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Archive for the ‘women’s memoirs’ Category


This photo is dated 2000 — Barbara Ehrenreich


Hilary Mantel, Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, April 1, 2017, Oxford, England.

Friends and readers,

I want to record the passing of two more important women in our era (Elizabeth Windsor was important for what she was), these two important for themselves as individuals:  Mantel for her masterly writing (fiction, non-fiction, life-writing), her accurate understanding of the nature of history, of social-psychological life, her polemics (especially when she exposed the inhumanity of many medical establishments), her feminism; she was a humane and truthful poet, thinker, creator; Ehrenreich for her political vision, her many books and political activity on behalf of the impoverished, vulnerable, her forays into historical realities, as writer and also as thinker. Both were strong feminists.

I first became aware of Mantel as writer of columns and diary entries for London Review of Books when she told of her agony and mistreatment at the hand of the British National Health, then the most insightful piece of writing I’ve ever come across about anorexia, “Girls Want Out.” These led me to her contemporary novels: I’ve still not forgotten Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and I was so taken by her autobiography, I wrote my first blog about her, on Giving Up the Ghost. I’ve loved historical fiction since I was in my earliest teens and was bowled over by her Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

Mantel was able to write such brilliant historical fiction because she had thought hard and deeply about history: see her The Reith Lectures. She delved the gothic, seances, mediums (Beyond Black). Her Catholic background (and breaking away from it altogether) lies behind some of the themes of her work and also her “take” on Sir Thomas More. She took unusual angles on life (from most people) and made us see earlier eras and movements from the point of view of people central to but before her ignored or misunderstood (e.g. A Place of Greater Safety). I admit that her work can be uneven; she can go over the top in comic highjinks and miss her target; she could write woodenly. But part of this was she dared to ignore conventions, norms of writing and what we are supposed to feel. She was original. I taught Wolf Hall twice. I like Larissa MacFarquar’s essay on her Life with Ghosts. Mary Robertson is the important early modern scholar who began the change in attitudes towards Cromwell; to Robertson Mantel dedicated Wolf Hall; here are her memories of Mantel.

I found Mantel’s tone of mind deeply appealing. I feel sad when I think how young she was and how much more she could have written.

Barbara Ehrenreich I read for the first time as a crucial voice in 2nd wave feminism, I saw her as a socialist feminist. She was active as a journalist in projects to encourage working women to tell their own stories. I found her Nickel and Dimed electrifying — really — and taught it twice.

Her Witches, Midwives and Nurses is an important book about misogynistic exploitative attitudes towards women. Like Mantel was consistently, when Ehrenpreis was interested, she was profound scholar. In her obituary essay on her, Katha Pollitt (The Nation) quotes Rebecca Solnit’s choice of a quotation from Nickel and Dimed, In Memoriam.

As a response to Pollitt’s obituary (published under her name), I confide today every other week at 7:10am in the morning pay for 3 Hispanic women to come to my house and industriously clean for 75 minutes.  Cards on the table.  Right now also I teach for free, and most of my life I worked for a wage (as an adjunct lecturer) that I could not have lived on.  I lived on my husband’s salary and mine made our lives together more comfortable, helped put my daughters through college and (for Izzy) graduate school.  I don’t think of myself as “an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else;” rather most of my life I was badly exploited, angry, and maimed in my self-esteem. I remember being put off now and again wonder if Ehrenpreis was a little too optimistic and assumed other women could be as strong as she was in some of her political rhetoric.

Nevertheless, Ehrenpreis wrote books like Bait and Switch, how the delusions of an American Dream as if this idyllically wealthy way of life were available to all destroyed people; Blood Rites is about (as the subtitle tells you) the origins and history of the passions of war She too (like Mantel) early on exposed the hypocrisy of the medical establishment. I remember somewhere she wrote about the hatred men and some women have towards allowing women access to contraception. There are numerous areas where she and Mantel write from the same perspective.

I find this wikipedia article very good. Here is a tribute from Amy Goodman at DemocracyNow.org/. Listen to Ehrenreich speak. The world needs people like her fighting for other people.

I’ve listed my blogs on Mantel in the comments.

Ellen

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Virginia, Leonard and Pinka Woolf


One of Virginia Woolf’s desks

Dear friends and readers,

Here am I to tell you about the second two days of the virtual Virginia Woolf conference held a few weeks ago now (for Thursday and Friday). Saturday, the first session I could make was “Flush: Canine Relations.” Having taught Flush twice (and read much of and by Elizabeth Barrett Browning), “Gypsey, the mongrel (short story in Woolf’s Complete Short Fiction), and myself loving animals and read a number of adult books with animal consciousness at the center (see “A literature of cats” and “Dogs: a Bloomsbury take”), I was alert to details in the papers on this panel.

Saturday. First up was Diana Royer: “A dog has a character just as we have.” Ms Royer talked about “Gypsey, the mongrel,” Flush, The Voyage Out, and Between the Acts. in the first animals are shown to be self-aware creatures, and this one gets angry at another dog, Hector. The real Flush was kidnapped and three times, and it was due to EBB’s bravery (and that of her maid) that she was able to rescue the dog the first time; thereafter she paid the ransom almost immediately. She valued the dog. Rachel Vinrace watches an old woman cut a chicken’s head off. A cow loses her calf in the pageant and bellows in grief.

How are we to regard the suffering of animals. Oliver Case, “Cross-Species Translations,” made the point others did on the panel and the people at the conference who contributed in the Q&A. Our emphasis on and reverence for our ability to speak stands in the way of our communicating with animals. In one scene Flush and another dog gaze at one another and “an intimacy beyond words is understood.” If you will imagine the animal’s thought, you can more easily love them. Accuracy of understanding precise meanings does not matter. There is a deep communal exchange of awareness was part of Sabrina Nacci’s presentation. With animals you can escape patriarchal norms. She shows that Flush gains agency outside EBB’s room. Body language and smell are ways of interacting. Ms Nacci said Woolf attends to violence and alluded to Paul Auster’s Timbuktoo.


One of the Woolfs’s cats, Sappho (there was more than one Sappho)

Everyone who spoke gave Woolf credit for a real relationship with her dogs — from the letters. I was surprised because in Woolf’s letters I have noticed her not that bothered when a dog runs off (gets lost) and too non-protective. I knew that with people about cats vocalize a lot more


A photograph of Virginia Woolf in 1926 by Ottoline Morrell

At this point I had a conflict. I had signed up and paid to participate in a zoom, one of the Virginia Woolf Cambridge lecture series — this one with Clair Nicolson, on the role of clothing and fashion in Woolf’s life and writing. Nicolson’s coming book is based on her dissertation “Woolf’s Clothing: An Exploration of Clothes and Fashion in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction.” She has curated exhibits on clothing, and pays close attention to fashion changes. Her talk was about the power of clothing, you place an exterior image in public between the world and your hidden self. Clothes can be a shield. She said that Leonard Woolf destroyed most or all Virginia’s clothing after her death – what he saved and gradually published brilliantly was the enormous body of life-writing left in manuscripts. A pair of her spectacles have survived. I was therefore not able to participate in any of the mid-day round tables (2 hours each), and have not yet viewed the video recordings. I intend to do that and perhaps add a few words about them in the comments to this blog.

On Blogging Woolf Alice Lowe provides the gist of the roundtable on Woolf and biofiction. The blogger lists a number of the biofictions discussed as well as a couple of recent brilliant biographies. I’ve gotten for myself Mark Hussey’s remarkable book on Clive Bell (and I listened to his brief talk on it during the conference) and

Peter Stansky spoke for a second time, now interestingly on the Dreadnought Hoax and (separately) Julian Bell (the third plenary, 4:00-5:30 pm). Prof Stansky wrote and revised recently a brilliant well researched biography: Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil war: Julian, the son of Vanessa and Clive was killed very quickly upon going to Spain; he was an ambulance driver.

Horace DeVere Cole, was the organizer of the hoax: he enjoyed practical jokes that much (it’s said). Prof Stansky seemed to see the hoax as a protest against militarism. Julian Bell’s life is a tragic story. The book asks what does Julian’s life mean now. Stansky now a candid speaker (and can be very amusing), had to be discreet when writing about Julian’s love life. 40 years after the first version of the biography was published, much much new material has been gathered, sorted and published. He closed with one of William Faulkner’s sayings: “the past is continually changing. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Vanessa Bell, The Bell Nursery — Vanessa Bell never recovered from, never got over her son’s death; she had not wanted him to go; Clive Bell was strongly pacifist

Saturday ended for me on that sentiment, since I did not join in on a Salon.

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The latest cover for SCUM Manifesto

Sunday I began with the “Feminist Resistance” panel at 9:00-10:30 am. Rasha Aljararwa is under the impression that silence is useful form of resistance. It provides a space for someone to exist within, she said. The merit of Loren Agaloos’s was her subject matter, Woolf’s caustic short satire, “A Society” (1921). Read it here as a pdf. Here is a coherent reasoned account of this allegorical short story. I’ve read the story and it is a passionately honest, rawly truthful, unusually direct (for Woolf) hard satire. There is an excellent account in Mark Hussey’s VW encyclopedia. Cassandra is one of the characters included (as a neutral spectator).

Kimberly Coates ““‘Daddy’s Girl’: Fathers, Daughters, and Female Resistance in Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto” was one of the best short papers in the conference. Solanos’ manifesto contrasts strongly with Woolf’s Three Guineas. Solanos writes in crude demotic English, short paragraphs, lots of large letter headings. She was once famous for having tried to kill Andy Warhol. Originally she was rich, pretty and well-connected and sexually abused by a male relative; she spent her short (1936-88) uncompromising life attacking capitalism and misogyny; she spent 3 years in prison for attempted murder, and ended on the street as a prostitute.

At 11:00-12:30 I attended “Ethics and Archives. “Joshua Phillips described his experiences working in the archives with Woolf’s fragmentary drafts, especially the Berg collection in the New York Public Library in Manhattan. He sees Woolf as interested in the ethics of writing anonymously. Such a person still cannot escape pressure from an awareness of a scrutinizing or indifferent reader (“you can escape the shadow of the reader” is what he said). Because of publishers’ impositions, authors are pushed to be less subjective. Mr Phillips thinks Walter Benjamin’s work shows he was dogged by such tensions as ethical dilemmas. He found all sorts of interesting elements in the Woolf archives: experimental writing, asides, playfulness. Drew Shannon concentrated on a line written by Virginia to Leonard the day of her suicide: “will you destroy all my papers?” If it was a command, Leonard ignored it. Mr Shannon talked about the ethics of publishing what a writer did not want published; the gatekeepers of ms’s: owners, libraries, and (I’ll add) relatives, friends, professional & business associates. Mr Shannon pointed out that sometimes a diary can ruin a writer’s reputation. In the conversation afterwards I offered the idea that the line was a question: she wanted to know if Leonard would do that, and was suggesting he should not.


Here is Duncan Grant’s depiction of Virginia Woolf

Ana Quiring talked about fan fiction on the Internet based on Virginia Woolf’s writings and life, i.e., fantasies constructed from Mrs Dalloway and a distorted idea of Woolf’s life. (To me this is what the over-rated Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is.) So it seems that the sort of thing rained down on Austen’s writings and life is rained down on Woolf’s. I agreed with the speaker that sometimes these amateur fictions can rise (I’d put it) to insightful literary criticism. She urged us to keep an open mind towards these works, remember that Woolf herself lacked professional credentials. I know my blogs are (to use Quiring’s words) “unpaid and unsponsored.”

I sat through Beth Rigel Daugherty’s long “On the Ethics of Teaching Virginia Woolf.” She went through many of Woolf’s critical essays, bringing out the strongly pedagogical thrust of many of them, their strong valuing of literature for itself as an experience of life, their aestheticism, detachment, deeply anti-worldly perspective. Ruskin can be seen as an important voice for Woolf. Her plenary lecture was rightly very well received.


This is a beautifully read aloud rendition by Nadia May (the more common name for the reader)

This wonderful conference ended for me on the penultimate offering, a panel “celebration” of editors of editions of Jacob’s RoomI love this novel: for a while after I first read it, I thought it my favorite of Woolf’s longer fictions. I’ve rearranged the order of the talks and remarks.

