Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘women’s memoirs’ Category

maryprince
This painful image reflects the reality of black woman slaves’ lives — of which Mary Prince (1788-after 1833) was one

I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners: so that we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage. When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging of us to keep up a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing.**

** Let the reader compare the above affecting account, taken down from the mouth of this negro woman, with the following description of a vendue of slaves at the Cape of Good Hope, published by me in 1826, from the letter of a friend, –and mark their similarity in several characteristic circumstances. The resemblance is easily accounted for: slavery wherever it prevails produces similar effects.–“Having heard that there was to be a sale of cattle, farm stock, &c. by auction, at a Veld-Cornet’s in the vicinity, we halted our waggon one day for the purpose of procuring a fresh spann of oxen. Among the stock of the farm sold, was a female slave and her three children. The two eldest children were girls, the one about thirteen years of age, and the other about eleven; the youngest was a boy. The whole family were exhibited together, but they were sold separately, and to different purchasers. The farmers examined them as if they had been so many head of cattle. While the sale was going on, the mother and her children were exhibited on a table, that they might be seen by the company, which was very large. There could not have been a finer subject for an able painter than this unhappy group. The tears, the anxiety, the anguish of the mother, while she met the gaze of the multitude, eyed the different countenances of the bidders, or cast a heart-rending look upon the children; and the simplicity and touching sorrow of the young ones, while they clung to their distracted parent, wiping their eyes, and half concealing their faces,–contrasted with the marked insensibility and jocular countenances of the spectators and purchasers,–furnished a striking commentary on the miseries of slavery, and its debasing effects upon the hearts of its abettors. While the woman was in this distressed situation she was asked, ‘Can you feed sheep?’ Her reply was so indistinct that it escaped me; but it was probably in the negative, for her purchaser rejoined, in a loud and harsh voice, ‘Then I will teach you with the sjamboc,’ (a whip made of the rhinoceros’ hide.) The mother and her three children were sold to three separate purchasers; and they were literally torn from each other.”–Ed.

edna-st-vincent-millay
Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

“Conscientious Objector” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the
        clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the
        Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg
        up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will
        not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the
        black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but this is all that I shall do for Death; I am
        not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of
        my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the
        route to any man’s door.

Am I a spy in the land of living, that I should deliver
        men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe
        with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

Dear friends and readers,

On any other blog, this coupling might seem strange. I hope not so here. Mary Prince was that nearly unique presence in 18th century texts: a black woman slave who atttempted to tell the story of her life in her own words. Edna St Vincent Millay was a very great women poet. I’m carrying on my much delayed accounts of conferences and lectures I attended this past fall. Tonight I tell of two excellent lectures I heard at the Washington Area Print Group (WAPG) held once a month during the college semester at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. We look upon ourselves as a small “cell” or twig of the larger SHARP group (book history), which twice I was privileged to attend and once to give a paper on Anthony Trollope’s mappings of his imagined counties: Geographies of Power.

Here is the description of our October 7th meeting:

The slim pamphlet, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African (1831), has gained increased visibility over the last decades due to its claim to being the first slave narrative written by a woman in English. Yet, like its predecessor, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789), these British publications do not fully anticipate the genre models that would later be established by their nineteenth-century North American counterparts. And, unlike Equiano’s Narrative, Prince’s “History” also highlights issues of authorship that continue to raise debates over how scholars should view the autobiographical accounts of enslaved and formerly enslaved people. This talk will cover the life of along with the production and dissemination of the biography formerly enslaved Mary Prince (c.1788-after 1833, b.Bermuda), including her negotiation of familial and religious networks to navigate the West Indies and Caribbean while enslaved, and her eventual self-emancipation through alliances with abolitionist groups in London. It will also look at how Scottish-born Thomas Pringle’s editing of and libel trials over her biography fits into his own history as one of the “founding fathers” of South African settler poetry as well as how Susanna Strickland Moodie’s transcription of Prince’s oral history later shaped her work as one of the first Canadian novelists and the increased visibility in the second and third editions of reader-produced paratexts. This is part of a larger project that looks at women in the British Empire, and positions the writings of formerly enslaved women such as Mary Prince as central to the histories of Britishness, African identity, as well as foundational to understanding the writings of other more well-known authors, such as Jane Austen.The model of narrative, the history that leads to its publication, and the dissemination of Prince’s life history illuminates the way authors, especially women, negotiated the interpersonal and imperial politics of making their stories heard throughout English-language Atlantic print networks.

Susannah Strickland Moodie might be familiar to my readers through Margaret Atwood’s imagined recreation of the Journals of Susannah Moodie as well as the Booker Prize winner, Alias Grace. Moodie wrote the classic memoir of Canadian literature: Roughing It i the Bush, was a journalist and wrote poetry. Early Canadian women of letters;=, she and her sister, Catherine Parr, are the subjects of an illuminating biography, Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray (a wonderful read).

Here is a brief gist and transcription of what Emily said:

Emily’s talk was so stimulating of interesting questions and suggestive about so many concrete details about slave women’s lives and the difference between these (where there were moments of pleasure, often with their childen if they were fortunate enough to keep some semblance of family) and the texts we can or must rely upon.

The text of Mary Prince’s life is available in a Penguin classics, edited by Sarah Salih, ISBN 9780140437492. Her life has been published in a number of scholarly editions, with excerpts in anthologies. One of the best, which I can’t recommend too highly is Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader, ed. Antoinette Burton. for those seriously interested in Jane Austen, it is noteworthy that Bristol (from which it will be recalled in Austen’s Emma, Mrs Elton aka Miss Augusta Hawkins, daughter of a tradesman, hailed). Her life story was the first slave narrative attributed to a woman. Equiano was her predecessor in Europe; Frederick Douglas came after her. Her life was published as a tract of an anti-slavery society; her story came with a supplement by an abolitionist editor, Thomas Pringle, as “taken down by” Susannah Strickland, to which was added another yet briefer narrative of another female captured African slave. The questions swirling around it concern authority and ownership. Whose testimony are we willing to endow with authority? (We weren’t sufficiently to Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016.) Who owns the telling of their own lives, its perspective. We see in this text a cultural exchange between bourgeois “white” people trying to present the subaltern enslaved existence of someone regarded as ontologically “not quite human” (not mattering as in #BlackLivesMatter). She (and Susannah Moodie too) was helped to get into written history and then be paid attention to by the 19th century phases of feminism, or “Female Societies” for example for “the Relief of British Female Slaves” (founded 1825).

Mary Prince traveled around the world of Britain’s global colonial empire in her brief hard-working life. I have rarely come across someone whose bodily strength was so used/abused from the time she was outside infancy. Born after England abolished the slave trade, she was at first owned in Bermuda, Jamaica, by a very young girl as a present/toy/doll/commodity. When the chief male of the household remarried, Mary Prince was sold. She survived by luck and by her ability to negotiate with her owner/lovers. One problem in telling her life is she cannot admit to allowing her body to be used sexually. It seemed to me her most basic work-job was as a washer-woman (very hard work) cleaning clothes. She was made to work with half her body in salt water for long hours at a time (rice production) and that shortened what life her body managed; she was also subjected to severe flogging, partly (I think) a result of her strong intellect, which at the same time enabled her to survive. To try to imagine what her legs, feet and back looked like is probably beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not seen tortured people or someone who has lived in the extremis of harsh colonized existence (from Ireland to the Congo). Flogging was a commonplace yet horrific practice inflicted on slaves, colonized peoples, and mainland British males who were “pressed” (snatched as ruthlessly as any genetically African individual). Emily mentioned the “problem” of her being overly emotional, but it seems to me it’s important to keep registering (no longer is the present a better age) outrage. Equiano had the advantage of maleness so he was far better educated by those who recognized or used his real talents/gifts or those of our Mary. He lived well at times, rose to an office-linked higher status; as a woman she could never have this. On a couple of occasions, men who became Mary’s lover or others who became attached to her tried to buy her freedom. This appears to have enraged more than one employer, and she would be whipped ferociously because these attempts had been tried.

On her text’s publication, there were lawsuits, set on essentially by the people (John Wood specifically) who had owned her and whose cruelty her text made plain. First Pringle’s veracity was questioned by the editor of the Glasgow Courier in Blackwood’s Magazine (wide circulation); Pringle sued Cadell, the publisher of Blackwood’s; then Wood sued Pringle. Mary was forced to take the stand and told of her sexual relationship with a Captain Abbot with whom she lived for seven years and to whom she was emotionally attached. (She would hire herself out or be hired by other families where men would take her body either for money or free, if they could.) This kind of thing damaged her stature and reputation further in the eyes of the public (the public did not respect slaves); and she had to leave one society she had joined, the Moravian, and went to live with a freeman, Oyskman who promised to buy her freedom from whoever nominally owned her. Susannah Moodie Pringle had to justify herself again and again for being an amanuensis (probably more like an editor) and defended Mary Prince’s chastity (as if she didn’t, hers would be called into question).

Emily then contextualized Mary among other African-American women. She covered the life and poetry of Phillis Wheatley (left poems), Margareta Mathilde Odell (poems and a memoir). One has to resort to finding names. (I find this is still true of 20th century women artists who participated in the surrealism movement!). Much is to be gleaned from John Gabriel Steadman’s narrative of Surinam (Emily didn’t mentioned Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which while it is a romance, has led to serious texts about Latin and South America), the narrative of “Joanna, An Emancipated Slave,” from the colonialists of North America, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Elizabeth Freeman who was Sedgewick’s nanny, Florence Hall (but 4 pages). Such texts are still often dependent on staying in print by attracting women readers. The average woman reader wants an upbeat story, something where she sees something like instant emancipation when at its rare best is gradual. They are trained to want a veil on sexual experiences, on sexual violence.

I found one of the most disturbing aspects of her story is that she was forced to allow other women to examine her body to prove her stories of abuse were true. We see here what also happened to working class, agricultural, servant women: if suspected of being pregnant, other women had no compunction against coming to them and literally grabbing a dress and feeling the woman’s body. There is no protected space around a woman, her body is not her own if she has no high status to protect her.

As to what Jane Austen could read or know of this material: she had Cowper, Thomas Clarke, Charlotte Smith, Southey; her younger brothers. while ordering flogging, and her older brother witnessing and accepting as a local militia man the anguished punishments of mutiny, could at least tell of what they saw — though it was commonplace then as in World War One not to tell.

