Nibbs at Oxford where he may have been a tutor or proctor. Nibbs’s second son was sent home to be educated by George Austen among his other male pupils at Steventon. George married Nibbs to Barbara Langford (an heiress) in a London church; Nibbs chose the George Austen to educate his second son in the school set up in the parsonage; and George was co-trustee in a marriage settlement that involved disbursing legacies or funds for chosen relatives. The other co-trustee was Morris Robinson, brother to Elizabeth Montagu, a pivotal person among women intellectuals in Bath, London, and elsewhere. Looser suggests maybe we could find more connection between this famous bluestocking and Jane, at the same time as she dissociates George from direct economic activity and any personal gain from slavery. It was the tenant or owner who directly directed what happened on and to the property and it was probably Morris Robinson who managed the trust.

On Jane’s naval brothers: Looser goes on to Francis and Charles who it has been known for some time had abolitionist sympathies. She requotes the quotations usually cited. She does not mention that Francis was known as a severe flogger — pressing is a form of kidnapping and in effect enslaving white men for a period of time; flogging them to force them to do the work they were kidnapped to do is horrible. She also omits Francis’s awards from the imperialistic investments and insurers (part of what any captain who was successful in ventures would get); these Brian Southam tries to list and finds to have been modest (Jane Austen and the Navy, p 120-21).

As to Henry, it seems that late in life Henry Austen attended an 1840 anti-slavery convention in London and heard Thomas Clarkson, whose writings Jane in a letter said she admired so much, speak. He was not among those painted by Benjamin Robert Hayden in a well-known picture of the people who attended this convention, but he was one of two delegates for Colchester where he was a clergyman. We cannot know what if anything he actively did besides show up. I wrote a short life of Henry Austen for this blog (from research I did and articles I read before Clery’s book on Henry as a banker came out) and discovered that in his career as a military man he attended a court martial of men (again originally pressed) who had mutinied. So equally he publicly supported harsh cruel punishment of men kidnapped and in effect enslaved. Henry’s motives for attending public political spectacles seem to me problematic.


Charlotte Haywood (Rose Williams) and Georgiana Lambe (Crystal Clarke) becoming friends in the ITV Sanditon

Of course the real interest in finding all this out is what were Jane Austen’s attitudes, and it seems from Looser’s account (on my own reading of the letters here on this blog over 3 years) on the whole Austen was quietly anti-slavery. The evidence consists of her admiration for Thomas Clarkson’s writings (not specified, it must be admitted, what she admires Clarkson for). In Mansfield Park there is Fanny Price’s famous question to her exhausted uncle home from Antigua where “the slave trade” was central to extracting wealth; his answer is not told but rather our attention is directed to how silent his children become, and we are to see them as arrogant, ignorant or indifferent about slavery or their father’s hard work, or uncomfortable that such a subject is brought up — or perhaps feeling Fanny is showing off in front of her uncle (a suspicion her girl cousins feel about her when younger). Looser also mentions Austen’s “mixed race West Indian heiress named Miss Lambe” in the unfinished Sanditon: this character gets a lot of attention nowadays since the TV serial adaptation.


Jane Fairfax (Laurie Pypher) telling Emma she has been “exhausted for a very long time” and needs to go back to her aunt’s small apartment (2009 BBC Emma, scripted Sandy Welch)

Alas, Looser is another critic who (to me) mysteriously overlooks Emma, where the amount of concrete specific reference to slavery is, if anything, far longer and interestingly complicated with women’s subjection than the single dramatic dialogue (a passage) in Mansfield Park. Jane Fairfax likens governessing to slavery, and employment offices to marketplaces dealing in selling human flesh (she does not allude to anything sexual in the masters of such houses, but rather the body and strength of the repressed hard-worked young woman who puts herself in service to caste-ridden households). Mrs Elton (an heiress herself) takes up Jane’s allusion to deny that her brother-in-law’s wealth (and Maple Grove, the mansion and estate she has so boasted about) owe anything to “the slave trade;” maybe not, but Bristol was one of the ports where enslaved people were brought, held, sold, and she and her family hail from there.

Looser concludes by addressing and also talking about those whom she suggests resist such discussions and says their silence is wrong, a form of erasure of the full context of Austen’s world and books. Silence today is collusion and complicity with enslavement — in the way the Bertrams’ cousins’ silence feels like in Mansfield Park.

Ellen

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Dahlia Ravikovitch 1997 photograph (1936-2005)

A tweet I read tonight on twitter: “Tonight I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another” Eman Basher @sometimes Pooh.” This reminded me of what I was told of a cousin of my mother’s in WW2. She chose to accompany her 6 children into the gas chamber rather than let them die alone.

Dear readers and friends,

This is an unusual foremother poet blog for me: most of the time I do not choose a woman poet because of the immediate political relevancy of her work; here in this time of another slaughter of Palestinians, yet more destruction of the open air prison they are forced to endure existence in, and the apparent indifference of all those in charge of gov’ts with the power to stop this shameless horror, I put forward Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poetry where she as a native-born Israeli, Hebrew-speaking and writing, eloquently cried out against what the Israeli gov’t (and the people who voted it in) inflict on a people whose country they seized by war (1948, 1967). Unless otherwise noted all the poems are translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld:

In this poem Ravikovitch identifies as an Israeli woman watching as a young female Arab is about to be destroyed

Hovering at a low altitude

I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
emerges suddenly
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.

