Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘women’s memoirs’ Category

Friends and readers,

I read with a class on 19th century Women of Letters this past term Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen: The History of a Scotch Family 70 Years Ago, and am gratified to report the class as a whole liked it very much: some called it a “page-turner;” it was a class of 35 and I’d say about 25 stayed the course (it’s was a sort of college course where there is no exam, no papers, mostly made up of retired adults, towards the end all but one were women), and most of them read Kirsteen, and were eager to discuss it. Over on Trollope and his Contemporaries (the one yahoo list I moderate, apparently still going despite all yahoo’s software failures), one of the first non-Trollope novels we read together, after a period of just Trollope and then trying to reconstitute the list in new directions was her last Carlingford book, Phoebe Junior, and it brought the list to life again. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote the introductions to the Virago press publications of two of the Carlingfords, Salem Chapel and The Perpetual Curate. Miss Majoribanks, yet another, is the one book feminist readers read and often praise, the Carlingford novels because of their original connection to Trollope (as about church politics in the dissenting vein) are still known and some in print (they were her success among English readers). People who read gothic works are aware of her masterpiece ghost story, The Beleaguered City, and her uncanny shorter ghost stories.

I write this blog tonight because earlier this week Oliphant came up on a face-book discussion group page, Readers of Fine Literature, where someone was so enthusiastic about Oliphant’s Hester, as extraordinary (the first time I read it I thought it a masterpiece that should be assigned alongside the usual “great Victorian novels”), that the posting prompted “ayes” and citations of books by Oliphant different people enjoyed, or denials of Oliphant as filled with pleasure, with vows never to try an Oliphant again. I want tonight to describe briefly or add three more heroine’s texts to those I’ve analysed here on these blogs already (Phoebe Junior, Hester, The Marriage of Elinor). Agnes, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Carr (a four volume work) and Kirsteen, and to suggest how her very late ghost story, The Library Window is yet another and a comment on her career. They are novels comparable in subtlety and interest to those of Trollope, Gaskell and Eliot. Their criticism of marriage and presentation of women’s lives put them together with Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved. Their uses of irony show her early immersion in Austen (her first two Carlingford novels have characters named after Austen, situations reminiscent of hers. For her life and work, start at the Victorian Web.

It’s best to be either brief or write at length for a magazine. Here we must opt for concision. Why? Oliphant writes realistic novels which are not easy to describe as they often move episodically. Their subversive and riveting material comes in inward interstices and twists and turns of stories whose endings are often unexpected. When they happen, these feel inevitable and as coming from the situation as it’s evolved or been all along. Most are almost strongly unsentimental. Agnes is very like Elinor in that the heroine makes a bad marriage and the novel is about how she copes — or doesn’t. Customs and laws inflict problems on Agnes which her ne’er-do-well husband doesn’t share, but when her husband dies she finds she loses all personal happiness; her child is taken from her; complex feelings most novels didn’t go near until very recently are the subject matter.

I find her Ladies Lindores and its close sequel Lady Carr compelling throughout; I could hardly put the first volume down. Taken together, they form (as Merryn Williams writes in her great Critical Biography of Oliphant) a story about human indifference to one another, cruelty and “torture” (Oliphant’s word for inward pain). The father of the family inherits a peerage and becomes a tyrant to his wife and daughters in his insistence the two daughters marry money so Caroline, sensitive, gentle is sold to a brutal man with her mother unable to protect her from his violence. Oliphant breaks a tremendous taboo when she has Caroline cry out in gladness when her husband is accidentally killed. She remarries the young man she had originally longed for (Lady Carr) but ends up alienated because the man she had so dreamed of turns out to be superficial, a dilettante, egoistic. Its Scottish landscape is deeply appealing, and she has Walter Scott in mind as she describes Scottish culture more wryly and realistically. Italy and London are described well too.

Kirsteen is the book that (like Miss Marjoribanks) seems to speak most to women more today. It is the story of a young girl’s flight from an enforced marriage in Scotland, from a tyrant father, a life of utter devaluation of herself as anything other than an obedient woman within a family geared to making white men the owners and rulers of society, and her successful entry in London into a seamstress business, where she invents a satisfying life for herself as seamstress and co-partner. Oliphant’s women might seem better off when they start out disenchanted — like Kirsteen’s sister, willing to marry the older man Kirsteen flees because he will provide title, home, children and he is gentle — she hasn’t that low expectations but lives with his lack of status in London and ends content enough to be with Kirsteen’s neighbors at Kirsteen’s shop — the truth being she doesn’t care about much but her rank, status, creature comforts, and convenience. But such people are not to be depended upon at all; Kirsteen’s younger sister might have ended with a man who forced an elopement without marriage on her; only Kirsteen wanted to act with integrity to force him away; ironically he is eliminated by the violent father, a murder he gets away with (a ploy that in Ladies Lindores too eliminates Caroline’s first husband, and for which an ordinary loyal Walter Scott-kind of servant almost pays with years of life in prison). Kirsteen’s quest is survival on terms of self-determination. She undertakes a frightening journey alone to find a place where she can be free to be herself. She reminded me of Bronte’s Villette but does not become enthralled to a man once she lands a position. Wendy Jones in her “Margaret Oliphant’s Women who want too much,” describes all three of these (Phoebe, Hester, and Kirsteen) wonderfully well. The flaw in Kirsteen is she succeeds too easily; in travel she is never sexually harassed, and much of the plot-design’s ins and outs turns on her sisters’ experience of marriage as refuge, sheer status (hollow within), and escape from rape and a life of the equivalent of prostitution.