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

millaybook

Here is the full blurb for the Edna St Vincent Millay meeting on November 18th:

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was a daring, versatile writer whose work includes poetry, plays, essays, short stories, songs, and a libretto to an opera that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera to rave reviews. Known for her free-spirited lifestyle in Greenwich Village, Millay wrote poems promoting personal freedom that resonated with a generation of youth disillusioned by the social and political upheaval of the First World War. Millay’s literary executor Holly Peppe will present an overview of the poet’s life, illustrated with slides, and suggest reasons for her poetry’s uneven critical reception. Dr. Peppe will also talk about her friendship with the poet’s sister Norma Millay. Dr. Timothy F. Jackson will discuss Millay’s manuscripts, her publication history, critical reception, and the process of editing Millay’s works.
    Holly Peppe, literary executor for Edna St. Vincent Millay, has written and lectured widely about the poet’s life and work. Dr. Peppe’s essays appear in various books and periodicals including Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal (Southern Illinois University Press, 1995); Millay’s Early Poems (Penguin Classics,1998); Collected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2011), and Selected Poems: An Annotated Edition (Yale University Press, 2016).
    Timothy F. Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Rosemont College. He earned his doctorate in editorial studies from the Editorial Institute at Boston University. While a CLIR Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he served as an assistant editor of the Walt Whitman Archive and was the initial executive editor of Zea E-Books. He has edited work for traditional and digital publications in a variety of fields, including poetry, philosophy, and business.

Both talks were very engaging. Holly Peppe: Millay was regarded by academia as simply this “song-bird,” and not seen as the major American figure in letters that she is. It was the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature which first featured a variety of her poems and took them all seriously. An obstacle to writing her life accurately is her sister, Norma, still alive, is determined to censor anything that might be seen by the average person as “negative.” At the same time she (who has much insight into her sister’s life and politics) controls all the papers.

On her background: her mother provided her with a steady diet of interesting music. In high school she worked for the literary newspaper. It was after graduating college, that she was writing poetry and first attracted a modicum of serious attention and respect. She wrote political, love, confrontational poems. She was the first to introduce and deal with themes of real female sexuality in American literature. She was fortunate to attract patrons. She had won a couple of contests, and Caroline Dell heard her read and paid for her to go to Vassar. From 1917-21 she became part of groups that included important critics (Edmund Wilson) and painters as well as writers (Isobel Bishop, Max Eastman who escaped Nazi Germany). To make money she wrote “pot boilers:” Nancy Boyd was her pseudonym. She was consistently anti-war. She met and married Eugen Van Boissevain, widower of the labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland, a political icon Millay had met during her time at Vassar. A self-proclaimed feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their twenty-six-year marriage.

A pivotal moment was buying a 700 acre farm-house, Steepletop, which became a core place around which they built a shared unconventional life. Both drank a lot. She had a much younger lover, George Dillon, whose presence is the center of her erotic sonnet sequence, Fatal Interview (which became one of her signature texts with her wider public). One finds her with Charles Ellis Norton (important intellectual of the era just before and early 20th century); she became active in opera patronage. Her writing is written from the woman’s point of view: the woman’s body is central to her experience of social life (how men like, are attracted to, marry a woman). It was in 1940 she first was attacked for a Notebook she published. A few close relatives and friends died, and she had a nervous breakdown. Remember this is a time of barbaric war. Her sister, Catherine died, and then her beloved husband of lung cancer (1949). She returned to Steepletop to live alone. She translated Latin texts during this time. She did drink heavily all her life, and at age 58 she died from a fall down the stairs.

300px-steepletop_main_house_austerlitz_ny
The main house at Steepletop

Tim Jackson told us more about editing the texts — which was his basic function. There have been many reprintings and editions of Millay’s work. Since 1912 her poems have appeared in more than 50 anthologies. To do a collected standard edition of course requires going to the manuscripts. He was interested in who influenced Millay (and also who her work influenced). Millay copied out John Donne, Housman and Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” She read the later 19th century French poets. She wrote Edmund Wilson about her memories of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and she wrote Matthiesen about her later poems. T.S. Eliot was interested in publishing her poems but as they appeared in first editions. but she would tinker endlessly (revise and revise small things). We find her angry at publishers over specific lines: she worked very hard on prosody, rhyme.. Her most popular book was one filled with lyrics, Figs from Thistles (the poem people seem to have remembered “My candle burns at both ends”), and by the wider public her earlier poems are much much better known, especially her sonnets. Apparently (for reasons I can’t figure out), “Rendez-vous” is among her most widely read and praised:

Not for these lovely blooms that prank your chambers did I come. Indeed,
I could have loved you better in the dark;
That is to say, in rooms less bright with roses, rooms more casual, less aware
Of History in the wings about to enter with benevolent air
On ponderous tiptoe, at the cue, “Proceed.”
Not that I like the ash-trays over-crowded and the place in a mess,
Or the monastic cubicle too unctuously austere and stark,
But partly that these formal garlands for our Eighth Street Aphrodite are a bit too Greek,
And partly that to make the poor walls rich with our unaided loveliness
Would have been more chic.
Yet here I am, having told you of my quarrel with the taxi-driver over a line of Milton, and you laugh; and you are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed–with pumice, I suppose–
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish I did not feel like your mother. (from Huntsman, “What Quarry?”)

I found the above on the Internet with an ordinary person explaining why she personally loved the line “I could have loved you better in the dark.”

In her notebooks one finds quite a lot humor and comedy, comments on the immorality of the “seven deadly virtues.” She also wrote an essay on faith as a philosophical groundwork for herself. By John Crowe Ransom, an important contemporary critic, she was treated with disdain mainly because was a woman; and it has been her gender and the preference of the wider public for love poems that have gotten in the way of her gaining the respect and place in American letters she should have. In life she found herself dunned by the IRS for information about her tax liabilities. Eventually a historian, Alice Burney, interested in her work gathered a great deal of it and sold it to the Library of Congress. She made a lot of money and with her husband’s accumulations, was able to live the life of a chatelaine, farmer, and women of letters at Steepletop, an estate of 300 acres, which is nowadays a “site of memory,” a place you can visit. There are regularly scheduled tours.

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

Kauffmann, Angelica; Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses; National Trust, Saltram; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/penelope-taking-down-the-bow-of-ulysses-101590
Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807); Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses

There is no comparison between the hardships of Mary Prince’s life and how all she ever said was brought into question because she had been a slave; and the liberty, fertile and happy relationships of Millay’s and a relative lack of respect for her work because she was early on marginalized as a woman. In her brief and frank autobiography (her voice does come through), Mary tells of how she saw herself as chained to a washtub for most of her waking hours in her strongest years. The line quoted by Sarah Salim as an epigraph for her edition of Mary’s life brings out how African-American women were seen and used for the first two hundred years of living in the US: “The nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God, 1937). I first became interested in Millay when I read her “Conscientious Objector” in Jon Silkin’s great anthology of war poetry, The Penguin Book of First World War One Poetry. In the edition this poem first appeared, it was in the back of the book with other poems by women. At first there had been no poetry by women worth reading according to Silkin’s anthology. His book has been much admired and reprinted several times: the most recent edition threads the women’s poems in chronologically and at the back we now have superb poems originally written in other languages and translated into English (a number of German poems, Russian including one each by Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, by Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti). I hope the new edition is part of a change placing Millay in the contexts where her work truly belongs. This does not just mean in “mainstream” American literature (preponderantly by men) but books of women’s poetry too. I’ll end on two. Here is “Menses” at the Poetry Foundation (also read aloud) and

An Ancient Gesture

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried

Ellen

Read Full Post »

queencharlottebyramsay
Queen Charlotte (1760-61) by Allan Ramsay (1713-84)

Emma got up on the morrow more disposed for comfort than she had gone to bed, more ready to see alleviations of the evil before her, and to depend on getting tolerably out of it — Emma, Chapter 16, after the ordeal of Christmas …

sylviareading
Amy Brenneman as Sylvia (a sort of amalgam of traits from Austen heroines, with her plot-line that of Persuasion) reading Emma, the first choice to read of The Jane Austen Book Club

Dear friends and readers,

A mere seven days have slipped by (I say this ironically) since I wrote my first report on the Burney conference in DC, which occurred on Wednesday, 20 October, just before the official JASNA meeting began this year on Thursday, 21 October. I covered two-thirds of the papers on Burney. Here I offer summaries of the talks on Burney at the end of the day, and a general description of what a JASNA conference is like, and brief account of the key-note address (as I described it elsewhere). As an overview of all the papers on Burney I suggest that we saw a conflicted woman: she lived in a world ordered by imperialism abroad and patronage at home; she tried to find space for herself as a writer and (reminding me of what D.W. Harding said of Austen’s fiction so long ago) ways to express her identity and ideas that would not antagonize those dearest to her (her father) and who she did and had to respect. I have noticed over several conferences too (I may be wrong) that the novels and sheer texts too favored for discussion are Cecilia and The Wanderer. As I began to write out the notes on the Emma conference, I did remember the novel and a few of the good film adaptations whose pictorialism (mostly in the novel) help realize aspects of the novel, and felt a little better: Austen does that for me. I hope to concentrate on Austen’s mature fiction in a paper on Ekphrasis in Austen for the coming Austen and Art conference this coming Monday. A good way to start another year.

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

Frances Burney and Politics (In continuation):

allan_ramsay_artist_-_queen_charlotte_with_her_two_children
Again a painting by Ramsay, this time of Charlotte and her two older boys — these paintings are said to show the queen had mulatto features, which was brought up (separately) during the conference

The third paper of the afternoon panel, “Celebrity and Material Culture” was given by Kate H. Hamilton, “Queen Charlotte, Burney, and Virtuous Servitude.” Kate talked about the conflicts between the role of a public servant and the role of a novelist. Fanny saw herself as an apolitical writer, but in order to be careful did not send her journal-letters to her sister, Susan, through the post. Her virtuous reputation was dependent on her social connections. While there she was part of a feminized society, attending to queen’s personal needs in dress, entrusted with the queen’s jewelry, and this identity was the one she had to live out publicly. At the same time her fame as the writer of Evelina had helped bring her to the queen’s attention, and she spent much time writing creatively. Kate provided a text which suggests how Frances writes about these conflicts (somewhat coyly) in her diaries:

The Queen sent for me after Breakfast, and delivered to me a long Box, called here The Jewel Box, in which her Jewels are carried to & from Town, that are worn on the Drawing Room Days. The great bulk of them remain in Town all the Winter, & remove to Windsor for all the Summer, with the rest of the family. She told me, as she delivered the key into my Hands, that as there was always much more room in the Box than her travelling Jewels occupied, I might make what use I pleased of the remaining part, adding, with a very expressive smile, ‘I dare say you have Books, & Letters that you may be glad to carry backwards and forwards with you. –‘ I owned that nothing was more true, & thankfully accepted the offer. It has proved to me, since, a comfort of the first magnitude, in conveying all my choice Papers & Letters safely in the carriage with me, as well as Books in present reading, & numerous odd things … CJL 1:192)

Kate mentioned that Mme de Genlis wrote more openly about conflicts between her public, writing, and private roles in life that tarnished her reputation.

