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Archive for the ‘women’s memoirs’ Category


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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This she blotted carefully and laid aside [a real letter she has written expressing real emotions]. Then, taking up the folder containing Beneath the Visiting Moon [her latest novel], she pulled out her papers, re-read her last paragraph, and bent her head obediently to her daily tasks of fantasy and obfuscation (Brookner, Hotel du Lac, characterizing what her heroine does when she writes fiction)

Friends and readers,

For the last 8 to 10 weeks and sometime before I’ve been having a wonderful time reading four twentieth Century women’s political novels, to wit, Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September, Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies, Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — as well as (just as much fun in some ways) books on these women authors and other books by them and reviews and essays, not to omit watching relevant movies. This blog is not on this material, as I have written about these books and some of the movies on this blog and elsewhere, but I want to assert how enjoyable such books are.

This is a period when women were beginning to achieve all sorts of rights by law and custom they had not had before, but were still much constrained by the social roles imposed on them by determined patriarchy. Not until the 1960s and 70s do women begin to take jobs in the professions after going to college, and only after that are they more widely recognized in such colleges and jobs. So a paradoxical or complicated situation is theirs.

The political slant has been as enjoyable as one I did several years ago of two 20th century women writing historical novels set in the long 18th century: Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover.

“What country? when she is a woman? (Woolf), women’s political novels differ from men’s; they’ve not been allowed (until very recently) to connect directly to the public world and state; have not joined wars for the usual canonized reasons; independence & self-esteem stirred but same ideology which undermines them returns. They question basic assumptions, about battle too. Naomi Mitchison’s worry that liberalism, belief in democracy, endlessly subject to internal dissent and attack from oligarchies, will dissolve if conservatives when they gain power yield to fascist ideas …

The teaching has gone over so well, or well enough, in these veins, I would like to continue, with intriguing switching of perspectives: Christa Wolff’s Cassandra and Four Essays, Eva Figes’s The Seven Ages [of Women]. I will teach these two next winter.  Also finally to branch out into other genres and non-Anglo texts (in translation) Marta Hillier’s Women in Berlin, Iris Origo’s War in Val d’Orca, Storm Jameson’s Journey from the North.

There is just so much from so many women, so often unsung, neglected, marginalized, died young (Winifred Holtby, say South Riding) and still misrepresented (Virginia Woolf). Non-Eurocentric texts: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s A Backward Place, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreters of Maladies. I’ve gone on to a number of fine books on women’s 20th century novels/memoirs under the aegis of different themes, eras, genres –just wonderful.

I’ve also been reading about women’s publishing houses, a history of Virago by Catherine Riley, not only as for the first time publishing women’s books in large numbers and continually, but publishing books by women telling their history, of their literature, their point of view.

Not so wonderful though: today in the New York Times, an article by Ruth Franklin ostensibly about the withdrawing from public of a biography of Philip Roth: the biographer, a male, has been accused of sexual assault, but there is further context about Roth’s own behavior and his books. It’s by Ruth Franklin and her title gives you insight into what is her real topic: “What we lose when only men write about men.” She tells you, quite correctly, that is it much much easier to get a contract or access to archives if you are man wanting to write a biography; I’ll add to that it is also much much easier if your topic is a famous man. Famous male writers count.

But if you are a woman intent (let’s say) on writing a literary biography of woman writer boy do you have rough road ahead and your work may never reach fulfillment. And if it does, what characteristically happens to it? I’ll give one example, we are told Boswell is the father of (literary) biography, his book is on the famous Samuel Johnson. Then we are invited to fast forward to later 19th century biographies, all by men. Guess what? There is a great powerful biography inbetween: Elizabeth Gaskell on the Life of Charlotte Bronte. Arguably it’s better than Boswell’s. What has happened: it was attacked at the time as unwomanly (telling some truths about Bronte) and Gaskell was sued; nowadays it is attacked as unbalanced and (oh dear) unfair to Bronte’s tyrannical father (who, we are told, against all evidence to the contrary was no tyrant).

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Tonight I want to talk about two novellas by women of the mid-century which at the same time I happen to be reading with a group of people on FB, “The Way We Read Now.” One of them by an author whose novels I now realize I read very naively in the 1980s, Anita Brookner, and another by an author I knew I had not cared for particularly, Muriel Spark, and now by dint of reading with others, have been driven to decide why. As part of this group I to some extent contributed a posting on each chapter of the novel day-by-day, one after the other: it was through this that I feel I got inside Brookner’s guarded emotionalism in her self-defensive Hotel du Lac for the first time, and at least confronted the chilling derision in Spark’s depiction of a group of a few poignant but mostly desperate and petty or selfish and ruthless very aged and dying characters.

On Hotel du Lac: this is a book about women’s relationships with one another; it’s (to use a word no longer familiar) feminocentric. We see that often the individuals in this group neither like or trust one another, though they pretend otherwise and can feel sorry for one another. Edith Hope is a modern Bronte heroine. Make a spectrum with Austen on one side, and Bronte on the other, and there’s no question. She truly wants to be solitary (whatever she says), to lose herself in the treasures of mind (as Jane Eyre says at one point this means more than anything), and she dislikes plush, luxury as all in very bad taste.

Like Brookner herself, Edith prefers the lifelong single life – but unlike Brookner has not found an occupation where she can find a substitute set of ethics for herself. A quiet retreat. This makes me remember Vanessa Bell who lived an utterly unconventional life sexually and otherwise and remained a very private person. Edith’s pseudonym is Vanessa Wilde.


Anna Massey as Edith Hope and Desmond Elliot, as the needling sadistic (if on the surface ever so kind) Mr Neville (the 1986 film is beautiful to look at)

After reading a couple of essays on the book: Margaret Stetz on “Visual Life” connects Brookner’s novels to her art books: Brookner critiques society through the painter’s work & life: Watteau is an idyllic escape but profoundly melancholy. Geuze is salacious and tells uplifting anecdotes so as to sell. In Hotel du Lac we have perspectives on the writing life. There’s much more and while am no longer in my 30s and would probably not read another Brookner novel soon (I read it in a far more aware way), I took down my two art books and would love to find the time to read her sketches on Romanticism and Its Discontents.

Fisher-Wirth’s tragic vision made me think about these women — maybe I should take this too gross caricatured mother-daughter and think about mothers and daughters in Brookner’s other fiction, Edith Hope’s estrangement from her mother. Mother-daughter relationships are central to women’s fiction. Hotel du Lac (lack as well as lake) is a deeply despairing book — she reminds me of Wharton but also Ishiguro — except this book lacks tenderness and little tolerance for the philistinism Brookner pretends to in her interviews.

Last Stetz’s “Reluctant Feminist:’ Brookner’s public remarks are rebarbative, abrasive & misleading; that Brookner seems to regard some patterns in women as not constructed but innate. Stetz shows parallels between Brookner’s fiction and Woolf (Voyage out repeatedly, sometimes using Rachel/Helen). I liked the writing the woman artist core of the book. I wish Brookner had presented Edith’s fiction in some way but Brookner is/was herself too much on guard. Other lacks in the book include its inflexibility of POV —

I tried the Morahan/Foster movie, and it lost Edith’s inner life so was a hollowed out, shallow version of the book, excising especially especially the bitterness against men who play flattering games with deluded women and profoundly unfaithful to any vulnerable partner.

I should say how strong and picturesque her writing style. The sentences on each page quiet utterances of art.

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The moments when Spark’s book most interested me were the rare passages of literary allusion in which she seemed to be inviting the reader to compare her supposed realistic depiction of the very old and dying to more romantic feelingful texts. I’d say hers is not realistic because Spark chooses to deprive her characters of any beauty, fulfilled hope, anything charitable or redemptive — insisting on pettiness, cruelty (to the point she is not satisfied with destroying the life’s work on aging and death of one man in a fire, the fire must burn to death a cat and dog as well), to me it seemed the meaninglessness of life for all (though they don’t see this).

Early on we have a very mocking description of the fiction of the 50+ year old son of two characters (“I simply could not go on with it. A motor salesman in Leeds and his wife spending a night in an hotel with that communist librarian … ” – an allusion to Philip Larkin?), and very late a ridiculing description of his mother’s romantic seemingly soap opera fiction, so entangled you cannot keep track of individual characters or events; there is an allusion to Dylan Thomas who did not go gentle into that good night; several to Dowson who wrote fin-de-siecle sensual poetry, especially his poem supposed written by a man in love with a women but unfaithful while she is indifferent to him (this parallels one of the very elderly couples in the book). Very Verlaine, with echoing refrains and classical allusion (one line refrain: “I have been faithful to thee, Cynara, in my fashion”).

