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Photo taken during Plath’s college years — this is one of my favorites (not in the exhibit)


One of several self-portraits in the exhibit — she is imitating the popular “abstract” style of the 1950s

Pursuit By Sylvia Plath

Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.
Racine

There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.

Most soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.

Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?

Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.

Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.

In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body’s bait.

Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;
Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;
The black marauder, hauled by love
On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.

Behind snarled thickets of my eyes
Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush
Bright those claws that mar the flesh
And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.

His ardor snares me, lights the trees,
And I run flaring in my skin;
What lull, what cool can lap me in
When burns and brands that yellow gaze?

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.

His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.

Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
— one of the poems typed by Plath in the exhibit, said to have been written almost immediately after she met Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Another foremother poet blog from a different angle than usual: I usually offer a few images from their best work, and comments, then a central section on the life and finally on the poetry in general. For tonight I want to describe a remarkable exhibit I saw and lecture I heard at the National Portrait Gallery: One Life: Sylvia Plath.

The exhibit was culled and put together by Dorothy Moss, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who also has taught at Smith College where Sylvia attended, and Karen Kukil, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Smith College, and editor of the first unabridged, uncensored (unbowlderized) books of journals, and now letters by Plath. Until Kukil’s work all the autobiographical writing by Plath that readers could reach were put together by Ted Hughes or only with his or his sister, Olwen’s approval; even now Plath’s daughter, Frieda, controls what is put in print, so there are still some letters, poems, pictures withheld, or where they appear framed and controlled by Frieda who is said to be a fierce partisan on behalf of her father, Ted Hughes. Frieda has written lines showing intense hostility and resentment towards those who want to know more about her mother’s life.

‘Wanting to breathe life into their own dead babies
They took her dreams, collected words from one
Who did their suffering for them.

They fingered through her mental underwear
With every piece she wrote. Wanting her naked.
Wanting to know what made her.

Then tried to feather up the bird again

The exhibit is small, only one room, but they pack a lot in. It takes us through her life at first using photographs, her own art work, letters about her by others, journalism, writing by her for obtaining prizes, an essay on the double in literature for a class, a recommendation by Ruth Beuscher, a psychiatrist who became her friend recommending her for a Fulbright after her time at Smith, and gradually focusing on her poems written upon specific personal occasions, and her later letters to friends in distress at Hughes’s treatment of her, trying to start a new life with two young children to care for. There is also a musical piece, an installation it’s called by Olivia Johnson, Glass heart/bells. On a table one sees glass jars and funnels, bells, light flickering, with some of Plath’s words from her poetry heard over and over (“I thought I could not be hurt”; “How frail the human heart”) and a line from Hughes (“a mirrored soul of art”). Moss and Kukil said they had a hard time getting the Smithsonian to agree to any exhibit: objections included the idea that since Plath killed herself, the exhibit would be dark and not appeal; the idea that Plath was not widely known. This is startling to be told when for most women poets she is the major figure of the 20th century. It reminds me of how until the 1960s Virginia Woolf did not receive public acclaim and only recently has her importance and greatness been acknowledged. Prompted by questions, Moss and Kukil agreed that her suicide has made her an ambivalent figure the way Woolf’s suicide has made her.

For the lecture, first Moss spoke for about a half hour, then Kukil for the same amount of time, then they took questions.

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A depiction of Plath by her from the exhibit: here she is weeping over what she is reading about World War One

Moss’s lecture: She began by saying how tears welled in her throat when the exhibit was finally in place. She surveyed the many books, essays, poems published on Plath since her death, and insisted that in fact Plath is part of popular culture, however unacknowledged or acknowledged only quietly. She seemed to determined to alter the picture of Plath as dark and brooding; at least she was not so when she was younger, though she had a break down before she went to college. Moss said many readers say they do not feel so alone in their reactions to our society and one another when they read Plath.

This made me recall one of the poems I first read by her, which I remembered ever after.

The Applicant

First, are you our sort of person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we given you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt,
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit —

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of _that_?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
(11 October 1962)

I too hate interviews. In my experience they are forms of hazing as well as demanding the applicant portray herself as utterly willing to efface the self to be loyal to the institution, the people who are hiring her, someone of high status, with a great deal of pride and determined ambition. Oh yes and doing what is fashionable. The poem is not in the exhibit.

Moss followed what is fashionable today too. Plath was presented as constructing her image, posing and savvy before the camera, so a picture of her imitating Marilyn Monroe (they said) in a bathing suit was one self, but another of her with brunette hair, looking demur was for application for a scholarship was another. They chose her with a bicycle in front of a school building with a sketch pad to be the leading image outside the door of the exhibit because they thought somehow this showed her presenting an image of herself. The photo was taken by a good friend at the time, Marcia Brown, who stayed loyal to her after Hughes left her, and to whom one of the poignant letters in the exhibit was written. They chose the poem “It was the night before Monday” to show a happy moment with her parents, Winthrop and Aurelia Plath, and her brother, Warren.