Kelly Fleming’s “Miss Larolles, Lady Belgrade’s Shoe Buckles and the Law” was another paper which used elements, characTers, and scenes from Cecilia to discuss larger political and social issues, in this case the contradictions between the way the law of debt worked and what a woman might assume was her private property. Kelly discussed how the auction in Cecilia showed how a wife was forced to pay her husband’s debts by selling her paraphernalia (e.g., shoe buckles). Such property could also be sold when the husband died to pay for debts. Without having real ownership, the woman could nonetheless be indirectly made to pay a debt (unless say another male in the family stepped in). Such events also brought the pain of exposure as they were also fashionable to go to. Kelly brought in the way disguises were used at masquerades (one of her guardians Mr Briggs warns her against the glittering objects on display as belonging to people); and again the point was women cannot find or rely on power through seeming to own anything. During Cecilia the heroine is fleeced of her inheritance of £10,000.

sophiaburneyworks
Sophia Elizabeth Burney (1777-1856) was Frances’s niece, her sister Esther’s daughter

After an afternoon tea break, Lorna Clarke’s description of her and Sara Rose Smith’s edition of Sophia Elizabeth Burney’s “Works” and “Novels, Plays, and Poems” combined with the fourth panel, “Family Politics” ended the academic day.

Lorna said a generous grant from the Burney Society published this volume under the aegis of the Juvenilia Press started by Juliet McMaster. The book was privately printed, and some 15 years ago surfaced in an edition called Works; in 2009 Peter Sabor bought a copy from a private collector. There are two copies of a first volume and one of a second. This new edition combines these; the texts project a strong exuberance; Sophia was perhaps 13 when she wrote them and copied them out in fair copies later. Some 14 titles, 2 novelettes, 2 poems. Titles include Murder Prevented (a playlet); Murder Committed (a tragedy where there is is female confinement, women suffer violence from men; lovers kill themselves); Unlawful Marriage (family struggles, with nightmarish images); A History of Jack Scarrow (boy runs away 100 miles to London). One comedy is reminiscent of Congreve. The stories remember real traumas in the Burney family; events that occurred. They register that Charles Burney’s affability could be seen as sycophancy. As far as we know Fielding’s Amelia was the only novel in Charles Burney’s library.

In her paper, “Burney at Cheapside,” Lorna argued that Burney’s writings are deeply imbued with the politics of gender and class; her place in London society was equivocal, and her consciousness of this played a large part in her unhappiness at court. The Burneys hid that Esther Sleep, Charles’s first wife, owned a shop that sold fans; Charles’s origins were in the servant class, and he used his second wife’s money for income. In her depictions of women, in the life-writing Esther’s mother (Frances’s grandmother) is depicted as an angel, while in Evelina we find a French grandmother, Madame Duval whose vulgar, aggressive behavior mortifies the heroine. Evelina exorcises the ghosts of the Burney forebears: the portrait of Madame Duval, a cathartic release for Frances; the Branghams, versions of the Sleep family. In The Witlings we are in a millinery shop; both Cecilia and Camilla show similar subtexts. Lorna then discussed the use of fans in Burney’s journals to show how through comedy and realism Frances expressed complex feelings she could not approach any other way: pictures on them, lines of verse; how they are used as props, in court ceremonies, as instruments, material symbols.

witlings
From a recent production of The Witlings

Victoria Warren discussed Frances’s play, The Witlings as a treasure trove of every painful sorrow, from what is in the play to how Frances was forced to cancel any productions ever in her lifetime. Some of the facets of the play’s humor show strong feminism; expose deep anti-intellectualism of popular culture (one character has such an aversion to reading, the sight of a book is distasteful), heartlessness; most satirical lines are given to Censor. Victoria went through the individual characters to show how how each functions. There is sentiment too, an almost thwarted love story: the heroine, Cecilia Stanley, grieves because Beaufort does not seek her out for herself.

colonelphilips
Colonel Molesworth Phillips

Jocelyn Harris’s paper on Colonel Molesworth Phillips, Frances’s sister, Susan’s abusive husband, closed the conference. Jocelyn argued that Austen attacked Phillips in her characterization of Fanny Price’s father (often drunk, clearly capable of violence, a do-nothing useless man) in Mansfield Park. Austen of course read Burney’s novels; knew the Cookes who were related to the Burneys; her brother Francis, from his time in the navy, would have know of Burney’s brother’s career (Jocelyn went into many details here). I’ll add that Austen mentions Burney’s son at one point in one of her later letters; and she would probably have known whatever gossip was commonly known about the Burneys. Jocelyn seemed to think that Frances Burney would have recognized this portrait of her brother-in-law in Mansfield Park. My comment is there are no textual proofs whatsoever for this assertion; nor that (as Jocelyn also suggested) Burney would have read Mansfield Park in this way (so seen this “message”), if she read it (there is no record of her reading any of Austen’s novels in all her voluminous writing); and many men in the era were in the military, were violent outside their official job, alcoholics, and ended drones, living on small pensions, all at once.

norburypark
Norbury Park, owned by Frances’s friends, the Lockes, where she built Camilla Cottage, which she had to give up later in life (romantic picturesque drawing in Constance Hill’s Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends

In the last half-hour of the conference there was a wide-ranging general discussion which many of the people there joined in on. Some of the most interesting remarks I got down were about other artistic and learned people who Burney wrote about in her journals; about some sources for Burney’s plays, her fictionalizing in the journals, her borrowing from other authors, and Joyce Hemlow’s long career and how she knew much about the property owned by the Burneys and the way they made money to survive. Harder questions were about Frances’s own anxieties as these emerge in her real life finances. We all went out to waiting cabs and headed for a dinner together at McCormick & Schnick’s (said to be a fashionable restaurant in DC). It was expensive. The society will next meet with the Aphra Behn Society next November 2017 in the Pittsburgh Renaissance Hotel.

**********************
72emma6emmatellsblog
Doran Goodwin as Emma reassuring her father that her marriage to Mr Knightley does not mean she and her father will part (1972 BBC Emma, scripted Denis Constanduros)

It is almost impossible for any individual to give any general or clear idea of the special lectures, individual break-out sessions, and key-note talks of the JASNA conference. Although the conference was said to begin on Friday (which the conference fee to pay for the sessions covered), there were “light” special lectures (by people who’ve gotten awards for popularizing books, TV personalities, an author of an Austen sequel), group conversations (including a food specialist, people dressing up in costumes, a dramatic sketch with a local fine actress who has performed in plays made out of Austen’s novels) and talks at scattered times on Wednesday and Thursday (fitted into four sessions, for each of which you had to purchase a ticket beyond the conference and hotel fees). I omit the other “special” workshops (on handiwork, fancy work, making things, dancing lessons). At the same time there were tours from the hotel to various tourist places around DC (including to the Folger Shakespeare Library). The conference fee covered but four sessions, and during each nine panels or papers and discussions were going on at once.

There also had been on on-line and one in-person writing workshop for “young writers” (students) done by three name Austen scholars and some volunteers from American university on themes from Emma. There was also a book store, a costume shop.

I regretted having to miss most of the official conference (8 sessions a time). At an earlier conference in Portland, Maine there were far more session times, though again there were a large number on at the same time (not quite 9 each time). I noticed a costume curator’s talk late on Thursday but as there was no further information about this one I didn’t try to come just at that time on day for that. (Were you staying in the glamorous hotel it would have been easy to do.) As part of the conference itself (no extra fee or ticket) there was a concert on Friday night (with nothing on against it), a selection of regency era music performed by a “specialist historical flute player” using an early 19th century Broadwood square fortepiano. My daughter would have liked to go to some of the dance workshops also going on at conflicting times, and requiring a ticket and early registration.

By simply citing all this plainly I hope to have given a sense of what most of this JASNA conference was like. For me there was far too much taking us away from the text of Austen’s Emma.

oliviawilliamsjanefairfax
Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax fleeing the garden party at Donwell Abbey (1996 A&E Emma, scripted Andrew Davies)

So the “official” conference (what your fee paid for) got together as a group on Friday at 1 for Bharat Tandan’s talk ending around 2:15 in the general ballroom. Most of the people at the conference were in the room at the same time so it was a fairly large crowd sitting there politely. I’ve described it fully here (scroll down). Briefly, Prof Tandan asserted rather incoherently there is much invisible in Emma of the greatest interest, but he did not go on to discuss in what these invisible elements consisted. There were then two sessions, one from 2:45 to 3:45 pm, and the second from 4:00 to 5:00 pm.

I’ll save what content on Austen’s Emma I and my daughter were able to hear for a third blog and here just cite the sessions I was especially sorry to have to miss: Anita Solway’s “The Darkness of Emma:” how there is “a somber vision of the vulnerability of our lives that anticipates Persuasion,” and if there are “blessings of existence” that “counteract its devastations;” Gillian Webster’s “Solving the Puzzle of Jane Fairfax: Jane Austen and the Anti-Heroine:” why is Jane Fairfax “so central to the novel, and why is she not the heroine,” how Austen “subverts conventions and challenges her readers to accept a different perspective” (than the usual?); Sheryl Craig “Dependence or Independence;” on the 16 characters gainfully employed in Emma; Holly Field, “Accountable to Nobody: Motherless children in Emma;” Susan Jones’s “Oysters and Alderneys: Emma and the Animal Economy: on the animals (there and alive, and I suppose, alas, killed and eaten). Finally Jeffrey Nigo of the Art Institute of Chicago, together with Andrea Cawetti of Harvard (experts in music, opera, she a former opera singer), on “Divas in the Drawing Room, or Italian Opera Comes to Highbury:” it was possibly a serious talk about arias performed in the era, and the career trajectory of a woman singer.