Vara Neverow surveyed the original reception of the book and more recent attitudes. Original reviews were mixed; only a few scathing, but the initial positive reception faded. David Daiches rejected it (years later regretted his review); James Hafley — two narrators at least one clueless; Brewster was snarky (1962). Some saw it as a freakish; another critic said the minor characters have more inner life, and the narrator is a device; Kathleen Wall (? not sure that was the name) wrote on ekphrasis and elegy in Jacob’s Room (2002), and about how women have been denied access to private aesthetic experience. Christopher James (perhaps recently) talked of its center being bisexuality. I should make explicit that Jacob is partly a surrogate for Woolf’s dead brother, Thoby Stephens. In the conversation afterward someone remarked the Cambridge Edition of Jacob’s Room by Stuart Clerke can serve as an interpretive touchstone; someone else that it can be read and should be read as an historical novel (about the near past now beginning to repeat itself in war).

Suzanne Raitt did the Norton Critical Edition, talked of the many editions. She encountered Jacob’s Room at an older age (38, 40 when the edition was published). It’s an experimental novel; Woolf had had lengthy bouts of mental illness by this time; she told us of an article by Kate Flint in The Review of English Studies, 42:167? (1991):361-72, about the elderly women and young men in the novel. Kate Flint spoke of her edition, done early in her career, and about working at the Berg.

Ted Bishop (Canadian) said there are 10 named characters in the novel who never answer one another; it has no narrative drive, not much chronology; we have flash forwards to characters when older. The time element is all time is there all at once. There is a touch of the grotesque. He also said Alberta (which he retired from) is now demolishing its humanities center; how people used to be kicked out of the Berg collection. Maria Rita Dummond Viana who translated Jacob’s Room had held a translation workshop and suggested that translation is a mode of reading, the most intimate act of reading one can do. “I cannot help but translate what I love” (I thought of Madame de Chastenay’s translation of Anne Radcliffe’s Udolpho into French and Radcliffe made French, my own of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara.)

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Though Covid has brought such devastation and grief to so many people on this earth, the capability of zoom software to bring people together visually and aurally from across the globe, when used for that purpose, especially when it is hard, almost impossible for many to reach one another so apparently intimately any other way, has been a tremendous unexpected gift.  Although this is against my own interests (as someone who finds travel such an ordeal and has limited funds and hardly any helpful connections), I hope that zoom or online conferences and lectures will not replace in person get-togethers in more local areas, as there is a untranslatable-into-words difference between getting together in person and talking every which way to one another as genuine single group when the group is made up of more or less friends of the same tribe, with the same interests and ways of life.

One solution is to offer far-away conferences in both modes: in person and on-line. JASNA is now doing that; ASECS is planning to alternate in person and on-line conferences. The problem with hybrids for meetings of people who really live within say 40 minutes of one another is too many may opt for convenience, depleting the in person experience too much, while hybrid remains an uncomfortable mix, putting too much pressure or an impossible task on the teacher or lecturer (leader of the session). This said, I cannot drive at night, and with public transportation increasingly disappearing in the US (the very conservative and reactionary domineering substantial minority does not want middling and poorer people to be able to reach where they live or even go through), for me in N.Va the online classes at the bookstore Politics and Prose this summer are a needed rejuvenating time of pleasure with others.


Vanessa Bell’s Bird in a Cage

Ellen

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Summer Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at American University
Tuesdays, 1:45 to 3:15 am,
June 7 – June 28
4 sessions In person, 4801 Massachusetts Ave, NW, DC
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: 1610: Retelling Traditional History & Tales from an Alternative POV

We will read two books which retell stories and history from perhaps unexpected and often unvoiced points of views. In War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo (a British-Italian biographer and memoir-writer, and literary OBE) retells the story of World War Two from the point of view of a woman taking charge of her estates in Tuscany during the war. Then Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf (a respected East German author who won numerous German literary-political prizes) tells the story of Troy from Cassandra’s point of view, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. The second book was written after the war was over and after a trip the author took to Greece. The immediate context for both books is World War Two; long range, they are anti-war (a particular aim in Cassandra is nuclear disarmament): they tell history from a woman’s standpoint; one grandular life-writing, autobiography; the other myth in novel form.

During the time covered by Origo’s diary, she takes in and creates a school for 23 refugee children; she and her husband hide partisans, and protect various disconnected endangered people; a real problem is the German disproportionate and terrifying reprisals & their dropping of landmines everywhere across Italy. So one BBC serial (1979), Danger UXB, we will discuss is made up of a story of a bomb disposal unit and I may suggest watching a couple of episodes (TBA); among other parts of her life, Christa Wolf was coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi, so I will suggest people to see the powerful film, The Lives of Others directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck by the fourth week of term; the heroine’s story is said to be partly based on Christa Wolf.

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Origo, Iris. War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, introd. Virginia Nicholson. NY: NY Review of Books Classics, 2017.
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, trans. from German Jan Van Heurck. NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1984.

Note: War in the Val D’Orcia has not been out of print since it was first published in 1947; there are a couple of other editions, which could cost less, but this one has an introduction, notes and photos. Cassandra also has not been out of print since first published (1983, German) but this is the only edition; what’s happened is there are editions of just Cassandra available (same translator) but you miss a lot about the book if you don’t read the four afterpieces, two travelogues, one diary, and some thoughts on the book and other 20th century European women writers.


Iris Origo in later life


Christa Wolf, 2007 (Berlin)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

June 7: Introduction: Iris Origo (life & writing); the diary in context of WW2. The first half or 1943. Reprisals and landmines.

June 14: The second half or 1944. The “round-up” of Jews. We’ll end session on her earlier diary, A Chill in the Air, an Italian War Diary, 1939-40; her essays on fascism (build-up in Italy); other people’s diaries of this era, e.g, Norman Lewis, Naples ’44; Eva Figes, Little Eden, A Child at War.

June 21: Christa Wolf (life & work). Cassandra and Four Essays, in context of the Aeneid story, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Trojan Women, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. The novel, Cassandra.

June 28: The four essays, especially two travel books and diary. We’ll end session on The Lives of Others: what is life like in an autocratic society (Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood), under fascism. How historical novels set in other eras retell WW2.


An actress playing Cassandra from recent translation of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, as translated by Robert Fagles

A bibliography: books on and by the two women; other WW2 diaries; sources for classical history; other alternative tellings of history & myth

Barker, Pat. The Silence of the Girls. NY:  Doubleday, 2018.
Du Maurier, Daphne. The King’s General, introd. Julie Picardie. 1946; rpt. London, Virago, 2006. Historical fiction retells history of seige of Menabilly and war in Cornwall 17th century.
Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir, trans. Barbara Bray. NY: Pantheon, 1986.
Feder, Lillian. A Handbook of Classical Literature. 1964; rpt NY: Da Capo, 1998. Very accessible.
Figes, Eva. Little Eden: A Child at War. NY: Persea, 1978.
———–. The Seven Ages [of Women]. NY: Pantheon, 1986. Fantasy retelling of all history in England, from Neolithic to 20th century by unfamous central women types (e.g. midwives, one is an aristocratic woman, Lady Brilliana Harvey who really held out in 17th century siege of her castle-like manor house)
Finley, M. I The World of Odysseus. Middlesex, Eng: Penguin, 1954; rpt 1984; and Ancient History: Evidence and Models. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Finney, Gail. Christa Wolf. Boston: Twayne, 2010. Short biography and survey of her writings.
Holden, Inez. Blitz Writing: Night Shift and It was Different at the Time, ed Kristin Bluemel. 1941; rpt. London: Handheld, 2017.
Lewis, Norman. Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1978
Lochhead, Liz. Medea: After Euripides. London: Nick Hern, 2000; rpt. Glasgow: Theater Babel, 2007.
Moorehead, Caroline. Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia: A Biography. Boston: Godine, 2002.
Nightingale, Florence. Cassandra, introd. Myra Stark, epilogue Cynthia Macdonald. NY: Feminist Press, 1979.
Origo, Iris. A Chill in the Air, An Italian War Diary, 1939-40. introd. Lucy Hughes-Hallett. NY: NY Review of Books classic, 2017.
———–. Images and Shadows: an autobiography. Boston: Godine, 1970.
———–. A Need to Testify, foreword Ted Morgan. NY: Books & Co, 1984. On history of biography, and portraits of people she knew in the 1930s, who worked as anti-fascists
Smith, Denis Mack Mazzini. Yale 1994. Indispensable for anyone who wants to understand the fragmentation of Italy & rise of fascism
Weil, Simone, trans, ed. James P Holoka The Iliad or the Poem of Force: A Critical Edition. Peter Lang, 2003.
Wolf, Christa. Medea: A Modern Retelling, trans. John Cullen, introd. Margaret Atwood. 1998; rpt. NY: Doubleday, 2005.
————-. Quest for Christa T, trans Christopher Middleton. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1970. Semi-autobiographical.
————-. Parting with Phantoms: Selected Writings, 1990-93, trans, notes Jan Van Heurck. Univ. Chicago, 1997.
————-. Patterns of Childhood (sometimes titled A Model Childhood), trans. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1980.

Relevant movies:

Danger UXB. Developed John Hawkesworth and John Whitney. Various writers and directors, based on diary by Maj A.B. Hartley. Perf. include Antony Andrews, Judy Geeson. Available on Amazon Prime.
A French Village. Developed by Frederic Krivine, Phillipe Triboit. Various writers & directors. 7 year French serial set in occupied Vichy France, 1941-1946, with fast forward to 1975; 2002. Amazon prime, also to buy as DVD sets.
The Lives of Others. Dir. Script. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Perf. include Ulrich Mulne, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch. Independent. Available at Amazon Prime, as DVD on Netflix, to buy as DVD
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf. include Benjamin Whitlow, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden. BBC 1981 movie. Available on Amazon Prime.


Montepulciano, town, commune (history begins in the medieval and Renaissance eras) close to Origo estates, to which everyone who can flees & takes refuge during a particularly dangerous period

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Christa Wolf, Frankfurt, Germany, October 1999

A life, review-analyses of Patterns of Childhood and Cassandra and 4 essays. Patterns of Childhood is about growing up in a fascist state (what she saw), WW2, then the years of the East Germany, finally 1970s and global imperialism — in narratives of childhood, memories, meditations, and travelogue. The 4 essays are travel memoirs of Greece, meditations on literature, her Cassandra, & women’s writing.

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m delighted to able to say the curriculum committee at OLLI at AU has approved my course for 4 weeks this summer:

Retelling Traditional History & Myth from an Alternative POV

The course aim is to explore books which retell stories and history from unexpected and often unvoiced POVs. In War in Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo retells the story of World War Two as a woman in charge of Tuscan estates who hides partisans, POWs & runs a school for evacuated children. Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf tells the story of Troy from her POV, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. It is profoundly anti-war & emerges from Germany’s history 1930s – 70s.

For weeks before giving this course I devoted myself to reading both the set books and several others by and about both Origo and Wolf. I’ve written on Origo on this blog before (however inadequately I now feel), but I’ve never written on Christa Wolf’s magnificent books or said anything about her. One of the great and important woman authors of the 20th century — as well as absorbing, moving, an original thinker, a candid truth-teller who led a life where she became involved with harrowing and intendedly humanely productive events of our time. Of those I read, I found the most riveting and continually interesting and will speak of here were some of her books of life-writing, her historical fiction, and her essays: the misleadingly titled, Patterns of Childhood (it was originally ironically A Model Childhood), The Quest for Christa T (disguised autobiography), Cassandra and Four Essays, No Place on Earth, and Parting with Phantoms, 1990-94.

I only began her Medea (she completely transforms the tale), and read it compulsively but must reread — it reminds me tonight of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, in her One Day a Year, 1960-2000 (it’s September 27th) and Eulogy for the Living. But this course will give me the impetus and reason/opportunity for these (as well as more Origo) and I will write two more blogs on both women. I cannot speak too highly of them in life and as writers.