If one includes Phoebe and Miss Marjoribanks, all five are books which Oliphant wrote later in life. Her great strength in them all is how she explores and illuminates everyday painful situations people rarely face up to, which can end up destroying or making their characters. She’s an insightful critic of other realistic novelists. She wrote one of the finest critical articles on Austen in the 19th century, in her review of James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of his aunt (Jane Austen), from which I quote a paragraph which offers a glimpse of the austere power of her own mind:

She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when her people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and self-absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict … She has the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all round as if he were a statue, identifying all his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes, without committing the indecorum of laughter

These (and other) fine novels about contain incisive penetrating critiques of how women are without needed rights as inescapably and necessarily responsible adults, are led or forced to make bad marriages, while males are led to conform to destructive norms for all. I suggest she is sometimes not enjoyed because of her disillusioned views on marriage; she hardly believes love for another can exist, or it is only the rare spirit who is capable of sustaining it. I find her strengthening the way I find Samuel Johnson or other truth-tellers who use irony and open identification to convey compassion.


“The Library Window”

I end on “Library Window” (which so puzzled me when I first read it, as the reader will see if he or she clicks on the link above), since I’ve at long last realized it’s a late meditation by Oliphant on the distance she has had to keep herself from some ideals of writing and reading, and her deep yearning for approval as strongly ethical. We see also how restricted young gentry girls were kept, how closely monitored. Once Aunt Mary thinks whatever was wrong with our heroine is getting worse the mother sweeps her away. Is she ever named? She remains nameless as does Dickens’s signalman. It can be said to be a portrait of the artist as a young girl. Intense yearning: aunt says the meaning of the vision (which we are given to believe Aunt also sees) “It’s a longing all your life after –- it is a looking for what never comes. Sybilline witchlike but kind Lady Carnbee says “the imagination is a great deceiver, the heart, the eye. But if gift deceives, it consoles.”

What happens in “The Library Window?” A young scottish girl is sent for her health to stay with her aunt Mary and finds herself pinned down by imposed schedule, feminine occupations but her aunt, unlike her mother, gives her a lot of time to read. They live on high street of St Rules, St Andrews so a university not far. She becomes gradually absorbed until she sees a male at work incessantly and he sees her and after her visit to the party comes to the window and waves and then blank forever more. Coming home from death of her husband many years before, Oliphant had thought she saw him in the crowd and for a poignant moment thought he’ll help her and he vanished. There is a a bond between this unfulfilled writer seen in the window and herself. The portrait is modeled on a legend of Scott started by his son-in-law Lockhart.

Tamar Heller (“Textual Seductions: Women’s Reading and Writing in Margaret Oliphant’s “The Library Window”) thinks it strongly feminist: the man was murdered by the brothers of a girl he tried to court and was above him. Yes, that’s there too. This is the life of the artist and scholar Oliphant felt closed to her, she couldn’t achieve a Middlemarch because she had no GHLewes to shelter, to negotiate, to give her time. In Framley Parsonage we can see in Mark Robarts a certain flagellation by Trollope who also sacrificed much, and sold his soul in the marketplace. With Oliphant in this story, it’s not just that she’s trapped, but lonely and longing — this is poignantly tragically seen in Hester. Is it fair to say the girl of the story is shattered by the experience. A continual play of light, or perception, of different kinds of reality are at work. The theme her life as a writing career.

Ellen

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


Giovanni di Paolo, Paradiso (14th century)

Friends and readers,

Before concluding my reports on the JASNA AGM for 2017, I return briefly to my work on women artists. I’ve not forgotten this series of blogs, just had to put them on hold for a while. I was asked if I would collaborate on a paper on Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson as modernists, and set myself to reading what Woolf (and Johnson too, though his specific views are not germane here) had written about biography and in the biographical way. What a task. This was a couple of months ago, and it seems to me the one subject Woolf didn’t write about, which one might have expected, was her sister, a great original visual artist, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961). Woolf’s two longest most sustained biographies are of the great art critic and visual artist, Roger Fry (1866-1934), and her beloved friend, Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)


Vanessa Bell by Roger Fry (1916) — they were lovers for a time


Roger Fry by himself (1926)

I’m struggling with this topic because there are not natural easy parallels between Johnson’s deeply felt realistic biographies of the poets, and tragic-ironic Life of [Richard] Savage (1697-1743) and Woolf’s traditional and great biography of Fry (it’s more or as much about his inner life than his life as an artist/art businessman); and new or modernist biographies, say many of her short or “obscure” lives in her criticism/journalism (“Miss Mitford,” “Geraldine and Jane,” “Laetitia Pilkington”), and especially the imagined ones in Memoirs of a Novelist (“The Mysterious Case of Miss V,” and “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn”); and post-modern parodic biographies, Flush, the biography of a [Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s] dog; and the time-traveling fantasia, Orlando: A Biography


Vita Sackville-West photographed in the Margaret Cameron [aunt to Virginia] manner, circa 1840