09emmaafterassemblyball
Romola Garai as Emma after the assembly ball, come home and practicing as strenuously as she can for a little while (2009 BBC Emma, scripted Sandy Welch)

More next time,
Ellen

Read Full Post »

akilligrew
Anne Killigrew, Self Portrait (c. 1685) — note the allegorical picture to the side, what looks like a war tent above, and her holding a leaf of paper

Dear friends and readers,

I’m gratified to be able to say I return to blogging tonight with a poet and painter I found strangely appealing more than 30 years ago: Anne Killigrew, who managed in her brief life to leave a small body of strong remarkable grave poetry and at least four paintings. The paintings are of interest as providing an authoritative image of Killigrew herself, as well as an effective one of her mistress’s husband, James II, then Duke of York:

james_ii_ann_killigrew-large
James II when Duke of York by Anne Killigrew

What’s left or what themes we know of Killigrew’s paintings fit into, might today be seen as surprising but is the typical repertoire of later 17th century themes for women, i.e., she painted an image of the story of Judith’s violent beheading of Holofernes. Killigrew also shows characteristics we find in other women artists: her Venus Attired by the Graces, manifests a gentle mood and soft blended rich colors of red, pink, brown against stand-out soft blues are reminiscent of (anticipate is too strong) Angelica Kauffman:

killigrew-venusattiredbythegraces-large

However, Killigrew did not leave enough paintings nor are the assertions that this or that image is of her secure enough to list her as an considerable woman artist of the era. Thus, what respect, knowledge and true interest someone can take in Killigrew must rest primarily on the posthumous edition of her poetry published a year after her death (alas, from small-pox). I here treat Killigrew as primarily a (foremother) poet.

Maureen Mulvihill, a literary specialist (who has written much on this later 17th century era, and done no less than 2 editions of the poetry of Ephelia) and rare book collector, has now added to the work done on Killigrew, “Poet Interrupted, the Curious Fame of Anne Killigrew.” Mulvihill’s focus is the history of Killigrew’s book in the context of what we know about her life, family, the court she lived in, her connections (especially as shown by the names of the people she addressed in her poems). Mulvihill identifies some of the problems and areas yet to be researched, and then surveys recent editions by Patricia Hoffman and Margaret J. M. Ezell. It’s also an essay directed at rare book collectors.

The poetry itself may sampled and is well (if briefly) characterized by Mary Mark Ockerbloom in the series A Celebration of Women Writers. Ockerbloom points out how uncertain is our knowledge of Killigrew (we are not sure what was her connection to the court of Mary of Modena, we are not sure if she knew Anne Finch, later Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), whose poetry and life I worked on for years). Ockerbloom brings out the evidence which suggests Killigrew was known in court circles for her poetry, a court atmosphere where a learned and chaste young woman was not likely to be comfortable, and then describes and quotes from Killigrew’s poetic oeuvre. I remembered a dark, grave, witty poetry, and would add to Ockerbloom that Killigrew’s most famous poem, “Upon the saying that my Verses were made by another,” is arresting for Killigrew’s representation of herself (as Germaine Greer remarks) “as a burnt offering” (Slip-shod Sibyls, 24-25) before her “sacred muse”

O Queen of Verse, said I, if thou’lt inspire,
And warm my Soul with thy Poetique Fire,
No Love of Gold shall share with thee my Heart,
Or yet Ambition in my Brest have Part,
More Rich, more Noble I will ever hold
The Muses Laurel, than a Crown of Gold.
An Undivided Sacrifice I’le lay
Upon thine Altar, Soul and Body pay;
Thou shalt my Pleasure, my Employment be,
My All I’le make a Holocaust to thee.

Dreams of rapture, of fame, of being valued like Katherine Philips (Orinda, 1631-64) turned into a source of shame, she was exposed for vanity (she alludes to “Esops painted Jay”). She is a Daphne who was “rifl’d,” her feathers torn:

My Laurels thus an Others Brow adorn’d,
My Numbers they Admir’d, but Me they scorn’d:
An others Brow, that had so rich a store
Of Sacred Wreaths, that circled it before;
Where mine quite lost, (like a small stream that ran
Into a Vast and Boundless Ocean)
Was swallow’d up, with what it joyn’d and drown’d,
And that Abiss yet no Accession found.

She lacked access, and by the end of the poem has likened herself to Cassandra.

Ockerbloom’s bibliography includes the best essay I’ve read on Killigrew: Carol Barash’s 22 pages situating her in “the imaginary underworld of Mary of Modena’s court,” along with a number of other fine poets of that court (Finch) and the era, in her magnificent study, English Women’s Poetry, 1649-1714. Barash is concerned to treat Killigrew both realistically and practically (wages for women at that court were 200£ a year, plus room and board) and to make clear that her poetry does not belong to the plangent and sentimental nor does she focus on rape or sexual victimizing, but creates a community of women in sensual landscapes filled with hidden allegories about power, ambition, and yes deep and embittering disappointment. “The Miseries of Man” is strikingly grief-stricken turn by turn. Barash discusses an unfinished ode by Killigrew where the poet identifies with a dove, “contrasts mundane squalor with the speaker’s belief in a higher, spiritual calling. The speaker urges her dove to soar beyond the low and dirty material world,” is at first self-confident and aggressive, returning to her “heavenly birthplace” after a “short time” on earth:

    Thy native Beauty re-assume,
    Prune each neglected Plume,
    Till more than Silver white,
    Than burnisht Gold more bright,
Thus ever ready stand to take thy Eternal Flight.

The imagery reminds me of Marvel’s in his famous “Garden” poem, but Killigrew’s dove finds her “plumage has been spoiled by those who attempt to transmit it to a larger public,” and that she has been “punished for taking the material world too seriously, for staying there too long,” is now at risk of being left “naked … and bare,/The Jest and Scorn of Earth and Aire.” I first read Barash’s book in the year it was published, 1999, and was startled by Barash’s austere tone. I had not been part of academic conversations for too long. Years (and many conferences and much interaction, reviewing, publishing) later, I understand better why Killigrew’s poetry about social deaths and real deaths, wars, violent dangers (mental as well as physical) and high aspiration, in a controlled pastoral landscape (a “specifically female retreat” and “place of political resignation”) calls out for sophisticated readings and high respect.

To suggest other points of view than Ockerbloom, Greer or Barash, an essay not included in Ockerbloom’s bibliography is David Vieth’s sceptical “Irony in Dryden’s Ode to Anne Killigrew,” Studies in Philology, 162 (1965):91-100: old and perhaps unfair, Vieth’s close reading suggests that Dryden’s ode to Killigrew could be read as high critical of her work (damning is the word). Barash has in mind Kristina Straub’s “Indecent Liberties with a Poet: Audience and the Metaphor of rape in Killigrew’s ‘Upon the saying that my Verses” and Pope’s Arbuthnot,” Tulsa Studies of Women’s Literature, 6 (1986):27-45, which I find has much merit. It’s a Foucault reading which finds that Killigrew and Pope’s poetry use of forms of rape offers paradigms for “social relations of domination and repression” determined by gender. Pope’s poetry emerges as under the sign of his disabilities.

To return to the essay which led me to this reading and blog tonight, Mulvihill’s analysis and description of the Killigrew’s posthumous book and modern editions situates Anne in her court and Killigrew world and also the commercial world at the time. She discusses the importance and merit of Richard Morton’s facsimile reproduction of Killigrew’s poetry, with a still valuable introductory essay (this is the edition I first read Killigrew in and have cherished ever after).

pagesofbook-large
The image on the front is said to be by Killigrew herself

Mulvihill suggests (I think rightly) that the recent editors should have gone further: the poems should be re-ordered to bring out significant relationships between them, their interlocutors, with a concentration that brings out themes and the different genres. I felt the same was true of an edition of Katherine Philips, and my work on Anne Finch was predicated on recognizing her struggle with the genres of the era, which she had to transcend to express her original thought and combinations of feeling. Here too (as with Finch) Mulvihill points to the problem of unattributed poems and poems wrongly attributed, which remain unresolved. She lists what she thinks specialists will find missing in the latest edition. She asserts that we are still awaiting a truly authoritative edition. Mulvihill includes at the end of her essay some particularly clear (large and richly colored) reproductions of images said to be of or attributed to Anne Killigrew and of one of her interlocutors.

maryofmodena
Mary of Modena (c 1694), artist unknown — she appears to have played an important role in the poetic writing of the women of her court (Anne Finch wrote a beautiful poem remembering Mary of Modena)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

John-MartLandscape,-Possibly-the-Isle-of-Wight-or-Richmond-Hill-xx-Yale-Center-for-British-Art
John Martin (1789-1854), Landscape possibly Isle of Wight or Richmond

Felicité passée
Qui ne peut revenir;
tourment de ma pensée
Que n’ai je en te perdant, perdu le souvenir

In these gloomy moods, she was quite unable to remain a moment in company — Smith cannot break away from obsessive memories of her life as a girl, code for before marriage Celestina

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve read yet another novel by Charlotte Smith: her fifth published narrative, Celestina (1791). I can’t say I took no interest whatsoever in the pivotal central heroine and supposed central consciousness of the book, Celestina, or Willoughby, her hero and their unfolding story. I kept read-skimming to near the book’s end to find out whose daughter Celestina is, and how she came to be mistakenly regarded as the illegitimate daughter of Mrs Willoughby, her foster-mother (benefactress is the term in the novel), and thereby Willoughby’s half-sister and ineligible to marry him. I was engaged by his long semi-fantasy journey at la St Preux in La Nouvelle Heloise amid the mountains of Switzerland, his deep absorption in wild solitudes as he traveled about to Southern France, Switzerland, into Naples to discover who she is, and where this rumor that has estranged them from one another forever came from.

sunset_on_the_coast_near_naples-JWrightofDerby (Large)
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97), Sunset on the coast near Naples

However, this journey was a detour from the book’s plot-design, and had no individual nuance, could easily have been attributed to some character invented for this journey, or better yet Smith herself as implied author, impersonal narrator. At the end of her life when she was dying, in pain from terminal ovarian cancer, and her husband had at last died, and she was getting the interest on her legacy, she dreamed of going to Switzerland, some cottage there. I imagine she thought of re-buying a library for herself once more.