And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

This one makes explicit the aim of the Israeli gov’t and settler colonialist “ethnic cleansers”

Get out of Beirut

Take the knapsacks,
the clay jugs, the washtubs,
the Korans,
the battle fatigues,
the bravado, the broken soul,
and what’s left in the street, a little bread or meat,
and kids running around like chickens in the heat.
How many children do you have?
How many children did you have?
It’s hard to keep the children safe in times like these.
Not the way it used to be in the old country,
in the shade of the mosque, under the fig tree,
where you’d get the kids out of the house in the morning
and tuck them into bed at night.
Whatever’s not fragile, gather up in those sacks:
clothing, bedding, blankets, diapers,
some memento, perhaps,
a shiny artillery shell,
or a tool that has practical value,
and the babies with pus in their eyes
and the RPG kids.
We’d love to see you afloat in the water with no place to go
no port and no shore.
You won’t be welcome anywhere.
You’re human beings who were thrown out the door,
you’re people who don’t count anymore.
You’re human beings that nobody needs.
You’re a bunch of lice
crawling about
that pester and bite

If you are still reading, two more:

A Mother Walks Around

A mother walks around with a child dead in her belly.
This child hasn’t been born yet.
When his time is up the dead child will be born
head first, then trunk and buttocks
and he won’t wave his arms about or cry his first cry
and they won’t slap his bottom
won’t put drops in his eyes
won’t swaddle him
after washing the body.
He will not resemble a living child.
His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth
and she won’t be troubled about his future,
won’t worry how in the world to support him
and does she have enough milk
and does she have enough clothing
and how will she ever fit one more cradle into the room.
The child is a perfect izadil« already,
unmade ere he was ever made.
And he’ll have his own little grave at the edge of the cemetery
and a little memorial day
and there won’t be much to remember him by.
These are the chronicles of the child
who was killed in his mother’s belly
in the month of January, in the year 1988,
“under circumstances relating to state security.”

The Story of the Arab who died in the Fire

When the fire grabbed his body, it didn’t happen by degrees.
There was no burst of heat before,
or giant wave of smothering smoke
and the feeling of a spare room one wants to escape to.
The fire held him at once
—there are no metaphors for this—
it peeled off his clothes
cleaved to his flesh.
The skin nerves were the first to be touched.
The hair was consumed.
“God! They are burning!” he shouted.
And that is all he could do in self-defense.
The flesh was already burning between the shack’s boards
that fed the fire in the first stage.
There was already no consciousness in him.
The fire burning his flesh
numbed his sense of future
and the memories of his family
and he had no more ties to his childhood
and he didn’t ask for revenge, salvation,
or to see the dawn of the next day.
He just wanted to stop burning.
But his body supported the conflagration
and he was as if bound and fettered,
and of that too he did not think.
And he continued to burn by the power of his body
made of hair and wax and tendons.
And he burned a long time.
And from his throat inhuman voices issued
for many of his human functions had already ceased,
except for the pain the nerves transmitted
in electric impulses
to the pain center in the brain,
and that didn’t last longer than a day.
And it was good that his soul was freed that day
because he deserved to rest.
— Translated from the original Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut

**********************************

To be accurate, Dahlia Ravikovitch’s oeuvre as a whole is not dominated by poems of protest on behalf of the Palestinian people or other groups the Israelis or their allies have decided to “take out.” While she appears to have been a peace activist, and sincere political humanist from the outset of her career, much of her earlier poetry is written in styles and imitation of Biblical and archaic verse; for a secular poet and independent woman (married twice, with her son born from a lover she did not marry), her allusions and content are (to me) jarringly from patriarchal sources: her mother had been a graduate of a religious teachers college who went on to train as a teacher of Jewish studies, and Dahlia herself became a a student immersed in Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish studies. She also wrote prototypical “women’s verse” at first (fantasy, presenting herself as overwhelmed by the world) and only gradually does feminist verse emerge. While courageously outspoken against all the forced evacuations, land and house confiscation, abuse of Arab women and children in ordinary discourse and the groups of people she demonstrated and worked with, her earlier targets were the abuse of language, power and powerlessness itself.

For myself I find her poetry direct, forceful, but, except for the personal autobiographical poems, curiously detached from modern reality until half way through her oeuvre. My feeling is it was over time that she became passionately horrified by what she saw the state she lived in did to non-Jews living on the land mass it controlled. It was as she grew older she grew angry at the norms many women obeyed. Perhaps it was after she lost custody of her son (1989, a great grief for her), that she began her moving poetry about mothers.

She was born in 1936, the daughter of a Russian born engineer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine via China. When she was six, her father was run over by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army; one of her early successful (and a characteristic) poems registers the trauma she felt when two years later her mother first told her that her father was dead:

On the Road at Night there stands the man

On the road at night there stands the man
Who once upon a time was my father
And I must go down to the place where he stands
Because I was his firstborn daughter.

Night after night he stands alone in his place
And I must go down and stand in that place.
And I wanted to ask him: Till when must I go.
And I knew as I asked: I must always go.

In the place where he stands, there is a trace of danger
Like the day he walked that road and a car ran him over.
And that’s how I knew him and marked him to remember:
This very man was once my father

The use of repetition, the simple stanzas, rhymes, monosyllables, and plain blunt sarcasm are central to her most memorable shorter lyrics and feminist poetry, as in

Clockwork Doll

I was a clockwork doll, but then
That night I turned left, right, round and around
And fell on my face, cracked on the ground,
And skillful hands tried to piece me together again.