First a little life:


Answering questions

She was born in to lower to middling middle class Germans who lived in a province that had been fought over by Poland and Germany for centuries, and it was just then German; her father was a grocer assisted by her mother. As happens to gifted children, even in a girl in a fascist country, her gifts were early on recognized and she was sent to good schools. What she thinks important in her Patterns of Childhood is that she was subjected to Nazi education and was for a while an enthusiastic member of Hitler’s Youth Camps. Patterns of Childhood (like Cassandra) is written from the vantage point of her older years, traveling with her husband, and growing daughter in 1974 back to places she grew up in or experienced the terrors of war and refugee life, when her mind moves into different streams of flashbacks, sometimes from very early in her life, then again her adolescence, and more than one severe disillusionment: there is her re-education as the horrors of Nazism became apparent, from the terrifying destruction of Jewish life and then Jewish people — to the disappearance of people into extermination-slave labor camps (including socialists, gay people, disabled). She saw her father bullied and threatened into obeying Nazism. The war came and she flees with her mother – father already a POW – and brother.

The dates that matter are of her publications and three more: 1951 she married to a like-minded journalist and it was a long happy and collaborative marriage: they wrote and traveled and lived together. There were two children

After the war she had a period as a socialist and journalist-editor where she rose to respect and prominence in the early and middle literary culture of East Germany. First novels are social realism; they are readable novels, but she wanted to break away and she found imposed on her communist dogma, gradually sees that the life supposed to be wonderful is not turning out that way. Yes people have jobs, houses, but those rising to power are increasingly corrupt, and this middle area of consumer goods does not emerge. She begins to write very modernist books and writing – more like Virginia Woolf and modernists, without herself having much access to them. She joins the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Many writers left – but she and her husband did not (reminding me of Anna Akmatova). She broke with the leaders of East Germany, and the second level of people who controlled who got good positions.

There was a 2-3 year period where she was an informer for the Stasi — a period, which when it came out after the two Germanies merged (after 1989), did her reputation so much harm, it never recovered — I see much misogyny in the continual attacks and demands for an apology. There are a series of what I’ll call wild unreal fantasy long short stories: These are not much mentioned in what is written about her in English: the political position overshadows all, unhappily. I’ll mention two: “The life and opinions of Tomcat”, and let me tell you Tom is one sophisticated tomcat whose references to philosophy and Marxism left me bewilderes, but she is clearly arguing comic style against all sorts of economic and metaphysical ideas. It’s not that common to write an animal tale with cat as consciousness; AN Wilson has a poignant one called Stray. “What Remains” is another comic paranoid fantasy, dramatizing what it feels like to be in a constant state of surveillance where your things are taken from you – you can’t go by a window, go out to your garage and pick up your car; hone calls are nerve-wracking. She wasn’t that keen on capitalism In Parting with Phantoms she tells of what it feels like to watch a socially cooperative business turn capitalist — how quickly attitudes seems to change. There are interviews where she is treated very hostilely. I find it like the way Hilary Clinton was treated, and Wolf (while she didn’t kill herself) was not that good at stonewalling. She went to live in LA – California where it was sunny but she didn’t stay

Then around 2000 there is what I’ll call a period of relative silencing (what often happens to women). She continues to writes seriously but seems to have been much less in the public eye. Most of the famous respected works come before 2000. She was made very ill on and off in later life. See also this moving synopsis of the hard time she had inflicted on her in later life and how much she did achieve.

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The narrator, Nelly Jordan, tells of her 1971 trip to her hometown–the former Landsberg, now part of Poland–with her husband, her brother, and her daughter Lenka; of her childhood during the Nazi period; of the three years she has spent writing the present book; and of her efforts to explain to Lenka how Nelly and her parents could have failed to oppose the Nazis. Daily middle-class life under fascism is described in detail, often by inserting authentic materials such as newspaper clippings. Such events as the limitation of the freedom of the press and the establishment of concentration camps do not really affect the family; they continue to operate their store and remain largely apolitical, as did so many Germans, not realizing that their disinterest is making possible the consolidation of Nazism. As a young teenager, a group leader in the “Young Maiden” section of the Hitler Youth, she idealizes a female teacher dedicated to Hitler. The memoir is presented as a novel and so is daring in suggesting–contrary to the official dogma of the GDR — that East Germans as well as West Germans share in the guilt of the Nazi past. The problems of the 1970s, such as Vietnam, Chile, Greece, and the Middle East, are referred as part of the contemporary context. The last part of the book is an escape narrative, as Nellie and her relatives flee across the Elbe, then are forced even farther west, and end up living half starved with several other families (28 people total) in a farmhouse in what eventually becomes a Soviet zone. They exhibit a full sense of German suffering and a deep sense of outrage at historic houses bulldozed, bombings, civilians being shot wholesale and other atrocities.

I was taken by the narrative immediately. Strong passionate prose intensely written. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappoli’s translation is gripping: it seems as if Wolf deliberately cultivates a distanced style while sweeping in to show us the ravaged emotional and complicated stories and social realities of the adults and children surrounding her as a child. The pictures of her dolls reminded me of mine. Of her relationships with cousins. chapter delves how her father was driven to allow himself to be drafted into World War 2. She also depicts the mother’s sudden half-hysterical protests and the use of the term or name Cassandra emerges. Her mother’s behavior is Cassandra behavior.

In the chapters there are are narrativs in the present, remembered narratives of the past, and meditations. She also uses epigrams to signal the change of theme. Two later chapters registering the full horror of this “final solution.” When she first heard the term, long after when she came fully to understand what these people were doing — IG Faben, a hideous company which I hope is historically remembered for a behavior so heinous it’s unspeakable without strong nerves as one writes. Also from POV of that time and now, 1970s when Allende is being overthrown and another monstrous conflagration going on. What must be grasped about fascists. Again her mother a Cassandra, to protect her daughter, is mean to others. And we met or see an original of Christa T.

When they have to flee: it seems that at the last moment irrationally Charlotte, Nelly’s mother, cannot bear to leave her home. She feels she is guarding. But when the truck sets off without her, she realizes she has nothing to do, she can guard nothing. She sent off most of the “precious stuff.” And what we see is her join forces with another person (a relative) to chase down the truck and re-find her children. I found I couldn’t face the idea of what was going to happen if it was that mother and daughter would never see one another again so I peeped forward until I managed to ascertain that after a long ordeal they are reunited. As Charlotte goes forward (on foot, there is nothing else) she hears of the truck and thinks she will find them quickly, but our narrator warns us not. So Nelly (young Christa) is to endured on her own with her younger siblings and an uncle — in the piece I found ascertaining that they are reunited, I gathered Nelly was for a time in a concentration camp.

In the summing up chapters of what we’ve learnt — she’s on about how much needs to be forgotten in order to continue in life, but also that “time is running out” somehow on humanity. I’m thinking it ought to have been called The Testament of a [1930s & WW2] Survivor. She ends in the remembered sections, on the time just after WW2: her father brought home in terrible state, his death, her mother’s mortal illness, and she is with people who have TB — who died, who didn’t expected and unexpected. Done to make it fitting. Modern time is 1975 and latest brutal coup engineered by US recorded. Then we are back on this trip of 1970s, with her husband, brother (her daughter’s uncle) and a daughter’s views.

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The story begins: She has arrived before Mycenae (gates of town Agamemnon is returning to) in a sort of cage, a basket and with her is her maid-companion, Marpesa and her children -– twins. In this version they are not Ajax’s after all, they are the children of another thug-rapist, Eurypylos, whom she was given as wife to by Priam in return for Euryplos fighting on the side of the Trojans; she is taken out of the cage. It does not matter whether they are Agamemnon’s, Ajax’s or another thug – it was forced. She knows when they go inside Clytemnestra will have axed the blustering wimpering Agamemnon, now by her side, to death, and not only she but the children and maid will go the same way. We then get a long series of flashbacks as she remembers how they got to this point.

First half several dominant themes emerge immediately. A society based on utter exploitation of women, no rights whatsover, often enslaved. She is forced to endure the Greek Panthous in bed, though he disgusts her. An elder of Troy, an old man. Like Nestor. Second half she is raped by Ajax in a fit of rage. Patriarchy based on war and aggression as necessary, cult of a hero. I mentioned in Origo’s work what we see is an ethic of caring, concern, refusal to retaliate, love. There is little room for this beyond the friendships of women. I don’t have it to hand at this moment but we are told about a group of huts the women retreat to, just outside Troy. They sew, cook, talk and even dance there – they have some liberty when they get to talk to one another. That is a theme in this novel (in Wolf’s Medea, Medea has been betrayed by her pupil, so the teacher-mentor motif as common in women’s novels as the mother-daughter paradigm is deeply perverted – as if Jane Eyre turned on Miss Temple or Miss Temple on her). The various women telling one another things. Confiding.

Significant changes from traditional story to emphasize: she and Aeneas are lovers; Wolf has given Cassandra the role of Dido, whom in Virgil’s Aeneid was queen of Carthage and lover of Aeneas. Only Aeneas is no longer something of a sneak (that’s not Virgil’s view), but a noble loving man who wanted to take Cassandra with him.

Two halves. Much of the first half does consist of Cassandra’s memories as a child, young woman, growing up with vignettes of all the characters involved – including importantly Aeneas, Eumelos, you might take him to be Kissinger (or Dr Strangelove in the famous movie, who was acted as an imitation of the very young Henry Kissinger crossed with a nutty Nazi in a wheelchair).

She was Priam’s favorite daughter and loved to sit with him as he discussed politics and matters of state. Her relationship with her mother, Hecuba, however, was never as intimate, since Hecuba recognized Cassandra’s independence. At times their interactions are tense or even cold, notably when Hecuba does not sympathize with Cassandra’s fear of the god Apollo’s gift of prophecy or her reluctance to accept his love. When she ultimately refuses him, he curses her so that no one will believe what she prophesies. When Cassandra is presented among the city’s virgins for deflowering, she iwas chosen by Aeneas, who makes love to her only later. Nonetheless, she falls in love with him, and is devoted to him despite her liaisons with others, including Panthous — indeed, she imagines Aeneas whenever she is with anyone else. It is Aeneas’ father Anchises who tells Cassandra of the mission to bring Hesione, Priam’s sister who was taken as a prize by Telamon during the first Trojan War, back from Sparta. Not only do the Trojans fail to secure Hesione, they also lose the seer Calchas during the voyage, who later aids the Greeks during the war. Menelaus visits, a complicated silly quarrel, Hesione taken and Paris follows returns (Cassandra intuits because Helen is not seen) with out Helen.

A beautiful happy moment where she becomes the lover of Aeneas. Pius Aeneas. Forgive me I could not come before now. She wakes upon a very bad dream and he takes her to her mother. Cybele a goddess of dance in a temple

Climax at center (this part of the story is in Shakespeare’s despairing satiric Troilus and Cressida): the Trojans get together to decide if they should go to war. Remember the narrative is not place in the order things occurred. Instead the segments are thematic and things are ironically juxtaposed. Like in an epistolary novel. There are three ships returned from the Greek islands and Greece. Paris is there and very angry and for war as is Troilus. Eumelos, guard, very untrustworthy, is manipulating for war. The problem comes out that if they are to fight for Helen, absurd some say, she is not there. Paris was so incompetent he didn’t manage to bring her all the way. All they have is this phantom. There is a version of the Troy story where she is spirited away to Egypt. One of Euripides’ plays has Helen landing in Egyptian with the cunning Egyptian tyrant. The allegory works very nicely if you substitute for Helen Weapons of Mass Destruction. There were no weapons of mass destruction We were going to war with Iraq (by the way there were no Iraqis on the 9/11 planes, they were Egyptians) because of all these weapons of mass destruction But when it was found out, we did not leave. And her Troilus and Hector object. So what? Our honor is at stake. Cassandra gets very excited, known to be excitable. Oh Woe is me Woe is me and Priam agrees to have her dragged away and chained.

In the second half all chaos breaks out and Achilles emerges as this senseless utterly dishonorable brute (as he does in most versions of the story since Euripides and then particularly the Aeneid. In this version Achilles brutally murders Troilus after Troilus attacks him for having murdered Hector and then dragged him in a chariot around Troy – desecrating his body. This is what happens in Homer’s Iliad, which is pro-Greek. But we are supposed to understand that Achilles was in this mad rage because his lover, Patroclus, has been murdered by Diomedes, another thug ( the whole of Homer’s Book 5 of Iliad is Diomedes murdering people)

The close: Cassandra tells of the final events: another Amazonian princess, companion-maid, Myrine, murdered, and the sounds remind Cassandra of Polyxena heard screaming by Achilles’ grave where she was murdered; Andron her lover had coward-like betrayed her. Hecuba she remembers called Hecuba (mother of Trojans) a “howling bitch.” Cassandra’s children are dead. “Yes, that is how it happened.” You are a hero. I don’t want to become a statue or hero. How are we to understand her refusal.