And that’s part of the peculiarity of the pleasures of this novel. Its strong, compelling sections, passages are all those which have nothing to do with the central story. The most appealing engaging parts of the hovel are the several inset stories, of the “lamentable history” type told by a victim heroine: Jessy, much put-upon younger woman, harassed, exploited, seeks “service” where things do not get better; Mrs Elphinstone, the wife and then widow of yet another wildly extravagant, mercurially hot-tempered and intransigently stubborn husband, who (luckily we think) is drowned; Cathcart, Mrs E’s brother (who eventually marries Jessy, the lower middle class young man led astray by unrealizable ambitions in counterproductive jobs; Emily, their sister’s story, senselessly repressed, bullied, she flees with Vavasour, a handsome good-natured enough rake, who promised to marry her, does not but who loves and supports her even when she dies of consumption; of Lady Horatio Howard’s aristocratic life among corrupt circles she accepts (who stands in at moments for Smith’s beloved but probably prudentially conventional friend, Henrietta O’Neill); of Count de Bellegarde, a younger son of a reactionary punitive Italian Marquis, and his sister, Genevieve whose marriage beneath her her father refuses to forgive. Celestina travels as vigorously as any Radcliffe heroine, and I know I read the book for her sojourn in the Hebrides, which does not disappoint, and the inserted poetry in all the Scottish sections of the novel. I found the account of the early stages of the French revolution into Napoleonic era as played out in southern France, and Italy eye-opening as by a contemporary witness who thinks and reads. Did I say this is a long book?

I’ve come to the conclusion in this book Smith is a novelist in search of another form of novel, more than a different central story. She wanted another structure, another mode. As with her Letters of a Solitary Wanderer were the motifs and characters and themes and utterances anticipated those of Mary Shelley in her Frankenstein, I felt Smith was frustrated, hemmed in with these paradigmatic pathological familial romance-sex stories, semi-action adventure (Sophia Lee style, often with women at the center or feminized heroes), no matter how much more terrifying she managed to make them. Her next novel, Desmond, is epistolary. It’s a political treatise with its love story in the margins, and is balanced, symmetrical, satisfying, no tedium. But basically she changes content, reverses emphasis: the next three, Old Manor House, Emigrants (verse narrative), The Banished Man, are centered in inheritance, illegitimate and war, revolution, counter-revolution, stories of exile. Then the gothic Montalbert (about adultery, male violence, torrid climes, mother turning into daughter) and we read a story about debt, the prison system, some of it carried on by inset epistolary narrative, Marchmont. She does not take the generic leap she needed to.

Where the central narrative of Celestina comes most alive is in action-adventure moments of supreme suffering, but the problem is to get there we have to read distress upon distress and cannot forget the improbability of this. What she was seeking was some sudden frantic suffering, the sort of thing Outlander does weekly, as in the super-painful penultiamte episode where the sadistic homosexual Black Jack threatens to kill Claire until Jamie agrees to become his masochistic sex partner, and then smashes Jamie’s hand again and again.

Agonized
The ecstasy of the agony (Catrionia Balfe as Claire, Sam Heughan as Jamie)

Claire moans and groans, pushing her head against Jamie’s shoulder who tells her she must leave: he stands in for tortured prisoners today (in the perpetual war this earth’s colonialist capitalists and militarist dictatorships are waging against fanatic bands of excluded men and women mesmerized by a barbaric religion aka the war on terror) and what perhaps happens in prison systems like that of the US, China, Egypt (&c). So this film series knows what it’s doing and what it is conveying. We take this replacement as believable because done in the Lee mode, of historical romance with fantasy interwoven (what Diana Wallace in her Woman’s Historical Novel and Helen Hughes in her The Historical Romance describe). In her most powerful famous sonnets she is urging on herself such moments:

Swift fleet the billowy clouds along the sky,
Earth seems to shudder at the storm aghast;
While only beings as forlorn as I,
Court the chill horrors of the howling blast.

Even round yon crumbling walls, in search of food,
The ravenous Owl foregoes his evening flight,
And in his cave, within the deepest wood,
The Fox eludes the tempest of the night.

But to my heart congenial is the gloom
Which hides me from a World I wish to shun;
That scene where Ruin saps the mouldering tomb,
Suits with the sadness of a wretch undone.

Nor is the deepest shade, the keenest air,
Black as my fate, or cold as my despair.

The above is from Montalbert, the novel written in the wake of her beloved daughter, Augusta’s death. One of her sequences of poems is that of a mother grieving the loss of her daughter. Not enough has been written about these or Smith’s work in terms of a mother to a daughter.

But Smith is too conventional finally; too in her heart hopeful generally, not able to give up her progressive vision to move into the despair that would create an appropriate text.

I’m thinking that unlike Austen who could stay with conventional paradigms, not having a radical unearthing kind of vision, Smith needed to break them away. (Yes there is a sequence of double humiliation in a sort of assembly room dance that Austen could have had in mind in her S&S, but what is made intense height of shattering mortification in Austen, is a passing phase of your usual social suffering in Smith.) The feminocentric courtship novel was not for her (Emmeline). She writes in one of her self-reflexive critical comments that she cannot get herself to move to the supernatural (she is thinking of gothic fantasy) since she wants to stay true to the cause of the evil and harm she sees around her: natural, man-made, if by the end of her life she saw apparently not reformable. I was thinking today how Dickens’s great historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, is not (like Barnaby Rudge, a weak book), rooted in historical detail accurately dramatized but instead has these long chapters of deep imaginative flights of bleak, tragic, pessimistic imagery to convey the nightmare horrors the ancien regime could inflict on the powerless. Most of her stories are set in the present. Maybe she needed some weaving technique whereby she could embed her inset narratives as letters, memoirs, from an earlier period, a version of time-traveling through having her characters do research and find letters and documents instead of wandering as desperate exiles. Something more integrated too, distilled. Maybe a Booker Prize type post-colonial book. She was 200 years too early. She reached for it in the opening of The Banished Man (which I’ve begun, a conflagration amid war of a house), but then fell back again when her daughter died.

Something visionary in a prose story yet grounded in realism. This is iconoclastic for Smith scholars as (like them) I love how she follows Cowper, but the problem with her much admired Beachy Head is it is too exquisitely a jeweled imitation of him. She cannot like Wordsworth tell her life directly: it is unacceptable what she knew. In one of her late stories she has a heroine whose husband murders her son out of sexual jealousy over their daughter remember her last years with him before separation:

when, far from other motives than those of real affection, he once more approached me, mingling resentment and doubt even with his caresses, I would gladly have returned to my dungeon, or even have sought shelter in the grave, rather than have become, as I was however gradually compelled to do, the mere victim of his animal gratification (from “Edouarda,” Tales of Solitary Wanderer)

This getting close to the heart of the matter. Her surrogates are all of her older; she omits the time inbetween and she needed to write out of that. As I read and reread her poetry, this silent core is what she seeks to erupt from herself looking to the wild storms and solitude of landscapes outside the control of men, to bring her to it.

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

The lines to pay attention to are the last three: she does not find refuge, an alternative either through her mind or (being this realist), now without a friend (the death of Henrietta O’Neill is never far from her mind) in an envisaged practical future.

Faultering and sad the unhappy Pilgrim roves,
Who, on the eve of bleak December’s night,
Divided far from all he fondly loves,
Journeys alone, along the giddy height
Of these steep cliffs, and as the Sun’s last ray
Fades in the West, sees, from the rocky verge,
Dark tempest scowling o’er the shortened day,
And hears, with ear appall’d, the impetuous surge
Beneath him thunder!—So, with heart oppress’d,
Alone, reluctant, desolate, and slow,
By Friendship’s cheering radiance now unblest,
Along Life’s rudest path I seem to go;
Nor see where yet the anxious heart may rest,
That, trembling at the past—recoils from future woe.
Celestina in the Hebrides

HebridesRobMiller
Rob Miller, Outer Hebrides

Ellen

Read Full Post »

AViewofBoxHillSurrey1733GeorgeLambert (Medium)
A View of Box Hill, Surrey (1733) by George Lambert

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. (Opening voice-over of Outlander, from Gabaldon’s novel, script Roger Moore)

Dear friends and readers,

This series of blog notes on the talks I heard will be even less representative than usual since I arrived late Thursday afternoon, too late to hear any of the Thursday sessions, and left Saturday afternoon before the women’s caucus luncheon ended. I was driving myself to Pittsburgh, a five hour plus trip for me, so did not try to come after teaching ended later Wednesday afternoon, but rather set off on Thursday around 11 am. I knew I should aim to return before dark on Saturday. I did enjoy two lunches and two dinners with friends, went to both receptions, renewed acquaintances and made a couple of new friends. I bought Norma Clarke’s Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street. For my own records and if anyone wants to peruse heads of topics within panels, and some details of some of the papers I heard, I offer two blogs’ worth of notes.

Thursday (March 31st) while I was driving there: I regretted missing “Literary History and Life Writing: The Development of Non-Fiction in the 18th century” (the panel began 8 in the morning, and had papers on theatrical biography and lives of Johnson); “In the 1720s …” (this was a panel beginning at 9:45 am, had 8 speakers, and must’ve revealed intriguing set of connections); “Widows and Working Women: Making a Living in the 18th century” (11:30 am, panel I would have loved to hear for the topic and especially a paper on “the widowed Anna Dorothea Therbusch,” a woman artist). In the afternoon I would have chosen one of the two panels: “Psychological Trauma in the Long Eighteenth Century” (II, 2:30 pm). The first included how to express trauma; on war, torture, Burney’s masectomy; Goethe’s Werther, and on people who might be considered failures). The second was called “Women in Motion: The Figure of the Female Traveler in 18th century Literature and Culture” and had papers on Sophia Lee’s Recess, Lady Anne Barnard’s orientalism, Indian women travelers, and Burney’s Wanderer). How I would have enjoyed and profited from these. I reached the hotel while the last panel I would have chosen was just about ending: “”Inside the Artist’s Studio” (4:45 pm, in Rome, the art marketplace).