It was Dowson who wrote the famous often quoted “Days of Wine and Roses:”

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Then near the close of the book allusions to last two stanzas of Byron’s Childe Harolde. They are really moving as Byron bids adieu to his book, to his dreams, to his poetry, to everything he has tried to suggest from his deep soul. If Spark means to say reflexively, see hasn’t my take been better? my answer is no. The central mystery of the novel is who is the neurotic man or supernatural or psychic spirit who has been pestering the characters with obsessive phone calls saying “remember you must die.” They are in no danger of forgetting. I was urged to see Spark as in a distanced way (ironic) trying to show us the lack of compassion in the treatment of the old. But to me the ironies were very unfunny: a very sick feeble man disinherited because it turns out his wife briefly had another husband first?

While reading the book, I happened to watch one of this year’s Oscar winner, The Father (see excellent review), with Anthony Hopkins as an very old man, and Oliva Coleman, his aging daughter who has recently been forced to bring him into her apartment as he has gone into senile dementia and much as she loves him, needs liberty to live a life fulfilling her own needs.

I thought to myself though maybe Spark would say it is absurdly sentimental because it presents the daughter as so concerned for her father, so deeply grieving at what is happening. But the people surrounding the man are not super-kind (especially a man who seems to be his daughter’s husband – it’s hard to tell since we are in the old man’s confused mind), and the story in front of us is how much a burden his daughter finds caring for him.


Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) takes “her girls” on a field trip (from the 1969 popular movie)

I thought one chapter from a book of essays on Twentieth Century Women Writers edited by Thomas Staley, excessively charitable:

William McBrien interprets (or explicates) Spark’s novels as manifesting “dandyism.” He links her to Max Beerbohm and says in her books “artifice” is “a spiritual strategy;” her writing is “macquillage” (make-up, cosmetics) “that may serve the spirit.” He quotes her saying “I believe events are providentially ordered,” and says that at the same time or maybe because of this she writes in a “insouciant” manner.

What troubles me about this is there is no discussion of the content in this general summary — he just asserts this as well as the idea that readers find her stories “engrossing.” (I didn’t; I admit I found the book very easy reading, no trouble to take in.) She gets away with what she does — what she swiftly and concisely piles on — because of her style — he uses the word “flippant and sophisticated’ for that — I’ll agree on flippant.

He then goes through quite a number of her novels where the characteristics found remind me of what is found in Memento Mori. In The Comforters a typewriter that clicks by itself with a voice that repeats the words the heroine utters. One critic, Peter Kemp, collected all her references to Job in her books and her statement in a Church of England Newspaper called “The Mystery of Job’s Suffering” where she shows (this is Kemp’s paraphrase) “how alone we are in life and how incomprehensible and inconsolable in human ways.”

At one point McBrien uses the phrase “Catholic Chic” of the fantasies in one of her books. There’s a mocking story about a convent and [The] Abbess, much “studied frivolity.” They include post-texts: one is called Robinson – a Robinson Crusoe story. He goes over The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie slightly, focusing briefly on how the heroine is a fascist. There are mystery elements in many, connections to T.S. Eliot (in one novel “an Eliotic voice, revealing the Unreal City, and Waste Land archeology), to Ivy Compton-Burnett. Flannery O’Connor admired her work

One quotation by Stevie Smith I found apt “Muriel Spark has a real genius for being gruesome and hilarious in practical circumstances, gay in city graveyards, gothics in factories.” It may be that if you read a number of her books, put them together and brought forth some consistent vision – she has one autobiography as novel (Loitering with Intent) that might help — you could make a case for her as a serious novelist. That’s what Wm McBrien is suggesting.

For myself I still may try Loitering with Intent because I’m interested in life-writing. To me there is something chilling and heartless in this book.

It was probably a good thing for me to have read this book so I won’t go overboard in my praise of all 20th century women writers. My blog may seem more balanced (ironic joke alert).

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To conclude, as long time readers of this and my other blogs may know, I’ve long been working on a project “towards a book” (whether I ever write one or not doesn’t matter) where I study life-long single women writers (“Not an anomaly” is its working title); now I’m seeing a way to modify my argument which has been at once too broad and too narrow and one others might not find appealing in the way I do. Brookner was a life-long single woman living with her parents. Muriel Spark also spent much of her life alone; she had a long term relationship with a woman she denied was lesbian.


A brilliant art study by Brookner where she uses the painter’s life, sensibility and paintings to characterize aspects of 18th century culture


Occasionally praised and reissued (because her novels sell), this critique of the book’s inadequacies by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt makes sense to me after reading Memento Mori

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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The cover of the audible edition of Memoire de fille

I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am
— Supertramp

‘One thing more,’she said. ‘I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve done. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in loving a person and saying so.’
It was not true. The shame of her surrender, her letter, her unrequited love would go on gnawing, burning, till the end of her life …
After all, it did not seem to hurt much: certainly not more than could be borne in secret, without a sign. It had all been experience,
and that was a salutary thing. You might write a book now, and make him one of the characters; or take up music seriously; or kill yourself
— Rosamond Lehmann, Dusty Answer

Friends and readers,

As Annie Ernaux says she feels compelled to write, however dangerous and difficult to do, autofiction about shaming, and traumatic incidents in her that she thinks central to the kind of person she became, so do I find her texts irresistible. I wrote about her Les Annees (The Years) and other books some eight and a half years ago in a blog I called The Poetry of Girlhood; of self and body acceptance. I was reminded of her last August when I read a superb review of A Girl’s Story in “Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings”. I had not realized she’d published another auto-fiction; now, having it read it with a few other people, I want to draw attention to the new (in the sense of published about) matter she most bravely of all has put before the public.

Letter the First
From Isabel to Laura
How often, in answer to my repeated intreaties that you would give my Daughter a regular detail of the Misfortunes and Adventures of your Life, have you said, ‘No, my freind never will I comply with your request til I may be no longer in Danger of again experiencing such dreadful ones.’ Surely that time is now at hand. You are this Day 55. If a woman may ever be said to be in safety from the determined Perseverance of disagreable Lovers and the cruel Persecutions of obstinate Fathers, surely it must be at such a time of Life. Isabel. — Love and Freindship, Jane Austen

She says she was prompted to write about this incident finally by reading Rosamond Lehmann’s Dusty Answer (first published 1957), 55 years after it occurred in 1958, when she was eighteen; she had tried before and some of the passages in this new memoir were written eleven years later, or 1969, but couldn’t go on with it. Now at last enough years have gone by so she can write down as accurately as memory will allow (and a few helps, like photos, some letters, the internet) what has lain not far from consciousness, in her mind, easily drawn up all these many years.

There is no girl’s behavior more misunderstood than promiscuity, especially when the girl persists in offering herself in the sexiest of clothes to boys and young men who treat her with scorn, and humiliate her, and in repeating this behavior when girls around her begin to know and ostracize and ridicule or accuse her of being a shocking tramp (that’s a 1950s Americanism — I am showing my age — for slut). Ernaux found herself falling into this pattern of behavior the summer she was 18 and sent away to a camp intended to help adolescents and young adults who were having problems adjusting to social life. What happens repeatedly is the girl is seen as “whorish” then or years later when she writes about it. Say at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, a woman who could tell such a tale of herself would present herself as guilty, sinful, and overcoming degradation; fast forward to after WW1, and Freudian influence, and she is understood at masochistic, asking for punishment because females are drawn to suffering (they like to be beat up). Mid to later 20th century, she would present herself as only partly compliant or raped (except the problem here is she came back to be raped again). Very recently, the explanation has gone further, oh of course she is enjoying it, but not because it’s a punishment, but because she revels in pro-active strong sex.

The wise girl of course never tells of this commonplace experience: where Ernaux perhaps differed is she seems to have let this kind of ugly reaction to her, the treatment, and her irrational submission to it go on all summer. A key factor is it began by her being ostracized for social awkwardness, the wrong clothes, a chunky body.

Gentle reader, I am here to tell you none of these statements explain the girl’s behavior, none get near her complex motivation nor acknowledges the cruelty and contradictory nature of this social experience. As with anorexia which most often begins (key factor) by the girl having been teased, humiliated, nagged for being overweight, the explanation lies in the point of origin, and the girl not knowing how to cope and then inventing a self-destructive coping mechanism, by which she hides from the world and herself what she is feeling, and either stays in the world (if she cannot bear to pay the price of the safety of self-isolation) or shuts herself off from it, sometimes for years. One technique for withdrawal that helps is anorexia, because then you cannot eat with others and that is the most common social act people do together. Ernaux became bulimic not long after the summer was over.