The four essays are travelogues, literary critiques and explications of her books (see what I wrote just above) and an essay on women’s literature. If you read Wolf’s first two travel reports to find something concrete out about Greece, you’ll be very frustrated. She does not tell us but she is in Metelyn, Germany because there is a group of people meeting there to stop nuclear armament, campaigning against building these huge arsenals of nuclear bombs whereby we can destroy the earth many times over. This is 1981 when she has come out as a political activist against the present German GDR and the Western one too

The story of the first two: here’s a strike in Copenhagen that gets in their way, they land, are taken by their friends to the friends’ apartment, lovely meal. Their friends take them for drives around Athens and out to the countryside, by the sea, they meet other people, friends of friends, they visit taverns, eat out. At some point they go to the Acropolis and wander about. Just what you’d expect. In the first report, the housekeeper-cook complains to Wolf about the mistress who treats her badly (says the house-keeper-cook). We get a lot about the food they eat, the drinks, and twice both in Athens and then part 2 they find they must go down to a police station (or so they are told and register themselves, answer questions). It’s not clear they must do this, but they do it twice. They are used to this presumably.

They make friends with two free spirits, Helen and Susan traveling together and become a sort of foursome or maybe six-some. The difference between the first travel report and the second is on the second they take a boat to Crete where some believe women were once powerful. In the second they no longer have a car, so they travel about on buses with irritatingly noisy (modern music) . They go to an amphitheater where thousands of years ago these plays were played – by men as far as we can tell, no women there. They participate in Easter Ceremonies. Much conversation and thoughts about the conventional history of what they are seeing and what they are seeing and imagining what was.

There are the barest of references to the complicated political history of Greece after WW2 and the1950s where the US CIA was involved in overthrowing a socialist regime, parties within Greece fighting ferociously, and at first a conservative regime put in place but eventually Greeks themselves worked out tenuous solutions. There were long-lasting premiers at times. The Greek orthodox church remained strong.

The fourth essay: I just love where Wolf attacks Aristotle’s ideas on tragedy or art, and quotes a male (p 278) who tells her “He does not understand me …. (p 278) I was so stupefied I could not answer him.” The female genres have been subjective novels. Ahe opens with an individual reverie I’ll call it on one of Ingeborg Bachmann’s poems where she first gives you one of the stanzas and only after that the full poem, and then her terms of reference are not the usual English and American women authors you might expect or be familiar with or at least have heard of, maybe a couple of French – so while there is a reference to Virginia Woolf – and remember I said that Woolf was not available in East Germany in translation until well into the 1970s, instead of say Susan Brownmiller (Against our Will), Adrienne Rich, Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong (I’ve never read Fear of Flying), popular novel or Simone de Beauvoir. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, she cites Anna Segler, Ingeborg Bachmann, Marie-Louise Fleisser; she refers to their lives a bit, their writing but especially Bachmann who was a poet and whom Wolf knew, but then ends on a long passionate argument that the literature women read starting with earliest classics (Homer)is male-centered, women presented through male eyes, and proceeds herself to explain ancient classics from POV of women in charge – as if matriarchies really existed at one time and the present way we know these famous one is men having twisted the stories to suit them in charge.

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From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party — the Renaissance Women section

Most women’s literature has been destroyed once it was written, re-framed (Sappho the only women ancient writer we know of for sure cut just to bits), only in the 18th century do we begin to hear women talking for and to themselves – the mocking and satiric Jane Austen among the first of these. I confess for those who made it to the end of the fourth essay I do not at all believe there was ever a matriarchy the way Wolf and some schools of feminism believe – Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party a huge display in museums of 39 famous and archetypal female figures having dinner together; the floor is covered with little biographies of hundreds of women in history. As far I’m concerned Chicago wastes the first 7 plates on women goddesses who cannot have existed. But throughout the history of the arts from the beginning there have been central women characters who play roles that have drawn women to them – and real historical women who have contributed to western (it’s mostly) society. A mostly Eurocentric table.

Cassandra is among these. I’ll name a few again since we don’t much hear them this way: still remembered today, Penelope (Odysseus wife) – knitting away, Medea, child-killer, Clytemnestra, nut case, Iphigenia, sacrificial daughter, Dido, seduced abandoned, a suicide, Cassandra, nut-case fast forward to Arthurian matter Guinevere, adulteress, Morgan le Fay, a witch, somewhat unhappily these queens who got their heads cut off – compensatory victimhood I call it – Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Marie Antoinette, all of whom had their heads chopped off – warnings against wanting power – and among these I do include Hilary Clinton who I believe the other day in a rant Trump was saying should clearly have been executed.


Christine de Pizan’s Capital letter — she wrote books of imagined exemplary women

In my next blog on Wolf, I’ll write about Medea, No Place on Earth (if possible Anita Raja or Elena Ferrante’s Italian translation too, and Eulogy for the Living.


Mid-life from a conference of German writers

Ellen

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Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw) Ethiopian girl living in Beirut (Capernaum)


Madeline (Martine Chevalier) and Anne, her daughter (Lea Ducker) — (Deux of Two of US is not just about the love of two aging lesbians, but the daughter of one of them)


Heloise (Adèle Haenel), Marianne (Noémie Merlant) and Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) in Portrait of a Lady on Fire (it’s a three-way relationship at its height: wealthy young girl to be sold to a husband, painter, and pregnant maid)

Animals welcome
People tolerated …

Friends and readers,

I’ve just spent four weeks teaching a course where we read two marvelous books by women, Iris Origo’s War in the Val D’Orcia, an Italian war diary, 1943-44, and Christa Wolf’s Cassandra and Four Essays, and want to observe, commemorate, act out Wolf’s argument (proved) in her book that there is a real body of literature by women, separate from men, superior, filled with alternative values, following different genre paradigms, only permitted to thrive in Europe and her cultures since the 18th century and that in marginalized ways, but there and wonderful — deeply anti-war, anti-violence, filled with values of women, a caring, cooperative, preserving, loving ethic. What better day than V- or Valentine’s, better yet against Violence Day, especially when aimed at women. A day yesterday when much of the US in the evening sat down to watched a violent-intense game, interrupted by celebrity posturing, false pretenses at humane attitudes, and glittery commercials (the Superbowl).

Last night I watched Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which I’ve written about already here), and the 6th episode (Home Truths) of the second season of All Creatures Great and Small (ditto), and the fifth episode of the fourth season (Savages) of Outlander, Her-stories (adapted from Diana Gabaldon’s Drums of Autumn)


Anne Madeley as Mrs Hall (housekeeper, and vet)


Helen (Rachel Shelton) and James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph)


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) and Adawehi

I delighted in my evening:

Home truths: shamelessly sentimental and ratcheting up lots of angst, yet nothing but good happens. Why? I’ve decided it’s a show with women in charge — for real. Mrs Herriot gives up James to Helen, Mrs Hall and the woman with the perpetually nearly mortal cows. Mrs Pumphrey is the local central goddess, and Tricky woo, her animal. A new woman came in, an aging gypsy who lives with stray dogs. Parallel to Mrs Pumphrey. I love it.

The men are the Savages: the crazed German settler who thinks the Native Americans are stealing “his water” so when his daughter-in-law and grandchild die of measles, he murders the beautiful healer of the tribe — they retaliate by murdering him and his wife and burning down his house. Claire had been there to help bring the baby into the world. The coming problem that most counts is measles. Jamie and Ian discover they can’t get settlers while the Governor and his tax collectors are taking all the profits from settlers and using it to live in luxury, and Murtagh is re-discovered. Very moving reunion with Jamie and Claire — keeping the estates, feeding animals. She functions as Mrs Hall.

The three women eat, walk, sleep, talk together; the two upper class ones go with their maid to help her abort an unwanted pregnancy among a group of local women meeting regularly to dance, talk, be together where they sit around a fire — here they are preparing food, drink, sewing ….

A brief preface or prologue to two fine women’s films: Capernaum and Two of Us, with some mention of Salaam Bombay and Caramel, ending on Isabelle Huppert as interviewer and Elif Batuman as essayist on women’s film art:

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Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) and Rahil’s baby, Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole)

One of the courses I’m taking this winter at the same OLLI at Mason where I teach is one recent fine movies, and the first we saw Capernaum directed by Nadine Labarki. She has another remarkably memorable film I saw years ago, Caramel, the stories of five women whose lives intersect in a beauty parlor). She and two other women wrote the screenplay. It’s an indie, in Arabic, set in the slums of Beirut: the title refers to a place on the northern shore of the sea of Galilee and forms part of the Jesus Christ stories. The word also means chaos. It makes Mira Nair’s Saleem Bombay looks into the semi-lark it is: both center on a boy living on the streets of desperately poor area who is cut off from any kind of help from parents. Nair’s film ends in stasis: with the boy on the streets still, having stabbed to death a cruel pimp who preyed on a prostitute who is one of the boy’s friends, and took her small daughter from her.

People write of Capernaum as heart-breaking but most of their comments center on the boy (Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian). It’s done through flashbacks. The gimmick complained about is the boy is suing his parents for bringing him into the world. Basically the boy, Zain, exposes the cruel treatment his parents have meted out to him — real emotional, social and physical abuse too. In fact, Hilary Clinton proposed many protections for children, a couple of which aroused the ire of conservatives because she proposed to give children rights which in effect included complaining about parental abuse. I remember how she was attacked fiercely for her proposals on behalf of children. As eventually passed it was about adoption procedures and administration, whether she succeeded in making the child’s welfare count for real I don’t know

What is seriously relevant is the continual filming of dire poverty and the imprisoning of helpless (stateless) immigrants, refugees with no papers and how the need for papers is used by criminals and some lower base businessman to punish and demand huge sums from these people willing to buy forged documents. Astro, the film’s villain, is trying to take Rahil’s baby from her so he can sell the baby, and we discover at the film’s end he had no good parents and home for the baby, only a transitory prison. Labarki takes the viewer through the jails such people end up in and the conditions there — although this is Beirut, you could easily transfer this to the borders of the US. I find the supposed secondary character, a young single mother end up separated from her child as important as the boy, Zain — the fantasy of the movie is this boy takes real responsibility for the child. We also see how Zain’s sister, Sarah was sold to a man when she was 11 and dies of a pregnancy, how his mother is endlessly pregnant with no way to make any money to feed her family or send anyone to school. We se how desperate circumstances have led the boys’ parents to behave brutally to him and to one another, to in effect sell Zain’s sister, their daughter, Sarah, age 11, who dies in childbirth (too young for pregnancy).

It’s an important movie for our time — Biden is continuing many of Trump’s heartless and cruel policies at the borders — not the separation of families. There is no excuse for this. This movie does have a sudden upbeat happy ending (sort of). See it.

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Then very much a Valentine’s Day film: Two of us, also on this film course’s list.


Nina (Barbara Sukowa) — much in love with Madeline, she has no family around her


Isabelle Huppert more recently (see her in the interviews just below)

Very touching. It’s about two lesbians who have grown old and one is nervous (Madeline), frightened of her two grown children (Anne and Frederick), never ever admitted how she loathed her bullying husband (who made a lot of money if her apartment is any measure). Nina lives across the hall and yes people outside them think they are just friends. But they are deep lovers and as the movie opens, Nina is pressuring Madeline to sell her apartment so they can move to Rome permanently, Rome where they have been so happy.

What happens: Mado has a stroke, and is parallel to a movie so long ago, The Single Man, for which Colin Firth was nominated for an Oscar where two homosexual men have deep true life and one dies (Matthew Goode) and the other (Firth) is closed out by the family. Goode leaves everything to Firth, an English teacher. Goode’s family know about the gay life style and enjoy spitefully excluding Firth and beating back the will. Firth comes near suicide, pulls back, just in time.