On one of the walls of the exhibit

She covered the usual early biographical material, her father’s sternness and early death, her closeness to an aunt Dot (Dorothy, her mother’s sister)), a picture of herself dressed as a nurse (done during her father’s illness). There were cut-outs by her: when young she wanted to be a fashion designer. These show an astute awareness of popular highly sexualized styles of the 1950s. (Yves Saint-Laurent similarly made his own beautiful cut-outs as a young boy; his were more original in style; see my comments on an exhibit of his art at the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond, Virginia.) There was a pony-tail, a long, Plath’s own from when she was 12 and first cut her hair, saved as a relic by her mother. Her mother wrote that she couldn’t sleep the night before Plath cut her long hair for the first time.

In her teens Plath drew herself again and again, imitating different styles. She was liberal in her politics , and some reflect that (there is a mocking collage of Eisenhower in the exhibit). She was horrified at the murder by the state of the Rosenbergs. Her pictures also imitate popular styles at the time (surreal, cubism), we see her as a clown. She originally wanted to major in studio art but soon after entering Smith her professors directed her into literature and writing.


A Fractured Self

Moss said the thesis about the double in literature reflected Plath’s own sense of her fractured selves. After she won a number of awards, she secured a position for a year working in New York City for Mademoiselle (much coveted). She interviewed Elizabeth Bowen; photographs of that interview are in the exhibit. She met Marianne Moore too. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, is about the disillusionment she experienced during that tie.

In 1955 she went to England on a Fulbright and there met Hughes whom she married a year later. There are many photographs of her and him together, and several familiar ones are in the exhibit, and a portrait by her of him (quite beautiful). Moss did not say this but it’s apparent (to me) that Plath unfortunately bought into the myth of the deep appeal for sexual women of aggressive, violent macho males and the poem “Pursuit,” and a letter she wrote immediately after that show her exultant upon meeting Hughes as a “savage animal.” She was in fact naive when it came to understanding the realities of living with a promiscuous aggressive domineering man; Moss said she thought she could change him; it’s not clear when she began to realize that he didn’t want to live a domestic life centering on children. She herself had longed to be a mother. Kukil said they included the famous poem, “Balloons” to indicate how much joy she felt with her children.

Here is one less well-known:

New Year on Dartmoor

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

It is said to be to her daughter, Frieda, as a little girl around Christmas. Plath’s greatest poetry comes from the period of her marriage and the desolation, despair and betrayal she knew in the separation.

Moss ended on Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In accordance with her upbeat presentation, she did not tell of the gravestone which apparently has had to be renewed several times as people keep trying to erase Hughes’s name from it. Nor did she mention that Hughes’s second wife, whom he was living with when Plath killed herself (not yet divorced) killed herself. She had a child too.

Another poem not in the exhibit:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odours bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

Diane Purkiss wrote an essay on this poem from which I quote: “Plath evokes first Cleopatra, whose serpents in Shakespeare are babies suckling her breasts, then Medea, whose ‘illusion of a Greek necessity,’ is revenge on Jason, her unfaithful husband.Medea’s revenge takes the form of child-murder. The woman in the poem hovers undecidably between the two figures, one whose ‘children’ killed her, one who killed her children, one whose violence turns towards her own flesh through her children, one whose violence turns outward through her children.”

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Large Size Shoes by Sylvia Plath (this comes from an essay I read on another exhibit of Plath’s visual art — her drawings and illustrations, which are often very home-y and plain)

Karen Kukil concentrated on Plath’s writing, telling us briefly of the works she wrote, something of the history of the editions of the poems and letters. I wish she had told more about this. The exhibit includes the Royal manual typewriter she used as a teenager; later she has a semi-electric Smith Corona (so did I); then an Olivetti (in the UK). Kukil began by quoting a line by Plath: “I am in my deep soul happiest on the moors.” She is buried in Hepenstall (a parish church in Yorkshire). She covered The Bell Jar, the first book of poems, Ariel, with “Lady Lazarus,” a poem about suicide attempts. She too wanted to counter images of Plath as always a depressive by (as with Moss) by not giving the full context or de-emphasizing say her alienation from her mother’s form of ambition, such a poem seemed to come out of nowhere. She did talk later of the book, Letters Home, to her mother (Plath wrote altogether 747 letters to her mother); these show a happy complacent girl; they were carefully selected and censored after her death. Her mother had been very angry at the portrait of a mother in The Bell Jar, thinking it was simply her when it was a composite. Kukil said her own edition of Plath’s Journals (1955-62) is the first non-censored edition of Plath’s life-writing.

Plath, Kukil said, was “fearless.” That’s why she could write such frank bold transgressive poetry. She was an artist and would go through 15 drafts (of a poem “Elm,” a wood used for coffins, a poem about loneliness). She saved drafts of her poetry. All this was inherited by Hughes. Her poems also often have political context: so a poem on electrotherapy (which she apparently had inflicted on her) connects to her memories of how the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. Peter K. Steinberg whom Kukil worked with has created a website for studying Plath’s poetry. He is the co-editor with her of the two volume The Letters of Sylvia Plath (2017/18).