But I was up bright and early on Friday (April 1st) and listened to the round table panel “against the novel” (8 am, chaired by Scott Black and Andrew Jarrell). I chose it unlike many of the round tables, the titles of the participants’ papers were cited, so I had an idea of what might be discussed. My interest was stirred because too much is still perhaps made of the realistic novel in literary studies. The session suggested among younger scholars, this is no longer true.

IanWatt
Ian Watt’s famous book is still at the center of discussions: this is the cover of the first paperback edition

Two stood out among the short papers. Nicole Wright discussed an emergent genre at the close of the century: (ostensibly) non-fiction lives of lawyers, and one in particular, the anonymous Life of a Lawyer, which is a sort of Horatio Alger story, boy begins as orphan and ends Lord Chancellor and is presented plausibly, a believably imagined individual. These reveal that the professional lawyer often came from below high gentry. Ms Wright suggested these faux and real autobiographies are preoccupied with the problem of facts: is this factual, can you know what is, with the lawyer practicing scrutinizing facts. I’ve read of the sweeping changes in the court system where at the opening of the century lawyers were not regularly present at trials, to the end of the century where attorneys for the defense and prosecution and the rigamarole we are used to, with defendants making statements on their own behalf had begun. Rachel Carnel talked about how students today relate to secret histories. Ms Carnell suggested such back stories, digressions, fragmentations, non-linear narratives, anecdotes attract readers today. Since I have been reading and teaching Fielding I was very interested in Ms Carnell’s use of Fielding’s theorizing of the novel where he seems to veer towards realism (at least probabilities, consistent time, space) all the while he speaks ironically and himself practices many devices which treat his book as a book in front of the reader.

The talk afterward included Max Novak inquiring why one of the panelists thought Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel (a target in this session) came out of the cold war, and was told that the book is “suggestively anti-communist” because it promotes individualism. Prof Novak said, to the contrary, Watt’s book is itself Marxist, and was written in the context of the Leavis’s close reading, high moral elite approach to reading. I admit that for me it seemed the panel’s tendency was too strongly to dismiss the value of all gains in psychological, social truths, and shapely art of the “new novel” partly because the panelists themselves favored or were working on non-realistic fictions. One audience member reminded everyone that continental criticism valued the English novel because it observed people in their everyday life, the intimate, particular, is seen as valuable to know about.

As I am just now also reading about on disability, and would like to study its representations in 19th and 20th century fiction and life-writing much more, the four longer papers given in “Disability Narratives” (9:45, chaired by James Farr and Stan Booth) engaged me.

DefoeJournalofPlagueyear
A recent Oxford edition of Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year

Erin Peters discussed texts that presented what we might call post-traumatic stress disorder after the English civil war. Writers were paying attention to invisible wounds, looking to how to cope with trauma. No longer was attributing such suffering to God’s punishment enough. Ms Peters read soldiers petitioning for pensions. They are looking for therapeutic remedies to avoid “self-murder.” Advice includes friends’ care and frequent conversation with trusted friends. Psychological impairment may be said to be central to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Inward care is needed to relieve the distressed mind. These writings show people taking such afflictions seriously, and trying to construct stories for relief of trauma the way people do for grief in our era.

Travis Chi Wing Lau discussed Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year as an early groping towards immunology theory. HF moves from stories to statistics and back again, describing quarantine crews, burials. The problem for the world of the book is all forms of prevention seem to fail: religious beliefs and rituals and what was called medicine didn’t work. Daniel Crouch discussed how typography, uses of punctuation, blank spaces on a page were used to represent disability in several texts. Francis Hopkinson had written about fonts and sizes of letters and symbols used expressively so this idea was understood. Mr Crouch showed where the architecture of a page itself was set up to record feelings about disabilities.

CrippledMrsSmith
Anne Elliot visiting Mrs Smith and Nurse Rooke (1995 BBC Persuasion)

Maureen Johnson’s paper on Austen’s Persuasion used the word disability to discuss how Austen shows certain social disabilities function like stigmas in society: these include Anne as an older haggard spinster; Captain Benwick as a grieving semi-widower, Hargrave grieving over the death of a friend. The novel has aging people, and people who fake illness (Mary Musgrove) and we have one seriously physically disabled character: Mrs Smith seems unable to walk; her condition is exacerbated by her poverty and widowhood, two more social stigmas or disabilities. Corey Goergen’s paper focused on the unbearable sadness, the emotional pain of debilitation in the later writing of Dorothy Wordsworth as found in her journals.

A prisoner in this quiet room
Nature’s best gifts are mine
Friends — books — and rural sights and sounds
Why should I then repine? —

She had Alzheimer’s or some form of senile dementia but her writing also has many of the expressive features of women’s writing, which included reflecting through structure a fluid concept of the self. Dorothy is not anxious about her identity; she writes with great spiritual intensity. We must avoid reading her as if she was some Shakespearean holy fool. She is communicating obliquely “more than 35 years of close intellectual and imaginative companionship” and writing startlingly accurate poetry about her state of mind. This set of verses comes near the end of her papers:

My tremulous fingers feeble hands
Refuse to labour with the mind
And that too oft is misty dark & blind.

The talk afterwards added much to what had been said already. Chris Mounsey asked if words have to be reshaped to reflect disabilities?. To Erin he said the movement she is describing is from demonizing to therapy, and we should look to see how the tone of a piece changes, and tone towards the person suffering when the language of blame disappears. One problem in Defoe we see is how the readers can misinterpret in terms of what they already know. Chris suggested at the core of the problem of writing disability is the use of the word “normal.” Another member of the audience suggested that a study of the history of medical narratives shows mostly narratives of triumph where the person is cured. He said we need to overturn these falsifying patterns, see pain as normal, and that all personalities are at some level fragile.

I’ve been so interested in Scottish literature and Scottish identity the last few months that I went to “Upstairs, Downstairs in Scotland through the long 18th century.”

kinross
Kinross, the house as photographed when it was recently sold once again (for a huge sum)

I stayed for two papers. Clarisse Godard Desmarest described the life of Sir William Bruce (1630-1710), a Scottish gentleman-architect, who built a grand house famous today: Kinross. Bruce was rewarded for his loyalty to the Stuarts after the Restoration, and plans were set afoot to build a beautiful house, and surround it with remarkable gardens. He was founding a family dynasty. She then covered what is left of the letters of Bruce’s first wife, Mary Halkett, to show us that a great deal of the successful implementation of the owners’ scheme is owing to her force, diligence and tact. Ms Demarest covered many details of what was built, planted, what trophies are there.

Mark Wallace’s paper on “High Life Below Stairs” was on the intersection of class conflicts: while he began by describing Edinburgh clubs and elite social life, his focus was eventually on how the upper classes ended the customs of giving servants vails (big tips). Mr Wallace described changing attitudes of mind towards pleasure and workin Edinburgh; that volunteerism was part of its social ethos. The Edinburgh clubs promoted philanthropy, reading and writing; they worked to mitigate some of the miseries inflicted on people during lowland clearances, and the destruction of the highland culture. They wanted their organization to outshine the English. At the same time they were seeking shore up the hierarchies that kept them in power. The claim was giving vails disrupted social intercourse (especially visiting) between the upper classes (because they cost too much, because servants drank too much when given money), and the practice was with rigorous repression discontinued. Hypocrisy cannot be denied as these clubs (however decorously) used alcohol themselves during festivities which were seen as enacting masculine bonding. For these elite groups it was a question of how to manage servants (repressing pride and any “licentiousness”) so as to network comfortably and conveniently in their own houses, but we and the middle and lower classes then could see brought to the surface class tensions and how servants lived disciplined marginalized lives. Mr Wallace described an often-cited and often-performed farcical play, Garrick’s High Life Below Stairs which presented these problems through satiric parody, in effect making light of serious issues. I thought of the falsfications of the enormously popular Downton Abbey while at the same time it dramatized class conflicts and showed us the vulnerability of the servants to the power of their masters and mistresses.

1-lisbon-earthquake-1755-granger
The Lisbon Earthquake (1755, modern representation)

I then hurried to the poster session on the 17th floor lobby area and walked from poster to poster talking to and listening to innovative interactive ways (using software programs) the various instructors/professors were teaching students how to do research, about the 18th century. After lunch, Felicity Nussbaum read aloud the Presidential address by Srinivas Aravamudan, “From Enlightenment to Anthropocene.” I feel sure this post-colonial and cosmopolitan meditation on geological epochs, different philosophical approaches to history (including the popularity of vast tomes of encyclopedic books), geology and geography (climate change), and time itself, centering on the figure of Giambattista Vico while along the way writers from Voltaire to Montesquieu, the Lisbon Earthquake, the formation of the European mountains, were discussed, will be published. I’ll say only that I was attracted to the outlook of read text, which seemed justifiably pessimistic in the way it approached the time when (perhaps) earth’s people will have so changed the earth that our species can no longer survive on it and go extinct. The contemporary illustrations chosen were illuminating as also portraits of individuals less well-known now.

The long day ended with the panel on which I gave my paper: John O’Neill’s “The Eighteenth Century On Film” (4:30-6:00 pm).

1975Episode7jimdyingbyjinnysside
Jim and Jinny Carter, he dying from his unjust imprisonment (1975-76 Poldark, scene not in the source book nor in 2015 film)

2015Episoe6BlameyVerity
Captain Blamey and Verity at the ball, he blaming her for not being willing to flee with him (alluding to Wentworth to Anne Elliot, Persuasion, not in the source book nor 1975-76 films)

Mine was the first paper, “Poldark Rebooted: 40 years on.” I demonstrated a plethora of 1960-70s films have been re-made within this time-frame and that with a couple of exceptions, the new films are using real or fantasy history to create a past with different emphases from the one realized earlier in order to project and/or construct an imposed or perceived group identity intended to allay insecurities of our era. I used the Poldark pair as a particularly lucid example of typical changes: the 1970s mini-series series dramatizes exploitative inexorable conflicts along class, political and gender and generation lines. Far from from presenting a strong community identity as way for individuals to solve their lives’ problems, the older mini-series centers on characters presented as individuals escaping – or failing to escape from – invisible coercive and sometimes unjust norms (prisons). The films identify with the radical, the rebel, and take a strongly feminist (sometimes anachronistically so) stance. The 2015 series reveals a single script-writer using film technologies to make mythic matter for an idealized perceived indwelling heroic community identity as a solution to individual problems. The women are now subordinated to, work for their families and working businesses, and their children, wherein they find their meaning and safety. The parallel for the first series is The Onedin Line, where there is much trust in existence itself, high scepticism towards religionm trust in technology; the parallel for the second Outlander where characters live in a spiritualized landscape, what happens in life mysterious, often monstrous, and the future something to be guarded against, potentially dark and grim. The actuating idea is people need to hold together, stay in a single imaginary space, and yet experience is centrifugal, now and again the strength of community as powerful when united against single or small groups of much more powerful individuals is shown to be a delusion.