From my notes on Orlando: It does what masterpieces should do: astonishes me with its beauty, power, deep insight into the human condition, comedy and tragedy and farce and all. The description of the river Thames as ice and then turning to a flood and storm is stunning. Although the book is self-reflexive all along, the narrative begins to be a parody of biography and refer to Vita only in the second chapter,and then is so far away from Vita’s life. I have Sackville-West’s Knole and the Sackvilles, which is one of the sources for the houses and staff. Orlando is also a playful coterie book — all sorts of in allusions, especially to the elite world of the Sackvilles, and it is an imitation of a child’s book by Vita too … The transgender part is sheer flattery, obsequious and embarrassing with its references to the gypsy mother …

A number of Woolf’s ideals for biography correspond with those of Johnson (such as the central goal of realizing the inner life, of showing how the art, character, and actual life of the person intertwine). Boswell, it would seem, came closest to her criteria that a biography must combine granite (fact, what can be reported as objectively having happened, been said, written down) and rainbow (the realm of the mind and body unrecorded in words), with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Bronte, doing this for the first time for a woman writer. But Johnson is no modernist in his biographical writing, though last night Richard Holmes’s book, Dr Johnson and Mr Savage began to render Johnson’s Savage in terms that are post-modern: Savage is the haunting figure of the poetic outcast, Johnson himself when young, a figure of both pathos and terror psychologically disturbed (p 52, 63), disabled, keeping a strange distance of otherness. (I find a good deal of Johnson’s political writing post-colonial, but that’s another matter altogether.) I wish Virginia whose relationship with her sister, can be said to resemble Johnson and Boswell in closeness and (ambiguously) influence, had written a traditional life of her sister (Suzanne Raitt wrote the book thus far: Vita and Virginia: The Friendship and Work of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf), for that would correspond to Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

But this morning I was stirred to feel I am on the right path after all, and this is a topic suited to my mind when in reading Frances Spalding’s Roger Fry: Art and Life (for comparison to Woolf’s), I came across a reproduction of a fourteenth-century predella panel, painted with tempera on a canvas, rendered in black-and-white, a full plate plate on art paper.

I was riveted by it. I had a few days ago told someone at this year’s East Central 18th century Society meeting here in DC, how I began to find myself (“When I was 17 …”), to find out who I am and what I can do in life for personal meaning and satisfaction by going when I was 17-19 twice a week in the morning to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Manhattan) to listen to lecture-tours, and one morning came across the most moving small drawing in a glass case of paradise. It seemed to me even then (before I had lost any beloved people to death) that this artist had captured what people long for when they imagine a life after death. Beloved friends reunited at last. Look how happy they are:


Here it is again, larger, albeit in black-and-white as printed by Spalding (I scanned it in and alas part of the left side could not be got into the scanner)

None of this nonsense about seeing gods, or nebulous awards, I half-remember thinking to myself. This, this is why.

I was prompted to tell of this because I was shown another image of paradise, also medieval, which reminded me of the one I had seen more than 50 years ago, but which missed the point, and I wanted to tell this friend who painted the image I had seen, and what was its name, but I didn’t know. I hadn’t thought to write it down, and anyway if I had, I would have long ago lost it. I could only describe it as understanding why people might long for an afterlife.

And now this morning here it was, with the name of the artist, of the picture, a scholarly description of what it is, where it came from. I had learned now that it was there in the museum that morning because more than 50 years before Roger Fry had acquired it for the museum. I felt my spirit soar as I looked at this image.

I would like to believe in the afterlife now, for then I might dream of seeing Jim once again, which I cannot. This longing is so strong that it is at the core of my engagement with the mini-series Outlander where the heroine travels though time and space through fantasy to see and be with her beloved again, though in 1945 on her first trip and again 1967 he is long since dust, and lying in a grave in a church, the kirkyard of st Kilda, near Inverness.

Kneeling among the unmowed grass she stretched out a trembling hand to the surface of the stone. It was carved of granite, a simple slab … Yes I know him. Her hand dropped lower, brushing back the grass that grew thickly about the stone, obscuring the line of smaller lines about the base: “Beloved husband of Claire” (Dragonfly in Amber, “Beloved Wife,” Chapter 5:76)

In my life-writing blog I’ve been writing about how my life has been and continues to be a journey through books and art, and if it is a trail with meaning, it ought to have some consistent inner shape where the parts relate. I thought of T.S. Eliot’s line: In our end is our beginning.

So I must be on the right track still, even if my project doesn’t necessitate my reading a biography of Vanessa Bell I also have in the house, one I discover also by Spalding, written 3 years after she concluded her book on Fry. It’ll be the one I read as soon as I finish this project-paper and be my first women artists blog, I hope this Christmas

Book-learning they have known.
They meet together, talk and grow most wise,
But they have lost, in losing solitude,
Something — an inward grace, the seeing eyes,
The power of being alone;
The power of being alone with earth and skies,
Of going about a task with quietude,
Aware at once of earth’s surrounding mood
And of an insect crawling on a stone
— Vita Sackville-West, from “Winter” in The Garden and the Landscape (a georgic)

Ellen

Read Full Post »


The Door (2016, Istvan Szabo, Helen Mirren as Emerence)

Then she actually tried to leave, throwing herself out of the bed …. if she live to old age, must probably sink more … Emerence, The Door, Miss Bates, Emma

Friends and readers,

I’ve been listening to this translated Hungarian text byMagda Szabo read by Sian Thomas and occasionally reading it myself for the last few weeks, and it is has had mesmerizing effect on me. It helped me to think about it in terms of Austen’s Emma: the narrator is often as clueless and blundering as Emma; much irony directed at both women, and there are intriguing parallels.