Her story belongs in Mary Pypher’s Reviving Ophelia, except unlike Pypher, she does not define herself or her society as sick. Pypher argues that present heterosexual norms are predatory towards the girl, rewarding and admiring the boy for triumphing over her body, and until recently despising the girl. Instead Ernaux gives us a startlingly frank moment-by-moment description of what she can remember herself as thinking and feeling.

Ernaux says (p. 55) she is telling the experience with such candor and detail because such descriptions commonly present such experiences falsely, in the form of an “imposture.” She is challenging the figures other writers make such girls. She is not what readers think she is, whatever that be. She is “deconstructing” such experiences, such spectacles.

One result is this is a very painful book to read — unless you simply dismiss her with the ready-made explanations given above, which are difficult to apply. Instead of withdrawing to protect herself what happens is she lets go. It’s as if she cannot stop herself. She is very clear that she is not enjoying herself –- she makes it explicit how much she is humiliated and how aware she is of this. One way she communicates this is she never allows the boy to fuck her and ejaculate in her. Or maybe not after the first time with the first young man. She says again and again she doesn’t let men into her vagina – they basically jerk themselves off over her thighs. She says how disgusting all this way. She says she was giving them mastery over her body so that they would not ostracize, reject her, all the while the act did not bind any of them to her (see p 59), so she had to do this again. The young woman all around her and the boys openly scorned her over and over too. They’d sing ribald songs to her. So she got nothing out of it – except this staying in social life because she didn’t know any other way to do it and no decent or kind person or authority figure stepped in to bring a stop to the lure of these repeated outrages of her by everyone.

Allow me to say I had experiences like these and took the option of flight, retreat. I became anorexic for five years (age sixteen), withdrew from society in effect, stayed home with my books, reading them –- didn’t have any girlfriends (I had tried confiding and discovered to my disbelief they rejected me and then to my horror told others what I had said!). I took the path that leads to social erasure and failure, with no growth in understanding through interaction with my peers.

These are coping mechanisms and so are Ernaux’s, though hers look so distorted from self-protection, and look so exaggeratedly eager (how she dresses especially) because society offers only maligning the person, or medicalizing her (talking of her as sick when it’s the society that has driven her this way). She didn’t want the first and never thought of the second. Sometimes these coping mechanisms — or frequently — are themselves forms of self-punishment. You can discern in bulimia the person who wants to stay in public and appear to eat with others, and then when alone frantically try to get rid of the food she has been taught to fear. Ernaux speaks sardonically or ironically but does not lash out at those who are hurting her. She repeats (very like Lehmann’s heroine) after the summer was over she was not ashamed, oh no, she had had experience and so triumphed. I see her as still not self-protective because she wants so badly to stay in the society.

In one of the many essays that have been written about Ernaux’s work,   this one by Chloë Taylor Merleau, Merleau asks (as if this needs heavy lifting explanations), why does Ernaux write about this kind of thing voluntarily still if it is (as she says also) so shaming. Merleau need only have read Edith Evans’s collection of commentary on acting Shakespeare’s women on the stage (most of the time until recently rehearsing with an almost all male crew), Clamorous Voices: Shakespeare’s Women Today: they say as these heroines they are making visible the emotional pain and damage human societies and communities inflict on women. What we are seeing is visible intense distress, anorexic, bulimic, promiscuous girls who are obviously scapegoated make visible the damage done everywhere on all women, the twisting and distortions.

I have another explanation: I believe that Ernaux is autistic level 1 (Aspergers Syndrome): this is why she was not able to understand the faces and bodies around her, could not imitate the unwritten codes, and until today does not realize she still is. I know a great deal about this disability and have learned over the past few years that in France, however wonderfully generous economically their health care system is, they do not accept and will not categorize and treat as a disability people on the autistic spectrum who have other kinds of strong capability and intelligence.

What makes her book so valuable is that women need to read it and when they do they find themselves and begin to think about their experiences as girls. All too often movies and novels present as a girl’s adolescence what are boys’ patterns of behavior. What girls are, what they do, is still stigmatized; the bases have changed, but there is no empathy or understanding by the mainstream media.

None of this fits into the usual narrative about what it means to grow up; you are to tell of how you made the most of your opportunities, and if any such sexual experiences happened, you are to get over it and accept what was (and of course then still is with men) in dignified silence. So it is as if these central experiences for girls — for they feed into marital and sexual choices all your life, into the way you may mother a daughter or son — never happened. But they did, do, and exert a strong influence on people’s older sexual & working lives.

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Her books

In the second half of the book (p. 85, summer over, September, her mother takes her to live in a convent school), we see the early reactions she has to her memories of what she was and did. She is determined not to opt out, not to retreat. So what does she do? she behaves as cruelly and badly as everyone else to new vulnerable types, in particular one male — she plies him with drink. This can serve to remind us the predatory culture we live in is as hurtful and harmful to many men as it is to women. She is determined to see what she did as triumph — especially with one young man she calls H. She “discovered parties, freedom, male bodies.” It is at this point she begins to look up what the internet can tell her today about this past she is trying to retrieve. Dread and desire mix together and she looks the young man up but tells the reader hardly anything about him.

The book makes reference now and again to the outer political world. In 1958 a right-wing coup took over Algeria, and the Gaullists came back into power in France. In 1969 there was a summer of rebellion by adult students against the conventions and authoritarian capitalism of French society. She mentions violence, terrorism, massacres (this could refer to the year 2014 when she is writing). She says the kinds of things she felt in the early 1960s after the last of her experiences were over, and would have like to have written are found in now unreadable novels or women’s magazines of the 1950s.

Yes I know those; I read them in the 1950s (I was born in 1946 so was 13 in 1959, just in time for Peyton Place). She thinks Colette or Sagan were better for girls to read. I’m not so sure. I am struck about how such magazines were found in France where she lived at the same time as they were found in NYC. I was reading just this sort of magazine at the same time as I read Austen for the first time (age 12-14).

In my view in the second half of her memoir, Ernaux is tremendously lucky. For whatever reason the camp refuses to have her back. We have seen from her relationship with H, she would have reacted in similar ways: promiscuous, dress sexy, be cruel to others. In her dream life (a la Jung’s theory) she feels was telling her she’d behaved like an imbecile with H, at the same time her conscious self wanted to go back to that camp and triumph as beautiful, brilliant, &c but one of her dreams offers her the first intimation she should make herself inaccessible — as a way to protect herself, surely.

She embarks on a campaign of self-transformation. My feeling — maybe readers would to like to comment — for better or worse many girls in their early teens do this. They find they do not look at all like those ads/norms they see in front of themselves — so they diet, go shopping, learn to use make-up, change their names &c She can’t bear to look at a photo of herself at this time – chunky, dowdy &c. She will get a driver’s license, learn to swim and dance to make up for what she recognizes are her lack of social skills. Beauvoir says girls are not born, they are made, the truth is they feminize themselves.

She is taking a philosophy course and the clarity of the writers and the demand she be clear enables her (it seems) to distinguish and repudiate what she was — so repudiating herself without really understanding why she did what she did or wants to go back. She does not know how to deal with the shame she feels – I feel very much for her

Then the anorexia takes over as dieting becomes more obsessive; then she wants to go out so she has to resort to throwing up (bulimia) — a vicious cycle where paradoxically all she can think about is food. She can’t figure out how to stop herself. Now how obscene is this throwing up. Again I feel very much for her. I never “practiced” bulimia but I was anorexic — for five years. And I know the experience never goes away ….

Doing so well at school no longer helps so much; she is called ugly names by other girls (the cruelty of girls to one another is important in this book). She at first does not go on to the higher form of education which would lead her to teach in higher schools but a lesser briefer one which leads to teaching younger children. Her father is presented as not wanting her to go higher than he did, and the mother disappointed. But she is thinking of herself as having had a woman’s experience; why sit at a desk scribbling away for long years to become a teacher in a higher school She idealizes teaching children to persuade herself.

Then the important books: The Second Sex by Beauvoir. It just woke her up. Gave her explanations. I thought the whole section on her reaction to it self-insightful. “To have received the key to understanding shame does not give one the power to erase it” (p 113) Of the other books she mentions I read Gone with the Wind (not in French) at age 12-13 obsessively for a while — and am interested to find that the heroine’s fate that remains with Ernaux is Melanie’s death in childbirth. Most people (women) reading this book talk incessantly of Scarlett as the heroine they identified with. For me both heroines were significant. In Suzanne Juhasz’s Romance of the Heart she has a long analysis of Gone with The Wind where she argues Rhett is a mother figure, and that often in girls’ and young women’s romance novels the hero who is tender, kind, loving, just about brother-like is a mother figure.