Then once more I was a proper doll
And all my manner was demure and polite.
But I became damaged goods that night,
A fractured twig with only tendrils to prevent a fall.

And then I went invited to dance at the ball
But they cast me me with the writhing dogs and cats
Though all my steps were measured and true.

And my hair was golden, and my eyes were blue
And I had a dress printed in garden flower sprawl,
And a trim of cherries tacked to my straw hat.

She must have been a difficult (as the common adjective used) child from the first. Her mother took her and her siblings to live on a kibbutz after the father died, but at age 13 unable to cope with the collectivist conformist atmosphere of such a place, Dahlia left and moved from foster family to foster family. She was lucky to meet and be mentored by a literature teacher in high school Baruch Kurzweil who praised the way she blended archaic and contemporary modes; with high grades (a story of an intelligent reading girl) and the encouragement of Avraham Shlonsky, the leading poet of the pre-State Hebrew Moderna, and Leah Goldberg, a major woman poet of the time, her verse was published when she was 18; she went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was awarded a scholarship for Hebrew studies at Oxford.

For a woman whose work received so many prizes over the years, she did not do well (I am not surprised) in the academic or publishing marketplace when it comes to positions or jobs, and at the end of her life she was living in what is described as “a modest apartment in Tel Aviv, near the Mediterranean, barely ekeing out a living” as a journalist, TV & theater critic, high school teacher, writer of popular lyrics. She translated into Hebrew poems by Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Poe and others, as well as children’s classics, such as Mary Poppins. She is said to have suffered from severe depressions; when she was found dead in her apartment, it was at first assumed she killed herself.

Medically speaking it was determined she died of heart irregularities (“sudden death”) but surely her serious emotional breakdowns, lack of a secure family life, peripetatic lifestyle, several relationships, and underlying moods in her poetry (justifiable anger, bitterness, anguish and just strong passion for whatever she is feeling) and poverty (which she is said to have worried about) helped bring on a relatively early death. Not that she was spiritually alone or neglected; she collaborated with other poets, musicians, and respected public figures seeking peace, justice, and equality for all in Israel.

If the interested reader wants to know more, I list in the comments a couple of websites beyond 5 more blogs (by me), and a few reviews of Szobel’s book. For this blog I read Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (where most of the poems here come from) and A Poetics of Trauma by Ilana Szobel. I find Szobel’s psychoanalytic and close reading approach to Ravikovitch’s poetry to be illuminating, useful — she will help the reader appreciate Ravokovitch’s poetry in all its layering. See The Poetry Foundation, Jewish Women’s Archive, an obituary from The Guardian.

*********************************************


From a series by Martha Rosler: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

So here are a few of the poems I find most successful and appealing. This first one is said to have been a favorite with her; and is often reprinte

Dress of Fire (The Dress)

You know, she said, they made you
a dress of fire.
Remember how Jason’s wife burned in her dress?
It was Medea, she said, Medea did that to her.
You’ve got to be careful, she said,
they made you a dress that glows
like an ember, that burns like coals.

Are you going to wear it, she said, don’t wear it.
It’s not the wind whistling, it’s the poison
seeping in.
You’re not even a princess, what can you do to Medea?
Can’t you tell one sound from another, she said,
it’s not the wind whistling.

Remember, I told her, that time when I was six?
They shampooed my hair and I went out into the street.
The smell o shampoo trailed after me like a cloud.
Then I got sick from the wind and the rain.
I didn’t know a thing about reading Greek tragedies,
but the smell of the perfume spread
and I was very sick.
Now I can see it’s an unnatural perfume.

What will happen to you now, she said,
they made you a burning dress.
They made me a burning dress, I said. I know.
So why are you standing there, she said,
you’ve got to be careful.
You know what a burning dress is, don’t you?

I know, I said, but I don’t know
how to be careful.
The smell of that perfume confuses me.
I said to her, No one has to agree with me,
I don’t believe in Greek tragedies.

But the dress, she said, the dress is on fire.
What are you saying, I shouted,
what are you saying?
I’m not wearing a dress at all,
what’s burning is me.
— translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch

She can express sheer sensual delight and pleasure; here is sonnet using the same devices of repetition and simple words and natural imagery:

Delight

There did I know a delight beyond all delight,
And it came to pass upon the Sabbath day
As tree boughs reached for the sky with all their might.
Round and round like a river streamed the light,
And the wheel of the eye craved the sunwheel that day
Then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
The heads of the bushes blazed, insatiable bright
Sunlight striking the waves, igniting the spray.

It would swallow my head like a golden orange, that light.
Water lilies were gaping their yellow bright
Mouths to swallow the ripples and reeds in their way.
And indeed it came to pass on the Sabbath day
As tree boughs lusted for the sky with all their might,
And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.

There is a series of poems where she expresses raw feelings as a woman involved with men who don’t treat her that well and whom she herself accepts because there is nothing better to calm herself with. I’d reprint “Cinderella in the Kitchen” but it is long so here is a shorter one from this type or series:

At Her Own Pace

A woman is holding a small photo.
She is no longer in her prime.
Travels a lot. Airplane. Suitcase.
For months on end, she stays
with relatives of hers.
“At your pace I couldn’t,” she says.
An introverted woman,
gentle in her ways.
People give in to her. She gives in too.
She’s on the move again. Airplane. Suitcase.
Nothing was set in advance.
The phone rang. She was flooded with a joy
that could tear the heavens open. He’s a man who’s not hers
in the full sense of the word.
She walks from room to room alone. An endless calm.
In the innermost circle of her being, she’s torn to pieces.
On the outside she’s calm. Doesn’t really seek
to take possession.
A small passport photo in her hand.
He’s wearing a tie. A featureless face,
I would say. For her he’s really
the world entire.
Apart from that, outside the innermost circle
she’s calm and recoiling
at her own pace.