They then took questions. There was a good discussion. They told of how they came to study Plath. For Kukil it was being in Smith College. They were convinced that Plath knew she would someday be studied, and wrote at least some of her letters with a later audience in mind. She would write to Hughes saying they would someday be admired as a couple of poetic geniuses. (Their image has not emerged in quite the way she thought when she first married him.) They mentioned that Frieda has had a hard emotional life: her brother, Nicholas, Sylvia’s son, had a Ph.D. and did good work in science, but he too suffered from depression and killed himself. Teachers they had were important: Pamela Hunter gave a course which included work by Plath. Smith now has a rich archive of Plath material — bought from Hughes. They spoke of a course which joined together the work of Plath with Virginia Woolf. I made a comment at that: I said I thought that Plath and Woolf resembled one another in their after reputation: both died too young to control their papers; since they killed themselves, the reaction to their work has been affected by the average person’s discomfort with suicide, and this has kept the respect they both had early on subdued; that suicide arouses hostility in many people connected to someone who killed him or herself and by outsiders to the people most closely connected (say a husband). In Plath’s case there have been duelling angry biographies; in Woolf’s many attacks on her as elitist, “out of touch” with the world, often little understanding of Leonard. Both women commented on that, basically agreeing.


Stevenson has written about how she was hampered and stymied by Olwen Hughes

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A Kitchen — by Plath

I’ll close on discussions I’ve had with people who’ve studied and written professionally on Plath, people who have taught her poetry, and people who have read her deeply. Often they object to autobiographical reading, but this seems to me cannot be avoided; the material is often rooted in the personal, and Plath makes this plain (as did a poet of the 18th century I’ve studied, Charlotte Smith.) Friends who suffer themselves from bad headaches mentioned that Plath suffered from migraines and how these are reflected in her poems; for example, the rhythms and imagery of “Lesbos.” One seeming impersonal theme that has general application emerges circles around Medea — as we know betrayed by Jason. My friend, Fran, wrote “one major aspect in Wolf’s own treatment of the Medea theme is the way people feed on other people’s catastrophes, scandals and often actually fan the flames of defamation themselves. Here you have a voyeuristic, vampiristic crowd gloating over a homier Medea’s personal calamity:

Aftermath

Compelled by calamity’s magnet
They loiter and stare as if the house
Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought
Some scandal might any minute ooze
From a smoke-choked closet into light;
No deaths, no prodigious injuries
Glut these hunters after an old meat,
Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.

Mother Medea in a green smock
Moves humbly as any housewife through
Her ruined apartments, taking stock
Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery:
Cheated of the pyre and the rack,
The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.

One last which seems to me to show Plath at her finest is vatic:

The Moon and the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness and silence.

Ellen

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Deane House: a slightly antiqued reprint of Ellen Hill’s illustration

Dear friends and readers,

I assume none of us has forgotten this year’s 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, with its outpouring of books, meetings, events, including lectures, parades, dances. I wrote no less than three blogs, one on the books and reviews published on and round that day, and Austen’s own last lines, in her novels, and that last week she lived one final parting shot (an ironic poem), the discovery that a picture long known is of Austen’s aunt Philadelphia, cousin Eliza, the aunt’s husband and Eliza’s legal father, Saul Hancock, and the maid, Clarinda, and the first where I sent along Chris Brindle’s poem and “Song for Jane.”

This evening I’ve two videos to share, one of Clara Chevallerau singing Chris’s song with herself in iconic places in Bath:

The other the Annual Jane Austen Festival Regency Parade, Bath, for this 200th year:

Chris is the author of the script and the director of the filmed play for Sanditon based on Austen’s fragment and her niece, Anna Lefroy’s continuation. Chris writes about the filming and Clara. She is “an intelligent girl; from Switzerland she speaks French, English, German and Spanish fluently. Only 20 she has already toured Europe and the USA in musical theatre productions. She read Pride & Prejudice at School (in English) and carried on to read Sense and Sensibility.
I wrote all the lyrics for the song, apart from the French chorus which is pretty much a literal translation of the English. Clara contributed:-

“Comment une jeune enfant, fille de vicaire
Née dans un petit village du Hampshire
A pu autant, changé la face de cette terre”

The filming took place in a day. I had caught the 6.30 from Colchester and had met Clara at Paddington and together we caught the 8.30 to Bath getting there at 10 o’clock. We caught the 5.43 back. I was carrying the guitar, my camera and a tripod, whilst Clara carried a bag which seemed to contain half her wardrobe. I had my phone and a bluetooth speaker and through that we played the song which Clara sang along to in numerous relevant locations. The glory of doing this is all the little incidents that you capture quite by accident.

You see all the tourists enjoying Bath in large part because of the association with Jane Austen, and which Clara sings with the Pulteney Street Bridge in the background, through which the Austens would have walked into town from their house at 4 Sydney Place.”

The reader may also want to know about a new opera adapted from Mansfield Park: in The Guardian Jonathan Dove explains the sources from Austen’s novel of his inspiration

To me, her reticence invited music, a way of revealing those hidden emotions.