Here the women hid, and Nina has to break through a caregiver who loathes her as competition. There is much inexplicable imagery. As the film opens, Nina has a dream of herself as a child saving Madeline as a child. Black birds or crows come and go. Nina becomes violent and axes the daughter’s care to get the caregiver in trouble and fired. Gradually the daughter realizes there is something special here. When she first sees a photo of the two women together in Rome, she is revulsed, and puts her mother in a home where the mother is drugged into compliance. The caregiver and her son come and threaten Nina, and when she is out, destroy her things in her apartment insofar as they can and steal what money she has. My mother had a caregiver just like this desperate hard angry woman. Anne witnesses her mother try to come out of her stasis to reach Nina, and Nina try to run away with her. Anne thinks again, and chases her mother and her mother’s lover back to her mother’s apartment, where they are quietly dancing together. The movie ends with Anne banging frantically on the door, saying she didn’t understand.

There is hope. Anne has brought a kitten for her mother while the mother was with the caregiver. We see it in the hall and may hope Madeline’s money will be enough and they will be left alone again. Such movies do show up the ratcheted up cheer of All Creatures and Small – how much truer to life this. Real anxiety Real trouble. It’s about aging and loneliness. There are as fine reviews of this as The Lost Daughter.

And two thoughtful interviews conducted by Isabelle Huppert (a fine French actress. One with the director, this his first film. The other between Huppert and Sukowa: listen to two actresses talk shop It’s very unusual to talk candidly about the problem of enacting, emulating having sex in front of a camera.

Don’t throw your evening out to become an object sold by one company to another to sell awful products at enormous prices.

I conclude with an excellent essay-review by Elif Batuman of the film-oeuvre of Celine Sciamma. Batuman shows how Sciamma is seeking out and inventing a new grammar of cinema to express a feminist and feminine quest for an authentic existence as a woman experiencing a full life: Now You See Me. I quote from it on The Portrait of a Lady on Fire:

The “female gaze,” a term often invoked by and about Sciamma, is an analogue of the “male gaze,” popularized in the nineteen-seventies to describe the implied perspective of Hollywood movies—the way they encouraged a viewer to see women as desirable objects, often fragmented into legs, bosoms, and other nonautonomous morsels. For Sciamma, the female gaze operates on a cinematographic level, for example in the central sex scene in “Portrait.” Héloïse and Marianne are both in the frame, they seem unconcerned by their own nudity, the camera is stationary—not roving around their bodies—and there isn’t any editing. The goal is to share their intimacy—not to lurk around ogling it, or to collect varied perspectives on it.

Mira Nair (filming A Suitable Boy) and Celinne Sciamma

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Ellen

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For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Days: Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 am,
Jan 26 to Feb 16
4 sessions online, zoom meeting style (location of building: 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Virginia) 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: F407 is Retelling Traditional History & Tales from an Alternative POV

We will read two books which retell stories and history from perhaps unexpected and often unvoiced points of views. In War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo (a British-Italian biographer and memoir-writer, and literary OBE) retells the story of World War Two from the point of view of a woman taking charge of her estates in Tuscany during the war. Then Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf (a respected East German author who won numerous German literary-political prizes) tells the story of Troy from Cassandra’s point of view, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. The second book was written after the war was over and after a trip the author took to Greece. The immediate context for both books is World War Two; long range, they are anti-war (a particular aim in Cassandra is nuclear disarmament): they tell history from a woman’s standpoint; one mythic, the other granular life-writing.

During the time covered by Origo’s diary, she takes in and creates a school for 23 refugee children; she and her husband hide partisans, and protect various disconnected endangered people; a real problem is the German disproportionate and terrifying reprisals & their dropping of landmines everywhere across Italy. So one BBC serial (1979), Danger UXB, we will discuss is made up of a story of a bomb disposal unit and I may suggest watching a couple of episodes (TBA); among other parts of her life, Christa Wolf was coerced into becoming an informant for the Stasi, so I will urge people to see the powerful film, The Lives of Others directed and written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck by the fourth week of term; the heroine’s story is said to be partly based on Christa Wolf.

Required Texts (in the order we’ll read them):

Origo, Iris. War in the Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, introd. Virginia Nicholson. NY: NY Review of Books Classics, 2017.
Wolf, Christa. Cassandra: A Novel and Four Essays, trans. from German Jan Van Heurck. NY: Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 1984.

Note: War in the Val D’Orcia has not been out of print since it was first published in 1947; there are a couple of other editions, which could cost less, but this one has an introduction, notes and photos. Cassandra also has not been out of print since first published (1983, German) but this is the only edition; what’s happened is there are editions of just Cassandra available (same translator) but you miss a lot about the book if you don’t read the four afterpieces, two travelogues, one diary, and some thoughts on the book and other 20th century European women writers.


Iris Origo in later life


Christa Wolf, 2007 (Berlin)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion.

Jan 26: Introduction: Iris Origo, Life and Work, the Diary in the context of the war all around the estate

Feb 2: Her earlier diary, A Chill in the Air, an Italian War Diary, 1939-40; her essays on the fascism build-up in Italy; other diaries, e.g, Norman Lewis, Naples ’44; Eva Figes, Little Eden, A Child at War. The reprisals and landmines (Danger UXB)

Feb 10: Christa Wolf’s Life and Work, Cassandra and Four Essays, in the context of usual tellings of Iliad/Aeneid story, including Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (play where Cassandra and Agamemnon are killed by Clytemnestra), Euripides’s Trojan Women, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida

Feb 17: More discussion of Wolf’s Cassandra, the four afterwards (especially travel in Greece and diary); women’s novels & memoirs from the era (historical fiction); The Lives of Others: on an autocratic gov’t and society (Wolf’s Patterns of Childhood, what living in a fascist dictatorship is like).


An actress playing Cassandra from recent translation of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia, as translated by Robert Fagles

Suggested outside reading or watching (a bibliography):

Du Maurier, Daphne. The KIng’s General, introd. Julie Picardie. 1946; rpt. London, Virago, 2006. Historical fiction retells history of seige of Menabilly and war in Cornwall 17th century.
Duras, Marguerite. The War: A Memoir, trans. Barbara Bray. NY: Pantheon, 1986.
Feder, Lillian. A Handbook of Classical Literature. 1964; rpt NY: Da Capo, 1998. Very accessible.
Figes, Eva. Little Eden: A Child at War. NY: Persea, 1978.
———–. The Seven Ages [of Women]. NY: Pantheon, 1986. Fantasy retelling of all history in England, from Neolithic to 20th century by unfamous central women types (e.g. midwives, one is an aristocratic woman, Lady Brilliana Harvey who really held out in 17th century siege of her castle-like manor house)
Finley, M. I The World of Odysseus. Middlesex, Eng: Penguin, 1954; 1984; rpt. Ancient History: Evidence and Models. NY: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Finney, Gail. Christa Wolf. Boston: Twayne, 2010. Short biography and survey of her writings.
Holden, Inez. Blitz Writing: Night Shift and It was Different at the Time, ed Kristin Bluemel. 1941; rpt. London: Handheld, 2017.
Lewis, Norman. Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy. NY: Carroll & Graf, 1978
Lochhead, Liz. Medea: After Euripides. London: Nick Hern, 2000; rpt. Glasgow: Theater Babel, 2007.
Moorehead, Caroline. Iris Origo: Marchesa of Val d’Orcia: A Biography. Boston: Godine, 2002.
Nightingale, Florence. Cassandra, introd. Myra Stark, epilogue Cynthia Macdonald. NY: Feminist Press, 1979.
Origo, Iris. A Chill in the Air, An Italian War Diary, 1939-40. introd. Lucy Hughes-Hallett. NY: NY Review of Books classic, 2017.
———–. Images and Shadows: an autobiography. Boston: Godine, 1970.
———–. A Need to Testify, foreword Ted Morgan. NY: Books & Co, 1984. On history of biography, and portraits of people she knew in the 1930s, who worked as anti-fascists
Weil, Simone, trans, ed. James P Holoka The Iliad or the Poem of Force: A Critical Edition. Peter Lang, 2003.
Wolf, Christa. Medea: A Modern Retelling, trans. John Cullen, introd. Margaret Atwood. 1998; rpt. NY: Doubleday, 2005.
————-. Quest for Christa T, trans Christopher Middleton. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1970. Semi-autobiographical.
————-. Parting with Phantoms: Selected Writings, 1990-93, trans, notes Jan Van Heurck. Univ. Chicago, 1997.
————-. Patterns of Childhood (sometimes titled A Model Childhood), trans. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappolt. NY: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1980.

Movies:

Danger UXB. Developed John Hawkesworth and John Whitney. Various writers and directors, based on stories by Maj A.B. Hartley. Perf. include Antony Andrews, Judy Geeson. Available on Amazon Prime.
A French Village. Developed by Frederic Krivine, Phillipe Triboit. Various writers & directors. 7 year French serial set in occupied Vichy France, 1941-1946, with fast forward to 1975; 2002. Amazon prime, also to buy as DVD sets.
The Lives of Others. Dir. Script. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck Perf. include Ulrich Mulne, Martina Gedeck, Sebastian Koch. Independent. Available at Amazon Prime, as DVD on Netflix, to buy as DVD
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf. include Benjamin Whitlow, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden. BBC 1981 movie. Available on Amazon Prime.


Montepulciano, town, commune (history begins in the medieval and Renaissance eras) close to Origo estates, to which everyone who can flees & takes refuge during a particularly dangerous period

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Hung Liu, The Year of the Rat (2021) – this is one of the last portraits she did and it is downstairs in the lobby to lure you upstairs

Friends, readers,

Another woman artist, this time a woman photographer and painter whose work I saw in the DC National Portrait Gallery a couple of weeks ago. The following video where a curator takes you through many of the paintings and photographs in the exhibit, you learn so much about Liu’s life story, the images she made in the different phases of her existence, and hear Hung Liu talking about what she is trying to achieve in general, and what were her aims and circumstances in each of the works she is led to talk about — that the usual blog I would do for a woman artist feels superfluous. Click and see and hear. Hung herself talks in the interview clips of the importance of remembering people, especially to the person who remembers and the one remembered.



This is called Father’s Day: it is Liu with her father — he was taken from the family when she was five, imprisoned, enslaved, treated harshly and strictly for 50 years at the time when she learned where he was, and visited him. He told her that after so many years of such barbaric treatment that he can no longer show emotion.

She was proud of her mother and her grandmother’s stoicism in the face of such hardships:

All the information you need otherwise is provided in the marvelous catalogue book of the exhibition (Portraits of Promised Lands), with three essays and many beautiful plates, which I recommend buying. To be honest, and iconoclastically I think you can have as deep an experience as felt in the galleries, maybe more deep reading this book as going to the gallery. The difference is the size of the images and you have to imagine the thick impasto you eyes register as you gaze.

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Here I just suggest emphases and perspectives, single out the most striking images.

She seems to have derived her passionate devotion to the deeply hurt by society and the vulnerable, and desire to give all her subjects quiet dignity, from the way her family was treated in her early life: her father’s fate (see above) was the result of his having fought in the army of Chiang Kai-shek; the family destroyed all the photographs and memorabilia of their lives they had lest any be interpreted against them. They didn’t flee, rather marginalized themselves, hid their individual identities, and only gradually as Hung’s gift emerged sent her quietly to the best schools and then art college in China available. She had herself to do two years farm work, and traveled, everywhere she saw thwarted and hurt people, she painted, and then later took photographs and painted these in her own distinctive way (the film will tell you of this) within terms of the imposed social realism of China. Like many others in such a situation, she learned much but felt constricted, that she was not fulfilling her art’s potential. They are not just downtrodden people, but people whose identity is at risk, like this one:


Summoning ghosts — the woman is beautiful but she resists us by turning to the side, she is dressing her hair and wearing that outfit to please another

She was both fortunate and her family maintained some good connections (her grandfather had been a scholar and botanist), and was able to travel to the US, go to an art college in California, and become part of the art worlds there. She became a resident artist at Capp Street Project in San Francisco in 1988; she eventually married a fellow art student, Jeff Kelley, who became her curator. She went onto graduate school, became a citizen, a Professor Emerita herself, had a child, a boy. In her earlier life she took many photographs as she traveled around China tracing the changes or just the events and behavior of people working out the cultural revolution. These photographs have to be experienced in the order they are placed in a narrative. In the US she resumed such travels down south (where both white and black, but mostly black lived hard lives), to places Asian people made communities in.