Her poems on mothering are intertwined with her protests against brutal war — she saw mothering in war zones:

The quieter intense lasting grief of loss (this also includes typical sarcasm):

What a Time She Had!

How did that story go?
As a rule she wouldn’t have remembered so quickly.
In that soil no vineyard would grow.
A citrus grove stood there,
sickly,
stunted.
The single walnut tree blooming there bore no fruit
as if some essential life-giving element
were lacking in that soil.
Hard green lemons.
A balding patch of lawn.
A great tranquillity.
On the western side, the hedge went wild
and there was a honeysucker, of course
(today we’d call it a sunbird)
-if he were still alive
he’d be twenty years old.
In the valley, the army was hunting down human beings.
Fire in the thicket.
Summer’s hellfire blazing as usual.
Evening mowing down shadows, merciless.

Now she is a mother: On the Attitude towards Children in Times of War

He who destroys thirty babies
it is as if he’d destroyed three hundred babies,
and toddlers too,
or even eight-and-a-half year olds;
in a year, God willing, they’d be soldiers
in the Palestine Liberation Army.

Benighted children,
at their age
they don’t even have a real world view.
And their future is shrouded, too:
refugee shacks, unwashed faces,
sewage flowing in the streets,
infected eyes,
a negative outlook on life.

And thus began the flight from city to village,
from village to burrows in the hills.
As when a man did flee from a lion,
as when he did flee from a bear,
as when he did flee from a cannon,
from an airplane, from our own troops.

He who destroys thirty babies,
it is as if he’d destroyed one thousand and thirty,
or one thousand and seventy,
thousand upon thousand.
And for that alone shall he find
no peace.

Author’s note: This is a variation on a poem by Natan Zach that deals [satirically] with the question of whether there were exaggerations in the number of children reported killed in the [1982] Lebanon War.
Lines 1-2, He who destroys: cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5: “He who destroys a single human soul. . . , it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.”
Lines 16-17, As when a man: Amos 5:19, about the danger of apocalyptic yearnings.

This is the concluding poem in the volume translated by Boch and Kronfeld:

The Fruit of the Land

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons.
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved antitank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we don’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the CO
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you track him down,
and if you seek him without success
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess

From Bloch and Kronfeld’s notes: “The Fruit of the Land” (Hebrew, zimrat ha-arets), zimra means singing; in biblical Hebrew it can also mean “produce, bounty”. Block and Kronfield capture the macho voice of the defense types we constantly hear in the media rhapsodizing about Israel’s superior firepower. But nowadays they wouldn’t acknowledge they have “more than enough” and would have answered the opening question – ” You asked if we’ve got enough cannons” – with a demand for more funds for the military. There is much allusion to the Bible.

Central to the poem is the reality that things do not have to be this way. Armaments ever worse do not have to be the fruit of the earth

I pull out separately this rare more cheerful poem: New Zealand is a colony which succeeded: not all countries founded by colonizer end in cruelty, brutality, hatred; we see in this poem her early Biblical allusions, her use of repetition, her personal voice, the irony and sarcasm, and a late turn to acceptance.

Two Isles Hath New Zealand

Africa’s not the place to go right now.
Plagues, famine — the human body can’t bear it.
Brutality. They flog human beings with bull-whips.
Asia — it would make your hair stand on end.
Trapped in the mountains, trapped in the swamps.
The human body can’t bear it,
There are limits to the life force, after all.

As for me,
He shall make me lie down in green pastures
in New Zealand.

Over there, sheep with soft wool,
the softest of wools,
graze in the meadow.
Truehearted folk herd their flocks,
on Sundays they pay a visit to church
dressed in sedate attire.

No point hiding it any longer:
We’re an experiment that went awry,
a plan that misfired,
tied up with too much murderousness.
Why should I care about this camp or that,
screaming till their throats are raw,
spitting fine hairs.
In any case, too much murderousness.
To Africa I’m not going
and not to Asia, either.
I’m not going any place.

In New Zealand
in green pastures, beside the still waters,
kindhearted folk
will share their bread with me.

****************************************************


Al-shifa Hospital, 2014

Which other women have written powerful political verse, including directly about war successfully (whose work I know)? Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, Simone Weil, Alice Oswald. Who have pictured it? Martha Rosler. Novels and plays and memoirs: Ann Radcliffe (in her Summer Tour), Olivia Manning, Iris Origo, Lillian Hellman, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marta Hiller, Margaret Atwood, Adhaf Soueif

Ellen

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For three days I could find no information on the Persephone Books’ move to Bath. But this fourth day I got a letter from a company representative to say yes, sadly, they are are moving. I had concluded that I fell for an April 1st fools day hoax. No such luck, they have been driven to the smaller city, away from Bloomsbury and the nearby British Library. I include my correspondence with them in the comments


Nicola Beauman (b. 1944) recently

“I like books that tell me how we lived,” says Persephone’s founder Nicola Beauman.“I’m very, very interested in the novel as social history.”