The narrative is a book-long monologue by a woman never named, an apparently well-educated so middling to upper class novelist (“lady novelist” others call her) who was prevented from publishing for too many years under the communist regime, but since some unexplained change, can not only publish but has become popular, widely read, wins a (unnamed) prize. It comes across very strongly: it’s one of these semi-autobiographical novels so common in our age; perhaps the most intriguing thing about it is whether we are to read it as a novel or autobiography, probably both. This skein of this story in outline is that of Magda Szabo who hired a local more working class woman, child of a carpenter but with what we might call a peasant’s mentality, to serve her in just the way the second presence in the book does. Her name Emerence. Emerence cleans for a living, perhaps paid by the government for caring for several buildings and the street — she endlessly shovels the continual snow Hungary seems afflicted by — but goes well beyond that, not only hiring herself out to individuals to housekeep, clean, shop, and cook, but acting as an angel of charity with gifts of food in a beautiful crystal bowl to anyone in the neighbor who is ill, depressed, momentarily (I suppose she cannot this up) broke.

The story is that of their shared lives (so Magda would have us believe) their relationship with intense emotional ups and downs, fierce quarrels (at least on Emerence’s side), deep confidences by Emerence in moments of high passion to the narrator over many years. While the narrator complains Emerence is so private, we learn very little about the narrator’s private life. Emerence’s tales of herself are more than a little improbable, like some mad folk tale from the Renaissance: her twin siblings under the care are hit by lightening standing both a tree, both at once turned to ash after a series of deprivations felt as nightmares are inflicted on Emerence. Her mother’s first husband dies, the second is a tyrant; after the death of her twins, she throws herself down a well. I felt very angry with the stance on the side of atavism, an archaic woman, Emerence by name, someone often raging, furious, deeply resentful, who (paradoxically) seems to spend her life serving others almost selflessly.

Yet the narrator never endorsed Emerence’s rage or said it was understandable, what she seemed to admire was Emerence’s intransigence, her refusal to be tolerant of others at least in theory. Magda evinces or tries to a modern enlightened tolerant attitude towards all about her, we could call it religious humanism, for (paradoxically) Magda is religious to the point of unexpected beliefs: she goes to church weekly because she believes she can get into contact with beloved dead relatives and friends, especially her parents while there. Magda does not always believe Emerence’s told autobiography: the catastrophic disasters come too thick, fast, in extremis: for example, deep cruelty her traditional family subjected her to as when they believed she had given birth to an illegitimate child while the truth was she rescued a Jewish baby from probable extermination. Magda has bad troubles: her husband becomes very ill, and has to be taken to hospital to have a many-houred operation and then recuperates very slowly. (Szabo’s husband dies relatively young.). In the modern way.


With Martina Gedeck as Magda

Why do I say the novel seems to side with archaic anti-intellectualism? Emerence’s fits of corrosive scolding are worst when she begins to castigate the novelist for not doing any work in her life. To Emerence, intellectual work is no work at all. Real worthy work is always physical. So my life would by Emerence be called one of indulged luxurious idleness — I also hire people to clean my house but not daily, once very 3 to 4 weeks for an hour and twenty minutes or so. At the same time, the implied author or novel insofar as she/it can vindicates Emerence’s assessment of what is immediately happening at any given time while often it’s ironically clear that Magda is a sort of Emma Woodhouse.

She sees Emerence mistakenly, obtusely. She persists in the idea that Emerence adores her, loves her, cares tenderly for her. Emerence laughs this to scorn, insults, does spiteful things, but all this is dismissed because forsooth, Emerence keeps working so hard. She is paid by more than money: she gets to be important by serving others, in effect seems to control and dominate them. Her circle of friends apart from her employer includes a woman who kills herself, Polette. Emerence does not try to persuade this woman to live but enables her to hang herself, write the letter of explanation for her. Asked why, she says the woman wanted to die but shapes this explanation angrily: how dare Polette be dissatisfied? were not her friends doing all they could by being her friend, helping her, did they have it any better. Well if Polette than wanted to die, let her. The narrator is horrified at what seems Emerence’s heartlessness, except that we can see how upset Emerence is as she speaks, and when accused of helping to kill Polette, Emerence bursts in hysterical grief. She was hiding this.

She is a great one for hiding, is Emerence. As the novels opens the narrator tells us how she is haunted by dreams of a door. The door is Emerence’s: most of her life since Magda has known her, Emerence would not let anyone in her house. The door barricades the world outside. Over the years, Magda learns that Emerence once had a cat with her, but the cat was tortured to death by a neighbor who believed the cat killed his pigeon, and that Emerence helped the cat. When Emerence accosted and blamed him, he killed a cat she had adopted as a substitute. Clearly Emerence has to protect herself. We learn much later that eventually she had nine cats in her house with her. In one of her stories Emerence claims that a powerful (unnamed but probably modeled on a real Hungarian politician who went into exile more than once) took refuge with her since she was so obscure and loved and respected her very much. She’s no proof. The house seems to have beautiful furniture which Emerence took over after the Jewish family (the Grossmans) whose child Emerence took were deported by train to a camp where they were murdered. The narrator is at first indignant at Emerence for profiting from this family’s horrific loss.