Jennifer Wilson’s paper was on Alan Bennett’s use of diary materials (Greville’s and Burney’s especially) for his film, The Madness of George III. She suggested he has done this again for his film adaptation of his play, The Lady in the Van.

dame-maggie-smith-alex-jennings-the-lady-in-the-van-alan-bennett1
Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings as Miss Shepherd and Bennett (Lady in the Van, 2016)

Ms Wilson played clips from The Madness of George III showing how the rhythm of the scenes mirrored the movements of the diaries, and also how effective unusual camera work, close-ups especially. She talked of how Nigel Hawthorne’s performance was much enhanced (as would be Maggie Smith’s).

OpeningOvervoice
The opening prologue and over-voice of Claire, deeply regretful and yet thrilled remembering 1945 from her perspective of 1743 (Outlander 2015)

Mutualnurturing
Jamie MacTavish and Claire now Mrs Beauchamp (the first of many mutually nurturing rides in extremis together)

Courtney Hoffman argued that Outlander is a “feminist film text,” that the film used voice-over, montage, and a female gaze to break down the strong tendency of action-adventure romance to give us a male story. Instead we have story of female agency, based on a woman’s memory; Claire’s two voices, one from the present which turns into past and the other in the past which becomes the present are in charge, are shaping what we feel and what we see. Claire is pro-active, often controls what is happening. The mini-series overturns our gender expectations.

sewing
From Belle, the white and black heroines sewing together (Belle, 2013)

Steven Thomas’s rich paper covered several eras of films about slavery as well as several types of slave narrative films. There are commercial films meant to please large audiences, often majority white: these include plantation dramas of nostalgia, with the displacement of the fallen south onto a guilty (villainous, trangressive) woman (e.g., Birth of a Nation, Jezebel, Gone with the Wind). There are the evangelical and nationalistic films (funded by religious groups), linear in narrative, with redeemed and/or heroic protagonists (Amazing Grace, Roots, Jefferson in Paris). Some commercial films are aimed at African and African-Americans too: anti-plantation films, Blaxpolitation; they exploit voyeurism, fantasies of violence, “both” sides are transgressive and cruel (Mandingo, Cobra Verde, The Legend of Nigger Charlie). Unfortunately the films least well-known are often the truest to what was the experience of slavery and its politics. These include the 1960s and 70s Marxist films analyzing the political economies, dramatizing corrosive and destructive policies, using complex social antagonisms of all sorts (Tamango, The Last Supper, Burn!). Mr Thomas seemed to think finest as a type are the Pan-Africanist films: these layer memory, history, are de-centered and communal narratives, sometimes African in origin (Ceddo, Daughters of the Dust, Sankofa). Mr Thomas found more hope in the sense of education of viewers in the more widely-distributed “new” movies (very recent costume dramas, combining motifs (Lincoln, Belle, 12 Years a Slave, Toussaint Louverture, Tula: the Revolt). He offered lists of books, and articles on historical films, heritage, films about slavery, black cinema.

Though we did not have much time afterward, what talk we did have was stimulating. People seemed most interested in Outlander. Someone objected to Ms Hoffman’s thesis on the grounds that Claire is continually imperilled, often assaulted, near raped, and repeatedly saved in the old-fashioned way (in the nick of time) by her lover-husband from the past, Jamie MacTavish. I suggested what was strikingly innovative was how Jamie was given the over-voice most of the time in the second to last and penultimate episodes. In these it is he who is imprisoned and tortured (making the film politically relevant today) by Claire’s husband now in the past presented as a repressed homosexual cruel man who whips mercilessly and then seduces, rapes Jamie repeatedly until Jamie’s sense of self is shattered and he is giving in sexually to his abuser. This material transgresses almost every taboo on the presentation of masculinity in most films. People asked Mr Thomas questions soliciting information mostly, but there theme of a black community came up and he praised those films which do show us such communities, how they form and function. He said he is in the midst of publishing a collection of film studies, one of which will be his own paper. A woman came up to me at the close of the session and told me she is publishing a book on film where she has an essay on the two Poldarks where she basically offers the same perspective I did. Hers is not yet published. Mine will soon be up on the Net on a group blog maintained by a consortium of university and commercial groups (ABOPublic is its name).

And so the academic and scholarly sessions of Thursday and Friday that I attended ended.

BAL5239 The Shrimp Girl, c.1745 (oil on canvas) by Hogarth, William (1697-1764) oil on canvas 63.5x50.8 National Gallery, London, UK English, out of copyright
William Hogarth, The Shrimp Girl (1745)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

thomas1fairytale
Mickalene Thomas (b. 1971) Fairy Tale (A Brooklyn Museun of Art exhibit — scroll down)

Dear friends and readers,

Now that I’ve finished the first round of my project, I want to gather the women thus far before returning to perhaps before the early modern period (Renaissance) to begin again. I will stay within the European tradition as that’s what I know and like, but will try for earlier, more non-English, contemporary and non-white women artists.

Thus far:

Caterina Van Hemmesen (1527/8-1581)
Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652)
Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757)
Francois Duparc (1726-1778)
Anne Vallayer-Coster (1744-1818)
Rosa Brett (1829-1882)
Helen Allingham (1848-1926)
Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Forbes (1859-1912)
Marianne Von Werefkin (1860-1938)
Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1909)
Isabel Bishop (1902-1988)
Nell Blaine (1922-2001)

I see I provide a cluster of long 18th century (3) and later Victorian/Edwardian women artists (4!) — that was unexpected and showed me how much I like this period of art. In the next round I’ll also have some parodists:

florencecaxtonwomenswork
Florence Claxton (fl. 1840-79) Women’s Work (mimicking Ford Madox Brown; she also parodied Pre-Raphaelite paintings),

and will return to add on pictures by women artists I’ve blogged about when I read a book about them, especially in a style not commonly associated with them:

forbeslaseinepresdelacaumont
Elizabeth Adela Armstrong Forbes – La Seine pres de la Caumont (her French period, the Whistler influence),

or come across new information, insights on individuals, movements, and recent good surveys or essays or on-line sites.

MBWellsASibyl1860
Joanna Mary Boyce Wells (1831-61, a Pre-Raphaelite painter ignored in just about every Pre-Raphaelite show I’ve seen or read about — I mean to include her life & work in my next round of women artists; she painted non-white women)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

JennyDiski

doris-lessing
Photos from decades ago of Jenny Diski and Doris Lessing

Dear friends and readers,

Little is more central to a woman’s life, what she becomes, than her relationship to her mother. We see this from the first women writers who tell of something of themselves and their lives (Christine de Pisan) through Jane Austen’s letter and novels, to say Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun (daughter to mother) and Emma Thompson and Phyllida Lawson (the relationship moves back and forth). The book to read is Marianne Hirsh’s The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis and Feminism. We now know that Jenny Diski had two mothers: the abusive, half-crazed, abused woman who tramped the streets homeless with her daughter, and Doris Lessing who took Jenny in and put her in a decent grammar school, helped her go to university, and exemplified the know-how and gave Jenny the connections to start her career as a writer.

If you’ve been reading Jenny Diski’s columns in the London Review of Books some time after Doris Lessing died, Jenny Diski was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer which has jumped from lymph node to lymph node. She courageously but in character told her readership (September 2014) and proceeded not only to write columns about the experience but also to tell a story which may, must have been on her mind and conscience to tell for many years. Now that she assumed she was dying, she wanted to confess, to be found out: she is thanking Doris openly, in public, so others should know, for rescuing her from what probably would have been a life in asylum; she is also revealing the distance between the implied author of the realistic novels so deeply concerned and wise about women’s relationships (from lover to mother, wife to sister, friends to enemies) — and how in actual life Doris treated Jenny when Jenny asked for love or advice or badly misbehaved. How does a semi-withdrawn in the deepest sense unconventional woman cope with an understandably disturbed young woman? And how is Jenny coping with the grinding and deeply wrong-headed ways (from the standpoint of helping the person emotionally) cancer is treated and talked about in our society. Before this it seems it was known among those who knew them as people, for in a couple of the columns when Jenny fast forwards to well after Jenny left Doris’s home and purview and their relationship became attenuated, it seems people were chary to say anything to her about Doris and vice versa.

I’ve followed the columns almost religiously, intensely wanting to know how the chemotherapy was going, if when the series were finished, how she was doing. I found her refusal to talk in terms of battles, and triumphs and her refusal to compromise about her grief and terror of a piece with the candour and insight of her occasional diary pieces in the LRB where she told about how she was raped at age 14, about her wretched parents and early childhood, and her two travel memoirs, Skating to Antartica: Journey to the end of the World and Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America.

As the columns went on and she talked more and more about Lessing, I realized Jenny was also settling old scores. She was doing justice to what had been given, but also getting back. For those interested in interpreting Lessing’s fiction, we learned Emily, the adopted young girl of Memoirs of a Survivor was a portrait of Jenny. Like countless novelists, Lessing was willing to model central characters on people she knows — without asking permission because most people would not give it. Jenny was made very uncomfortable it seems. There were some funny moments early on where Jenny and her biological mother are in a kind of conspiracy as two deluded vulnerable people not coming up to the strong woman with her sensible advice, control, instructions and pocketbook.

But a couple of the columns took my breath away: sad experience has taught me that what I consider to be cold and mean behavior is by some interpreted as “setting bounds,” what I think to be understandable appeals for emotional support by some seen as emotional blackmail. So when I read a column (LRB, 37:1, 8 January 2015, “Doris and Me”) where Jenny tells of an incident that occurred between them shortly after she moved in with Doris, I asked on a listserv what other people thought. I was not surprised to get no answer. Jenny got herself to ask, Did Doris like her; if their relationship did not go well, what would happen to her? the teenager was clearly justifiably intensely worried and frightened and needed reassurance. Lessing’s response was fierce anger and an implied threat that she would eject Jenny back to the working class abyss she came from. As I tell it it’s obvious that to me Lessing acted with cold cruelty to the girl; Lessing’s interpretation of a natural need as trespassing emotional blackmail to me shows her unwillingness to be a secure friend, to commit. I was horrified. Diski does seem to suggest that it was Doris’s son, Peter, who first proposed to take Jenny in, but how that happened, how he met the girl and told his mother and how it all came about not told. Perhaps because the people involved are still alive, read the LRB, and would not want to be named.