Here are some of these: she identifies with a plow-bough young man (black, living down south),


A plow-boy in the American south

A hopeful African-American woman — see the way she swings dangling feet or shoes


Dangling Feet

She talked with ex-Comfort Women in Korea:


This is from the cover for the book cited above (Promised Lands)

Here is a less well known portrait of comfort women:

There is also a portrait of an aged woman with bound feet, who cannot walk — very distressing in its ordinariness.

Much more hopeful: I love her monumental portraits of children, here are two young ones, the one helping the other to eat. I love the small pictures of small creatures, and how her linseed application visibly drips:

Here are two leaning against a wall:

She has a large portrait very beautiful of a black woman with flowers all around her.

She is famous for painting over or up, the photography of Dorothy Lange, whose perspective is coterminous with Liu’s. So here is Migrant Mother made somehow less grim by the coloration and a slight change in the woman’s expression or face and also making the pair further back in the picture space:

Her Dorothy Lange types are when original with her more poignant, as in this Father’s Arms:

Another too distressing to reprint, but found in Promised Lands is of a half-starved woman, with very narrow breasts, who has a baby clinging to one of her nipples. She is dressed in an undershirt with work shirt over, to her left a sad-faced child, a man who shades his face with a hat, another looking to the right as if far in the distance ….

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I was strongly taken by this exhibit and went back a second time; that’s when I bought the book, the first large art book I’ve bought since Jim died. Hers is a redemptive art. She is paying attention to people others usually only register as a number who needs to be checked off, as it were “visible,” finishing what work they were given: it does not matter if their participation is active or genuine. There are few landscapes alone. Such images were thought very self-indulgent in her early training: consequently they are the circumstances against or in which the person pictured must live or work in most of her images.

But she did a series called My Secret Freedom, which are curiously pastoral, very conventional except for the objects and houses she invents (look at the grey boat):

Individual objects painted in her more usual way, very large, turn up now and again: Blue slippers; a bed; a comfortable desk chair with pillow; a grey phone, titled Telephone January 20, 2012:

This wikipedia article is useful. There are short insightful essays on-line on individual images. We are told of her crucial contributions, given thoughtful descriptions of the art techniques she uses to make her memorable portraits; how she’s summoning and commemorating ghosts

Ellen

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This statue by Adam Roud of Jane Austen walking steadily, looking to the side, book tucked under her elbow has been my favorite of the modern rendition — found in Chawton churchyard — we know she loved to walk …

Friend and readers,

I’ve written such a number of blogs commemorating Jane Austen’s birthday in some way by this time, the most obvious where I reprint her poem to a beloved friend, Anne Lefroy, who died on the day in 1808; I wrote about what she wrote that seemed to me neglected (yes) and so interesting: her remarks on Tudor queens, including Katherine Parr; and a whole series, some containing notable poems to her, a new opera, some about a much enjoyed social activity (dancing) and so on.

But I never thought to comb her letters looking for how she felt on the day  (or maybe I did and couldn’t find anything). Diana Birchalls has done a splendid nuanced job asking: did she enjoy it?, and, apparently, true to character, it’s not clear. That is, what is found is considerable ambivalence.

I put the following lines in quotations as a comment on Diana’s and since then added to  it: “She tried hard, she worked at being cheerful and sometimes she was. But she was so intelligent that marking time (as birthdays force us to) is an ambivalent event. Perhaps she might have been happier had she been able to write more,” and it seems been less censured (there is evidence she worried about her family’s response and had to answer to them, including her mother still on Persuasion), had her publishing started earlier. “She was also a spinster with not much money and among her milieu not a high rank and it’s impossible to ignore the average POV and she might have felt that her life was lacking because of the way others treated spinsters.” There was that time in Bath.” OTOH, she knew she was lucky within limits, was solvent enough by living with her family in the prescribed way (she saw how so many others had much to endure, had, as far as we can tell, a supportive family, some loving friends, so she had much to be glad about.” What is most surprising about the quotations and asides and indirect references (beyond the one poem) Diana turns up is the plangent tone of so many of them.

For myself, I imagine Austen happiest when absorbed in her imaginary in the throes of writing, as I imagine a number of her near women contemporaries, for example, Fanny Burney and Anne Radcliffe (given the amounts they wrote), and others she mentions as predecessors, and rivals and simply someone she is reading, e.g. Mary Brunton, Charlotte Smith, Anne MicVicar Grant,  Madame de Genlis. She loved memoirists in French as well as English; we catch her reading travel writers, educational treatises, poets. Perhaps it’s best to commemorate her with striking passages by her — they are hard to pluck out, for they gain their depth by context and resonance across a book.


This morning I came upon another statue of Jane, which has joined the first at Chawton (the gardens), Robert Prescott’s Jane absorbed in writing —

So here are some brief ones I keep in a commonplace file, as favorites, as general ironic truths, as what I have turned to — Matthew Arnold style, the touchstones: I’ve organized them by novels in order of publication, or what is the probable chronology of writing, and then from the letters. The first, the epigraph to this blog: “It is well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible” … Henry Tilney, NA

Sense and Sensibility

‘We are all offending every moment of our lives.’…. Marianne Dashwood

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

Elinor could only smile.

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

Pride and Prejudice:

‘There is a fine old saying, which every body here is of course familiar with — Keep your breath to cool your porridge, — and I shall keep mine to swell my song.’ … Elizabeth Bennet

‘We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing’ … Elizabeth once again …

Mansfield Park

Sir Thomas saw repeated, and for ever repeated reason to … acknowledge the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure …

Emma

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

‘Well, I cannot understand it.’ ‘That is the case with us all, papa. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other’ … Emma and her father

“We all know at times what it is to be wearied in spirits. Mine, I confess, are exhausted.’ … Jane Fairfax to Emma, fleeing, after Box Hill

Northanger Abbey

‘Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.’ … Catherine

‘But why he should say one thing so positively, and mean another all the while, was most unaccountable! How were people, at that rate, to be understood?’ — Catherine about General Tilney

‘After long thought and much perplexity, to be very brief was all that she could determine on with any confidence of safety.’ … Catherine thinking about writing to Eleanor Tilney after having been so insultingly ejected from the abbey

Persuasion

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

Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven … Austen as narrator & Anne Elliot

Lady Susan

My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age!–just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the gout–too old to be agreeable, and too young to die… May the next gouty Attack be more favourable … Lady Susan herself

Unfinished fragments of novels and Juvenilia:

I wish there were no such things as Teeth in the World; they are nothing but plagues to one, and I dare say that People might easily invent something to eat with instead of them. … Catherine, from Catherine, or the Bower

‘ … she has been suffering much from headache and six leeches a day … [which] relieved her so little we thought it right to change our measures,” “to attack the disorder” in her gum, so they “had three teeth drawn, and [she] is decidedly better, but her nerves are a good deal deranged. She can only speak in a whisper … fainted away twice this morning …  Sanditon, Diana Parker about her sister ….

When there is so much Love on one side there is no occasion for it on the other … The Three Sisters

From Austen’s censored, cut up, bowdlerized letters:

Do pray meet with somebody belonging to yourself, — I am quite weary of your knowing nobody.

I do not want People to be very agreable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.

Pray remember me to Everybody who does not enquire after me.

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy.

I write only for Fame, and without any view to pecuniary Emolument …

People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them …

I have now attained the true art of letter-writing, which we are always told, is to express on paper exactly what one would say to the same person by word of mouth; I have been talking to you almost as fast as I could the whole of this letter …

And I cannot resist this longer quotation one, as one possibly never noticed overlooked by my reader:

In defense of spinsterhood:

from Frederick and Elfrida (Juvenilia): one could call it a parodic short story: We have as heroine, “Charlotte, whose nature we have before intimated was an earnest desire to oblige every one … ” when “an aged gentleman with a sallow face & old pink Coat, partly by intention & partly thro’ weakness was at the feet of the lovely Charlotte, declaring his attachment to her”

Not being able to resolve to make any one miserable, she consented to become his wife; where upon the Gentleman left the room & all was quiet.

Their quiet however continued but a short time, for on a second opening of the door a young & Handsome Gentleman with a new blue coat entered & intreated from the lovely Charlotte, permission to pay to her his addresses. There was a something in the appearance of the second Stranger, that influenced Charlotte in his favour, to the full as much as the appearance of the first: she could not account for it, but so it was. Having therefore, agreable to that & the natural turn of her mind to make every one happy, promised to become his Wife the next morning …

It was not till the next morning that Charlotte recollected the double engagement she had entered into; but when she did, the reflection of her past folly operated so strongly on her mind, that she resolved to be guilty of a greater, & to that end threw herself into a deep stream …

We cannot know if this was written before or after Austen refused Mr Bigg-Wither. May we hope it is meant generally?

Ellen

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Sisters, 1891, Elin Danielson-Gambogi (Finnish), 1861-1919. Quiet female friendship is such a rare topic (except the woman painter be painting discipleship) for fine painting, one must go to novel illustrations and I can’t think of any of sufficient beauty for my purpose

From the Circuit of Appollo, a poem by Anne where she names (unfortunately using pseudonyms) other women poets she knew in Kent:

Appollo, as lately a Circuit he made,
Throo’ the lands of the Muses, when Kent he survey’d,
And saw there that Poets were not very common,
But most that pretended to Verse, were the Women
Resolv’d, to encourage, the few that he found,
And she that writ best, with a wreath should be crown’d …

But now to proceed, and their merritts to know,
Before he on any, the Bay’s wou’d bestow,
He order’d them each, in their several way,
To show him their papers, to sing, or to say …

When Alinda began, with a Song upon Love.
So easy the Verse, yett compos’d with such art,
That not on expression, fell short of the heart …

If Laura, not quickly a paper had read,
Wherein she Orinda, had praised so high,
He own’d it had reach’dhim, while yett in the sky …

‘Till Valeria, withdrew him a little from thence,
And told him, as soon as she’d got him aside,
Her works, by no other, but him shou’d be try’d;
Which so often he read and with still new delight,
That Judgment ’twas thought wou’d not passe ’til ’twas night …

Dear friends and readers,

This is not the first blog I’ve written in the spirit of trying to understand something which I’m having trouble making clear to myself because various sources for the topic are confusing. It is also not the first blog I’ve written about women’s friendships, especially women poets for one another, as seen in letters or novels — or just life, using other documents left from the relationship. Anne Finch’s crucial relationships as a woman and poet or woman poet may be divided into 1) real living women she knew we know were themselves poets, and to whom Finch wrote poems, and whom the poems interchanged show a deep relationship’; 2) poetry by women Finch read whom she interacted deeply with as her predecessors, and I take these to be Aphra Behn and Katherine Philips; 3) real living women, to whom Finch was very close, often related to, to whom she wrote poetry or whom she put as figures in her poems, but who themselves did not write poetry and who may not have been intellectual at all. This blog presents the first two groups.

I gather together first what we know of her and Catherine Fleming (Flavia) then move on to women Anne got to know as or through relatives, who loved who understood and wrote poetry too, e.g, Frances Thynne Seymour, Lady Hertford (Hartford).

There are altogether five poems from Anne Finch to or for her apparently close and much valued friend, Catherine Fleming. We can date the friendship from the 1701 Gilden’s Miscellany when Nicholas Rowe’s epistolary poem to Flavia in priase of Ardelia is printed; he was probably not the first and certainly not the last to urg Finch to overcome her reluctance to publish. Anne’s friendship with Catherine Fleming lasted to the end of Finch’s life, as their last poems are exchanges in 1718.  One of these poems is another of these dreadful paraphrases of the Bible; it is clear that Finch is reluctant; her reluctance to do this kind of thing any more (it’s seen in the Northampton and Folger ms’s), shows she knows how bad they are. In the Wellesley MS generally speaking her religious poetry has become brief concise lyrics using some of the techniques she practiced in her nature poetry and may be seen in her free adaptations of fables and translations (found in her published poetry after 1709).

There is also one poem by Nicholas Rowe to Catherine Fleming where he addresses her as Finch’s friend who understands the value of Finch’s poetry.

Finally, there is one poem by Fleming to Finch thanking her for attempting the paraphrase of the last chapter of Ecclesiastes.

So altogether seven poems.

No letters. I adhere to Sarah Sard Hughes’ explanation: after her exhausting bouts with melancholia, Finch was left with a trembling hand; to which I add no one wanted to leave clear evidence of her struggle against depression while she was under its power, only what she wrote of her experiences afterwards.