Once when the narrator is invited to give a talk at a conference in the village where she was born, she asks Emerence to come with her as Emerence comes from the same village. They will go to the cemetery together. At first Emerence says maybe, then no, then reluctantly (it seems) shows up and goes with the narrator, but somehow stays away from the cemetery. Our narrator finds the gravestones of Emerence’s family and it is after this Emerence tells the narrator the story of the baby she adopted and was ostracized for. But she won’t go and look or wander among the graves as does the narrator.

Time and time again I identified with Emerence — the woman who seemingly has never learned to, does not understand how one performs manipulatively. In my neighborhood I began to give food to what seemed a stray or lost cat, and briefly tried to find out whose the cat was and if someone would help rescue it. The lies one woman told, the pretenses of the others that they knew all about local Humane societies which would of course come out to help take away the cat, would never kill it (“euthanize” was their term), and one woman’s letter in which she tried to embarrass me because she was irritated lest her lawn be urinated or shat upon by this cat riled me up. This level of bonding was never recognized by the narrator, again reminding me of Austen’s Emma’s attitude toward Jane Fairfax. Emerence tells the narrator she is clueless (or some such word) because she has led such a privileged life, even if her work was not published for years. If Emma pays lip-service to Jane’s literal destitution (dead parents, no money of her own, must go out and endure the stifling humiliated life of a governess (read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey sometime), her behavior is callously cruel: spreading rumors that can only hurt Jane’s reputation (her social capital such as it is), talking about her behind her back half-mockingly, and worst of all, indignant that Jane does not spill her soul. Why should Jane? I cannot say I ever bonded with the narrator, but then I most of the time don’t care for Emma.


Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma: Emma (Romola Garai) comes upon Jane (Laurie Pyper) fleeing and feels for her

Emerence makes a feast for a friend she doesn’t identify. She goes to enormous trouble for this. She obtains from our narrator permission to do this in the narrator’s house. What happens? the friend doesn’t show. I wanted to feel for Emerence. She was was so irascible and bitter it was hard to. Turns out the friend is this adopted daughter Emerence saved who now lives in the US. She had planned to come to dinner because she had a business trip to Hungary, but the business trip was called off. Who would spend that much money and time just for a dinner. This friend-daughter told this to the narrator when she came to dinner at the narrator’s house. Perfectly reasonable in the contemporary world thinks the narrator. But is it? should not Emerence bes someone special? not be stood up.

Emerence was left with all this food. Gentle reader, I have been stood up this way. The trope is the archetypal broken feast. I would show up. I’ve seen and myself spent large sums just to travel to see someone or attend a party. Not that I was thanked for it: months later the person took against me (as if she resented my kindness) but was not at all angry with another “friend” who would not take 10 minutes of her time in NYC out to meet this woman who would have traveled from a remote outpost in Brooklyn anywhere anytime. But this other woman had prestige (including was standoffish which makes her more valuable). Like Emerence, I have over the years hardly ever (remember Mary Crawford said the synonym for this is “never”) been invited to dinner anywhere individually. Of course the narrator understands. She probably goes out to dinner regularly. Not Emerence. She has lunch in a kitchen by herself. Or eats on her porch with her peers keeping the door on the house firmly shut lest they see it. Who knows what they’d say? I was (rightly) mortified by the outside of my house until I renovated it ($60,000 is what it probably cost me) this year.

Yet at the close of the novel, when the narrator goes on about how she is responsible for Emerence’s death, and if that’s too strong, certainly for her misery and tragic losses leading up to it, I couldn’t quite see it. Emerence (we are told) is about 80 when the novel opens and she has just died, and the narrator is having these bad dreams about doors, especially Emerence’s, which she was not permitted to pass. What happened was she sickened badly from some (unnamed) fatal disease, perhaps heart trouble, and would not see a doctor. It appears that for a few years she had refused to work so constantly for our narrator and now she just retires into her house to die. Neighbors bring food which she takes in on the other side of the door, just sticking out her hand. Somehow the narrator learns Emerence is laying on the floor paralyzed. Terrible smells begin to come from the house. The narrator has just won her prize and is so busy running to do TV shows where (she tells us) she makes a fool of herself by imitating the bland hypocrisies of everyone else when she had planned to tell bald truths. Be herself. (But who is she?)

So after Magda has implied how much she loathes interference by gov’t or impersonal agencies, she obtains a doctor’s services, a lawyer and team to come to Emerence’s house, herself tricks Emerence (this does take effort) to open her door. Emerence has threatened to axe anyone coming in with a hatchet. She has one. Nonetheless, half-paralyzed, old, weak from lack of ood, Emerence is grabbed and hauled away to tests, hospitals, treatment and her life seems saved. But as in a film I saw earlier this year, A Man Called Ove (by Fredrik Bachman), where people from gov’t agencies and making money, burn down houses they say are unfit to live in, take away crippled people they say they have no money to support outside the institution and so devastate the people’s existences, so the people from the agency in The Door couldn’t care less about Emerence’s feelings, what has meaning for her, whom and what she loves: they fumigate or throw out everything that has rotted in the house over the weeks; don’t try to rescue the cats (four of whom end up as corpses). She is mortified by the exposure of her lack of dignity. Her ending is pathetic and while the novel can be read as comic, it is more often (if you think about it, pathetic).


The cats are in the film, seen eating from nine dishes, here on the garbage cans? — is it a comedy, do the cats here represent the two women?