And then Ernaux switches to the school that will lead her to higher teaching — the “ecole normale superior” (sans accents & anglicized). It is the college type that Beauvoir went to — as did Sartre.

The last part of the memoir retells of her time in England as an au pair, with a friend R also an au pair. The family she gets an au pair job in is middle class so the job is not hard. She visits London, goes to bookstores and find French books, tourist sites. She is thrilled by self-service supermarkets. I do remember — very vague – when the first supermarkets of this type emerged in the middle 1950s in the Bronx where I lived. I was around 10. I found it hard to sympathize when this now spoilt pair of girls become petty shoplifters. I realize petty crimes like this are indulged by teenagers growing up and she is adhering to what seems to be the idea of this book: tell the truth about the way she was as a girl growing up. She is sticking to her “implacable memories.”

She is there at first and then the friend, R, joins her. She is using letters she wrote at the time to another friend, Marie-Claude. It is one of these intense friendships even though R comes from a higher milieu or caste. I am not sure she is correct in this since both of them seem to have no fear of what will happen if they get caught. No sense of R’s inner life, except that she is the one to get caught shop-lifting and there is a trial. She says her employer told her she was “marvelous” that one of them fooled the lawyers by looking like a heroine out of Bonjour Tristesse. She does not say what she concludes today but I take it the English authorities knew both girls were petty thieves and let them get off very easily. I wonder if the parents of these girls stepped in? Life, she says, she thought of as a game, an adventure. She is rather old to be so innocent, no? It was a shameful even if not as bad as getting pregnant (outside marriage).

This is to make a joke of what happened. She realizes this and a bit earlier says that she put down these illegal or daring activities as a continuation of what she did in camp. There is (to me) an interesting idea suddenly – that her whole life has been a sort of failure that can be traced back to this originating harrowing summer in camp at age 18. She was repeating that set of acts in another form.

She describes the way R looks – – “plain and joyless” — Ernaux presents herself as trying to be sexy, a la Brigitte Bardo. She says she was still bulimic at that point. Many years later (1971) she saw this friend from far in a spa park walking with husband and children — now wearing yellow summer dress, blue cardigan, and there is the middle class car.

Some of the most interesting passages in this second half of the book (and in the first half too) occur when she meditates over the photos she is looking at, and then goes onto the Internet to find a picture of the school she went the way it looks now, tries to locate some of the people. She looks the place up where her camp was – there is no trace of its “former vocation as an open-air sanitorium” — a kind of health camp. (How ironic.) It was for temperamental children. A post card from a friend doesn’t mention this. She can find a picture of an assemblage of buildings dating from different periods than the one she was there. She does not tell us where it is concretely. She does not tell the names of the people she got involved with except the friend she writes to.

The contrasts make vivid how we do not know what we will become and yet for the most part just about all the people she finds are living in expected patterns. More expected than those she’s experienced as a writer.

The diary peters off at this point. One of the central themes of the book is how hard it is to get back to the past. How our memories are not real, intermixed with what we have been told, and so all the sections are written as fragments of what comes into her mind purely as she thinks back to the past. What images especially. She also misremembers texts. She talks of this and the difficulties of her auto-fiction in this last part. She does insist, though, what makes this diary different from fictional narratives is the literal facts she is telling did occur.

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In her apartment/home today

She comes to no conclusions, more or less simply stops writing. What interests me most is her idea that what she did that summer age 18 has influenced her all her life and has led to her being a failure. In what sense I wonder? There is a lot of talk about her name: she was Annie Duchesne and now is no longer. Wrapped up in that birth name is an identity she is no longer.

I, too, sometimes attribute much that happened to me in later life to the coping mechanisms I developed after those couple of traumatic years 13-15 where I too experienced harrowing sexual ostracizing and shaming. My retreat into a private life with books became me. I understand the world from my own experience as much as anyone else, & feel for so many women whatever happened to them sexually in these crucial teen years and however they coped led to their lives as young and middle year adults. And yet how I have changed (if also remaining the same) since Jim died.

Maybe late in life another turn can come — when the children leave, if she’s succeeded in making money, being independent, found or ended up in a life she liked as I did with my husband, Jim, as a scholar-teacher. For me as long as I am able to be independently solvent, safety and peace lie in self-containment. It’s an ideal I don’t always achieve. I first recognized it at age 17 in Austen’s Elinor Dashwood.

Ellen

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The three covers before the TV series began

I woke to the patter of rain on canvas, with the feel of my first husband’s kiss on my lips. I blinked, disoriented, and by reflex put my fingers to my mouth. To keep the feeling, or to hide it? I wondered, even as I did so.
Jamie stirred and murmured in his sleep next to me, his movement rousing a fresh wave of scent from the cedar branches under our bottom quilt. Perhaps the ghost’s passing had disturbed him …

Dear Friends and readers,

As I’ve done before, although I’ve been blogging on the fifth Outlander book, The Fiery Cross, and the fifth TV series season, on my Ellen and Jim have a blog, two site because the series is just as much, perhaps more a creation of male film-makers (by which I mean everyone involved) as female, I want also to link in my review-essays here — the historical fictions are all of them very much women’s historical-romance fiction, and many of the directors, writers, producers are women, to say nothing of the brilliant actresses. It’s  also set in 18th century North Carolina.

I wrote four. One comparing the book and film season against one another and then in the context of the previous 4 books and seasons:


Ulysses’ story is much changed in the series; that’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded Jamie is bringing Ulysses to read (Ep 11)

Season 5: The Fiery Cross transposed and transformed

Then a second on Episodes 1-5 and a third on Episodes 6-11:


Claire’s over-voice narration binds together the 5th episode which moves back and forth from the 18th century to the 20th (Ep 5)

Outlander, Season 5: Episodes 1-15, Her Stories


Brianna and Claire walking by the ocean (Ep 10)

Outlander, Season 5: Episodes 6-11, Women’s Realm (birthing, birth control, breast-feeding &c); again anti-war, father-son-friendship Bonding

A fifth and last on the astonishingly good last (12).

Outlander, Season 5: Episode 12: The Rape of Claire


Claire’s dream: her beloved 18th century family & friends transposed to the apparent safety of the 20th century (Ep 12)

As I like to provide more than the links when I do these handy lists (I’ve done this kind of cross-blogging for Poldark, Wolf Hall, and a few other film series, let me add that beyond Gabaldon’s two Outlandish Companions (books 1-4, then 5-8), and the two books of The Making of Outlander type (Seasons 11 2; the Seasons 3-4), I’ve used for all my blogs since the first season began and I started to write about the books; wonderfully interesting and well written books of essays and encyclopedia like articles edited by Valerie Estelle Frankel: Adoring Outlander: fandom, genre, the female audience (just the first book, also called Cross-Stitch and first season); Outlander’s Sassenachs: gender, race, orientation and the other in novels 1-5 & TV, seasons 1-5) and written by her alone: The Symbolism and Sources: Scottish Fairies, Folklore, Ballads, Magic and Meaning, not to omit why the titles, covers &, up to book 5)


This covers the titles and covers of the books too

Ellen

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Elizabeth Bishop and her cat in a car

Dear friends and readers,

Of the many women poets I’ve written a foremother blog about, just now Elizabeth Bishop may be the best known — both for her poetry and about her life and letters. There is a recent consensus about her importance and transcendence (if that’s not too pompous a word). She is reprinted everywhere (though maybe her refusal to allow her poetry to be printed in all women anthologies has slowed down the dissemination); dozens of articles, several individual books, two biographies (at least). For this blog I recently read Megan Marshall’s partial autobiography, Elizabeth Bishop: a Miracle for Breakfast, and Zachariah Pickard’s Elizabeth Bishop’s Poetics of Description. It’s easy to learn supposedly little-known facets of her talent too: such as she also drew and painted, as in William Benton’s “Elizabeth Bishop’s Other Art” (New York Review)

It seems most of her pictures are of her travels; she liked to draw the places she lived in as a sort of visitor, or temporarily, her domestic spaces, and typical woman’s objects: so still life flowers presented from a overtly plain life angle:


Daisies in Paintbucket

From a very young age, she began to pile up awards— even when she had published little outside college newsletters or a slender number of poems. She is likened to the finest poets in tradition: as Emily Dickinson, about whom she wrote in a “poignant and pointed” review of a book of letters by Dickinson that has survived (Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Doctor and Mrs Josiah Gilbert Holland and also of Rebecca Patterson’s Riddle of Emily Dickinson (the riddle is Dickinson was lesbian). There she is also with Helen Hunt Jackson, Muriel Rukeyser, Marianne Moore, Sylvia Plath (in Vivian Pollak’s Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference). I’ve now attended and myself led two zoom get-togethers of poets and readers happy to spend two hours and more close reading Bishop’s poetry. In both we felt we had hardly started and gotten through too few poems.