Dear friends and readers,

This is a shorter blog than I’ve been in the habit of writing, more in the nature of an item of news, followed by context suggesting the meaning of the news. I’ve been very frustrated since the YouTube of Nicola Beauman announcing the move of the Persephone bookshop located in Bloomsbury (Lamb’s Conduit Street, near the British Library), London to Bath, which I saw on twitter and was able to trace to a Carol Shields site on Facebook, is not movable — I cannot share it, nor can I link you to it, except as a tweet (on twitter — do click as of this morning the video is still there). I cannot even find the originating story in any of the major online newspapers I read. No wonder; there is no originating story there. The Video says nothing about moving; it is about why and how Beauman started Persephone books and that is is managing to survive during the pandemic though online sales and its reputation among a select loyal group of readers. I was correct to surmize that economics might driving the shop from its present location to this western spa city, only it was quietly announced in a newsletter that goes out to members of the Bookstore and potential customers who subscribe.

Why make this blog. Because the marginalized announcement together with the way the store is tactfully run, and the people are careful to control how it appears and is discussed — is indicative of the continued marginalization of women and their justified apprehension of the way they will be presented. And yet it has been since the beginning of the 20th century and the suffragettes’ presses, and until now, so crucially important that women have their own presses.  As I cannot be sure you will heat the YouTube yourself, I’ll tell you what she says below. I will “flesh out” some of the points she makes with my own experience.  Then add some information on other presses publishing women’s and feminist books.


A photograph from one of the corners of the bookshop

Nicola Beauman started the company in 1998 because she had long loved 20th century women’s books, and finding for decades that most publishers would publish very few books by women of them, especially if they were about mothers centrally, that at long last (like the little red hen) did it herself. She says what is unique to the 20th century is women are still strongly constrained by all sorts of inhibiting conventions and until the 1960s/70s could get good jobs or into professions, were not seen or active widely in public life in general the way they began to be as of the 1980s. Yet they were going to public school up to university, working “outside the home” (“out to work”) in large numbers before World War Two, had the right vote and many rights and liberties that men have. So knowledge, self-esteem, self-confidence were within their purview regularly.

The result is a peculiar angle on life. I have discovered in teaching 20th century political novels by women this term, I just love not only the books I’m teaching, but to read about and some of other 20th century women’s political books.

I’ve twice taught a course I called 19th Century Women of Letters, and once Historical Novels by Women, especially set in the 18th century and dealing with war. I moderate a small modest listserv on groups.io I call WomenWriters.

All other things being equal, I often prefer women’s prose texts and poetry to men’s. They are inwardly much richer by virtue of the aesthetics that often informs them. Why not plays? because until recently almost all stage plays were written from a male angle even when women got a chance to write and to be staged. Women have, it seems to me, broken into screenplays for movies much quicker than for plays — less money, less prestige.


The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme, a partial view of the cover — see excellent blog

my other Persephone books are Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, The Making of the Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Miss Pettigrow Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson, Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity, Beauman’s own The Other Elizabeth Taylor, a book of short stories, and a lovely catalogue.

I love that the covers of these books are grey. Virago had a policy of choosing for covers paintings or images by women, or the kind that a woman would not — not a woman as a come-hither-fuck-me sex object. They seem to have given that up and turned to more abstract designs (as has Oxford of late), as if the publishers fear that younger adults today will not be attracted to a picture that depicts the 19th or even 20th century — as too old-fashioned. Grey solves the problem I have had many a time: a book I long to read comes with a soft-core porn image of a woman on its cover.

I am now reading a very good translation of Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina by Richard Pever and Larissa Volokhonsy, in a deluxe Penguin edition. In order to be able to endure the physical object, I put over the image of a woman’s knee which suggested what was up her thigh, a still from Joe Wright’s film adaptation of the novel featuring Keira Knightley looking desperately calm. Sometimes I can’t find an image that fits, so I just have to cut the cover off — weakening and eventually ruining the book. Grey reminds me of the old sets of good book sold in the 1930s and 40s by Left Book Clubs with soft brown or beige covers, sometimes with soft gold or silver lettering.

Beauman says that Persephone has kept up their high standard of choice and their have been sales sufficient to stay in business, even during this pandemic. But they will have more budget to publish and do more of the things they like to. They miss the in-coming customers and occasional events (book launches, talks). IF they had to they could succeed in Bath & spread their wisdom, and splendour there. But after all, they do not. Mockers may find their presence absurd, but I don’t nor their shop.

The New York Times had a spread of pictures and story to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the press and bookshop: A Bookstore of One’s Own by Sarah Lyall. Over on Twitter, Elaine Showalter tweeted to my comment that I like the shop, love the imprint, prefer to read good books by women most of the time, that I’ve covered wonderful lists, and there “really should be a book about the great feminist presses;” I replied there is a fine book on Virago: Catherine Riley: The Virago Story: Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon. This retells the origins of the press, its struggles to stay true to its mission, good books by women, its morphing into divisions of larger publishers and its stubborn integrity until today, the specific women who have made it what it is. I own too many (cherish most) to enumerate. An essay on the authors favored who resemble Austen can be found in Janeites, ed. Deirdre Lynch: Katie Trumpener, The Virago Jane. But a full scale book would be enourmously helpful in understanding one important strand of feminism today: other presses born around the time of Virago were Spare Rib, Pandora (“Mothers of the Novel” were the older books), Feminist Press of NYC. Anyone coming to this blog who can think of others, please supply the title in the comments.