How could Magda have tricked her this way? then run away to her TV show interview? Emerence seems to get better and interacts with everyone but the narrator. When the narrator arrives, Emerence puts a cloth over her face, pretends not to know her. Emerence can no longer work and this narrator has offered to take her in. Emerence is having none of it. Wisely probably as the husband would be rendered miserable by her living there, if only because his wife (our narrator) is obsessed by her. Emerence is all spite, the narrator all quiet sorrow. Again I thought of Emma picking out the best, the very best arrowroot to send to Jane and it was rejected summarily. Emma came by with her carriage to offer Jane a ride. It would have indeed killed Jane to get in as it was Emma who had stirred up the antagonism between Jane and her clandestine lover, Frank, breaking them up — if she had no pride in front of him what would happen if she married him with his insensitive ways? Well Emma meant well, was doing the right thing, no? Emma never meant to break them up. Emma didn’t know they were engaged. She wants to help Jane. And let’s not forget at the end of Emma, Austen so far forgives Emma that she has Jane come out and gush in front of Emma, all apologies for not being open and all gratitude. I so loathe that scene.

It will be seen that this is very much a woman’s novel, a study of a relationship between a privileged upper class employer and a lonely woman utterly dependent on her labor who no one helped much. Emerence hates the church because when she went the other women giving out charity gave her a fancy dress. She took this as their comment on her clothes. Their respect for her to her became hypocrisy. What are they in church for? and anyway how can one believe in a reasonable benevolent or any God or meaning given experience? She makes out a will leaving what she claims is enormous amounts of money to her brother’s son (a nephew she doesn’t get along with) and the narrator and now the narrator has spoilt this bequest. It’s been written more often as about two women friends, peers who are very bad for one another, frenemies: recently Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and three more novels centering around a relationship. Margaret Atwoood’s Cat’s Eye. And of course Harriet and Emma in Austen’s emma. Novels of mothers and daughters. A few women in the book club saw Magda as playing the role of mother to the narrator. Marianne Hirsvh writes a long intelligent about the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship in women’s books (The Mother-Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism). What woman writer worth her salt doesn’t write books about pairs of women at some point?

But it’s made to carry larger meanings.

Including the relationship of fiction to autobiography. After all if this is a fiction, Szabo has made the narrator and Emerence up. The joke is on the reader when the reader is made to feel that the narrator is lying and Emerence could not have acted like that and got away with it. She has to approve her employer. Could anyone endlessly sweep snow the way Emerence is said to? Sometimes the narrative detail is symbolic. At the end of the novel what is left of Emerence’s furniture is said to turn into dust.

The style in Rix’s hands is concise, strong sentences, not meandering at the same time it can be remarkably lyrical. In her introduction to the New York Review of Books edition, Ali Smith thinks it’s a novel about survival tactics, a study of “authenticity versus fakery,” of “old Hungary” versus the “new” (Emerence being the old? this narrator a new kind of person?) In a review in the New York Review of Books (April 2016), Deborah Eisenberg thinks it’s about two people who need one another, need people, the gulf between people and “rationales” we tell one another to excuse ourselves for “failing” to cross the door and “the costs of love.” The anonymous writer of the Gale Scholarly entry writes:

“Ultimately, however, the novel represents more than the struggle of two individuals to understand each other; the conflict veiled by the plot actually amounts to an inner struggle. Emerence is a moral genius–in the Kantian sense–who is part of all. She goes through the hells of human experience, recollects the barbaric and tragic events of fate, is capable of essential movements only, is generous, and in her every relationship seeks to defend and develop her own dignity. The novel is more than the struggle of two types of persons for mutual understanding; it is a duel that is really an inner struggle. Emerence and the fiction writer are then two sides of the same person. A human fragmented into roles searches for the self, for the Emerence that lives in all.”

All very satisfying, wholesome even. A doppelganger as the posters for the film imply.

A Hungarian reader, Clara Gyorgyey (World Literature Today, 69:4, 1995) finds Emerence to be magical, surrounded by mystery, a mythic figure (the narrator does go on about her being a goddess, a Valkyrie at one point), everyone is cured, animals obey her. (She takes over a dog, Viola, whom the narrator and her husband rescued from a cruel death by burying her alive in the streets.) John Cunningham says the film adaptation by Istvad Szabo (no relation, and it’s available at Amazon prime) is disappointing even if it has Helen Mirren as Emerence. I agree there; it’s so bland, he just didn’t know what to do with this troubling book. He made Emerence too soft, too approachable and realistic too. At this book club some of the women (all were women that day and most days most are women I gather) tried to categorize and tuck it away. One person said it didn’t have a “good” message; another (me) that there was precious little joy or satisfaction in the love or relationships people took some considerable risks for. It might be the narrator is made very happy by this husband she is devoted to, but we don’t see this. As far as we can tell, he’s an avoider. There was someone who said it was disquieting. We could take it as life-writing where Szabo tries to tell of the recent and older history of Hungary, the lives of vulnerable woman, of whom she is one, and cannot tell directly — as she could not take down any doors when on TV. Nor does Austen reveal herself directly either. But she is everywhere in Emma.


From Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma: Harriet (Samantha Morton) shows Emma (Kate Beckinsale) Mr Martin’s letter

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window Shutters

Dear friends,

About two years ago now (how time flies) I chaired two panels whose topic was supposed to be single women living alone befoe the 19th century. Single did not mean unmarried necessarily: rather a woman living as a single woman without a man as husband, father, brother, uncle, or some form of “guardian” cousin. I did not specify that the women had literally to be living alone but was looking rather for someone who had the highest authority in the house, was not with someone else as her peer. I was aware that out of six papers accepted for this panel “as near enough,” only one was about real women living alone — and in these two cases, the woman, Charlotte Lennox and Charlotte Smith, were married and separated from their husbands, with children and servants and other people as burdens in the household too. The others were about fictions, nunneries, a love affair in letters (two young people being forbidden to marry), and my own on widows and widowers in Austen, where only a few in the fictions could be described as living alone for any considerable period of time, with the exception of the impoverished (Mrs Smith, Miss Bates). The fact of non-marriage as shaping their living conditions was not brought up except explicitly for Miss Bates.

I was encouraged by editors scouting about to develop a prospectus for an anthology of essays on this topic, but I was immediately confronted with the reason for the lack of papers. I had no study to fall back on, only individual books part of which might swirl around this topic (single women — meaning spinsters — in a given period, or widows in 18th century France). Studies were done of fictions because there at least the topic was defined and individuals clearly described — there is a problem of definition itself as the unacceptability of the state led many women to keep their state invisible (Felicia Hemans springs to mind). On the one hand, I felt there were so many women of this type when I began to look, and on the other how a firm conception to bring them together had not been developed. You could get articles or chapters on the pressure on women to marry, but then what was discussed was marriage. No one wanted to look; this was not interesting unless the woman was seeking power and it was this search for gaining power that was the interest. I asked friends who had more status than I to join me as an editor (to ask other people to write essays is to need status oneself), but all were busy with other projects. I am a retired adjunct lecturer aka independent scholar. A second obstacle was finding people; this requires a circle of close friend-scholars with the same interests who see somke advantage to themselves in appearing in this anthology. One last: one friend said I might find it becomes “too lesbian” (in effect) and so be sure to cover a wide range of types! (contact people privately before resorting to the CFP).


Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Modern Women

But I had not quite given up the topic. It’s too close to my heart now. Last term (at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University) I taught a class I called 19th century women of letters and my proposal to do it again with a different set of books has been accepted at OLLI at Mason for the coming fall. It hadn’t taken long for me to realize that the typical women of letters was a woman supporting herself, often living alone if I used the expanded definition. It does seem as if living truly alone, literally (though still an anomaly), is a phenomenon only found in the 20th century: essentially it requires that a woman have a good paying job or income (I thought of Virginia Woolf’s desideratum of £500 per year, the equivalent today would be $35,000 per year); and that the norms or mores of the community do not allow male thugs to molest her on the supposition she must be a prostitute (in effect). Before the 19th century there was no large general literary marketplace, few circulating libraries, few magazines. All this was the basis for the 19th century woman of letters:

19th Century Women of Letters

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” and Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and “The Library Window.”  We’ll also read brief on-line excerpts from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” and Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women”.

Now suddenly a thought has occurred to me which I had not been able to reach before: I could do a book on this topic if I chose 6 women I could write about myself. I had so worried myself over the obstacles to an anthology. But I can write a book on my own. I have the Library of Congress and Folger nearby, and access to two university libraries, one with the database. I can now see an introductory chapter; the body of the work; and a conclusion. I don’t know why I couldn’t break through to this before. Maybe need. I need absorbing work I can genuinely respect and look at as useful to others beyond giving myself some kind of meaning. I have now faced that I will be alone most of the time for the rest of my life. I can blog, teach, write and read to participate with others, but I want some overarching goal to guide me. An introductory chapter, a chapter on a specific woman and outline and I could try to send this to one of those editor-publishers whose names and presses I still have.


Another possible candidate: Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), disabled, she supported herself and her mother by her pen

So I’ve begun reading again Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love, The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle. I’m in the second half, the chapter on the relationship of Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle, and remembered a brilliant portrait of them by Virginia Woolf in her Second Common Reader.

Woolf’s essay is a delight. She manages to convey Geraldine and Jane’s lesbianism without openly showing it — so this is a kind of post-James text. I refer to how Eva Sedgwick says lesbian and gay texts around the time of Henry James were using various subterfuges but coming out much more to show gay and lesbian experience. Carter takes another step into transvestism and gender ambiguity which except for the high-jinks of Orlando I don’t see in Woolf.

I was drawn to the pathos of these women in Woolf. Clarke’s Ambitious Heights rather brings out how hard Jane Carlyle was on her women servants — she worked them like semi-slaves, and also made them be a personal comforter to her. Let me say that was wrong of Jane Carlyle; Clarke made me wonder if other women did this. I know that male masters did bugger their male servants, and the only control was fear of blackmail. Woolf doesn’t have the space to explain why Jewsbury lived far away, how she came to London to live close. There were two visits of living together, and the first a disaster, the second a reinforcement. Paradoxically for us a disappointment because the letters stop when they live around the corner from one another. Today they might start to text and tweet at one another. Then Jane’s need of Geraldine but after her sudden death (from fatigue? from stress? from repressive years and years of wearing down her organs), Geraldine spends 20 years alone. The one photo we have of Jewsbury shows her quietly reading, all dressed up. Unlike Woolf who is daring for her time, Clarke does not bring up or out the probable lesbianism of Carlyle and Jewsbury (Jane and Geraldine). It was published in 1990; Clarke doesn’t even discuss the possibility. 26 years ago maybe it was verboten to get an academic respectable if feminist book published.