Paradoxically, this means I can write rather less than more about her, and the way perhaps to add to what is known is pick slightly less frequently printed poems.

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Again with her cat

About her life, I think it important to know that she was the daughter of New Englanders, one of whom, her father, was from a wealthy and well-connected (Brahman) family, from whom she inherited a legacy that kept her afloat (precluding the necessity of work for higher wages), and enabled her to go to good schools where she made the right connections: Walnut Hull School to study music as a girl led to Vassar College (1929) where she wrote and met (among others) Mary McCarthy, Eleanor Clark (whose Rome and A Villa is one of the most brilliant meditative books about a place I know), and Marianne Moore who became a dear friend (never a lover apparently), who mentored Elizabeth and helped her publish. Like Bishop, Moore avoided controversy by erasing references to her gender beyond the obvious, steering well clear of telling anything explicit about her personal life, or overtly political. According to Kathleen Spivack, like many women writers of her generation, Bishop internalized the misogyny of the 1950s. I can understand why she would want to protect herself against prejudice and the judgmental tendencies of the wider public.

She had a difficult childhood: her father died when she was very young, and her mother was institutionalized; she lived with different relatives and it took time for these people to realize and act upon the apparent reality that the child was more comfortable with her maternal relatives though they were the less educated, and not part of forward-thinking circles. From her young adulthood on, she suffered badly from depression and alcoholism (she alienated people, she lost time from serious work), and her history includes several liaisons, some longer, some shorter, with the most important woman a Brazilian woman from a pre-eminent political family, Lota (Maria Carlota) de Macedo Soares. Bishop lives with Soares in Brazil for years; alas, over this relationship, Soares killed herself. An important friendship with a male poet was with Robert Lowell; Elizabeth became involved with his troubles with his wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick (whom Lowell treated very shabbily and whose letters he plagiarized). Very late in life Elizabeth became deeply involved with a woman much younger than herself. There is an equally complicated history from her young to her later years of academic appointments.

She not only does not write free verse; from an artistic point of view, hers is a highly patterned poetry, using formal and stringent rhyme schemes, stanzaic forms, with continual subtle uses of assonance, alliteration (sometimes she seems to drill down into rhythms of anglo-saxon prosody across a line). Annie Finch has written about how this formality, love of patterns, is a characteristic of l’ecriture-femme, women’s poetry (see Finch’s The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self and A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women). Sestinas, villanelles, double sonnets, repeating tercets (a poem using just three rhymes). Her poems with the most moving content convey their ideas and articulated feeling through close visualized description and the verse musical refrains. She is a foremother poet’s poet, loving repetitive structures, imitative sounds for moods and evocations.

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I’ve chosen a few poems where I kept my inability in this blog to replicate stanzaic forms demanding indentation visual pictorialism in mind, and which I fancy might be less known and are not too long.

The first, as a Trollope scholar, her brilliant meditation on the part of Trollope’s North America where he visits Washington, DC, during the civil war and projects the depression and despair Trollope felt while there, partly a result of what he saw in the city.


South National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1863

From Trollope’s Journal

As far as statues go, so far there’s not
much choice: they’re either Washingtons
or Indians, a whitewashed, stubby lot,
His country’s Father or His foster sons.
The White House in a sad, unhealthy spot
just higher than Potomac’s swampy brim,
— they say the present President has got
ague or fever in each backwoods limb.
On Sunday afternoon I wandered, – rather,
I floundered, – out alone. The air was raw
and dark; the marsh half-ice, half-mud. This weather
is normal now: a frost, and then a thaw,
and then a frost. A hunting man, I found
the Pennsylvania Avenue heavy ground …
There all around me in the ugly mud,
— hoof-pocked, uncultivated, — herds of cattle,
numberless, wond’ring steers and oxen, stood:
beef for the Army, after the next battle.
Their legs were caked the color of dried blood;
their horns were wreathed with fog. Poor, starving, dumb
or lowing creatures, never to chew the cud
or fill their maws again! Th’effluvium
made that damned anthrax on my forehead throb.
I called a surgeon in, a young man, but,
with a sore throat himself, he did his job.
We talked about the War, and as he cut
away, he croaked out, “Sir, I do declare
everyone’s sick! The soldiers poison the air.”

John Bowen argues that Bishop’s double sonnet gives us an epitome, the core quintessence of Trollope’s North America: Trollope’s mood, central attitudes to the war. Bishop saw the same city many years later and had the same take on it. It is not a cynical perspective but an accurate response to aggressive militarist people, an unpretentious disquieting vision. She takes words from Trollope’s letters and wove them into her verse.

The next poem inspired a novel by Lisa Weiland about Bishop.

Paris, 7 A.M.

I make a trip to each clock in the apartment:
some hands point histrionically one way
and some point others, from the ignorant faces.
Time is an Etoile; the hours diverge
so much that days are journeys round the suburbs,
circles surrounding stars, overlapping circles.
The short, half-tone scale of winter weathers
is a spread pigeon’s Wing.
Winter lives under a pigeon’s wing, a dead wing with damp feathers.

Look down into the courtyard. All the houses
are built that way, with ornamental urns
set on the mansard roof-tops where the pigeons
take their walks. It is like introspection
to Stare Inside, or retrospection,
a star inside a rectangle, a recollection:
this hollow square could easily have been there.
—The childish snow forts, built in flashier winters,
could have reached these proportions and been houses;
the mighty snow-forts, four, five, stories high,
withstanding spring as sand-forts do the tide,
their walls, their shape, could not dissolve and die,
only be overlapping in a strong chain, turned to stone,
and grayed and yellowed now like these.

Where is the ammunition, the piled-up balls
with the star-splintered hearts of ice?
This sky is no carrier-warrior-pigeon
escaping endless intersecting circles.
It is a dead one, or the sky from which a dead one fell.
The urns have caught his ashes or his feathers.
When did the star dissolve, or was it captured
by the sequence of squares and squares and circles, circles?
Can the clocks say; is it there below,
about to tumble in snow?

Written in 1937 while for three weeks in Paris Bishop seeks to capture the architecture of the place she is living in, uses the image of a star inside a circle to recreate the way Paris grew out from itself (as Hugo has it in his Notre Dame de Paris) here like a star-fish. We have the present grim winter time (the Nazis were making their inroads on Europe, whence the reference for a need for ammunition), with Dickinson’s image of hope now “a dead wing with damp feathers.” I love the way the registering of the fleeting and transient (a child’s snow fort becomes a child’s sand castle) becomes something eternally remade over the seasons, with the image of stone signalling Paris’s long history, its eternity in stone in its ancient buildings. The idea of time is carried through the second stanza: “can the clocks say; is it there below?” What there?

And for a last, this sonnet where I find Bishop keeping herself calm by making order and harmony through making a poem which can harnesses the very rhythms of her heartbeat and body as she writes and we read it. This is the way I read Jane Austen’s novels, say Emma: the orderly rhythm of her sentences, their elegance and deeply felt content within patterns soothes and keeps me calm, strengthens me. This is what Bishop is doing through her very finger-tips, her lips, her whole body healing. Is there any more beautiful evocation than that “moon-green pool” which reminds me of lines by Pope and Anne Finch [to be cited, and linked in]

And this Sonnet (1928)

I am in need of music that would flow
Over my fretful, feeling finger-tips,
Over my bitter-tainted, trembling lips,
With melody, deep, clear, and liquid-slow.
Oh, for the healing swaying, old and low,
Of some song sung to rest the tired dead,
A song to fall like water on my head,
And over quivering limbs, dream flushed to glow!

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.

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I conclude with a YouTube of Elizabeth Bishop reading a group of her poems at the 92nd Street Y in NYC in 1977.