Two scenes stood out as especially poignant – and musical.

In the first, Fanny’s beloved Edmund is distracted and entranced by the vivacious Mary Crawford, but one evening he joins Fanny to gaze out of the window at the stars. Fanny is overjoyed – but then Mary starts to sing, and Edmund is drawn back into the room away from the window where Fanny now stands alone, looking out into the night.

This follows a scene in which Fanny – alone, seated on a bench – helplessly watches Edmund as he walks off to explore a wilderness beyond the garden with Mary Crawford.

These scenes have haunted me for years

https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/11/the-silence-of-the-lamb-opera-jane-austen-mansfield-park-fanny-price

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I’m just now reading one of the books reviewed at the time: Devoney’s Looser’s The Making of Jane Austen in order to review it for an academic periodical. Physically, the hardback is a beautiful book, good paper, sewn signatures, with good illustrations. As I do when I take a book seriously, I’m going to follow Looser on some of her trails. Most of the reviews remained on a level of generality where they did not tell the specifics of her arguments so that’s one way I can differ. Her tone (by-the-way) is anything but snarky or belligerent in the way of Helen Kelly in her JA: Secret Radical; Looser projects such generosity, benignity and charity to all, she makes the reader who might complain (or differ irritatedly) into someone grumpy.

In her first chapter, she adds a third text to the crucial early ones shaping the Janeite view of Austen first announced in modern terms by G. B. Stern and Sheila Kaye-Smith in their first published departure from male academic critics’ high-minded close-reading of the generally moral thematic kind, Speaking of Jane Austen: they openly sided with this character and against the other from a woman reader’s point of view; more importantly Austen’s books and the worlds she presented were refuges, sanctuaries. Looser says this began with two we know well (the “usual suspects”), James-Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir ofh his aunt, and the sanitized, cut, rearranged presentation of her correspondence by Lord Edward Brabourne, the son of her niece, Fanny Austen Knight. But Looser insists there was a third: Constance and Ellen Hill’s Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends. The book is by both sisters, Constance wrote the text, and Ellen drew the crucial picturesque illustrations.

Looser does sort of dismiss Margaret Oliphant’s keenly insightful review of JEAL which anticipates some of the arguments D.W. Harding was to make in his transformative “Regulated Hatred” (a paper published in Scrutiny): Oliphant understood Austen’s text clearly as acid; the work of a sharp satirist and skeptical female. I think Oliphant important but I agree her review was not influential. (It was only reprinted and noticed after Southern published his Jane Austen’s Heritage two volumes.)

Looser claims the Hill book was innovative, original — went beyond the family view — because they visited the places Austen lived in, visited, and they read original sources (borrowed manuscripts from the family). They were trying to evoke the past for us to enter into and picture places perhaps we have not the money or wherewithal to go to. In lieu of photos lovely picturesque illustrations. This is before cameras became so ubiquitous. Looser says they invented the term “Austen-land” (used recently by Shannon Hale in her book and then the film adaptation).

So I began the book. The Hill’s opening chapter shows the ploy. They are tracing the footsteps of the Austen ghosts: where did Mr and Mrs Austen drive that first night they were married. Ellen and Constance are seeking Steventon. But the sky darkens. There is no roadway, no map. Nothing where Steventon was either. The place they are told they can stay at has no room. But wait, the people suggest another, an inn in Deane! Was not Deane a place Austen stayed at? It’s nighttime but they forge on. You see all the world is good and all is right with the world now. They have trouble finding this place too, but not to worry, again they encounter good people who are eager to take them in. When this happens they know they have arrived in Austen-land.


Their destination: the pump where the vicarage stood (as drawn by Ellen in the original book)

The Hill sisters go beyond reinforcing JEAL; they are turning his view into something magical magical. This is time-traveling criticism. And it has been influential in anticipating a whole way of picturing Austenland.

Again a fan has worked on one of Ellen Hill’s illustrations: Ellen had pictures Manydown Park in the snow in the evening from the side; here it has been made more dramatic:

And of course I hope my reader will not define me as grumpy when I inject a note of somber realism: the 1790s was a period of severe repression of any political movement for social justice and equality in England, pressings were frequent and massive (read Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers), mutinies punished harshly, the life of the average person, from whom Austen was not and never wanted to be immune was hard long working hours for a subsidence existence, women had no rights under the law and by custom. See Carolyn Steedman’s Labours Lost on the working livese of women in this era and until the mid-20th century. Let us not forget the Hills’ Austenland was a fantasy then too. Photographs (were there any) could have shown this. Those are real 21st century people walking in that Jane Austen parade got up somewhat incongruously in an attempt to wear styles from another era.

Ellen who loves pictures

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A drawing by Anne Bronte of herself and (presumably her dog, Flossy)

Dear friends and readers,

I have not been able to write on this blog for so long because I’ve been away twice, one to the Highlands of Scotland and once to a friend in central Pennsylvania, but I have been reading much of interest on women’s art and by women. Two outstanding writers whose art links to one another’s and Jane Austen’s especially: Anne Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-65),about whom I’ve written again and again and long ago and as gothic.

Tonight I want briefly to add to a blog on Bronte as a poet and half a blog on David Nokes and Janet Baron’s film adaptation of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (dir. Mike Barber, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Rupert Graves, and Toby Stephens. I was asked to review Nick Holland’s excellent literary biography of Bronte, In Search of Anne Bronte, for the Victorian Web and just finished the review. I am so chuffed to say it now appears there – and with interesting illustrations: a watercolor painting of the dog, Floss, by Charlotte Charlotte Bronte, a photo of Ellen Nussey I’ve never seen before, a drawing of a waterfall, Haworth Moor.

This blog is the spill-over of what I couldn’t put into the review also. In reading around Holland’s book, that is to say, other books and essays on Bronte as well as her Agnes Grey, poems, and again watching David Nokes and Janet Baron’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I’ve discovered that Anne Bronte is having a true Renaissance, rightly newly discovered (almost for the first time) as an ardent feminist, hard-hitting truth-teller about women’s lives, serious artist, and quietly independent-minded ambitious woman. New biographies abound, new essays on her, new editions of her novels and poetry. Along with Holland’s book, I read Samantha Ellis’s revisionist Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life and Julie Nash and Barbara A. Suess’s New Approaches to the Art of Anne Bronte, where justice is done to her two novels. The first Bronte whom Winifred Gerin wrote about was Anne.

In brief, as I’ve surmised before, Anne Bronte wanted to have a career insofar as she was permitted to by her society — which meant as a governess, teacher, and writer. She studied hard at school, came to her own conclusions about religion (refused to believe in a punitive Calvinism), and fell in love once, but the man she loved predeceased her (Haworth was a deeply unhealthy place to live because the water was so bad). She did not hate her brother, Branwell, but felt for him in his self-destruction, and was close to her sister, Emily (quite a feat). And she succeeded in what she endeavoured — the pupils she had in her second place respected and liked and were influenced by her. Until the fatal illness that killed many in Haworth destroyed her at the young age of 29. Unfortunately she does not emerge as a separate presence in Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet, where she is (as she has often been) overshadowed by her elder sister, Charlotte, who in recent books emerges as the person most responsible for the early repression and distortion of her work, and later misunderstanding. We have left only five of her interesting letters.

She also drew. The three images we have of her are by her. The above of herself and a beloved dog; the one just below recording her love of the sea:

A third, at the end of this blog, in an antique sort of imaginary dress.

Agnes Grey gives an unsentimental depiction of the life of a governess at the time: the little valuation given to education, the small salary, withering disdain and lack of any life or free time; an austere emotional integrity governs this plainly written uncompromising and quietly gripping book.

I am so cheered when I read this book for its rare accuracy. Agnes will reminds us of Jane Eyre (though written first), but her experience as a governess is very different in that she does not get on well with her pupils and doesn’t meet a kindred spirit. The descriptions of the many little humiliations she meets every day in both the jobs are all too convincing, clearly drawn from life. The relationship between Agnes and Rosalie might have influenced Charlotte Bronte’s portrayal of Lucy Snowe and Ginevra Fanshawe in Villette – in both cases, there is the quiet, put-upon teacher who is overshadowed by a more worldly and beautiful pupil. Also, in both books, the two are love rivals, but with the younger girl regarding the man concerned as a plaything or “conquest”, while the poorer and slightly older woman living in the shadows truly loves him. Even the surnames “Snowe” and “Grey” are similar, both with a lack of colour. Agnes is passionate, just as Lucy and Jane are, but all have to put themselves under constant unnatural restraint. What’s remarkable and unique is how Agnes-Anne feels so alienated and hurt from the cruelty, bullying, lying, cupidity, and stupidity of most around her. Here is a person so jealous she cannot bear for her governess even to have a passing relief. This is so strong. The book is about justified alienation from the social world around the heroine, at the same time as the heroine does not give up her desire for achievement and fulfillment.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall tells an utterly believable and powerful story of a woman who made a bad choice for a husband, how when he becomes an alcoholic who wants to make his son another, leaves him, and creates a career for herself as an artist; she returns to her husband to nurse him in his last illness, and when she does remarry (as in Agnes Grey) she chooses a man for his character, one where he respects her as of equal worth with him, has compatible intelligent tastes, and genuine kindness. Other women’s fates, other marriages, are depicted in these two books.

Wildfell Hall is written as alternating diaries, so subjective in presentation. Like Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Forster’s Howard’s End, E. H. Young’s Jenny Wren, Trollope’s Small House of Allington, Isabelle de Montolieu’s Caroline de Lichtfield, all of them are novels of erotic awakening and then renunciation — you chose the wrong man. George Sand’s early novels belong to this pattern too. Bronte’s is unusual for insisting on how society forms wrong norms for women and making the two marry early and then we watch what would happen in such a marriage.

It is also a story of motherhood — something omitted from the film. Elisabeth Gruner shows that unless you figure in the stories of motherhood, which include dialogues or debates on how to bring up a child (boy in one way and girl in another) you lose a central meaning of from this novel. Helen Graham argues both sexes should be sheltered and is against teaching a boy to drink or be amoral (which is what others urge her to do). We see how the society around these women use the women’s attachment to their children to control their behavior. She shows the hypocrisy of the claim that the society cares about the welfare of the child first; what the society’s rules and customs are set up to do is make the woman stay with the man and obey him. Helen’s second husband, Gilbert Markham is treated in terms of his relationship with his domineering mother. Here Anne Bronte anticipates later Victorian books: Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved (about having children taken from you) and Ellen Wood’s famous East Lynne.

I find I put two more poems by Anne on my Sylvia blog (scroll down) and will conclude by adding yet two more that I never noticed before but which reading Holland and Ellis have made me appreciate are also part of her character:

Lines composed in a Wood on a Windy Day

My soul is awakened, my spirit is soaring
And carried aloft on the winds of the breeze;
For above and around me the wild wind is roaring,
Arousing to rapture the earth and the seas.

The long withered grass in the sunshine is glancing,
The bare trees are tossing their branches on high;
The dead leaves beneath them are merrily dancing,
The white clouds are scudding across the blue sky.

I wish I could see how the ocean is lashing
The foam of its billows to whirlwinds of spray;
I wish I could see how its proud waves are dashing,
And hear the wild roar of their thunder to-day!

The Consolation

Though bleak these woods and damp the ground
With fallen leaves so thickly strewn,
And cold the wind that wanders round
With wild and melancholy moan,
There is a friendly roof I know
Might shield me from the wintry blast;
There is a fire whose ruddy glow
Will cheer me for my wanderings past.

And so, though still where’er I roam
Cold stranger glances meet my eye,
Though when my spirit sinks in woe
Unheeded swells the unbidden sigh,

Though solitude endured too long
Bids youthful joys too soon decay,
Makes mirth a stranger to my tongue
And overclouds my noon of day,

When kindly thoughts that would have way
Flow back discouraged to my breast
I know there is, though far away
A home where heart and soul may rest.

Warm hands are there that clasped in mine
The warmer heart will not belie,
While mirth and truth and friendship shine
In smiling lip and earnest eye.

The ice that gathers round my heart
May there be thawed; and sweetly then
The joys of youth that now depart
Will come to cheer my soul again.

Though far I roam, this thought shall be
My hope, my comfort everywhere;
While such a home remains to me
My heart shall never know despair.

She has been likened to Jane Austen but I think not: she is more in the vein of Dorothy Richardson in Pilgrimage, Harriet Martineau in Deerbrook and her autobiography. I understand better why I am so drawn to her too: in the second poem she loves her home in the way I do mine. Do read her, gentle reader, she has much to say to you.

Ellen

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18th century print illustration of Weymouth, fashionable spa resort where Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax become engaged ….

At one point, ten years ago things looked very precarious when the majority of our residents had their accounts at the Bank of Eastbourne. I had borrowed heavily to build the foundations of this resort and was nearly forced, through no fault of my own, into bankruptcy. Fortunately we had a major investor from Antigua, the famous anti-slavery campaigner Miss Felicity Lambe, who was prepared to invest in our resort, and our new bank, “Parker Brothers – The Bank of Sanditon”, and that saved the day. It gives us great pride that the dividends we pay Miss Lambe fund her great campaign: – and her model plantation for free-men labourers in Antigua — from the concluding scene of Chris’s Sanditon

Friends,

Some six months ago now I posted a review of Chris Brindle’s play’s Sanditon, or The Brothers. It was filmed as a play, played on British TV, and a DVD was made available of the play, as well as a 40 minute documentary narrated by Amy Burrows (who plays Charlotte Heywood in the film). I thought it a splendid adaptation, which used the continuation by Anne Lefroy (published in an scholarly edition of Sanditon), which shows a real feel for the original and some knowledge of what her aunt intended. The documentary told of Anne Lefroy’s life as well as some of the circumstances surrounding Austen’s writing of this last unfinished work. Among these that Austen was dying and knew it, and at times in great pain before (and probably) during the writing of this fragment. The way Austen seems to have dealt with pain as seen in her writing was to distance herself, make an ironic perspective which both reflects on the issues at hand, and mocks them (see my The Depiction of Widows and Widowers in Austen’s Writing).

In the same blog I uploaded a beautiful song sung by Burrows and Nigel Thomas, “The Blue Briny Sea,” a composition enacting what seems to have been Austen’s longing to be beside the sea far more than she had been able to. Emma Woodhouse’s longing is repeated in Sanditon where the wish fulfillment element is the town is by the sea.

Since then I’ve been able to read Chris’s script of the play, and an outline of how to turn this 2 hour script for a play or single movie into a mini-series (it looks very doable). Chris explains how he originally wanted to develop a play about Anna Lefroy, but there was insufficient interest — and how he came to develop an ending for Sanditon. He sent me a pdf of his book, Hampshire: Discovering the 19th century world of the Portsmouth artist, R.H.C. Ubsdell in which he recreates intimately the local world of Hampshire both Jane and her niece Anna spent much of their lives in through Ubsdell’s pictures (from the gallery). Finally, a musical rendition (words by Amanda Jacobs) of Austen’s Three Prayers combined into a hymn of praise, “Father in Heaven.” All this material shows immense sensitivity to underlying motifs and feelings of Austen’s works as well as the subtle felt realities of Anne Lefroy’s relationship to her aunt, a real knowledge and empathy with one another.

So when Chris sent me another song he wrote re-imagining aspects of the completed Sanditon, re-enacting Austen’s deep grief at dying so young, looking to understand how she dealt with this seriously (partly by writing), what compensations she saw (her work), I was eager to listen. I was much moved. — among other picked-up suggestions from Austen’s later work, the song remember the poem Austen is said have written in the last day or so of her life, “Written at Winchester on Tuesday, the 15th July 1817,” with phrases like “When once we are buried you think we are gone/But behold me immortal!” With his permission, and encouragement, I upload the new song here: It is written by Chris Brindle, with a brilliant 20 year old Swiss French girl called Clara Chevallerau, and sung by her. (Although only 20 Clara has toured Europe with a Swiss version of “William Tell” and sung for Musical Theatre impresario Bobby Cronin on a Europe / U.S. tour.)

as well as the words:

When did you realise
That you life would soon come to an end
Did you always know your life would be so short?
What is a life what is it worth
– Is it what you leave behind you
When you take nothing with you at the end?

PRE-CHORUS

Your books and letters were your children
Left to others to inspire
– And maybe carry on your work

CHORUS

Do you die if a bit of you will live in others
Or memories of you will still remain?
How do you spend your last few moments
on this earth
When your journey has to come to its end

BRIDGE

In your pain you left us biting satire
A town built on sand in need of hope
But you left us characters who could save it
If in our imagination we could see how they would cope

May the Lord look on you with grace and favour
For this was the world you created
Reaching out for your future
A century or more away
When your pain was most intense
And your time was running out.

FRENCH CHORUS

Est-ce qu’on meurt si un peu de nous reste dans nos oeuvres
Ou des souvenirs de nous survivent encore?
Comment passe-t-on nos derniers jours sur cette terre
Quand le voyage arrive à son terme?

FALSE OUTRO:
Comment une jeune enfant, fille de vicaire
Née dans un petit village du Hampshire
A pu autant, changé la face de cette terre?

REPEAT CHORUS (last time)


Recent photo of Winchester — where Austen lies buried

As we near the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death ….

Ellen

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Stories of 25 Dundee women

Friends,

Since part of the “mission” of my blog is to call attention to women artists and writers, feminists, and forgotten women’s real lives, I thought I’d alert my readers here to a new book on Scottish women written and arranged by the Lothian Women´s Forum of the WEA (Workers Educational Association). I was told about it by a German friend, Andrea Schwedler, who lived in Scotland for 16 years, now mourning the severance from the EU of the United Kingdom (itself possibly breaking up now that the Tories want to take Henry 8 powers and the Scottish and perhaps a majority of the Northern Irish voted to remain). While living there, Andrea was belonged to this forum. They asked themselves how do women want to be remembered when we are dead? — as opposed to how they are remembered (wives, mothers, sisters, nieces). What should be written on women’s graves? What are the differences in remembering women and men. They researched the different graveyards in Edinburgh — it all sounds very gloomy but it was an inspiring time for women working with other women, for meeting women from all walks of life.

Here is the day they launched their project:


Click to learn their names

Here are fourteen women whose lives and work the Lothian Association discovered and wrote about. Click on each of the gravestones and you’ll discover much information and insight into the individual woman’s life, e.g., Isabella Lucy Bird (who made Caryl Churchill’s table in Top Girls). Much less well-known is Agnes White Miller by Andrea, the struggle of an unmarried woman to live a fulfilled professional and personal life in the 19th century. Andrea also covered Mary Syme Boyd, a sculptor.


A carved dog

I can’t resist showing how after a day-long session on Scottish women writers, Excuse My Dust (a Dorothy Parker epitaph), they included one of my favorite 19th century writers, Margaret Oliphant

Four of the women on this page are women whose books I’ve read and liked, some I’ve discussed here, and six 18th century: Susan Ferrier, Elizabeth Hamilton, Chistian Isobel Johnstone, Mary Brunton, Charlotte Lennox, Jane Porter (Austen we know read Hamilton, Brunton and Lennox).


Said by Merryn Williams to be a highly original novel about the pains of marriage Agnes experiences (and deteriorate her character), how she is done in by a jealous upper class sister-in-law Beatrice, a single woman:

[Life is] full of broken threads and illogical conclusions, and lacks altogether the unity of a regularly constructed fiction, which confines itself to the graceful task of conducting two virtuous persons through a labyrinth of difficulties to a happy marriage … Yet at the same time everybody knows that there are many lives which only begin after that first fair chapter of youthful existence is completed ….