Geraldine Jewsbury

I also started Kirsteen, which I am relieved to say is as excellent as Oliphant’s Hester, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car: A sequel (about the later years of one of the heroines in the first book), or long ago now (I don’t remember it as well any more) Cousin Phoebe. I just love Oliphant’s books and she would be one of my subjects. I need to narrow each one of six to the trajectory of women living alone, why, how, with what results. I have been wanting to blog on her powerful if flawed The Marriage of Elinor and thinking about this novel in terms of this perspective, brings out what Oliphant is meaning to say by this book, and its continued effectiveness today.

My reading of The Marriage of Elinor went on late at night; I turned pages feverishly because like other of Oliphant’s novels I couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and only towards the middle became aware (as is so common with Oliphant) that it’s not centrally about the character of the young heroine, after whom it is name, Elinor, or she’s secondary; the center is shared by her mother, Mrs Dennistoun whose first name was finally uttered: Mary.

The book is about a woman who gives all to a daughter who continually makes very bad choices. And why are they bad? because she chooses what the world says is admirable. Elinor marries Philip Compton, a macho male handsome man who takes her into expensive society and she finds herself emotionally corroded, among hollow people, a target for monetary fleecing. The book’s true hero, John Tatham has not been passionate and aggressive enough in his proposal to her. He is a kind of Henry James male who does not commit himself emotionally until it’s too late. Sheltering Elinor destroys her life. No one is willing to tell her (including her mother) why she should not marry Phillip Compton who turns out to be (not to put a fine point on this) far more than promiscuous and a gambler: he’s a downright criminal whom her world protects from censor because of his rank and family. The way the story is set up it seems to be about the young heroine — which is what happens in Hester and why it gets off to a very slow start, with us realizing only gradually the young heroine, Elinor, is a doppelganger to the older her mother (Hester is this to her aunt-in-law, Catherine Vernon). It’s very much both and about how destructive is the norm which will not allow a girl to know anything about the world, try to support herself and not be a helpless hanger-on, but find some fulfillment of her own.

Merryn Williams who wrote the best of the three recent books in English on Oliphant says the point of The Marriage of Elinor is to show us how little sexual passion and the reasons for marriage out of love last a very short time; what women care for is motherhood. Men cannot understand these feelings. Elisabeth Jay reminds her reader this is a late novel and she concentrates on the woman in it I’ve not mentioned: dissolute, amoral, endlessly in society (a sort of Helene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) who is represented as repellent. Jay does not respect this novel, mentions it because it is not romantic and shows the real psychology of a desperately bad marriage (in terms of either party getting any fulfillment).

As Elinor sees how bad her decision to marry Compton is, she does all she can to hide the truth. There are hints Compton hits her. Her happiest times it now seems to her were when she was left by this husband to live with her mother and her boy. Finally she separates heself him for the sake of her son, so the son shall not be brought up to become another amoral man. Her mother has given up a great deal of money to Philip as a kind of bribe. Meanwhile Elinor allows her fear of what the world might say adverse to her pride drive her decisions: say to move from the comfortable home her mother has lived in most of her life (it appears to be near Dorking, so Sussex) way up north. She will not send her precious son to a school where he is surrounded by peers because is determined to keep from him who his father was for real, and his background. In court Elinor gives a testimony literally true, but false in what it implies, and the ne’er-do-well husband is himself let go, and returns to having nothing to do with her once he gets his hands on enough money to live luxuriously. But by the end of the novel she has silently conceded the man she married is a criminal type even if he has a title, and she goes to live alone up north, leaving her son with Tatham whose advice she has finally relied upon. The crucial last turn of the book is the question of whether her son will turn against her when he realizes all his life he has been kept away from others, gone to a school where he was not with his own class or boys of his own intellectual level; he does not partly because John Tatham has stayed by his side and provides the explanation and continuity the boy needs. The two women end up living alone in peace at the book’s end

Oliphant reminds me a little of Charlotte Smith: not finding a new radically changed structure on which to plot her story. She often wants us to see her characters confronting hegemonic norms of other people and unable to break them down — in many areas of life and death too. We are supposed to heavily criticize Elinor. I am so used to the conventional stance of pro-heroine, but in these latest scenes what Elinor wants to do (flee the law) is so egregious. Each time flight: each time refuse to cope with what she has created and wrecking havoc on those she says her actions are protecting. The book critiques the passive romantic supposedly super-virtuous heroine; she must come out and she must engage with the situations she’s created. The power of the book comes from what seems a skewed POV divided between Tatham and Mrs Denistoun who anguish over Elinor

How did Kavanagh, Jewsbury, Oliphant manage it? Woolf? I end on Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

So, added to Austen and sheerly the 18th century, woman artists, and foremother poets, I hope blogging here by thinking through work I do towards a book by me to be called The Anomaly. I’m an anomaly by the way. Not because I fit the definition of nearly living alone (which I do): a widow, with my unmarried daughter, a librarian and two cats, but because I’m a very learned scholar with no rank and no income except my widow’s annuity and social security, and the money my mother and Jim left me; because I teach at a place where I don’t quite fit either as a student (yesterday I became aware of how many of the women at AU went to elite or Ivy League colleges and studied to be lawyers and other professionals — they can have no idea who I am, from a free university, getting there by bus, studying English Literature) or teacher (I overdo), and because my social life such as it is is here on Net. Is this enough to be getting on with? I’ve got many rooms of my own and for now more than the minimum income …

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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 »

Older Posts »