Ellen

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A mid-18th century illustration of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison: Grandison rescues Jeronymo


Jamie as a young Scots farmer (a memory of himself from Outlander, Season 1, Episode 2, Castle Leoch)

I attended (went to?) a superb talk on Sir Charles Grandison sponsored by the Digital Seminar group at Eighteenth Century Studies, and found it so stimulating I managed to take good enough notes to at least give the gist of the talk, and then compare what was said to contemporary startling instances of male virginity (in Outlander, my current addiction). What was particularly valuable about Dr Rebecca Barr’s talk was how she related the misogynistic anger at the core of male virginity (weaponized, a way to control women) not only to characters in novels (St John Rivers in Jane Eyre), but also to what we saw in Brett Kavanaugh.

Gentle friends and readers,

Have you guessed what Grandison and Fraser have in common? both were virgins on their wedding nights. Yes.

I today attended a very interesting Open Digital Seminar (zoom lecture and meeting) today sponsored by Eighteenth Century Studies, a talk delivered by Dr Rebecca Anne Barr, Lecturer in Gender and Sexualities at the Faculty of English, at the University of Cambridge, “The Good Man on trial, or male virginity and the politics of misogyny.” It fascinates me because the pattern she uncovers is the same one found in Outlander for the two top heroes, Jamie Fraser and his eventual son-in-law, Roger Mackenzie Wakefield, and helps explain what I thought paradoxical oddities of attitudes in women readers especially (but also men) towards sexuality in other heroes of today’s historical romances. As usual this is by no means all Dr Barr said; it is only an outline with the particulars I could get down in my notes.

Rebecca Barr argued (and demonstrated from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison) that by a combination of mood techniques (including humor) that male virginity is used to create rhetorical and actual power for men to control female sexuality. Unexpectedly perhaps this characteristic usually demanded of women before marriage, and thus associated with women, when found in, indeed insisted upon by a man, enables him to persuade women to accept his power over them. “Male virginity becomes “a key constituent of an intrinsically reactionary arsenal of public virtue.” I think most people who have read Grandison remember that Sir Charles was a proud virgin and after marriage chaste man. What was startling was Ms Barr went on to display a photograph of Brett Kavanaugh a couple of days after Christine Blasey Ford, under oath, accused him of leading a group of male fraternity members at a party to strip and gang-rape, or (as the individual case might be) humiliate her. The photograph was said to have caught  Kavanaugh insisting he was a virgin until he married.


This is not the photograph Dr Barr showed, but another where we see how he yelled during the hearing, so fiercely angry did he let himself become (on whose advice I wonder? — click to enlarge)

I had been told but forgotten that with his wife to one side of him, and Kelly Conway on the other, he vehemently asserted that he could not have done such a deed because he was a virgin. His description of himself in high school and college as an intensely shy, sensitive, moral young man (=good) was a show-stopper. He was asserting an intense femininity of himself, aligning himself with a “feminine niceness” — at the same time as he spoke in an enraged, choleric voice, shouting his words, to make chastity the bedrock of (his and all) male goodness. A man who did lead a group of fraternity guys to rape women who were so foolish as to come to their parties.


Clarissa (Saskia Wickham), (1991 BBC Clarissa, scripted David Nokes)

Dr Barr asserted that in Richardson’s Clarissa, the rake is the worst sort of husband; in Grandison, chastity and virginity guarantee the best sort of husband. She went on to talk of how in Clarissa Charles Hickman, it is suggested, is a delicate chaste man, mocked and ridiculed by Anna, he is as part of his character a gentle, kind, loving and protective husband. (A little later she said that Mr B in Pamela II anticipates Sir Charles.) This derision of Hickman was (in effect) echoed by Terry Eagleton who in his famous book on The Rape of Clarissa wrote an acerbic dismissal of Sir Charles; bluntly he remarked that in a patriarchal society it does not matter if the man is chaste or not. There is no price, no value put on a man’s virginity, such a virtue would be a personal characteristic with no general inference; this critic was repulsed by this assertion of Sir Charles. Ms Barr disagreed and argued that Richardson’s ploy here is more relevant than ever even if such a virtue is kept silent. Hickman, yes, is made a joke out of, he is despised by Anne as meek; she does not know whether to pity or laugh at him; he looks guilty like someone who committed a fault.

But Richardson is careful to align and attribute to Sir Charles all other usual male characteristics: physical bravery, virility when tested, wealth, intelligence, the prestige of rank, socially able. His kin all around him adore and value him, and call him “a good man;” this “womanly private virtue” becomes a sort of weapon in his repertoire to assert his superiority to other men and to the women involved with him. They have to come up to his chastity, themselves be just as “good.” This is not a form of feminism, or femininity but “triumph of discipline,” all the more because it is asserted he has a hot temper, is proud, not naturally timid at all. In this way the male is exalted, and the women all around him made to dwindle into fallible people.

Philip Skelton, one of Richardson’s correspondents, responded to this portrait by demanding that Grandison “be persecuted” and be paired with a “bad woman” (of course the worst trait given a woman is drunkard so she should be a drunkard, slattern), and if Sir Charles is able to cope with such women, it will make him a favorite among female readers. (Whether Skelton was alive to the irony of this I couldn’t tell.) Ms Barr pointed to passages in Grandison where we are told Sir Charles would have agreed with God to annihilate the first Eve and produce a second one, and she suggested that Harriet is the second best in the novel. Sir Charles loved Clementina first. Richardson’s correspondents, Catherine Talbot and Elizabeth Carter (two friends) also voiced that less than moral attitudes would characterize women’s responses to Sir Charles’s women — they saw other women as wanting to possess Sir Charles themselves. Ms Barr reminded us that in Jane Eyre, St John Rivers is a austerely chaste man who appeals intensely to Jane, but who would suffocate her with his intensity and offer her a torturing kind of love; he could become an unnatural tyrant over her. Bronte is showing us how such a good man oppresses a heroine. Male virtue here is weaponized when virtue (self-control) extends to virginity; it can be an excuse for male virulence, male rage, his frustration is implicitly sympathized with.

Dr Barr ended her talk around this point; she has written a paper on this topic, which will appear in the next issue of Eighteenth Century Studies; the paper is part of a book project.

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Jamie and Claire (Caitriona Balfe), “The Wedding Night” (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 7)

There was time for a question and answer period through chat or through making yourself un-muted and visible. I just found it irresistible to tell of how Jamie Fraser turns out to be unexpectedly a virgin when it is time for him to marry Claire — in order to rescue her from the probable beating, torture, imprisonment and rape by the evil villain of the first books and seasons of Outlander, Black Jack Randall. By contrast, Claire has been married and at first she is supposed to be teaching him. He does not need much instruction: it turns out he has kissed and “made out” many a girl; they just didn’t consummate. Why not, we are not told. Ms Barr was right because this state of gentle purity does give Jamie a special status — especially because he has all other male traits, and he says and makes good his promise to keep Claire safe as long as she stays by him.


Brianna (Sophie Skelton) beginning to understand that Roger Wakefield (Richard Rankin) wants an engagement and marriage as the price of a relationship with him (Outlander, Season 3, Episode 4, Of Lost Things)

I also realized that the second generation hero of the romances, Roger Wakefield, exhibits a similar superiority and gets to control Brianna, Jamie’s daughter by Claire, because he will not have sex with her unless they become engaged and are about to be married or married. She wants to be free and have sex with him as she pleases and then return to university to finish her degree. If they feel later they want to continue the relationship, fine. If not, fine. She has committed to nothing, with no promise of fidelity either. Well, he’s not having that, and they quarrel fiercely over this. Needless to say, Roger wins — after all Brianna will and cannot force Roger to fuck her. Slowly and surely, Roger comes to dominate Brianna (mainly because she wants a relationship with Roger and can only have it on his terms) though she struggles against his asserting her right after they are “handfast” (have a private ceremony between themselves with God presumably looking on). And then she is punished because now alone she is quickly raped when she attempts to go into a tavern and be accepted as an equal human being to the men there.

Roger does suffer terribly. Later in the evening, Brianna is raped by Stephen Bonnet, and when, having discovered Brianna has returned to her parents, Roger seeks her there, Jamie and Brianna’s cousin, Ian, think he is the rapist, beat him ferociously, and sell him to the Indians. So Roger is enslaved and humiliated and treated horribly for a long time. But when the ordeal is over, he has won.

Similarly Jamie is persecuted because Black Jack Randall is homosexual and deeply attracted to Jamie and captures him, and beats, tortures him, threatening to rape and kill Claire; he shatters Jamie (this is what torturers do) and rapes him to the point that Jamie loses his sense of an identity, and agrees to accept Randall. So Skelton’s demand that the male paragon be persecuted as part of the complex icon here is repeated in the 21st century.