To me this kind of encounter is at the core of women’s novels: the opening of the inner heart to the woman reader about things never discussed openly except with an intimate friend (here on the Net it’s become otherwise because the writing self is a different one from the physically social self plus the kind of accountabilty and detail that is part of life off the Net is often not here); a chance for the woman reader to plug into that and live through it, learn, and a need be satisfied — women’s psychologists argue repeatedly women are relational people, especially needing a woman friend or a companion.

Some of the columns which combined what she was going through as a cancer victim (it is victim) and what she knew in her original home and then what she experienced in Doris’s were painful to read. Diski made no concession whatsoever to what’s called normality or sane perspectives. She stays with what she was and repeats what people said of her: she was a “horrible girl.” It’s very strong of her to present herself that way, make no excuses and show the world from her point of view: the problem with it for her was what was wrong was the way other people acted and thought and what they demanded of her without telling her what they wanted. She was supposed somehow to know (LRB, 37:11, 4 June 2015, “What was wrong with everything was people”). There was an intertwining of what Jenny was observing in the upper middle class so-called bohemian circles of Lessing and what she observed in the upper middle class medical establishment today.

One early one turned hilarious at the close (LRB, 36:23 December 4, 2014) where she shows us how lunatic are our social relationships if you ask that they derive from a level of real understanding of one another. No one screams but one gynaecologist when maybe we all ought to be screaming, or scream at least once. Their first criteria is to protect themselves and so won’t tell Diski anything. The column is deeply critical of the cancer establishment as well as showing how they know nothing helpful fundamentally which is what is desperately needed by hideously growing numbers of people on this polluted earth.

Some are poignant. She says it’s like she is alive and dead at once (LRB, 36:21, November 6). That’s what Jim said it was like: being on the other side of a wall only those living with death can understand. There was a column about lullabies and how they are needed to soothe. One of the last was poignant: she has begun to hope she has a future; she tells us she was told that she had two years probably — unless the cancer went into remission was implied, or the treatments did something to extend that time. You see it in the last paragraph.

But it seems now she may die of the treatment (this reminds me of the movie, Wit, where Emma Thompson plays a woman diagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer). Her tumor has stopped growing, but the chemotherapy and radiotherapy have done hideous damage to her lungs which had been scarred by pulmonary fibrosis. She has bad trouble breathing, falls and breaks bones (is very weak), was in hospice for a week but then sent home (as not about to pop off for sure any time now). When will she died? no one knows but 1-3 years is still what she’s given. The appearance of calm with which she describes recent weeks is stunning (LRB, 37:13, July 2015, “Spray it Silver”).

Well last week I read a column in mirable dictu which attacked Diski full front: Jenny Diski’s year of bashing Doris Lessing. I answered on the blog a couple of days later, and here extend my reply into a fuller argument. I admit I am not an unqualified admirer of Lessing much as I loved her Golden Notebook until the last one, and have read and admired a number of her novels, memoirs and criticism. I want to come to Diski’s defense because I’ve had the idea all along that just the ideas developed in mirable dictu are those that might be used once the period is over where people feel they must not “speak ill of the dead.

First there are two elements one must begin with. the homelife Diski came from. Nor the state Diski was in. What Lessing did was take responsibility for an abused child in a nearly catatonic state. In one of the essays we are shown that as the adolescent came out of her state (partly due to simply being away from her parents but also in the quiet stable house Lessing provided, with its routines, school, normality of friends), she was frightened. Who would not be? who could endure to go back? One must look at how Jenny is a child with what would be called a major depressive disorder whom Lessing had taken in. She wanted to now if Lessing could get rid of her, did she mean to keep her, and asked Lessing for reassurance that she would and a statement of love. Lessing became deeply angry and refused to say the situation would be at all permanent. In another the adolescent asks for advice about sex, and is given a flippant guarded answer and again told she has no right to ask for such advice.

What are the responsibilities of a caretaker-guardian? It’s true that Lessing did not adopt the girl. In a third Diski runs away and Lessing does not look for her; only when an agency discovers the girl liviing in filth somewhere back to her state, and phones Lessing does Lessing come and try to help. It’s not clear that Peter was responsible for Lessing take Diski in; it seems that Lessing was attracted to the girls’ gifts and felt for her but did not fully imagine what taking such a young woman on would be. Kat leaves out that the Emily a central character of Memoirs of a Survivor is a portrait of Diski. Diski was very hurt by this. And I agree that the series of column comes out of Diski’s anger too. But Jenny needed help desperately. Jumping out of a window, sleeping in stinking rotting wasteland, these are frantic calls for help and Doris had come forward. Jenny needed more than Doris’s cats.

Mirable dictu also misrepresented Diski’s presentation of Peter. Diski does not slam or despise Peter. She feels for him; she does not understand how Peter came to be so dependent. She is suggesting the portrait of the boy in The golden Notebook is Peter. I remember that portrait best of all and that the heroine could not cope with her son. Myself I think the GN is badly flawed because the great solution of the heroine’s life is to throw herself into orgasmic enthrallment in the last notebook. Up to then the book had been brilliant. Diski does not blame Lessing for leaving South Africa and two of her children; she suggests that this reality shows that Lessing was a woman who felt she had to make a choice like this to have a writer’s life — so in Lessing’s own life is a variant on her heroines.

Diski also includes how Lessing remained connected to her when she married and to her daughter (in a way a grand-daughter to Lessing) and that there was a relationship of support and affection there (perhaps publishing help?).

The series of columns has been not only about Lessing but Diski’s inoperable cancer. Diski has been told the probabilities are she will be dead in 2-3 years. She had undergone horrendous treatments and she discusses how all this feels, her fear of dying. In fact the first few columns where she “came out” and for the first time made widely public that her whole career would not have happened but for Lessing seemed to me a tribute, wanting to tell Diski’s life for the first time. She can’t tell her childhood or adolescence or the time in schools without telling about Lessing. I agree that she is getting back and exposing but she’s been hurt and hurt bad. At the same time Diski means to show the goddess has clay feet.

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

Writer Jenny Diski pictured at her home. '

2006Lessing
Jenny recently but before chemotherapy; Doris in 2006

Diski is one who writes autobiographically and if there is anyone she has exposed over the years it’s been herself. She is doing to (or for) Lessing what she has done to or for herself. I have read enough criticism of Diski to know that quite a number of women writers take advantage of what Diski tells of herself to write snark at her books. I’ve not read any of her novels but I have her two travel books and regularly over the years her criticism. I don’t always agree with Jenny, and some of her columns were written with less thought and too much convention. She has a knee-jerk reaction against BBC costume dramas, her mockery (politically astute) of Downton Abbey failed to account for why it stayed popular. But speaking overall, superb, worth reading.

Yes this last End Notes is problematical. She is dying. I thought of the last two that the LRB editor is finally being too soft and should be editing Diski more — asking for cuts or where she is beginning to lose control. But a long time dying contributor can be given slack. I’ve seen what cancer does to people’s brains and their bodies and give credit to Diski that she has been able to write despite the deterioration and pain she has known. Perhaps writing helped to absorb her mind and enable her to forget or transcend her pain while writing.

I gather from what she writes in these columns that all literary London who knows one another knew about this relationship. It was a secret everyone knew — there are anecdotes where others are careful what they say around each about the other. I surmise if was Lessing who forbid the telling in public because Diski waited until she was dead for some time and then told. I surmise Diski agreed not to tell or acquiesced.

It is important to know about Lessing’s private life to understand the flaws in her books — and the distance between the presentation of her persona and what she really was Now I understand the Diaries of Jane Summers. There the central character resents the woman who turns to her for help as well as being a version of the central characters. I was not as stunned by her revelation of Lessing’s behavior (especially the one where she refused to reassure the girl and refused to say she loved her) because it fit into what I feel is part of the person behind the books. I respect Lessing enormously, especially her Grass is Singing, Summer before the Dark, Golden Notebook and Nothing Remains the Same — and just as much some of her critical essays and memoirs.

There are other relatives in England who come out and write about one another to some extent. A. S. Byatt and Margaret Drable, the Amises. It’s not always a comfortable thing to watch. Diski’s columns are not a Mommie Dearest. She says repeated that Lessing rescued her.

As to Lessing’s writing, there is the problem (as I see it) of Lessing’s two identities, the one who writes the science fiction and fantasy and the one who writes the realistic depressed books. I find very great her The Grass is Singing; her On Cats is a work of strong genius. The latter dialogue with women, though Lessing denies she is a feminist. I regard it as a problem as I see much in the former that at strong variance with the latter, and what Diski has to tell us can explain perhaps some of these gaps. One self of Lessing wanted to mother Diski and the other did not.

What I regret is that Lessing did not tell when she herself was still alive, that in her memoirs she left this important relationship out as she did the connection between her son and the son of the Golden Notebook. Had Lessing told too then we would have had her point of view.

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

Doris-Lessing-at-home (Large)
Doris at home, middle-aged with one of her cats

diskibookonanimals
We now know that What I Don’t Know About Animals is in dialogue with On Cats!

I’m a person who writes openly about myself. People are shocked by what I say sometimes and I’ve been told that I’m risking retaliations of people who feel threatened or resentful or who want happy stories. I say they should not bother read me. I have never been close to a famous person but I have named names and told of all those who hurt and damaged Jim as he lay dying. No one will care about the people who hurt me, and I don’t even know the names of the boys who once gang raped me. But I understand the impulse to tell.

I feel a destruction of Jane Austen herself was done when the majority of her letters were destroyed, three packets between her and Francis, what was left censored and abridged. On Austen-l and Janeites we are still making our way though the Austen papers and eventually I will find a way to make blogs from our readings of these letters in an effort to call these papers t the attention of people and hope some scholar will want to produce an annotated contextualized edition.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »