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Archive for the ‘women’s poetry’ Category


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


Virginia Woolf’s writing desk

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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


Fanny Burney, an engraving by John Bogle (1786)

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


An appropriate figure by Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun

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


Rachel Cusk — photograph by Adrian Clarke

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Dahlia Ravikovitch 1997 photograph (1936-2005)

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

Dear readers and friends,

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

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

Hovering at a low altitude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get out of Beirut

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

If you are still reading, two more:

A Mother Walks Around

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

The Story of the Arab who died in the Fire

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

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

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

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

On the Road at Night there stands the man

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

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

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

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

Clockwork Doll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dress of Fire (The Dress)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delight

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

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

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

At Her Own Pace

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

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

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

What a Time She Had!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fruit of the Land

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

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

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

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

Two Isles Hath New Zealand

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

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

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

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

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

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


Al-shifa Hospital, 2014

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

Ellen

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


Nicola Beauman (b. 1944) recently

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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


A photograph from one of the corners of the bookshop

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane (BBC Strong Poison, 1987) — iconic


Viola in Twelfth Night (1970s) — early in her career, a quick poetic presence


As Brutus in Julius Caesar (2012) — more recently

In a context in which unmarried women were viewed as either innocent virgins, whores, or old maids, it was refreshing to play a Beatrice who is sometimes in-between. If she is a virgin, she is not innocent; and her love/hate for Benedick is a long-standing love/hate exclusively reserved for him, therefore she is no whore. Old maid she may be, but her self-professed scorn for the state of marriage and her one-off originality safeguard her from any pity. In my own life I had experience of this fragile state and had occasionally worn a similar masks (Harriet Walter, “Beatrice,” Brutus and Other Heroines)

Friends and readers,

Another of my actress blogs. I’m in the refreshing position of writing about an actress whose work I have long followed, love well, whose face as Harriet Vane I have used as my gravatar on my longest running blog (where I still sign Miss Sylvia Drake, from Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night) — almost all my actress blogs have been about 18th or 19th century British actresses (two exceptions). At the same time she is one of a number of British actresses since the profession began who writes well, about her art, about theater, and playing Shakespeare’s characters — it was such actresses, those who left interesting memoirs (as well as those who went into directing), who have been responsible for the rise in status serious actresses have enjoyed since the later 19th century.

I became aware of how special she was (that it was not just a subjective idiosyncrasy that made me aware of her presence wherever I saw her & would watch more attentively) when I came across her memoir of her time directing and acting in a company of actresses who were doing all female Shakespeare plays: Brutus and Other Heroines (Nick Hern, 2016), wherein she indeed played Brutus and Henry IV (Bolingbroke), not to omit earlier productions where she was Ophelia (early in her career), Helena and Imogen (she is especially proud of these, so more on this just below), Portia, Viola, Lady Macbeth, Beatrice and even Cleopatra. Casting people is an art which does drive down to an archetype they can correspond to (or work against the grain): Michelle Dockery has been Hotspur’s wife, Kate; Keeley Hawes Elizabeth Plantagenet, widow and then wife of Edward IV; Sophie Okonedo, Margaret of Anjou and Cleopatra; Sally Hawkins, Duchess of Gloucester; Penny Downie, Gertrude; Lindsay Doran, Duchess of York, Sinead Cusack, Lady Macbeth (against type) and Judi Dench (defying this, so many).


In this volume she is with Juliet Stevenson the most insightful generally, with Fiona Shaw, the most self-aware (the editor and frequent commentator and voice is that of Faith Evans)

In reviews her performances are singled out, you can find her described individually when she has even a smaller role (nearly consistently in the better ones) — as conveying an intelligent presence, naturally witty, piquant, conveying when she wants a gravitas (and she can walk like a man as well as a Duchess), at times a light poetic presence (when younger), or yearning, recently in the contemporary Killing Eve (rave reviews) she has shown herself up to the hard edginess of a Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect.


Dasha (BBC Killing Eve, 2020) — knowledge of the world making for an underlying melancholy

The trajectory of her career may be seen at wikipedia. She is the daughter of a respected actor, went to and succeeded at demanding academic schools, but preferred drama training to university, even though she had a hard time getting a place until the London Academy of Music and Art accepted her. She was a regular in the troupe with the Royal Shakespeare Company:


Ophelia with Jonathan Pryce as Hamlet (Royal Court Theatre production directed by Richard Eyre 1980)


As Beatrice, coming into her own, consulted in her costume

She was in theater in general for her first ten years, classic and good drama, continuing today; yielding to TV one-off dramas and serials by 1987 (one of her early roles the one I remember first, Harriet Vane — she favored detective heroines, mystery and spy drama even then).  She does what’s called quality drama in the TV serial type: she was powerful as Clementine Churchill burning her husband’s unwanted portrait up after his death:


Clementine Churchill (Netflix The Crown, 2014)

Then she became the present breaker-down of taboos (among other things, playing males); and in these last years, writing, directing and a patron of charities and encouraging young people to enter theater. I just love her appearances in documentaries where she will read exquisitely well deeply effective poetry (as in Simon Schama’s recent The Romantics and Us — along with Tobias Menzies). See her in a series of shots across her career in various roles in costume.

Sandra Richards in her important The Rise of the English Actress, makes Harriet one of her central portraits for recent (20th century) actresses (along with Emma Thompson, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson):

Harriet is one of those successful actresses who used her success to contest stereotyping (sometimes at the risk of being “unpopular on a set”); she also “gravitated towards plays and roles that treat issues on which [she] has strong feelings.” She chose political drama like John Berger and Nella Bielski’s A Question of Geography. A number of the roles she’s taken “question male prerogatives.” She was, early on, cast for one of the apparently most unpopular heroines in Shakespeare’s plays, Helena in All’s Well That Ends Well by Trevor Nunn, and she triumphed as a figure of integrity, deep sense of self and passion, partly thanks to Peggy Ashcroft there as Bertram’s mother, the Countess. She says that she must also in a role “still be identifiable as an ordinary person.” She did very much enjoy playing Harriet Vane, a match in unusual sexiness and intelligence for Edward Petheridge’s Lord Wimsey. In two of these stories, he may save her literally, but it is she who unpicks the case.

In my view she has a real penchant for the Psyche archetype at the core of the female detective story as it used be told.

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

For me Harriet Walter’s writings on her art, how she works to act and what the plays mean are what makes her so special. She has helped to make me look differently at the plays and consider the actresses who dare inhabit Shakespeare’s women. She (and others in Clamorous Women) asks us to imagine what it’s like to be the only one or one of three actresses on a stage doing Shakespeare; of what it feels like when the director and adaptor (there is often an adaptor) are themselves unconscious misogynists, when they direct you with a lack of sympathy towards the character, re-arrange the scenes to make the character less sympathetic, imagine trying to complain! when what you want to do is change the director’s direction, see the character as a woman might.

I think especially in the cases of Helena of All’s Well that Ends Well and Imogen of Cymbeline — that until I read Walter’s comments, I had not realized how horribly both women are treated, especially Imogen who (like Desdemona) is threatened with honor-killing. I realize that in the case of the romance play, Shakespeare is in part following his atavistic and incoherent sources, but it is up to Walter (and her director and other actors) to makes sense of the character. Probably what is most entertaining and fascinating about her books is her analyses of all the characters she discusses (I can see how she would have done very well as an English lit major)– and she writes in the plainest of perceptive language.


Here she is with (as Posthumous) Nicholas Farrell, a superb actor who breaks all stereotypes of macho male, and would be impressive in projecting neuroticism and remorse

It seemed to me for both female characters, Walter’s choice was to imagine them personally courageous and sure of their integrity, and desiring their husband (as one might today desire some profession). Around such a conception she made sense of the roles. For my part I’m with Samuel Johnson and will never “reconcile my heart” to the callow selfish Bertram, but can accept that Helena could value him (and what a marvelous mother she’d get too!). The fairy tale and poetry of Cymbeline enables the reader/watcher to get further on one’s own, and draws us up over life’s irrational deep griefs. What Walter does is step-by-step tell herself (and now write down) what was her whole reaction and the details in it to the other characters’ demands on her. I felt I was rereading Shakespeare’s play from a wholly new angle, as well as how I might come on stage and who is there.

I was much helped by Fletcher’s Honour Killing in Shakespeare, indeed startled as much as I was years ago when I first read Charlotte Lennox’s 18th century Shakespeare Illustrated where Lennox said, why should Hermione rejoice when she’s lost 16 years of her life. Indeed, I had never thought of what was happening truly from the particular heroine’s POV. Who wants to spend 16 years in a dark room.

Honour-Killing in Shakespeare is not just how horrible is the behavior of all these males towards Hero (Much Ado About Nothing) but a reading of Hero’s lines which shows she is really attracted to Don Pedro, not keen on Claudio and who would be. A careful reading not only of the plays where the equivalent of honor-killing goes on, but the treatment of the women in the history plays (Henry VI had a number of complex fascinating women, an analysis of further story matter which suggests the paradigm in Shakespeare’s mind was not Eve but Susannah, falsely suspected, deceived, and ostracized by the males in her community is a core icon/myth for Shakespeare. Fletcher wants us to see that not only is Shakespeare not on the side of or indifferent to the misogyny of some of his material, but feminist himself (or proto-) in plays like As You Like It (Rosalind), Twelfth Night (Maria is as much an intelligent woman as Olivia is at least able to cope with her household when she puts her mind to it. What is supportive about this book is it close reads in the traditional readerly sense and then you can turn back to these actresses trying to cope with their parts (and other people coping with theirs and the whole theater/film crew). The book is so refreshing; even when you cringe or wince over plays like Titus Andronicus (the Philomel stories) you are asked to see what you are seeing as a woman might. I still am not sure that Shakespeare does not find Gertrude complicit (and cowardly, evasive) rather than drawn along, but the whole context of the world at that court is what you must account for.

True, there is nothing as clearly on the side of real women in the world of the early 16th century as in the tragedy of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (whom Harriet Walter has played). A moment of joy with her steward, now husband Antonio, and many hours (it feels like later) strangled for it by her brother.

I did find Walter’s reasoning over the treatment of Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew not persuasive — especially as I have read and seen Fletcher’s Jacobean The Tamer Tamed, where in fact the women are vindicated (I cannot recommend too strongly reading this play, in print, and seeing it if it should ever come near you — the RSC brought it to the Kennedy Center one year). It is also hard to make sense of Isabella in Measure for Measure, especially in context. Walter and other of the actresses are not beyond special pleading. To return to Clamorous Voices, I did find Sinead Cusack’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth as sensually in love with her husband, attached to him, making up for having no children left, and Juliet Stevenson’s ambivalent driving passion more gripping than the reasonable voices I’ve been following. But as each woman adds to a new way of reading Shakespeare, we can try to enable others to see with us when part of an audience, or teaching — or writing of one of his plays.

But I have digressed too far. This blog is a salute to Harriet Walter’s art as an actress so let me end here on her art as a comedienne: she steals the show, forever after filling the shoes (to use her word) of the bitingly hilariously selfish Fanny Dashwood in one of my favorite Austen films, the 1996 Sense and Sensibility (scripted by Emma Thompson):


“People live forever when there is an annuity to be paid them.”

Ellen

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I have listened to Nadia May (Wanda MacCadden is an alternative pseudonym) read aloud Jacob’s Room & find this the most appropriate of all the covers I’ve seen for this book

Friends and readers,

Last Saturday I had the privilege of listening to Alison Hennegan give a talk that took well over an hour on Jacob’s Room for the new Cambridge online (virtual) lecture series on the works of Virginia Woolf. Woolf and her writing is not the only topic Cambridge is developing different streams for: an upcoming one starting in spring is to be about Women Writers.  It includes May Sinclair (Life and Death of Harriet Frean), Sylvia Townsend Warner (Lolly Willowes), Elizabeth Bowen (The House in Paris), Rosamond Lehmann (Dusty Answers), 10 women authors altogether, 10 books; there is to be one on Jane Austen. I gather there are series organized around topics (I attended a separate virtual conference on African Literature this morning), courses, single books, themes. If this one by Prof (I assume) Hennegan is typical of the close reading, and the one on African Literature (about the history of publication in all its phases and angles), I wish I had the time and money to go to many many. A friend told me the sessions on Woolf’s Voyage Out and Night and Day were as stunningly insightful.

It’s my experience when I go to listen to a lecture or am part of a class, if I can take good notes and transcribe them afterwards I understand and remember so much more — of, barring that since I no longer can take down in sten what is said, get a copy of the papers at least, make concrete and centrally coherent some of what I remember, what I learned becomes part of my mental universe. Alas, there will be no copies of papers because they wouldn’t want to share individual ideas without the kind of credit accounting that is given someone when they publish conventionally (the peer-edited journal, the book published by the respected or university press). There was a hand-out sent by attachment, and at first I tried to take notes, but it became too much, and I was losing what she was saying as I struggled to catch up with what she had said. Now that I am aware of what are the obstacles (as it were) and what I should try to do, maybe I’ll somehow take out more in future as I’ve signed up for Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and closer to the time mean to sign up for some of the women writers and their novels.

Here I want to say that she was offering a way of reading Jacob’s Room which went past or ignored the problem of Woolf’s lack of interest in creating vivid living characters so that the text seems filled with memorable people who carry the meaning of the text, embody its themes, shape the inferences and what we learn from the book. She was moving at the level of utterances. She began with general remarks and the sort of summarizing of general themes one does with any novel discussion. So she said Jacob’s Room was Woolf’s first fully experimental novel. She characterized it as “an elegy to Woolf’s brother, Thoby, dead at 26, an elegy with a ghost of a man at its center; a death-haunted novel, which opens with Betty, Thoby’s mother, writing a letter filled with grief, loss, as she is a recent widow. I know when I wrote of this novel on this blog I emphasized how no-one I had read wrote about the book as a novel with a widow at its center, beginning, carrying on and ending with her. To this Prof Hennegan added that it is filled with vulnerable women, several of whom Jacob has liasions of different kinds but to none of them does he give of himself for real or truly. We are made to pick up the suggestions about their absent presences. The novel is filled with presences who are not quite there.

Prof Hennegan suggested that we might take Jacob’s Room to be a reply to Katherine Mansfield who criticized Night and Day for failing to address the war. Jacob’s Room showed is engendered by and continually aware of this war: we are watching this or these (Jacob’s friends and companions) young men, upper class, being exquisitely prepared, for professions, for leading a nation of peoples, for art, for invention, from academic to social education, from travel to building homes, lives for themselves end simply slaughtered senselessly — insofar as any true interest of their own. She thought one redemptive them is art outlast human life; art is the means by which human life is extended. The theme of education is central; she writes a prose thickly laden with literary allusion. Women in the book are presented as weak, unknowable and ultimately terrifying to men who however have all the power to do things women do not. She thought D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster have similar views. (I disagree that Forster presents women this way, but D.H. Lawrence might — to me DHL sees women as objects for men to fuck).

She felt the natural world is strong throughout the novel, that we watch boundaries between phenomena dissolve, everything intertwined, what people feel, do, do think, all dissolve. In my comment to her (which we were encouraged to write in the chat area) I offered the idea that I found in Woolf’s words and all they conjure up (characters, things, events) levels of past suggested, so that we continually find ourselves plunging into older and older eras, and then can leap to the present, that the words also take seriously the tiniest little object or piece of life and perceive it as attached to the largest and just as important and through our apprehension of this as we read the paragraphs we move through time and space sensually — geologic as well as historical, cultural, geographic, geologic. She appeared to like my idea, and I told of how hard it was to make people in a class like Woolf, enjoy her and that I tried to attach this texture of Woolf’s — which I found very emphatic but also tied to characters and stories in Jacob’s Room, The Years and Between the Acts. I had tried to make them see this and appreciate the texture by the students’ strong tendency to read looking for people or events that spoke to them in their lives. But as we talked (this was only a couple of minutes as she went on to the next person’s comment) and she said reading aloud Woolf was the best way to enjoy her, or imaginatively reading aloud slowly, I remembered this summer how well the short fiction had seemed to come across when I read it aloud and really emphasized close reading the utterances for themselves. Just bringing this home to myself made the two hours very worth while.

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


Roger Fry, Carpentras, Provence (1930) — I include pictures by Bloomsbury artists, which I find consonant with Woolf’s fiction

In the body of her talk, Prof Hennegan went over various critics’ reactions to Jacob’s Room, and used these as jumping off points occasionally to show how the given critic was looking for something that Woolf did not want to supply, but more often how what they did write was perspicacious. W.J. Courtney thought Woolf unlike any other writer except Dorothy Richardson, in the discernment of nuances of character, “keen discernment of those small, inessential things which go to the making of a life … scores again and again. Her art is “impressionist” and influenced by “jazz”! (“in its tense syncopated movements, its staccato impulsiveness”). Gerald Gould found “beauty,” “lyrical passages — one, in particuar, about crossing Waterloo Bridge in a wind: she can make us feel what she calls ‘the ecstasy and hubbub of the soul'”. He did feel Woolf wrong not to help “the simple-minded reader” to make “connexions” in the fiction “clear.” An anonymous reviewer complains of “no narrative, no design above all, no perspective: [the book’s] dissolving views come before us one by one, each taking the full light for a moment, then vanishing completely.” Vanessa Bell’s cover illustrations were not liked because it did not represent anything seen in the novel. She included all Leonard Woolf’s notes on how many copies were printed by Hogarth Press, after the second impression how many had sold altogether, how much money they made on the book: £42 4s 6d which would today be
£2,402.32

Then 14 passages from the novel were discussed as examples of her techniques, themes, modes — on the ram’s skull; Mr and Mrs Plumer; women in King’s College Chapel; Betty Flanders pondering the nature of her dead husband; the problems of gender, the effect of sex … ; Sopwith entertaining graduates in his room, then years later these men, now mature, remember Sopwith; Jacob’s view of Florinda; an insoluble problem of beauty, in Florinda; the light over King’s Collee Chapel, the Women’s College garden at night; the poignant closing paragraph and sentence of the novel. She repeatedly came back to showing how boundaries of all sorts in the book dissolve away. I shall save these to study — I suppose the method is rather like Matthew Arnold’s “touchstones.”

I suppose I can bring forward here what I wrote elsewhere in this blog on the book when I first finished it:

Jacob’s Room begins as a widow’s story. No where is this mentioned in the literature. Mrs Betty Flanders’ husband died in an accident it feels like years ago, leaving her with three children — one so young it cannot have been that many years. But we are made to feel her husband’s death happened a long while ago to her. She is in Cornwall for the holidays and writing a Captain friend, Barfoot (he’s married so safe) in Scarborough. There is a painter about whom Woolf writes in similar ways to what she says of Lily Briscoe, color, and lonely people who don’t fit in: Mr Steele. On the beach, a little later Mrs Flanders hears the waves, the ship — her husband died of an accident at sea. We are told he left her impoverished, but Woolf’s idea of poverty is different from some of us it seems. She has a nanny, doesn’t cook her own supper, doesn’t have to work for money. But she is at a great loss with these boy children, hanging from her….

Woolf continually moves from inward presence to inward presence and by so doing uncovers a real feeling of living life which includes sex bought from prostitutes by our hero. Many of the presences come from utterly different classes in different areas of life. We also experiencing Jacob in a large variety of social worlds and deeds. Suddenly too the narrator will go into deep dream time on the place where the narrative has settled and allude way back in time so it becomes a movement through centuries, deep history embedded in people today One aristocratic lady likes such-and-such food because her ancestors have been enjoying it since their death, this partial recreation. The novel of manners or social life is left far behind.

Jacob’s Room is as de-centered as un-heroic as Roger Fry (her biography) as de-centered as The Waves, Between the Acts. While we can believe in Jacob, he is just a center knob in a wheel where all the spokes — all the many living presences and places come out of. I just love how he loves and thinks in terms of the Greek classics. This morning I listened to how Woolf manages to bring in tandem a sense of a desperately homeless (near) prostitute trying to get into the house where Jacob lives and other street people and the people at a party he went to — when he came home he thought how delightful to be with 10 new people (themselves beautifully captured), and we find a long reverie on the books at the British library, all by men, Jacob is spending his evening’s reading.

3/4’s through I began to worry about Jacob. I’ve read somewhere that he dies at the end — perhaps that’s why people say (carelessly) this book is about her brother. Jacob is the central node of the book, but it is in space equally about many people whom he comes across and spends time with. Especially women who are vulnerable. I am so touched with those women Jacob goes to bed with — this is indicated discreetly. They are the models paid to strip naked by his friends or at the Slade: ignorant, even dumb, without a chance in the world for respect or security or comfort. Prostitutes. His mother, the widow, whom the book opened with hardly goes any where in her life, hardly meets anyone outside her narrow class sphere and local area.

By near the end of the book Jacob has fallen in love with a married woman he meets while touring, but he has not connected deeply with anyone (not her either). He is not married. It’s hinted people think he’s homosexual and he writes to a male friend Bonamy. I can’t see any other ending but death. Probably in World War One. The book takes place just earlier. At the end of The Voyage Out Rachel dies. In the middle of To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay dies, and in the last third we are told of three other deaths of characters who meant something. I wonder if anyone has written about this urge to death in Woolf’s novels — probably, this one seems the saddest of all. We cherish this character as we are told his close friends do. Others say he is the best person they ever met. He never hurts anyone. He has truly intelligent (sceptical) attitudes towards politics. Acts with compassion and courtesy. The book is about life itself as a stream of feeling; she feels equally intense over say a crab or some other creature endlessly trying to say jump over something and it cannot.

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Carrington, The Baroque Harmony in the ice off the Labrador Coast, Tinsel in Glass (1929) =- part of the strange beauties in The Voyage Out are Woolf’s descriptions of the South American land- and seascapes our characters encounter

I wish Cambridge would put online the lectures on The Voyage Out and Night and Day that I missed. Since I can find nothing on Prof Hennegan’s lecture on Night and Day that seems to me interesting, let me say briefly it is much better until the very end (when there is a jejeune depiction of a love proposal and courtship so hot-house, idealized, naive, I was embarrassed by it), with some of the most interesting parts, the Mary Datchett story (a spinster who loves the hero and is carving out a life for herself dedicated to liberal political causes), Ralph Denham’s character and world (modelled on Leonard Woolf), and the meditations (in effect) on the problems of writing biography (the heroine, Katherine Hilbury is said to be helping her mother write a biography of her father, now dead, once a super-respected poet. I am very much looking forward to the the lectures I’ll go to on Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

Ellen

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Elizabeth Bishop and her cat in a car

Dear friends and readers,

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

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


Daisies in Paintbucket

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

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

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Again with her cat

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

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

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

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

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


South National Mall, Washington, D.C. 1863

From Trollope’s Journal

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

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

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

Paris, 7 A.M.

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

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

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

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

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

And this Sonnet (1928)

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

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

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

Ellen

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I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –-
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
— Emily Dickinson


Claire (Caitriona Balfe) in her surgery (Outlander, Season 5)


After she is gang-raped in the 12th episode — she does need Jamie (Sam Heughan) to enable her to live the life she wants safely in the 18th century: without him, she would not last a month, and he would be lost without her, Brianna and now Roger …

Dear friends and readers,

A note to say I’ve not given up blogging on this site, but I am in an interim. I am slowing down and the teaching I am doing, classes I am following are taking up what strength and energy I have and so have put aside for now blogs on women poets (next up will be Elizabeth Bishop), painters (Tina Blau who paints just during the later 19th and early 20th century where I find so many women painters whose work deeply appeals to me), and actresses (next up a contemporary, Harriet Walter). I am instead working on a few related projects.

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Sometimes this is called Into the Light (on Tina Blau)

I’ve started new or renewed older projects. Sometimes I forge ahead for a whole day, often at night. Once again I have watched and loved an Outlander season, 5, taken mostly from The Fiery Cross, with some material from A Breath of Snow and Ashes. The film-makers have brilliantly transposed the best in this fifth Outlander boo, and so consistently beautifully, I’m tempted to say it’s the best season since the first. I’ve found two academic essays, a book, and mean to start blogging soon.

My ideas for my Poldark book have morphed to what I can do and it will be a book finally on historical romances, arguing for the value of these two, and perhaps a selection of others which enter into the point of view in these two series of books and in the Outlander films that I love so much. I want also to dwell on Cornwall & like marginalized “edge” places.


The journey from Norland to Barton Cottage for the Dashwoods (from the 2009 Sense and Sensibility)

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I am again watching the Austen movie canon, and recently finished three of the earlier BBC TV serial type versions: the familial drama, with love stories at the center: the 1971 Sense and Sensibility, the 1971 Persuasion, and the 1972 Emma. I am getting my act together on the ways in which they resemble one another, their real successes in conveying faithfully the inner world of these three novels.


Patricia Rutledge as the deliciously funny, rowdy and intrusive but well-meaning Mrs Jennings (1971 S&S, scripted Constantduros)

They do have the depth of emotion that are required and also the comedy — in the 1971 S&S, Patricia Rutledge is the most brilliant Mrs Jenkins I’ve ever seen and Fiona Walk the same for her highly sexualized Mrs Elton. What unites them is a real faithfulness to the literal as well as the true thematic emphases of Austen’s books — when in the 1971 Persuasion Wentworth (Bryan Marshall (who now I think of it played Rochester in a similarly early and very good Jane Eyre) arrives and the two actors silently interact — they are very strong presence and then the film opens out — so to speak. Out in the landscapes and gardens of some southern parts of England. The script is enough to convey the original tone and feel of the book, and it even gets better when they go perhaps to Lyme itself (they seem to on the cobb), lots of filming of the waters, the sky … No one has had the guts to present the hard ironized view of Emma as a bully, snob, and guarded when it comes to heterosexual sex that Glenister and Constantduros did in 1972.  No one played it as exquisitely lightly as Doran Goodwin.


Emma (Doran Goodwin) beginning to be aware she has made of Mr Elton an aggressive suitor (1972 Emma, scripted also by Constantduros)

The movies for cinema have still been mostly of the screwball (from the 1940s MGM Pride and Prejudice, to the 1996 Clueless and latest Emma travesty) to eye-candy (1996 McGrath Emma (Gweneth Paltrow starring) and 2016 Whit Stillman Love and Friendship (mistitled), to wild mis- and effective cultural appropriations, e.g., 2004 Bride and Prejudice (Gurinder Chadha), the 2010 queering of making violent Jane Austen and Zombies (Graham-Smith) ….

I could do it by source: watch all the Persuasions in a row, all the NAS — the problem would be there have been so many P&Ps, S&Ss, and now Emmas (with that last cinema travesty returning to screwball burlesque, with a coda of absurdly sexualized soppy romance). But this would turnup less general insights though perhaps more about the individual Jane Austen novels …

I carry on working on my review of a book on Jane Austen and the arts.

I am seeing the book as a whole as indicative of the state of Jane Austen studies today: Particular sub-theses: yet another set of writings doused in hagiography, uncritical celebration over the reality underneath the reach of Austen’s celebrity and the money-making powers of her name … sleight-of-hand and strained language to attach Austen to religious movements, areas of knowledge, and popular or super-respected artists, interesting in themselves but having nothing to do with anything truly present in her fiction, novels or life … A group of words which refers to a set of particulars in characters and stories … are replaced by words from a set of concept drawn from legal philosophy … Scholars work very diligently on the most unforthcoming bits of text … extravagant improbable assertions of flawlessness and originality …

I won’t write separate a blog on this material. It is too demoralizing: how lightly Virginia Woolf managed to pass over the “mendacious” (her word) Hill book on Jane Austen and her Home and Friends [actually houses she dwelt in] …., when I think about it I think how several of these essays could have made such fine books if not so inappropriately justified with skewed perspectives. In his skimmingly light analysis of the misreading of Austen today, Louis Menand of the New Yorker does not begin to go into nonsense, scams, delusions

I read or tried to read Kipling’s “Janeites” in context for the first time: it was published in a series of rabidly imperialist sketches of soldiers’, colonialists, Indian natives’ lives between 1882 and 1889:

Well, I’m thinking it may be be totally ironic. I know the jist: it tells of these soldiers who read Jane Austen because she is such a comfort when you are fighting and killing and dying. Could it be that Kipling meant to mock the growing cult that had begun with the publication of Austen’s nephew’s memoir, rightly sent up by Henry James because it had been taken up by publishers who witnessed the sudden sales of Austen’s novels read in this sentimental way. The illustrations by Hugh Thompson clinched this.

If so, he had failed utterly because it is usually read straight and to tell the truth it seems to me that the text won’t support the idea it is a mockery. It goes on too long. It is too affectionate. When you write satire or burlesque you need to play fair and indicate this somehow. When you don’t, you end up like Defoe after he wrote The Shortest Way with Dissenters — exterminate them! – in a pillory and parts of your body broken.

But Kipling’s story has been ever so convenient for today’s worshipful misreadings

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While I also work as best I can on my review of the new standard edition of Anne Finch’s poetry (much to re-read and consider), I am again reading about what is specific to women’s poetry, more than one book, and how the women poets from the 17th through 21st century mine the same extraordinary terrain. Just now I’m reading Dwelling in Possibility: Women Poets and Critics on Poetry, edd. Yopie Prins and Maera Shreiber and Readings in Renaissance Women’s Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance 1594-1998, edd. S.P. Certasano and Marion Wynne-Davies.

Dwelling in Possibility turns out to be a sincerely thought out book on the state of thinking today on women writers by feminists and people who study women’s literature (not always the same group). I am so pleased to have explained to me and put together the very different strands of feminist outlooks studying women’s books today — including the “long” poem and why when it’s by women it seems to bore a lot of readers; and the sonnet or love lyric, and why it has been marginalized — a private world — and often dealt with as fictional (these are all conventions &c — when the men write them). Finch tried to write long poems and she wrote love lyrics (if not sonnets) and she attempted to feminize those male genres she was brave enough to write in, writing love lyrics from her own vulnerable point of view. It would seem that while much closer to the manuscripts Dickinson left than Johnson’s edition, Franklin is not true to their incoherent (they are crowded together sometimes, go to the end of page) and half-wild appearance. They are written in her heart’s blood.

Especially insightful is Claudia Thomas’s Alexander Pope and his 18th century women readers. She is far more truthful than the present Finch scholars in showing how ambivalent and estranged was Finch’s relationship to Pope as at the same time Finch participated in admiring and exchanging sentiments with a man who (like Rousseau) paid women the compliment by paying attention to and speaking to them through his translations and epistolary verse.

Readings in Renaissance Women’s Drama manages to convince me that these early plays by women are of interest — one essay by Wynne-Davies herself (now I have seen her in a Future Learn on the Sidneys which dwelt on Mary Herbert Sidney’s play, The Tragedie of Antony (he of Cleopatra fame), and Mary Sidney Lady Wroth’s play, Love’s Victorie — is about what it must have been like to write such plays in vast country houses during times of court exile and also war. She reminded me of what DuMaurier’s imagines of Menabilly (a great house in an estate) during the time of the 17th century civil war (The King’s General) — DuMaurier’s book connects back. Finch wrote hers from the seclusion of a great house too, and to protect herself from jeering and abrasion and probably scolding while she was deeply depressed –at least when around others.


Derek Jacobi and Eileen Atkins in a long ago production of Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning (alluded to centrally in one of Winston Graham’s mysteries)

I doubt there are ten people in the world who might understand why I find such joy and peace when I am engaged in reading about earlier (in time) and learned women’s poetry, drama, novels and memoirs and some of these themselves.  Or watching older and costume drama movies.

(Maybe there might be a few more who would understand my similar feelings for reading Trollope, whose books I teach regularly; I am also looking forward to V.S Naipaul’s A Bend in the River this term as part of a class on Kipling and colonialism (whence my reading “Janeites” in context). One of my favorite contemporary books by men is his The Enigma of Arrival. It’s not coincidence this more understandable escape is art by men.)

My context: during this pandemic and under the vicious rhetoric and violence of the Trump junta I feel I am living in retreat from a full-scale war on all decent ordinary people.

‘We are all offending every moment of our lives.’ — Marianne Dashwood, Austen’s S&S (1:13)

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


Harriet Walter as Harriet Vane in Strong Poison (according to Francesca Wade in one review the character was called a Bloomsbury bluestocking … she is my gravatar or image for my first old Sylvia I blog)

Ellen

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A miniature portrait of Anne Finch when still young

You, when your body, life shall leave
Must drop entire, into the grave;
Unheeded, unregarded lie,
And all of you together, die;
Must hide that fleeting charm, that face in dust,
Or to some painted cloth, the slighted Image trust.
Whilst my famed works, shall through all times surprise,
My polished thoughts, my bright ideas rise,
And to new men be known, still talking to your eyes.
— in imitation of a fragment of Sapho’s

Friends and readers,

Well it was on June 30, 2020 that I posted a description of the four major sources of Anne Finch’s poetry as the foundation for my review of the new standard edition of her poetry by Jennifer Keith (and others), the opening of summer and hoped that in a few days I would post a description of the several other sources of her poetry that are known today. It’s now September, end of summer, with days shortening, temperatures dropping some, fall on the way. I have worked on and off all summer on this and (about a month and a half later) another review of an anthology of essays on Jane Austen and the arts. (I did teach and worked on projects, read with friends on line, wrote on the Net daily.) My problem with the review is the same: I have not the second volume, and thus many of the questions I have about the first I am told are answered in the second.

Some fundamental disagreements have led me to go back to all my original material so I can work from these if I must concentrate on just the one volume — I’ve very much enjoyed some of this because I’ve read in Anne’s sources for poetry (she writes many translations, imitations from the French as well as Italian, not to omit the Bible and fables), about women’s plays in the era, poetry by her women contemporaries, a few known to her and a few her friends. These sources are often printed texts by other people or individuals. For this blog I describe the other manuscripts and printed books which contain further poems by Anne Finch which are not found in the major four sources or are found in different forms. I re-read and/or skimmed the books and articles I knew of, and read carefully for the first time the articles that have been printed since, especially a couple by Keith (which I found to be very good).

I’m nonetheless especially troubled by Keith’s refusal to accept as by Anne Finch unattributed poems outside the acknowledged sources, even where there is good evidence and several people (besides me) have argued in print are by her. I assume they do not print these at all in the second volume (as they do not print any in the first). On this what I can say is this erasure and refusal makes my site not obsolete; it is and will for some time still perform its original purpose: to add to Myra Reynolds 1903 edition (drawn from 3 sources, MS Northampton or FH 283, MS Folger, 1713 Miscellany, plus what she knew of of the minor others sources) and the Hinnant-McGovern edition of the MS Wellesley what cannot be easily found otherwise.

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Eastwell Manor (as it’s now called) today

The question is, what order should I list these sources in? group them as manuscript and then printed book? and within that, which seems the most important — to include poems clearly by her, some of which are remarkably good and/or interesting? in chronological order insofar as we can tell when they were produced or printed, or insofar as we can tell whether the poems by her found in them are early or late. On my site I attempted chronological order of their production/printing even if the book or ms appeared or was made late and still contains an earlier poem by Finch. I couldn’t tell when a manuscript was begun to finished so if it contained an early poem by her I listed it early. I’ll repeat that though it obscures interesting thematic connections as it’s the least subjective way of doing it.

Click on the links as you go because I have not written out all over again the detailed information on my website but linked it in here. This is the summary of all the findings from the minor sources that I neglected to write up in one convenient place at the time Jim and I built the website and I put all the materials I had on it. You will find some fine poetry by Anne and links to further poetry placed in the alphabetical index on the website.

I begin with a text and source and book I didn’t know of until I began this review, it is one that Keith will not accept as by Anne Finch:


From a modern production of Venus and Adonis — this is a highly sexual sensual work of art (see other images)

1683, an anonymous libretto for John Blow’s Venus and Adonis, a pastoral opera-like masque, French influenced, nowadays an online copy exists; the scholarly edition and everything about this piece you might want to know, especially if you are interested in its probably author, Anne Finch, may be found in James Winn’s “A Versifying Maid of Honor:” Anne Finch and the Libretto for Venus and Adonis, The Review of English Studies, 59:238 (2008):67-85.

1693, The Female Vertuosos by Thomas Wright, with a dedication to Charles Finch, third Earl of Winchilsea (Heneage & Anne’s nephew): 1 song, “For the soft Joys of Love no longer last”

1696 Miscellanea Sacra or POEMS on DIVINE & MORAL SUBJECTS. Collected by N. Tate, Servant to His Majesty. “Tis not that which First we Love,/But what Dying we approve”: Mr. Waller. London. Printed for Hen. Playfor in the Temple Change in Fleet Street. MCDXCVI. 12 poems set off from the others surrounding them by style and topic. After the 6th, the printer suddenly skips the “by the same hand”, and then returns to it for the eighth. Six are found in the manuscripts; I am firmly convinced the 6 others are also by her

1701 A New Miscellany of Original Poems On Several Occasions. Written by the E. of D., Sir Charles Sidley, Sir Fleetw. Shepheard, Mr Wolesly, Mr Granvill, Mr Dryden, Mr Stepney, Mr. Rowe. And several other Eminent Hands. Never before Printed. London. Printed for Peter Buck, at the Sign of the Temple in Fleet Street; and George Strahan at the Golden Ball over against the Royal Exchange in Cornhill. 1701. Attributed to Charles Gilden. According to Cameron, this volume appeared in July 1701. The editor could have equally been Nicholas Rowe, friend to Anne.

A very important and curiously put together anthology (someone has pulled sheets from it). There are 7 poems by her here, one deliberately (mis)attributed to Charles Finch (“The First Edilium of Bion”), and one anonymous (“The Retirement”). 2 more may be by her (To Mr Granville, A Dialogue). Several poems by Rowe, one to Catherine Fleming (Flavia) praising Finch’s “Spleen.” John Irwin Fisher has persuasively argued that the Bion translation from the French is by Anne Finch, “‘In Pity to the emptying Town,’ Who’s Who, Where’s What, and Who’s the Poet,” Reading Swift: Papers from the Fifth Muenster Symposium on Jonathan Swift, ed. Hermann J. Real (Muenchen: Wilhelm Fink, 2008):286-305; Iola Williams, Some poetical miscellanies of the early 18th century, The Library 4:10 (1929):233-37

MS Portland, Vols 19 & 20. Vol 19: 5 poems by Anne, one found no where else, written in her own hand, profoundly depressed (“The long the long expected Hour is come” — the visit was too short, Lady Worsley hurried away). These are earlier or pre-1713 Miscellany poems; this has the better version of “I on Myself Can Live.” Vol 20: 3 by her, possibly a 4th; my guess is these come post-1713 Miscellany or later in her life (when generally more cheerful)

1714 POETICAL MISCELLANIES, Consisting of ORIGINAL POEMS AND TRANSLATIONS by the best Hands. Published by MR. STEELE. LONDON: Printed for JACOB TONSON at Shakespear’s Head over-against Catherine-street in the Strand. MDDCXIV. 7 poems by Anne. Nos 1, 3-5, 7-9. No 11 (an 8th, and Sapho poem) possibly by her, and Nos 6 & 10 also. One poem to Catherine Fleming (Flavia)

MS Additional 4457: 7 poems by Anne. Around the time of the 1713 Miscellany, one dated 1715. This has a better version of the Twelfth Night poem. 2 appeared in Birch.

1717 Poems on Several Occasions, published by Bernard Lintot, London. Reprinted 1935, Pope’s Own Miscellany, edited by Norman Ault. Of 89 poems, 9 are by Mrs. Finch, 1 is placed separately, then 6 (1st calls her Mrs. FINCH, the third Lady WINCHELSEA), then an eighth attributed to her as Mrs. Finch, probably therefore an earlier poem by her which Pope took from a different manuscript collection. 3 to or for Pope. Especially beautiful “An Invocation to the southern Winds inscrib’d to the right honourable CHARLES Earl of WINCHELSEA, at his Arrival in LONDON, after having been long detained on the coast of HOLLAND” By the honourable Mrs. FINCH, pp. 118-123, found nowhere else.

MS Harleian 7316 10 poems by Anne, not all firmly attributed. Nos 1-3, 5, 9-10, 12-15. 3 poems to Catherine Fleming.

MS F-H 282, Heneage’s diary, written into a 1723 almanac. 1 poem. “A Fragment of a dessign’d Poem upon Pitty, found in a little paper written with in her own hand:’Pitty, the softest Attribute Above,’ unfinished, among her last verses. Very touching his copying it out side-ways 3 years after she died.

1724 The Hive. A Collection of the Most Celebrated Songs. Reprinted a number of times. No new poems, but found among others by Finch (attributed elsewhere) are Love’s Relief (also unattributed in 1714 Steele), 1 from M Harleian I find uncertain, and ‘Ye lads and lasses that live at Longleat’, pp. 262-4 (in MS 28101, it resembles her gay ballad to Catherine Fleming).

MS Additional 28101. 1 poem. On a Gentleman’s sitting upon a lady’s Cremona fiddle, pp. 262-64, “Ye lads and ye lasses that live at Longleat …” Possibly by Anne (see directly above).

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One of the source books Anne Finch poured over: Madame Dacier’s brief essay on and translations from what was known of Sappho

Now here I bring together these printed books and manuscripts, with attributed and unattributed poems by Anne Finch (and a couple mis-attributed, as by Charles Finch or by a young child) in them all; some found in the major 4 sources or sources here (with attribution material), some found nowhere else; I see that in fact the number is not overwhelming. They are deal-able with. Having made this list in a single page format is firm groundwork, which will help enable me review the Keith volume.

There are 13 volumes, of which 7 are printed books, and 6 manuscripts. My hunch is except for the Bion (which is after all somewhat tedious), Keith will accept and print all the beautiful and fine long poems here not found elsewhere when the biographical information surrounding and connecting them to Anne Finch is indisputable, e.g, to Lady Worsley, to Charles Finch, to Catherine Fleming), but not reprint in the standard edition some of the shorter lovely lyrics and a couple of the earlier highly autobiographical seemingly religious meditations (especially 2 in the Tate). This will be a loss because the songs read differently in the earlier context (make more sense), and they help tell us about why Anne developed into a depressive person.

I could make a blog listing all the anthologies that Finch’s poetry has appeared in over the years and which ones, but I doubt anyone is that interested in the history of the printing of her poems — Keith’s second volume contains an essay which appears to be based on a study of this anthology tradition, which I assume will be accurate.

I will make a blog about her sources, for the sake of bringing out what she read and how large the number of her works are derived from her works (translations). She lived among books and landscapes, imagined and real. She also kept her memories and her latest poetry is embedded in the imagery and art and experience of her youth before and moving into her worst depressive years (mid-1690s to 1702 or so). But there is no hurry on this.

I will say this refusal of Keith’s suggests a lack of any realization or feeling for the woman’s real life and the deeply personal sources of her poetry, or deliberate turning away in order to not allow Finch to be seen as “not strong,” as a “victim.” All that can be allowed as an excuse is (ironically) her political allegiances. Reynolds did embrace a perception for real of Finch’s personality, understood sources of what’s still sometimes called her romantic verse. I shall write about this de-personalization as an insistent erasure that disables us from making a consistent and vivid sense of Finch’s life and work.  It is only by facing the full woman that we can take in the full resonances of such a poem as the following free translation, adaptation.

The Goute and Spider. A Fable. Imitated from Mon sr de la Fontaine And Inscribed to Mr Finch After his first Fitt of that Distemper

When from th’infernal pit two Furies rose
One foe to Flies, and one to Mans repose,
Seeking aboue to find a place secure
Since Hell the Goute nor Spider cou’d endure.
On a rich Pallace at the first they light
Where pleas’d Arachne dazzl’d with the sight
In a conspiccuous corner of a Room
The hanging Frett work makes her active Loom.
From leaf to leaf with every line does trace,
Admires the strange convenience of the place,
Nor can belieue those Cealings e’re were made
To other end than to promote her Trade.
Where prou’d and prosper’d in her finish’d work,
The hungry Fiend does in close Ambush lurk,
Until some silly Insect shall repay
What from her Bowells she has spun that day.
The wiser Gout (for that’s a thinking ill)
Observing how the splended chambers fill
With visitors such as abound below
Who from Hypocrates and Gallen grow
To some unwealthy shed resolues to fly
And there obscure and unmolested lye.
But see how eithers project quickly fails:
The Clown his new tormentor with him trayles
Through miry ways, rough Woods and furrow’d Lands,
Never cutts the Shooe nor propp’d in Crutches stands,
With Phoebus rising stays with Cynthia out,
Allows no respitt to the harass’d Gout.
Whilst with extended broom th’unpittying maid
Does the transparent Laberynth invade
Back stroke and fore the battering Engin went
Broke euery Cord and quite unhing’d the Tent.
No truce the tall Virago e’re admitts
Contracted and abash’d Arachne’ sits.
Then in conuenient Time the work renews
The battering Ram again the work persues.
What’s to be done? The Gout and Spider meet,
Exchange, the Cottage this; That takes the feet
Of the rich Abbott who that Pallace kept,
And ’till that time in Velvet Curtains slept.
Now Colwort leaves and Cataplasms (thô vain)
Are hourly order’d by that griping traine,
Who blush not to Prescribe t’exhaust our Gold
For aches which incurable they hold.
Whil’st stroak’d and fixt the pamper’d Gout remains
And in an easy Chair euer the Preist detains.
In a thatched Roof secure the Spider thrives
Both mending by due place their hated liues
From whose succeeding may this moral grow
That each his propper Station learn to know.
For You, my Dear, whom late that pain did seize
Not rich enough to sooth the bad disease
By large expenses to engage his stay
Nor yett so poor to fright the Gout away:
May you but some unfrequent Visits find
To prove you patient, your Ardelia kind,
Who by a tender and officious care
Will ease that Grief or her proportion bear,
Since Heaven does in the Nuptial state admitt
Such cares but new endeaments ot begett,
And to allay the hard fatigues of life
Gave the first Maid a Husband, Him a Wife.
(MS Folger, pp. 276-77, from La Fontaine,
La Goutte et l”Araignée, III:9, pp. 92-93)


Bifrons Park, Kent, 1695-1700 (unknown artist)

Ellen

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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


The Gray Drape


Men at War


The Gladiators

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


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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Knole, Kent, the house, begun in 1456, greatly extended c.1603, on a frosty December day

Winter. Blackout.

Quiet. The tick of clock
Shall bring you peace,
To your uncertain soul
Give slow increase.

The blackened windows shut
This inward room
Where you may be alone
As in the tomb.

A tomb of life not death,
Life inward, true,
Where the world vanishes
And you are you.

War brings this seal of peace,
This queer exclusion,
This novel solitude,
This rare illusion

As to the private heart
All separate pain
Brings loss of friendly light
But deeper, darker gain ….
— from The Land

Friends and readers,

It is truly hard to know by what image to represent Vita Sackville-West. If popular culture is our lens, she’s the wealthy gardener of Sissinghurst,


Sissinghurst Gardens

thrown out of Knole (above), after a long bitter fight to hold onto it; a lesbian about whom bad movies are made (Vita & Virginia, and The Portrait of a Marriage, not much better — except, and it’s an important except Janet McTeer intuitively and with probably study does manage to capture the inner better qualities of Sackville-West).  Despite the best efforts of lesbian and feminist scholars to help us appreciate the lesbian motifs of her art (see Lisa Moore’s Lesbian Arts, the Erotics of Landscape), and lip-service paid to acceptance of LGBTQ people, in fact lesbians in the public mind (if movies be any criteria) are seen as ludicrous somehow.  She loved Nicholson, her children, wrote poetry, explored earlier women, aspired to be trusted and respected by Woolf, but was an outsider:


Janet McTeer (Portrait of a Marriage)

The woman-in-the world, promiscuous self-indulgent aristocrat with the scandalous grandparents, parents, vehement liaisons, glamorous enough at age 26:

is at the center of Victoria Glendinning’s biography, which, in my view because she omits the literary part of Vita’s life (!), on the grounds the book would get too long, produces a thoroughly unlikable, not to say obnoxious, deeply reactionary woman.

But if the lens be what she wrote seriously, what she built (renovated) and gardened away on, her identity emerges quite differently; at a minimum caring for others she imaginatively identified with.  She is not primarily or just a novelist.  As with Woolf, there are big diaries, much travel writing, the book about Knole and the Sackvilles (before abridgement), and a book about country house, another on her garden and the land (in verse this time). She goes over the courtyard of Knole, showing how each element was functional at the time it was built, how beautifully appropriate the shapes, angles, and how they fit into another, into the earth’s landscape around them, and then carried on functioning across time. There are the remarkable non-fiction biographies, from Joan of Arc (long with a firmly built up world of 15th century France),

I was startled to realize what the point was. I tried to read it years ago in a mind-blind (?) heteronormative way. Sackville-West is drawn to this girl as a transvestite, as a lesbian, probably somewhat butch. Having watched the film Carrington (see my blog on the artist) the other night I am persuaded the way Emma Thompson looks early in the film – chunky, boyish, dense, determined — would be perfect for Sackville-West conception of Joan of Arc too. It is as a absolute underminer of female sexual conventions that Sackville-West is writing with sympathy and admiration. Similarly her portrait of Anne Clifford, the superpower Duchess in the 17th century. Maybe S-W would have loved Thatcher — for she is also politically profoundly reactionary.

to Aphra Behn, and Lady Anne Clifford (here I’m thinking of her edition of the diary and her unearthing of this woman who controlled and renovated castles in Northern England), Pepita (a biography, half fantasy, half hard headed of her grandmother). Among the best of this non-fiction work, her books on houses, and her literary criticism (particularly her defense of rhyme and formality in poetry, of the use of deeply personal felt material in a poem — contemporary poetry is too afraid of ridicule –, and the odd unusual angle or focus).

I particularly admired her analysis of what’s wrong with contemporary poetry: it was a Bloomsbury perspective: modern poetry (1928, a lecture she delivered) is inhibiting people from from producing the raw inward feelings that drive them — by its demand for balance, its strong embarrassment, so critics ridicule what distresses them about humanity. I know one complaint about the Bloomsbury people at the time is who wants to read about cripples, people mentally distressed &c. Beyond the fear of ridicule, the focus of contemporary read poetry and critics is too central, mainstream. What is wanted is a new angle, something oblique and truer to the inward material itself. Last there is too much worship of free verse; free verse itself uses rhythm, word assonance, all sorts of subdued patterns. She is justifying her own poetry but this manifesto reminds me of others by other Bloomsbury people. Last I love her call for “the dignity of pessimism.”

Then there are her literary biographies (shorter, one on Andrew Marvel), and fiction, and Georgic poetry of the seasons (her Virgilian book-length Land and Garden, once a best seller) .  She is a compelling, deeply appealing, strong artist, a major woman writer of the first into the second half of the 20th century. Worthy to study alongside her lover-friend, and sometime admirer, Virginia Woolf, and definitely belonging in the circles of Bloomsbury people.


Virginia as photographed by Ottoline Morrell, 1926 — caught as glamorously as Morrell could manage

To suggest how to get to know about the Sackville-West who matters in a blog, I’ll put the matter this way: first read Suzanne Raitt’s Vita and Virginia: The Work and Friendship, then Louise DeSalvo’s study of their writing in terms of one another’s aims, outlook, style, then the literal books by Woolf (Vita gave Virginia the dog, Flush, about whom Virginia wrote her marvelous biography; and Virginia wrote her fantastical biography Orlando, an experimental novel, as a way of expressing the complex realities of Vita’s life and art (“Lighting the Cave”). Then read all of Mary Ann Caws’s Selected Writings of Vita Sackville-West: she has picked out the highest moments of genius in the best works and beautifully described many others.

As a pair in life, they met in the early 1920s, became lovers for a while, 1925-28, traveled together. Vita made money for Hogarth Press, wrote best-sellers in not only fiction but life-writing – about herself, the famous ancient house she lived in (thought she should have inherited but excluded as a girl, quite like Austen’s Bennett sisters) and her grandmother. As of 1970, The Land and the Garden sold 100,000 copies (alas not printed by Hogarth Press as too big & complicated a book). In both their books we see their love of animals, and immersion in the natural world, deep respect for the past, deep past, architectural, geologic (Virginia), geographic (Vita)

Vita’s books are as central to the diptych. Sackvlle-West’s biographies and scholarly editions of the work of earlier women, beyond those I’ve mentioned, a life of the first successful female playwright, Aphra Behn, two of whose plays are still done — The Rover and The Widow Ranter (about a woman who lived in the colonies) – with the first truly readable novel about an enslaved man, Oroonoko. What Virginia called for in her Room of One’s Own, what her Memoirs of a Novelist asked for (what Virginia’s Miss Rosamond Merridew wanted to do for her brilliant memoirist, Mistress Joan Martyn), Sackville-West did for several early modern women. She brought them back from oblivion.  On her Anne Clifford and Woolf, see Nicky Hallett’s Ann Clifford as Orlando: Virginia Woolf’s historiology and women’s biography,” Women’s History Review, 4:4 (1995):505-23/

The subjective style, tri-partite structure, themes of Sackville-West’s gem novella, All Passion Spent are pure Woolfian, especially the central section, part two where we get these anguished memories of Lady Slane of how she came to marry Henry, what her life was like, that she loved him, but was defrauded of the life she wanted to lead. She was one who lived her life as a category: great man’s wife, she came with the luggage, was there to manage house, have children, and look good at dinners. Could not escape. So let me concentrate however briefly on this novel, offer another poem and then have done.


Wendy Hiller as Lady Slane, on her own at last – she plays the part of the gradually frailer woman impeccably

The novel is about someone who is suddenly (as it were unexpectedly, almost with surprise) feeling emancipated at age 88. As with Maurice, there is this gap between the outward life imposed on Lady Shane (that she lived) and the one we find ourselves in in her mind. How was it that she led the life she did? How as she led into it? Why did she stay? he was coerced, made to feel that her deepest desires were absurd, utterly unsuitable for a life’s quest; by her husband, not even given a studio to work at painting as an art (perhaps watercolors, he says, thinking perhaps of a kit on a table?). Funny how Henry never had to give up any of his hobbies – any of the things he enjoyed most. All Passion Spent is a strongly feminist book. In the case of Forster’s Maurice, the deeply troubled childhood and early manhood dramatized before us is something that could happen to a heterosexual male; it can be felt by any girl or women growing up who cannot conform, cannot understand she is (to paraphrase Alec Scudder) being “taught what is not the case” in order to get her to behave certain ways — performatively I’d call it. In the case of All Passion Spent, what happened to Lady Slane and also Genoux is particular to women. Men are coerced into doing things but often they lead to power, and positions in public life. Deborah, Lady Slane was made into a man’s instrument – she was lucky he was rich and powerful but everything was owned by him. Her body was his, where she lived, how she spent her time. No one ever gave a thought of any kind to Genoux; she was to be a servant of her siblings, and live a life of hard work, filled with trauma. She escapes to Lady Slane. Genoux loves her lady because we are shown Lady Slane was all kindness. It has flaws. It’s pastoral, an idyll, a kind of courtly entertainment in which there is no threat but the ultimate death. (Et in Arcadia Ego.) All the people Lady Slane meets are all courtesy and truth. There is a kind of dripping condescension towards Genoux. The attitude towards money is improbable (a function of S-W having been so rich).

From Winter once again

What have they,
The bookish townsmen in their dry retreats,
Known to December dawns, before the sun
Reddened the earth, and fields were wet and grey?
When have they gone, another day begun,
By tracks into quagmire trodden,
With sacks about their shoulders and the damp
Soaking until their very souls were sodden,
To help a sick beast, by a flickering lamp,
With rough words and kind hands?
Or felt their boots so heavy and so swere
With trudging over cledgy lands,
Held fast by earth, being to earth so near?

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

Nocturne:

Now die the sounds. No whisper stirs the trees.
Her patten merged into the general web
The shriven day accepts her obsequies
With humble ebb.

Now are the noiseless stars made visible
That hidden by the day pursued the track,
And this one planet that we know too well
Mantles in black.

Then, from the thicket, sang the nightingale,
So wildly sweet, so sudden, and so true,
It seemed a herald from beyond the veil
Had broken through.

The common earth’s confusion all unseen,
But worlds revealed in broad magnificence, —
That unembodied music third between
Sprang hence, or thence?

Nothing remained of the familiar round,
Only the soul ecstatic and released
Founted towards the spheres in jets of sound,
And died, and ceased.

But plangent from the thickets of the thorn
Broke other voices, taking up the choir,
While Cancer interlaced with Capricorn
In silent fire,

And all the harmonies were joined and whole,
Silence was music, music silence made,
Till each was both or either, and the soul
Was not afraid.

It was produced as a beautiful book with illustrations redolent of medieval woodcuts (subtly modernized).

                               Duncan Grant — Parrot Tulips (this image fits Lisa Moore’s ideas on erotic lesbian art ….

For my part, there is nothing I love more than to read for hours books by and on early modern to later 18th century women.  So I here support all Woolf’s efforts in the area of retrieving women’s lives and texts and Vita’s successes.

Ellen

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