As for Beauman herself, I’ve read her superb (highly informative) A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel, 1914–39, Virago (London), 1983 (about early and mid-20th century women writers and their books); The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Persephone (London, England), 1993 (did you know Taylor was a communist? and had affairs — you wouldn’t realize this from the surface stories of her books unless you think about them a bit); and Morgan (on EM Forster as seen and realized through his imaginative writings). The first and third have meant a lot to me. I have been to the shop twice, once with a friend I’d never met face-to-face before, knew for years here on the Internet. We had coffee and some kind of cake.

Ellen

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Mary Taylor’s Miss Miles — one of several cover illustrations, Oxford UP, introduced by Janet H. Murray

Friends and readers,

I so enjoyed this book I am in danger of over-praising it. So I will begin by conceding it’s not Middlemarch; and if I say that I first read about Mary Taylor and conceived a desire to read her book from Emily Midorikawa and Emma Claire Sweeney’s portrait of her, description of her novel, and story of her friendship with Charlotte Bronte, which in their A Secret Sisterhood: the Literary Friendships of Jane Austen [Anne Sharpe], Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf also includes a number of passages from Taylor’s letters to Charlotte, you must not expect the density of poetic and erudite diction found in Charlotte or Anne’s novels.

But if you are willing to come down a little in your expectation, partly because this is Taylor’s first (and alas last) novel, accept some visible struggles in the structuring and knitting together of the book’s several stories, a multi-plot pattern which accommodates four central heroines, Miss Miles is as insightful, eloquent, with cogent dramatically realized lessons that women must be allowed to become maturely independent, self-supporting when the need arises (as it often does in ordinary women’s lives even among the 19th century middling classes), self-respecting and morally brave as many of the finer still read and known 19th century English novels. My header title comes from Murray’s introduction where she writes: the novel “reflects [Mary Taylor’s] lifelong advocacy of independence for women and her lifelong experience of women’s courage and sustaining friendships.”


An old photograph of Mary Taylor on an alpine expedition taken with friends in 1874: she is on the far left, age 57

I will leave it to my reader to click on Taylor’s name (above) to read Nick Holland’s short biography of Taylor. You will discover in Murray’s introduction a full life of Taylor’s teaching, rebellions, early traveling, time in New Zealand and long life in Yorkshire after she made enough money not to have to work. Ironically for all that she argued forcefully all women must work to become independent, as soon as she was able to stop all week long hour working in a business she created she quit — not to be idle, but to devote the rest of her life to reading and good causes — and travel and enjoyment with others. There are a number of characters and events that link Bronte’s Shirley to Mary Taylor’s life; nonetheless, Taylor severely criticized Bronte for her timidity in her books, for being coopted herself, for sacrificing herself to her father, and she did scold Charlotte in life. What is most poignant is that what emerges is the father was central to Charlotte’s choices for most of her life to self-erase, abase her talent, and sacrifice herself to him. Today we have a big chorus normalizing the man, making him ever so attractive, but here is another account which proves that Gaskell had it right.


The Red House, Taylor home in Gomersal (from In Search of Anne Bronte)

For other criticism, common readers’ voices, here is a sizable thread from “good reads”, where the central posting describes the book as original in its use of a bildingsroman for four young women, feminist, about women’s friendships, and morally intense. This prompts a number of postings by people responding well to the novel (one in Italian). It was written and rewritten over the course of Taylor’s life, so while it’s set in mid-century, the feel and attitudes of mind the book speaks to are those of century’s end, and is part of a series published by Oxford for the British Library, as by “female authors who enjoyed broad, popular appeal in their day.”

In a recent Times Literary Supplement, January 8, 2021 (p. 19), in “Tales of Hopeless Husbands”, Lucy Scholes writes charmingly about this series — of the intelligence, appeal and some of the common themes across these books. Scholes cites several and describes a few novels that sound very good, one by an author brought back by today’s feminism, May Sinclair, The Tree of Heaven; a number of Sinclair’s novels are still read, and are reprinted by Virago too, e.g., The Life of Harriet Frean). Another author in this series is E.H. Young’s Chatterton Square in which the secondary heroine is a spinster wholly dependent upon a (married) friend for their shared income — the friend passes as a widow and is thus respectable but in fact she is merely bravely separated from her husband. Young is still remembered for her Miss Mole and found in Virago and Persephone books. Scholes thinks the best of the fine books she is writing about Dorothy Evelyn Smith’s O the Brave Music. In a number of the books described we discover marrying a particular man (a bad choice) ruined the narrator’s (or heroines’) hopes for a fulfilling life. A rare gay one is Elizabeth Armin’s apparently lesser known Father (rain does fall in this book).

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Taylor’s Miss Miles fits right in with the worlds captured in this British Library series. Eventually there emerge five distinctly different women characters, one, Miss Everard, somewhat older than the others so not part of the bildingsroman in quite the same way: they differ somewhat in class, nature, probably occupation (for all but one are intended to do something towards earning the family’s living and their own within the family), less so in age. However all five prove to be on the edge of economic disaster (and two topple over for a while, with one dying), their circumstances are different psychologically and sociologically:

Two of our heroines, Sarah or Miss Miles and Maria or Miss Bell, are strongly supported emotionally, intellectually and insofar as income will go, economically by family and close friends. Sarah is the daughter of two shopkeepers who encourage her musical talent; she must struggle with them to go to school,but they support many of her choices to become a servant (only for a while), to sing in a neighborhood choir (with young men) and then in the established church (they are dissenters) — though we see how obedient she is, and how they could thwart her. Maria, a Vicar’s daughter both of whose gentle intelligent parents die, leaving her with a small legacy with which she (against much disapproval and invented obstacles from the neighborhood and an uncle, Mr Turner, supposed to help her) opens a school. Dora Woodman’s mother, a widow, marries badly for a second time, and her husband, a brutal ignorant man, is partly responsible for her mother, his wife’s decline and death, with Dora left isolated, with no opportunity to learn manners, or to improve her skills from books or training of any kind. My heart felt deeply for Dora whose bearing and character slide down until late in the story her step-father’s death rescues her in the sense she must turn to Maria, come to live with her, who luckily at that point, has just enough to share and encourage her in a plan she has to become a lecturer (again against advice, which angers Maria).