Jamie’s Agon (Outlander, Season 1, Episode 16: To Ransom a Man’s Soul)

It may be that Hickman is made fun of, is “a comic figure” with little power over Anna Howe, whom he is pathetically grateful to marry. But it was noted that “if Lord G, Charlotte Grandison’s husband, is similarly ridiculed” for not being able to control his wife or stop her from domineering over him; nonetheless. “the marriage disciplines her.” She must accept pregnancy and breast-feeding his child. He is “second best to Charles, whom Charlotte would have married if Charles has not been her brother.”

Several other people offered ideas and parallels to Sir Charles in eighteenth century characters and twentieth. Richardson is “re-fashioning the rake,” and making a “new culturally attractive” moralized “Christian” icon. Carol Stewart offered the idea that by presenting a male this way you detach heterosexuality from agency. A character can be forceful and active and not heterosexually involved with anyone.

Dr Barr responded that there is a “heterosexual pessimism” at the core of this kind of icon; heterosexuality is not presented as good for people; sex is distrusted; we are committed to love and to sex, but it is not necessarily in our best interests to be sexually active; it can be against our interests; the best thing you can do is resign yourself. You end up with a resigned or deflated happiness. Harriet is a second best choice. The sexual life of Sir Charles and Clementina is deeply troubled.

This reminded me of the attitude towards sexuality in J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country where sex causes anguish and grief, especially to homosexual or emotionally vulnerable and tender men. It can lead to heroines marrying someone who is non-congenial and with whom life is a form of deprivation.


The self-tortured James Moon (Kenneth Branagh) (1987 A Month in the Country, scripted Simon Gray)

There was talk of the second Eve or Lilith as an icon in 19th century fiction. That these underlying complexes of feelin suggest why Sir Charles is attractive to women readers — or was. George Eliot is said to have loved the novel. There is an eroticism in this femininity, or feminine aspect of a man. I know this to be true of Sam Heughan as Jamie Fraser.

I also know in the case of Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark, the readership is ferocious in denying that he raped Elizabeth Poldark — they dislike intensely any reference to any liaisons he may have had before he marries Demelza, and in the book any hints that he has affairs while an M.P in London are kept very discreet. It should be said that most of males in the Poldark series show no trace of homosexuality; they and the women characters, though, have strong same-sex friendships.

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St John Rivers (Andrew Bicknell, very handsome, brooding, absolutely chaste (1983 Jane Eyre, scripted Alexander Baron, probably the best of the 20th century adaptations)

The meeting concluded with bringing up a global dimension. We were reminded by one of the people who introduced the session that St John Rivers is a missionary going to Africa to convert African people to Christianity. He wanted Jane to be disciplined to be part of his imperial project. Jane, though, says the demands of such a role would have killed her and much prefers to return to Rochester to make a home for herself and him. That missionaries are aggressively destroying the identities of “other” people, and St John would have regarded Jane’s death as “collateral damage” in the way the US regards all the native peoples we destroy. In some post-colonial formulations, these “other” people become “spectral bodies” who will then be dominated.

This made me remember the fate of some of the Native Americans or Indians that the Frasers interact with in Drums of Autumn, and that the woods of North Carolina are haunted by the revenant of Otter-Tooth, a young man once called Roger Springer, who came from the 20th century back to the 18th and was assimilated into an Indian tribe, was killed “as a troublemaker” and now is an apparently grieving ghost haunting both present and past.

I may be overdoing these parallels, for, as we move away from Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, Bronte’s St John Rivers, and the hypocritical thug-rapist, now Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, we lose sight of Dr Barr’s central core point: literature’s male virgins have a peculiarly misogynist anger at their core. Perhaps one of the differences in more humane 20th and 21st century literature is that homoeroticism and homosexuality form part of the complex of sexuality openly shown to be part of male iconic characters.


Jane Eyre (Ruth Wilson) (2006 TV JE, scripted Sandy Welch)

Ellen

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Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood as she resolves to accept a future with her mother, where she on herself can live (she thinks Edward has married Lucy) (2009 BBC S&S, scripted Andrew Davies)

“‘It is not every one,’ said Elinor, ‘who has your passion for dead leaves …

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition …

“‘We are all offending every moment of our lives’ … (Marianne Dashwood)

“‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing’ … (Elizabeth Bennet)

“She regained the street — happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself … (Emma Woodhouse)

“‘We all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits. Mine, I confess, are exhausted’ … (Jane Fairfax)

“‘But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?’ … (Catherine Morland)

“‘One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering, nothing but suffering….’ (Anne Elliot)

Dear friends and readers,

Every once in a while it is good for me to remember why I’ve had two blogs dedicated to Jane Austen and art I connect to her and her books, and films made from these. Last night I was in a zoom group yesterday (a nowadays not unusual experience) where we were asked this question as a sort of topic for us to discuss and share; “Who’s inspired or guided you?”, and I was surprised to discover that most people either didn’t have or didn’t want to talk about a person or book or specific event(s) they could cite. All day long today that realization was reinforced when I threw the question out on face-book and my three listservs. Only now I feel it’s not that people don’t want to tell of such an experience, most people apparently don’t have one major intense experience or person who made such an impression. I know I am more intense than many about many things.

For myself upon my eyes reading the question, my answer came out in my mind almost before the words for it: my father and Jane Austen’s six novels.


This image of the RLS book is not the one my father read to me, but I cannot replicate a book cover from the old-fashioned sets of English classics he had on his shelf, often published by do-good organizations like the Left Book Club …

I know I have mentioned about my father here before, but not said much for real. Despite spending 44 years in close friendship-love-marriage with my late husband, Jim (whom you are tired of hearing about), the true core influence on what I am, how I came to have the stances I do, political, areligious, social, were the result of my relationship with my father: from my earliest memories, he was the person who understood, companioned me, yes mothered me. Like Edmund with Fanny, he read with me, and reasoned with me about what we read together, read aloud to me — some of my happiest memories of my girlhood come from when he read aloud to me Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Sire de Maltroit’s Door” and “A Lodging for the Night:” since then I’ve been a reader/lover of Stevenson’s style, stance, pizzazz. My father took me to the library, told me of his boyhood during the 1930s depression, explained the politics of the 1950s and early 60s we were experiencing. I left home in 1963. But there was a year after Izzy was born where he phoned me every week on Sunday and we’d have a long satisfying talk.


Emma Thompson as Elinor writing to their mother to tell of what has happened in London to ask if they can come home (1995 Miramax S&S, scripted Emma Thompson, directed Ang Lee)

Then Jane Austen’s 6 famous novels. A couple of people in the zoom registered puzzlement. How could a book (maybe they meant also one so old) influence, guide or shape someone. To some extent this shows how for some people books mean nothing vital to their lives. I read today in one of the papers how public figure was influenced by a book or event — what was cited were famous people, widely know fairly recent books, fashionable, movies. So I tried to tell of how I had first read these books at age 12-13 (S&S & P&P), then 15 (MP), that as a teenager of 17 or so when I was in need of a way of responding to social life and the hard abrasions of people, I’d think of Elinor Dashwood and her stance in life, and how this character (an aspect of Austen herself I still believe) gave me a presence to emulate, to aspire to come up to to protect myself (self-control, prudence are strong themes in Austen embodied in Elinor). How often while I don’t say to myself, How would Elinor or Anne Elliot or Jane Fairfax, or even Fanny Price have acted in this situation, nevertheless parallel situations in the books come to mind when something is happening to me that have some meaning. They need not involve these central figures, but they often do – as well as some of the heroes. Lines from Austen’s books come into my mind unbidden — I remember (or half remember) what seems to crystallize or capture an aspect of the situation. What a given character said.

This is probably why I have so little patience with preposterous interpretations and some of the uses made of her text to forward careers or fill a fashionable niche, or turn her into a whipping post for someone’s feminist thwarted career, or even the hagiography which turns her into an unreal omnipotent presence, which leads to extravagant claims. And as to the solemn moralizing one comes across in some JASNA groups, how can they be so moronic to have missed the core continual anarchic ironies of the text.

To explain this to others I had to fall back on using words like role models — though that’s too crude; I know I don’t imitate these characters in literal close ways. It’s not quite the way I conceive of myself understanding how literature functions, but as a rough and ready analogy that others can understand from their own experience comes close enough. The deepest thing is  view of Austen herself that I feel throughout the novels.

By the way: My father did very much like Jane Austen. But there was no need for him to introduce the texts to me. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I identified my relationship with him with Elizabeth’s with her father. My sympathies have ever been with the father; and it’s clear to me Austen understands what pain and counterproductive humiliation Mrs Bennet puts both her older daughters through. He also was one of those who introduced Trollope to me, with words about The Vicar of Bullhampton to this effect: Trollope has much wisdom.