I place them in the order I surmise they were more or less written.

Not a single one by Finch was published (nor was Fleming’s one poem) — yet Finch’s epistolary poems (or ballads as they are called in some ms’s) are so appealing, indeed fun and wonderful in so many ways: Nos. 4, and 5 represent her at her best, esp. “From me who whileom sung the town.”

1) Ms Wellesley, pp 57-58.  “Oh! friendship, how prevailing is thy force?“, from “To Flavia. By whose perswasion I undertook the following Paraphrase” (“The last chapter of Eclesiastes . . . In the full strength, of thy created frame” Described in my first blog upon beginning this review project; but the poem also appears in Ms Harleian described here. So I think this series of three earlier than Ms Wellesley.

2) Ms Harleian, 71-81, “The Preacher thus, to Man, his speech adrest,” “The last chapter of Eclesiastes Paraphras’d Inscribed to Mrs Catherine Fleming.” This also occurs in Ms Wellesley, pp 59-65, which since it was created by Heneage and Anne should be the chosen copytext over Ms Harleian because I believe Ms Harleian to have been collected before MS Wellesley, though not much before.

3) Ms Harleian, 44-46, “To Coleshill, Seat of Noble Pen,” “For Mrs Catherine Flemming at ye Lord Digby’s at Coleshill in Warwickshire,” also called “A Ballad” in other manuscripts. Poem also occurs in MS Portland, XX, 10-11 (highly unclear, squeezed in, looks like Heneage’s hand in old age), which is described here; and MS Additional 28101, 163v-164r (clear attribution: “By the Countess of Winchelsea”). So I suggest this poem is also somewhat earlier than those copied into the Ms Wellesley.

4) Ms Wellesley, “‘Tis now my dearest friend become your turn,”, “An Epistle to Mrs Catherine Fleming at Coleshill in Warwickshire but hastily perform’d & not corrected. London October ye 8th: 1718.” Not printed until 1988 Ellis d’Alessandro prints Wellesley text, 109-11; McGovern & Hinnant, 42-44.

5) Ms Harleian, 47r-48v, “From me who whileom sung the Town”, “A Ballad to Mrs Catherine Fleming in London from Malshanger farm in Hampshire.” Also occurs in MS Wellesley, 89-91, which then takes precedent as a copy text; however it is notable that this poem and “To Coleshill, Seat of Noble Pen,” occur in tandem in the MS Harleian, which seems to me the right way they should be published, and unless someone does another selection where taste and consideration of who Anne Finch was as an individual and what her best, finest, genius poetry is about, this will be the only place the reader can find them together.

Catherine Fleming’s one poem to Finch:

1) Ms Harleian, pp 77r-77v. “My heart ov’rlow’s with Gratitude and Joy,” “By Flavia: To the Rt Hon ble Ann Countess of Winchelsea on her Obliging Compliance with my request to Paraphrase the last Chapter in Ecclesiastes.” Also occurs in MS Wellesey, p 59. Fleming’s inner life of “baffled cares” revealed.

What appeared in print:

1) 1701, “An Epistle to Flavia,” on the Sight of two Pindarick Odes on Spleen and Vanity. Written by a Lady to her Friend. by Nicholas Rowe. Flavia, to you with safety I commend. p. 53, introduces long section of poems by Finch. 1701 New Miscellany, described here. This one with 5 poems by Finch, one of which remains explicitly denied her in the Collected Poems. Note too the only published poem is by a man.

Here are three of Finch’s typical light social poems, the last of which is arguably a masterpiece, and none of them saw the light of day or came under readers’ eyes until 250 years later and all are now presented in forms where the reader is prevented from being able to respond properly to them because they are out of context.

What do we know about Catherine Fleming?

So Keith in her 2nd volume of the Cambridge Works, at the back, as part of the notes to “Oh! friendship, how prevailing is thy force?” tells us Catherine Fleming died in 1736 (so 16 years after Finch), was daughter of Robert Jefferson and wife of Archdeacon Sir George Fleming (1667-1747), who eventually became Bishop of Carlisle (c 1708?).  Then as part of the notes to the paraphrase, that Catherine had three daughters who lived to adulthood and one son, a William Gibson (why the change of last name is not explained). To give them their due, the chronology of Anne’s life in both volumes in front does single out these women as events in Anne’s life. Catherine Fleming is also mentioned in “Advertisement for the Gazette …” “whereas ’tis spread about the town,” as well as her sister (?), Ann Fleming. McGovern and Hinnant tell us that Fleming was also a friend of Lady Scudamore, cousin to Robert Digby, friend to Alexander Pope; it’s she that Catherine Fleming went to visit; the Flemings are part of the Digby clan. Fleming was Pope’s friend too. In her life of Finch, McGovern cites her name as a friend, and tells us nothing at all beyond citing these poems.

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A still from a film, Dyke Pussy (2008) where Allyson Mitchell’s sculptures are seen: or, more plainly, two cats as friends who mirror one another

After Catherine Fleming, the second most in number and seriousness of feeling are to Francis Thynne Seymour, Countess of Hertford (1699-1754), about whom I’ve written a blog. The three include a masterpiece (“Hartford ’tis wrong …”), and one very touching, oh so poignant (“Of sleeplesse nights, and days with care o’ercast”) showing Anne assumed real understanding and sympathy from her great-niece (the line: first her grandmother, Francis Finch Thynne, Lady Weymouth (Ephelia), and then Lady Weymouth’s daughter-in-law, Lady Hertford’s mother, Grace Strode Thynne (Cleone), see my next blog on poems to women who were not themselves poets). Lady Hertford is once referred  to as Aspasia.

1) No MS; 1741 Birch, X, 179, “Of sleepless nights, and days with care o’ercast,” “To the Right Honorable the Countess of Hartford, with her volume of poems

2) MS Additional 4457, p59r, “Joy from a zealous pen Ardelia [therefore ascribed] sends,” “To the Countess of Hartford on her Lord’s Birthday.

3) MS Wellesley, 72-6, “Hartford ’tis wrong if Poets may complain,” “To the Right Honourable Frances Countess of Hartford who engaged Mr Eusden to write upon a wood enjoining him to mention no tree but the Aspen & no flower but the King-cup.”

There is one to a Mrs [Grace] Randolph who is Laura in “The Circuit of Apollo,”. These two poems sound like women who know each other distantly, let’s say through their work, but are not yet friends. We may hope they had become closer friends by “The Circuit of Apollo.”  Grace Blome (1674-1750), came from an established Kent family; married to Herbert Randolph on June 27, 1700; married, Randolph had 12 children (!), but is known to have written three creditable poems besides the one to Finch (Keith, Vol 1, pp 534-35). There is real warmth in both poems; they felt an affinity and mutual respect and understanding. The first by Anne is one of her fine poems.

1) MS Folger, 48-49, “Madam, ’till pow’rfully convinc’d by you,” “An Epistle, from Ardelia, to Mrs Randolph, in answer to her poem upon her verses,”

and one from her:

2) MS Folger, np (2nd poem in tribute in the opening section), “Madam, As when the Macedonian Conqu’rour dy’d,” “An Epistle, from Mrs Randolph to Mrs Finch; upon her presenting her with some of her poems”

A second poet from “The Circuit of Apollo” identified by Anne Finch as Valeria, could very well be Sarah Dixon, about whom both Ann Messenger (Pastoral Tradition and the Female Talent) and Deborah Kennedy (see below) have written. Kennedy identifies Dixon with Finch’s Valeria in the poem where the poet’s lack of physical beauty is compensated for by her inner beauty. The selection chosen by Roger Lonsdale in his Eighteenth-Century Women Poets does far more credit to Dixon than those discussed so anodynely by Kennedy.

Sarah Dixon’s years were 1761-1765; her published poetry is all in the 18th century mode (Poems on Several Occasions, 1740, with a large list of impressive subscribers). It’s not certain she never married; there is evidence to suggest she was a widow. She came from an important Royalist family in Rochester in Kent; her grandfather, Sir Robert Dixon (1614-88), was a published writer himself who served Charles I during the civil; he was rewarded by Charles II with the Prebendary of Rochester Cathedral.  “The agreeable” suggests a genuine understanding between two women (for otherwise would Finch have dared to go on about Dixon’s lack of attractiveness?). While “Clarinda’s Indifference at Parting with Her Beauty” suggests a dialogue with the self (that is, Finch is Clorinda), nonetheless, the theme so insisted upon is found repeatedly in Dixon’s poetry and I suggest is understood better when seen in the context of women’s bitter discussions on the importance of fleeting physical beauty, and while probably not by Finch, the existence of “Cosmelia’s Charms” in a later ms with a row of Finch’s poems brings alive how these women related to one another empathetically.

1) Ms Wellesley, p 95. “She is not fair you criticks of the Town,” The Agreeable [second poem so titled in Wellesley MS].

2) MSs F-H 283, Folger 13, “Now age came on and all the dismall traine,” Clarinda’s Indifference at Parting with Her Beauty [Folger, a later copying over of a another censured title]. A deeply felt and angry poem (even if it’s embarrassing)

A third poet from “The Circuit of Apollo” had been identified: Alinda or Olinda is Elizabeth Wythens (nee Taylor), later Colepepper. She is also alluded to in “Ardelia’s Answer to Ephelia,” in a deliberately obscured but sympathetic way.

Alinda/Olinda was daughter to Sir Thomas Taylor, a baronet at Park House, Maidstone, Kent (and thus a Kentish poetess), forcibly married to a man very much older than she (Sir Francis Wythens) in 1685 to stop a love affair with Sir Thomas Colepepper. After the marriage, she seems to have quickly left Wythens to live with Colepepper, eventually living with him in his villa (and bringing with her children by Wythens whom Colepepper eventually successfully sued for support); Wythens died in 1704 (note the many years Elizabeth endured a marriage, for the husband would visit her), upon which Elizabeth and Colepepper married. She died in 1708. The story is told by Germaine Greer, in her notes to Elizabeth Taylor’s poetry, all well chosen, with an understandable animus against male behavior that reveals the milieu of Anne Finch’s early songs (Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of 17th Century Women’s Verse, pp 294-98). Taylor is alluded to by Keith, but only insofar as is absolutely necessary to identify her as Alinda (Vol 1, pp 461-62, and 529).

1) MS Folger, 6-11, “Me, dear Ephelia, me, in vain you court,” Ardelia’s answer to Ephelia, who had invited Her to come to her in Town–reflecting on the Coquetterie & detracting humour of the Age,” as brilliant as that of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, both of which find an ultimate source in Boileau’s Satire III (itself an imitation of Horace’s Satire I, ix). The poem is to Francis Finch Thynne, Lady Weymouth, but these lines are a sort of defense of Elizabeth Taylor Wythens Colepepper:

Can I dislike I cry, what all admire,
Discreet, and witty, civill and refin’d,
Nor, in her person fairer, then her mind,
Is yong, Alinda, if report be just,
For half the Caracter, my eyes I trust.
What chang’d Almeria, on a suddain cold,
As if I of your freind, some tale had told?

No, she replyes, but when I hear her praise,
A secret failing, does my pitty raise,
Damon she loves, and ’tis my dayly care,
To keep the passion from the publick ear.

I ask, amaz’d, if this she has reveal’d,
No, but ’tis true she crys, though much conceal’d,
I have observ’d itt long, but wou’d betray
But to your self, what now with greif I say,
Who this, to no’ne, but Confidents must break,
Nor they to others, but in whispers speak;
I am her friend, and must consult her fame ….

More was she saying, when fresh objects came,
Now what’s that thing, she crys, Ardelia guesse?

Finch is identifying strongly with Alinda as someone who has behaved in ways their societies use to ostracize them (Finch’s transgression would be her depression — this reality despite her “Spleen” proclaiming it is still avoided, and especially in this new edition).

It’s arguable that Elizabeth Rowe, Philomena, meant a great deal to Finch: she was so much better known, and respected than most women poets; perhaps they saw one another more often, having connections with people each of them were close to. Finch singles Rowe out twice in her poetry as part of a “celebrity” so-to-speak poetic world; there is evidence they moved in the same circles in Kent and southern England.