The seemingly most privileged, Amelia Turner, a property owner’s delicately brought up daughter, engaged to a wealthy young man who pretends to share her genuine literary tastes, finds when her father, the same Mr Turner’s film goes broke for a while, she is forbidden to do anything to help support them or herself lest it should shame him or bring them down in status. It is she who is worn down by hostility in her family to her desire not to sit doing nothing, starving, pretending all is well, by the turning against her and dropping her of the still wealthy in the town; in this novel the decline and death of a female character is made believable by long experience of frustration, ostracizing, and desperation. Loneliness afflicts her, Dora, and Miss Everard, genteel in the manner of Amelia, whom we discover has been readily cheated by Turner for years since she was taught nothing about money and yet to fear to ask any male she feels dependent upon about her situation. Her class bias (snobbery) at once keeps her spirits up and estranges her from others who might help her; her pride keeps her alienated and supports her.


Roe Head School where Mary Taylor, Charlotte Bronte — and Ellen Nussey met and spent some of their years growing up together — schools gone to and the experiences had therein are enormously important in Miss Miles — and if a girl or boy does not go to school that is equally crucial to his future. At the same time we see how young adults do not at first understand why this “book” learning is so important until later in life …

Miss Miles has other female characters, several of whom figure importantly in the different stories as well as male characters who variously court, are friends with, help, or hinder our heroines: of especial importance, Sam Sykes, close to Sarah from childhood, who becomes Mr Turner’s partner for a while, is also cheated by him, but manages to escape the burden of debt that would have sunk him by selling the failing business and choosing another less prestigious trade; his sister, Harriet, who marries early on; they live close to the Miles family. Sydney Winde, part of this group of people just below gentility, a fine musician; Mr Branksome whom Maria becomes involved with (they write letters to one another); Mr Thelwal, who breaks the engagement with Amelia, and is a harsh creditor to her father. Mrs Overton and other wealthier county ladies; Mrs Dodds, a Vicar’s wife. A thorougly people world is built to represent Repton, and the West Riding around the town. I found myself utterly identifying with Taylor’s heroines in many of the scenes of social satire, and thought her text remarkably nuanced in exposing how people manipulate and put one another down, discourage, encourage, hurt in a variety of experiences. How people in power cannot always make up their minds to reveal vulnerability or need and so will puzzle those dependent on them for work or as educators.

One of people in our group wrote in to say:

I am actually quite engrossed by this novel and read ahead. What I like about the book is that it feels so raw and angry (note how often the word “anger“ is mentioned in the text). Yes, the writing is often clumsy and wooden but it does feel so honest. Taylor is grappling to find the right words to express how these girls are struggling in the world, how they are trying to find their place, protect those they love but ultimately cannot help (Dora and her mother – I could really relate to Dora – her helpless rage about her mother´s wrong decision in marrying this horrible man Woodman who just needs a housekeeper and his equally horrid, unkind, cruel sons). I really like this focus on women/mothers/girls and how they interact with one another. Also, it´s such a nice change not to have a love story lurking around the corner …

One of the themes of this book is there is more to life that makes it worth living than being monetarily successful or rising in rank. Yet one does need money — to back a school, to feed yourself, to pay what’s necessary for rent or taxes or loans. In one of the book’s turns, the world the characters live in suddenly becomes poorer — they do not understand the workings of this but they are many of the characters done in for a while or permanently by a depression. The key note is “There’s summat wrong somewhere,” repeated in variations, “There’s surely summat wrong when such as he wor cannot live,” just after a recitation ending in “He’s worked all his life, and couldn’t get on, an this is t’end on it!” The novel teaches that it is not an individual’s fault if he or she goes under and that after years of effort, you may well go under at any time. Taylor puts it this way for Sarah: she was “face to face with the great problem of existence, how was she to live.” Trollope makes light of women’s choices (marry the man and have two children and all will be well), thus dismissing the idea a woman has an individual existence, and will be responsible for herself when her husband fails, or leaves her, or dies. The narrator shows us how poverty leads to anti- or asocial behaviors — in desperation in phrases like “the fierce self-assertion that poverty makes necessary” (p. 175)

Another voice from our group:

” For me what stood out in this chapter was Sarah’s realization that despite years of hard work one could still end up poor, starving and dead. It’s definitely at odds with her longstanding goal of working hard which will naturally (in her mind) bring her wealth and happiness. It still seemed a shock when she said she would go into service like her sister. This reminds me of Gaskell’s novels where the working poor are disregarded by mill owners who don’t realize the extreme circumstances they live and die under. Here it is the government who is the culprit for not providing aid to hardworking people who face dire circumstances …”

Another: “I also found this chapter very powerful and felt deeply for Sarah as she asks if this is all there is to life. The singing and sense of community in the chapter help to dispel the gloom. I can’t help thinking this life was far gloomier than ours, as gloomy as life is right now in many ways, because they had less sources of entertainment, less connection outside their immediate community, less sense of overall hope for a chance to change their situation, and yet, I suspect they drew strength from the community in a way most of us don’t anymore.”