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But during the talk of the group, I was led to remember how in my first year of full time college I had a teacher for an introductory course in literature where we read Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and I was shocked to hear someone (a group of people) assert how boring the book had been, and I protested and defended my favorite book. (Something similar happened to my daughter, Izzy, in a summer night-time class she took (post graduate) where she gave a paper on Elizabeth Bowen’s Last September and astonished the class by talking about it as deeply sexual. Clinton F. Oliver, an elegant black man, Henry James scholar, born in one of the Carribean islands (he once said). When I came to his office one day he suddenly said to me, major in English literature and be a college teacher. I was so touched, the first teacher to pay attention to me — tellingly a black person.

One memory: we had one class in a big auditorium (the other two were break-out sessions where I was lucky enough to be in his). One day a student came with so many lollipops and gave them out to everyone but me. I was somewhat older than the others — not as much as they thought, dressed in a skirt, probably all in black, anorexic then, but harmless. Anyway he came from behind his lectern and secured two and gave me one and smiled and we both sucked on lollipops with everyone else. It was in his class I first read Henry James: The Princess Casamassima. Also Conrad’s “Secret Sharer.” He was the only black teacher I ever had in all my years in school — until now at OLLI at AU I’ve had a class in August Wilson’s plays taught by someone who is retired military and now a librarian at Howard University


This is an image of the copy I read in that class, edited by him, which I cherish the way I do my first copy of Dr Thorne (edited by Elizabeth Bowen)

One person in this zoom group told me I was lucky to have had an experience with a teacher like that. One experience I never had was of a mentor: by this is meant not only someone who is older, wiser, and counsels you on careers, but helps you create one. Izzy had that: a Mrs Kelly who hired her for her 1st gov’t job, and helped her transfer into the library where she is now (though working remotely from home). Mrs Kelly had real feeling for Izzy and Izzy still goes to Mrs K’s yearly Halloween parties.

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And then reversing perspective: eleven days ago, I came across a posting in that excellent blog, Kaggsby’s Bookish Ramblings, on Annie Ernaux’s A Girl’s Story. Pray read what Kaggsby writes so eloquently, from which I quote her opening paragraph:

It tells the story of a pivotal event in young Annie’s life when, at the age of 18, she spent a summer as an instructor at a camp for younger children. A naive only child, Annie is instantly taken advantage of by H., the head instructor; though remaining technically a virgin, she is used sexually by him, and as the summer goes on, by plenty of others in the camp. Overwhelmed by these experiences, she is unable to recognize how she has been abused or see herself as a victim; she thinks instead she’s now experiencing freedom from the repressive control of her parents, and cannot understand why she should be labelled whore. Her humiliation at the mockery and contempt of the rest of the instructors is almost as strong as her pain at being used and abandoned by H.

As I wrote here, when I reviewed Anne Boyd Rioux’s book on Alcott’s Little Women, the problem with the books I was given, including Little Women, was this aspect of female adolescence and teenagehod, the experience of predatory punitive patriarchal sexuality that not only are boys encouraged to inflict on girls, but girls collude with, are complicit to, is omitted. It is at least hinted at in Sense and Sensibility, and in movies like Lee/Thompson and Davies brought out fully. I wish I had had as well Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia, Naomi Wollf’s Promiscuities. Kaggsby does not see that Ernaux is Aspergers  but her description of Ernaux’s horrible time in camp and as a girl growing up is an Aspergers experience.  Kaggsby has her limits, but she often goes beyond what she consciously says or sees by the thoroughness of her analyses.  In France too although the medical community knows about autism and Aspergers, the general population is unfamiliar with the term. I’ve had a few close French friends and only one knew the term; the other two were uncomfortable with the idea of a disability. It may be Ernaux knows and doesn’t say aloud — but I doubt it. I likened the book to Reviving Ophelia because Mary Pipher at no point that I can recall talks of autism: her book is an expose of the predatory punitive patriarchy that not only many men inflict on us, but many women are complicit in.

This disability puts girls at a frightening disadvantage before boys in our predatory sexual culture. I feel so for her. I have read two others of her books, both life-writing, which I associated with gothic; another I don’t have is Englished as I remain in Darkness; now I think that’s because perhaps she has not been willing to move out into rational diagnosis – the next step would be a book like Annie LeBrun’s

.

I had not thought of Aspergers but now this Kaggsby’s blog provides a comprehensive perspective for all Ernaux’s work. Of course it’s possible she was just naive and inexperienced with no social skills and a very protected upbringing, but I doubt it. At any rate she was a ripe target for experienced and cruel others.

This past summer a woman in my Bloomsbury class at OLLI at AU startled me by in front of the whole group online (another zoom experience) revealing she is lesbian by saying how she wished she had known such Forster’s Maurice when she was girl, and how much it would have helped to know others who are LBGTQ. I responded in kind: that in the 1990s when I first read Reviving Ophelia, I just cried to realize there was a large world of women experiencing what I did. This woman is in her 60s and probably has far more friends and is far more effective in life (may have made real money) than I’ve ever been. Every single person who comes out helps the rest of us.

Not that I think Austen understood herself to be coming out with the depths of her own experiences to help others but rather she began with sharp satire, and revised and revised, until the tone of mind of her book was to some extent also the opposite of where she had begun so deep empathy becomes the mode towards the vulnerable heroine.


Ania Marson as Jane Fairfax, barely but firmly self-contained (BBC Emma 1972, scripted by Denis Constantduros)


Laurie Pypher as Jane Fairfax explaining to Emma that she needs to get away from this wonderful gathering at Donwell Abbey & losing self-control (BBC Emma 2009, scripted by Sandy Welch)

What was wonderful about Andrew Davies’s development of Sanditon was he brought out this paradigm in three of the heroines (see my exegesis of Episodes 1-4, By the Sea …; and Episodes 5-8, Zigzagging). It is central to why Jane Austen has meant so much to me. This is not all she offers, but this is the core.

Ellen

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

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Martha Rosler, in front of her most recent exhibit, Irrespective at the Jewish Museum & Yale University

Dear friends,

This is an interim blog, or a blog in progress. I am not ready to write at all adequately, even in a blog form, on the life and work of the American artist, Martha Rosler. I need to read her writing more, see more of her photography as printed in books. I’ve two good books on the way(Culture Class, and a Retrospective catalogue). But having felt so demoralized by recent events in the US public worlds, and today feeling lifted up with some hope for women with Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris for his vice-presidential candidate, and listened to the various podcasts on Rosler’s exhibit online, I want no longer to wait to include in my series of woman artists at long last, someone still alive as well as right now creating art to enable women to uncover, challenge, and subvert the views of them that turn them into powerless sex objects, woman as existing only in relation to men (mother, wife, sister, daughter),and to expose war, homelessness, gender roles, commercialism, inequality, hard labor, desperately abysmal living conditions around the world. She is has been at this for fifty years. She was born and still lives in Brooklyn, taught at Brooklyn college, has been socially engaged with the communities all around.  Her official website.

Her photograph and montages speak for themselves — as pictures should.  From her Semiotics of the Kitchen:

Letter “K” (Knife). Still from Semiotics of the Kitchen, black-and-white video, 1975 — If you had to live here …

From House Beautiful, Bringing the War Home (1962-72); Images of women at home as of Vietnam and the US colonialist wars against the Southeast Asian people (Vietnam, Cambodia)


The Gray Drape


Men at War


The Gladiators

This is one she made of Pat Nixon, as the quintessential American householder:


First Lady, Pat Nixon — it’s hard to distinguish so much phoniness, so flat and abject , so pathetic a consciousness

How beautiful? what make for beauty? Rosler is much influenced by Luce Irigaray’s strategies of apparent aquiescence combine with harsh punishmentas the way of the world towards ordinary people. In her essays on art and the art world, she lays bare the class structures, the privileging, how museums and colleges can work to stifle individuals. Her anti-war work is sometimes wrongly interpreted as being against just one kind of war: the colonialist, far away. But she is ever doing is examining the material bases and left-overs from our daily lives. History and art must be inclusive: take in what’s found at Wall-Mart, low and vulgar as well as high and elegant art.

Here is a good explanation of what her collages and montages are made of:

And here she discusses the conditions of the art world in Lisbon at an exhibit in a museum the 1970s, her own attitudes and how they’ve changed over the years, and what are the conditions an artist who wants to show her work (and occasionally maybe sell it) have to deal with: audience taste, audience tolerance, the financing of art

Ellen

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