Still, I can find no real closeness, no intimacy recorded between Anne Finch and Elizabeth Rowe. There is but one letter by Rowe and that to Grace Strode, telling Strode to thank Finch for sending a copy of a poem, apparently in response to some sign of recognition by Finch to Grace Strode (Sarah Sard Hughes, and McGovern, AF and her poetry, pp 118-19). The lack of direct communication, and tone of the letter does not signal a close relationship; only if the following is by Finch, can we posit a certain amount of intimate camaraderie and friendship.

1) Ms Additional 28101, “Prithee Friend that Hedge behold,” “To a fellow Scribbler. By Lady Winchilsea,” may be to Elizabeth Rowe, as Cameron surmised, so the felt personal connection makes sense — it’s through shared anger at the way women poets are treated. The evidence that this poem is to Rowe includes that it occurs in an manuscript with two poems to Lady Hertford, one by Finch to Grace Strode, and one by Rowe, grieving intensely a year after her husband died, and two to Lady Arabella Marrow — all part of a narrow circle of friends.

Prithee Friend that Hedge behold
When all we rhiming Fools grow old
Who in vain Florish Life have spent
Amidst it stands a rivall’d Tree,
Now representing sixty three
And like it you and I shall be.
The bare vine round about it clings
With mischievous, intangling Strings
The night Shade with a dismal Flow’r
Culrs o’er it, like a Lady’s Tower
Or Honesty with feather’d Down
Like grizled Hair deforms its Crown
Luxuriant plants that o’er it spread
Not medicinal for Heart or Head
Whch serve but to amuse the Sight
Are like the nothings that we write
Yet still ’tis thought that Tree’s well plac’d
With beauteous Eglantine imbrac’d
But see how false Appearance proves
If he that Honeysuckle Loves
Which climbs by him to reach the Thorns
The rival Thorn his Age derides
And gnaws like jealousy his Sides.
Then let us cease, my Friend, to sing
When ever youth is on the Wing
Unless we solidly indite
Some good Infusing while we write
Lest with our Follies hung around
We like that Tree & Hedge be found
Grotesque & trivial, shun’d by all
And soon forgotten when we fall.

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The Nine Living Muses of Great Britain by Richard Samuel, 1779. The sitters are (standing, left to right): Elizabeth Carter, Anna Barbauld, Elizabeth Sheridan, Hannah More, Charlotte Lennox; (seated, left to right): Angelica Kauffmann, Catherine Macaulay, Elizabeth Montagu, Elizabeth Griffith …

Moving into women poets before her time, poets Finch didn’t know well or not at all but were famous in her time:

With the best will in the world towards their books, which I have loved parts of and honor: Deborah Kennedy has written an admirable book, Poetic Sisters: Early 18th Century Women Poets, where she has chapters on Anne Finch, Elizabeth Rowe, Francis Thynne Seymour, Sarah Dixon and Mary Jones (see my foremother poet blog, 1707-78, Chantress), but while she unearths information and poems, she does not use poems by these women that discuss or are about these women’s relationships, or vocations, or real life problems, and when she discusses the women or their lives, it’s done in such a vein of optimistic naivete I just cannot take what she asserts about people’s relationships seriously.

Carol Barash, English Women’s Poetry, 1649-1714: Politics, Community and Linguistic Authority, wants us to believe that the poetry of Anne Killigrew, of Mary Chudleigh, and Sarah Edgerton, and prose of Mary Astell influenced and were important to Finch, but there is no evidence for this in their different bodies of poetry. I look for some allusion, some reference, and find none. Germaine Greer’s anthology of 17th century women’s poetry (I would very much like to link Anne Wharton’s poetry to Finch but find nothing) and her Slipshod Muses if read astutely can yield much but it would be all speculation. Finch’s predecessors in English who meant a lot to her for sure, were Aphra Behn and Katherine Philips, both their highly sexualized poems (by which I mean the erotic and lesbian poetry too, their translations) and their witty ones.  We have many lines of poetry by Anne which attest to this: praise of them, imitations, using them as models.

Anne Finch was much moved by the plays and actresses of her era, and left a poem for Anne Oldfield to speaks as an epilogue which expressed her response to the tragic-queen plays of the era: see my “I hate such parts as we have plaid today. I see little influence on her by the female playwrights of her era, I am sorry to say, and we cannot know what she read in manuscript of earlier and contemporary women’s plays (except those she might have mentioned and we have no mentions). And her translation studies led her to Sappho as presented by Anne Dacier. There are a least three blogs here, but I have outlined what I would have said. The poem that I want here to allude to that is important (when we think about the possibility she wrote the libretto for John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and the intense sexuality of her Italian via the French translations) is Behn’s “The Golden Age,” and her adaptation of “A Voyage to the Isle of Love.”

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So I’ve here identified Catherine Fleming, Francis Thynne Seymour, Grace Randolph, Sarah Dixon, Elizabeth Taylor, and Elizabeth Rowe as her contemporary peers and friends; Aphra Behn and Katherine Philips as her predecessors in English. We’ve seen she was part of circles where there were other women poets. Elizabeth Tollet (1694-1754) wrote one of the earliest tributes to Anne Finch; Tollet was following Finch she felt, but the poem does not suggest any friendship. Here is poem by her from my foremother poet blog about her. You will find there a ballad by Tollet very much in the vein of Finch to Fleming, where Tollet also pays tribute to the importance of friendship for her

Adieu my Friend

Adieu my Friend! and may thy Woes
Be all in long Oblivion lost:
If Innocence can give Repose;
Or gentle Verse can please thy Ghost.
No pious Rite, no solemn Knell
Attended thy belov’d Remains:
Nor shall the letter’d Marble tell
What silent Earth the Charge contains.

Obscure, beneath the nameless Stone,
With thee shall Truth and Virtue sleep:
While, with her Lamp, the Muse alone,
Shall watch thy sacred Dust and weep.

Blue Violets, and Snow-Drops pale,
In pearly Dew for thee shall mourn:
And humble Lillies of the Vale
Shall cover thy neglected Urn.


Angela Kauffman (1741-1807), A girl reading a letter

Ellen

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Faye Castelow as Hellena, Joseph Millson as Willmore and Alexandra Gilbreath as Angellica Bianca in Aphra Behn’s The Rover RSC, 2016

Friends and readers,

My third and last blog on the EC/ASECs conference held last month, virtually. The first centered on the Thursday evening and first panel, Friday morning, where I gave my talk on “A Woman and Her Boxes: Space and Personal Identity.” the second blog included a long talk by the present Senior Curator of Education, Deborah Harper, on a history of collectors’ pianofortes, at the Winterthur Museum. For the the third I cover what papers I heard from Saturday morning until later afternoon. (Unfortunately I had to miss some; the titles of these are found on the website and not included here.) The conference ended with a spell-binding coda speech by Joanne Myers, of Gettysbury College near by, likening each phase of her time enduring the social isolation and closed schools of the pandemic to the phases of Daniel Defoe’s experience of a deadly epidemic in London in his famous partly fictionalized book.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

We began with a book history panel. I heard two of the three papers or talks. Joseph Rudman explained and described the Editing Aphra Behn Website. He had a good deal of praise for E-ABIDA that website, E-APBIDA. He described what was in the site and how it was a useful tool as well as handy modern and extensively informed device. The general aim of this website is to explain the fine new Cambridge edition. Cambridge is publishing an 8 volume edition of Behn’s works at the same time. He offered strong praise for what the website is providing (there are 15 different editors), will apparently carry on doing for a while (as support for the edition) and suggested that it might stir others to do likewise.


One of the Burney diaries covering these court years

Elizabeth Powers’ presented her paper, “Books Do More Than Furnish a Room: Goethe and Burney in Their Father’s Library.” She chose these two authors because she felt they overlapped in time and despite showed how their different parentage and culture and their writing at the end of literary traditions produced a kind of public discourse which all who participate in this discourse can share in. Burney was secretive about her reading while Goethe was open. Burney was educated mostly at home; Goethe sent away to schools. But both kept journals and dramatized themselves differently in these. Burney shows herself embedded in her society; while Goethe is apart, he is interested in developing a style he will use later to legitimize what he writes down autobiographically. (My view is Burney is partly fictionalizing herself and doing it very effectively through the use of novelistic techniques.)

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Jonathan Groff as George III in Hamilton: nowhere as hilarious on video as when he is in person in front of an audience


Whole outfit

For “Theatre things” I again heard two of the three, these both thought-provoking papers. Jason Shaffer in his ““The Coat and The Cockade: Costuming Elements in Early Republican Drama” centered his talk on costume, and its importance, how an audience is led to suspend its disbelief while looking at outrageously amusing or dramatic clothes; they are delighted to believe in what they see. Then on stage familiar objects interact with a fantasy world built around these. He chose to discuss scenes where characters discuss their clothes. A costume endows an actor with the power of the character and theatrical realized dream vision. We also identify the actor as him or herself for real; that’s part of the thrill, and the familiarity. Mrs Siddons playing Lady Macbeth is both herself and Lady Macbeth. He mentioned how brilliant were the costumes in Hamilton; how they functioned as emblems of complex ideas made visceral. Watching theater on a computer at home loses the sense of audacity in the actor; bodies matter. Clothes too. Watching movies without others in the audience diminishes the thrill. He gave various examples of characters from the plays of the era on the English and American stages. Then how advertising pictures serve to reproduce our memories of, or create longing to join in, the live shared experience.


A contemporary cartoon of the Brunswick theater collapsing

Matt Kinservik in his “The Suppression of the Royalty Theatre Reconsidered” taught a somber moral. Basically the original patentees (ownership and control of these goes back to the early Restoration years, and their heirs (or those who had bought the patents and were present owners) allowed the group to build their theater and then insisted it be shut down. Matt named which people were involved, the hard and difficult work (negotiations) required, who went at first to support friends and/or associates and the various phases of hard work (including getting the materials) and then the advertising. And then the dismay when it was clear the law would be enforced, and how much money was lost when the audience so wanted more legitimate theater. The moral was the worst choice was opted for by those with the power to shut the others down: They let them build the house and then cracked down.


A famous travel book, described as a delightful classic, filled with description of flora and fauna

Unfortunately I missed two of the three papers on panel on natural history, in travel and other writing. I came in upon people discussing local birds.

The third talk, by Rodney Mader, was quite different, riveting even. His topic was Bartam’s Travels and Its baggage, a book written by a man who was a quaker scientist influenced by the romantics poets and Wordsworth’s Prelude. Mr Mader talked about a post-humanist perspective he found himself developing during the experience of trying to write about such a book and writer during this pandemic. He felt all the injustice (violence, lies) he was seeing going on around him — politically, economically, socially — estranged him from dealing with the material as it was presented by the people at the time. These were books compiled by people who dispossessed others, their methods were dependent on their power over others so the natural science was imposed. The man studying plants without regard to all that was going on around him was the son of an international merchant, a farmer who worked enslaved people. Wm Bartram himself found he could not drive or control the 6 enslaved people he was given; there is no evidence of what became of them (there were six including one pregnant woman).

Apparently, if you look at history on the Internet that includes Bartram, you can find the people involved in organizations he would have belonged to practiced, were for eugenics, and today present sign identifying themselves as for environmental conservation. An Alabama Heritage site from 2011 celebrates Bartram and other explorers and writers in botany; there is a photo of a Black ornithologist on their website.

The pièce de résistance of the whole conference turned out to be Joanne Myers’s concluding Presidential Address: “My Year of the Plague. She began by telling us she had long admired Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year and had taught it several times. She reread it this past year, and it helped calm her to read the incidents as her and her two daughter’s lives unfolded around them. She worked and taught from home, and taught her daughters too. She delivered a talk whose emotional trajectory followed that of Henry Foe (the chief character of Defoe’s Journal). Her tone was quiet, controlled, intense; she said she seemed to devour space and time in matter of fact prose. She saw the mistrust, the isolation, and sometimes people trying to help one another. At one point she said she was trying to provide service against the terrors’ dislocations. She teaches at Gettysburg herself so was surrounded by pro-Trump types and (I imagine) made the atmosphere everywhere outside her home more fraught. Defoe himself (in my view too) is a de-mystifier; it was noteworthy to her that Defoe remained a private man amid all he recorded.

Next year EC/ASECS hopes to meet for real or physically at the Winterthur museum in Delaware.

Ellen

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