While there are bad and stupid people in Miss Miles, who make various individuals’ lives much worse (Mr Turner, Mr Thelwall, Mrs Overton), the situation itself is not attributed to specific individuals but implicitly to the whole system of money-making and trade. Gaskell also dramatizes how a crowd of people can emerge to demand the right not to starve, the right to make their gov’t improve their lives and works into her text the larger perspective of knowledgeable people — so explanations of what a strike is, a lockout, how pressing is wrong. Taylor tries to stay within in the level of understanding of her participants and she nowhere blackens them as a mob. She shows how hunger, loss, desperation brings people out because they do know there are authorities who can help them. Not only is “summat wrong,” there are ways to make it “right.” We see how chapel brings people together. Since her POV is a girl who would be forbidden to join and does join a march anyway we are so aware of how women aren’t wanted. They are told to go away. To this day many protests and demonstrations and mob scenes in the middle east are all men. No women obviously to be seen. We are witnessing these people educating themselves by protesting. In Mary Barton John Barton returned from London bitter and disillusioned from having tried to petition parliament (the chartist movement) but we do not experience the scene. Taylor includes this line about women: “for women to earn their own livings was almost impossible.” She is thinking of unmarried or separated or divorced or widowed women — women w/o men and unless in service cannot earn their own living. Maria’s school is not doing well. Sarah’s mother while overtly against her going on this march sympathizes with her when she does.


It seems to me closest in feel and story and class level to Miss Miles is Oliphant’s Kirsteen (subtitle: a Scots Story of Seventy Years Ago)

For me the qualified happy endings for all the characters but Amelia (and her bad father, Mr Turner, and a few others who die along the way) were convincing and satisfying. For example, the penultimate chapter “in which” Maria Bell rescues Miss Everard from starving in her cold flat; Miss Everard protests a little but soon is transferred to the house Maria has rented to serve as a school; a quietly Dickensian or maybe Gaskell-like scene follows as the two sup and eat by a fire together. Maria’s tutoring goes on, her small amount makes the difference as Miss Everard (who it turns out is owed money) becomes a sort of housekeeper. The chapter closes on Dora’s visit, with 5 pounds gift from her successful lecturing.

The book does end on two expected marriages. Sarah finally returns home from her various stints as servant, music teacher, companion, to find Sam returned from having chosen a failure that frees him to start afresh. Perhaps the scenes between them move too quickly, but we have much earlier in novel understood they are a pair and embedded in their intertwined family and chapel groups. But there will be no more invitations from the Overtons or the established church types for Sam and Sarah. I was reminded of Ross Poldark being told how he will now not be invited to upper class functions since he married his kitchen maid, Demelza. Ross: “Well I think I’ll survive it.” Our letter writing suitor, Branksome did have to persist, and here it’s telling that Maria never forgives him (but agrees to stop harping on it) for telling her to desert Dora (as beneath her). One of the women in our discussion did say (rightly) “the women were at odds with their future husbands, Maria more deservedly so I think. But within a flash, both admit their love and agree to marriage. Sammy and Sarah was interestingly without romantic language while Maria did admit she couldn’t live without Branksome and he declared he couldn’t/wouldn’t live without her”

“I don’t know how Amelia could have escaped the circumstances of her life. She had ideas of personal responsibility and work, but was too tied to her family structure and perhaps hadn’t the level of courage which Dora finally mustered that would have been required to leave home and make her own way. So I don’t know how the author could have resolved Amelia’s story except by her death. But it did remind me of the highly emotional withering away of other female characters, although typically for romantic reasons rather than being unable to pursue an ethical self-fulfillment.

The two outlier women, Dora and Miss Everard, seemed to represent the progress women have been making. Miss Everard totally ignorant of business which left her to be victimized by Turner for so many years versus Dora who has become a successful and independent career woman out in the world. Never could have guessed Dora’s outcome at the beginning of the novel.”

I responded that Sarah was presented all along as a pragmatic, phlegmatic type — a chip off her mother, whom she is not separated from. If there is less romance between our Sykes couple, by the book’s end there is already a little Sarah. Amelia’s is the tragedy of the book and perhaps that’s just right for it. Its deepest message is to keep women from working out their natures and capabilites and what is that in this world but often a job is to destroy them. In a deep way, unconsciously perhaps, Mary Taylor is defying gender fault-lines for understanding male and female characters. Men need to live emotionally fulfilling lives, and women need to be alive in the worlds of societies.

Taylor lacks the artistry of Oliphant and Gaskell — we see how she strains at the opening to introduce and to knit all her character groups together. She does not endow most of her characters with the learning Oliphant, Gaskell do — and of course Eliot and the Brontes both (not Emily). Perhaps also Gaskell is at times as angry at conditions for the poor or average person as Taylor is — as in heer North and South (remember Mr Higgins whose solutions are given respect, credence).


From the 2004 BBC North and South (Sandy Welch, Brian Perceval), Mr Higgens (Brendan Coyle)

I wish Miss Miles were a book one could assign in an OLLI but it cannot be. One cannot find enough readily available affordable copies and it lacks the prestige that would persuade the ordinary reader to try it.

Ellen

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