Reading the Dundee and Scottish women website has re-energized me to write a third series of women artists blogs. This series will not try to cover early modern through the 21st century but be tilted towards the 19th and 20th century. I’ll begin with Anna Dorothea Therbush (1721-82),


1762, Self-portrait

of course include Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825, a Scottish woman letter-writer and diarist, known for her time in South Africa, and water-colors from India), about whom a new biography has come out,

and conclude a third year and round on Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945).

I close this blog on a pair of poems by a Scottish poet of the early 20th century, Olive Fraser (1909-77)

Lines Written after a Nervous Breakdown.1

I’ve forgotten how to be
A bird upon a dawn-lit tree,
A happy bird that has no care
Beyond the leaf, the golden air.
I have forgotten moon and sun,
And songs concluded and undone,
And hope and ruth and all things save
The broken wit, the waiting grave.

Where is that mountain I must climb
To gain again some common time,
Not this stayed clock-hand that must be
Some foretaste of eternity?
Where is that task or terror that
Will wake a slow magnificat
From this dead sense, from these dull eyes,
That see no more to Paradise?

There is no night so deep as this
Inevitable mind’s abyss,
Where I now dwell with foes alone.
Feather and wing and breathing bone
And blessed creatures come not here,
But the long dead, the aguish fear
Of never breaking from this hold,
Encapsuled, rapt, and eras old.

There is no second of escape.
As with some forest-wandering ape
Whose sad intelligence may go
So far and nevermore may grow,
I am enchained most subtly by
A thousand dendrons ’til I die,
Or find my mountain, storm and shock
This graven hour and start the clock.

September 1964

Lines Written After a Nervous Breakdown.2

Come, lamefoot brain, and dance and be
A merry carnival for me.
We are alive in spite of all
Hobgoblins who our wits did call.
With ghosts and gallowsbirds we went
Hundreds of leagues ’til, fiercely spent,
We laid ourselves to weep and cry
Beyond the house of memory.

We have been lepers, and now run
To sit again within the sun,
And smile upon some country fair
With Punch and poor dog Toby there.
We, who did only think to die,
Now laugh and mock the revelry.
Up, barefoot brain, and fill your hall
With flags as for a festival.

Yet you are poor and slow to do
The blessed things I ask of you .
Haunting with spectres still and still
Remembering your dungeon’s chill.
Where you did cower and aye did grow
A frenzied circus for your foe,
Who sought you in the blood’s dim arc,
And in the night-time, in the dark.

Peace, friend, and think how we are here
Through dangers, desolations, fear.
We two alone, now all is o’er,
Will never move from pleasure more.
We two will sit like birds i’ the sun
And preen and pipe while others run
And straddle in the world’s proud play.
We have been night, who now are day.
October 1964

Olive Fraser was born in Kincadineshire, lived in Redburn, Nairn, graduated from Aberdeen University in 1927, Honors English degree, an award for most distinguished graduate in the arts; attended Girton College, Cambridge, Chancellor’s Gold medal for poetry 1935. She served in WRNS in World War II, and after was librarian at Bodleian. In 1956 she was wrongly diagnosed as schizophrenic, put in an asylum from which she did not emerge until 1961 when a woman physician correctly diagnosed her problem as hypothyroidism. Helen M Shire has edited a volume of her poetry: The Wrong Music: the Poems of Olive Fraser (1909-77). Here is a much fuller biography with more poems, some in Scots.

(from An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets, ed. Catherine Kerrigan


Early 20th century Scottish Impressionism (found on-line in gallery of Scottish artists)

Ellen

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Varo, Harmony (1956)

Friends and readers,

Hers is a story of three women artists who formed strong bonds of friendship in Mexico during World War Two and flourished afterwards: her art has women at the center of pictures, fairytale like, archetypal, sometimes charming and comic, telling psychoanalytic & occult & melancholy tales …

Of the women surreal artists of the 20th century, Remedios Varo stands out for drawing full-bodied complete women more frequently than any of the others (sometimes in groups!):


Varo, Embroidering Earth’s Mantle

She is further unusual because many of her pictures can be characterized as pretty and pleasant to look at. One can even apply the word charming to her pictures, a word not appropriate for most of 20th century surreal school:


Varo, A Paradise of Cats

She catches attention because her pictures have a strong fairy tale or archetypal element which would at first seem susceptible to today well-known and once common Jungian or Freudian symbolic analysis (and for those of her paintings where you can find an explanation, you discover that after having recourse to Joseph Campbell’s allegoresis in Hero with a Thousand Faces, this is what the critic is doing). She stands out because she seriously read mystic, magical, astronomical and alchemical treatises:


Varo, Creation with Astral Rays


Varo, Creation of Birds (1958)

Joanna Moorhead and Teresa Arq have come to the conclusion that also unlike most of the women surreal artists, together with Leonora Carrington (1917-2011), and the photographer and Hungarian artist, Kati Horna (1912-2000), her two close friends, Varo was able to escape the misogynistic grip of the male repertoire of images, because the three women formed such close bonds in Mexica after 1943, and supported, companioned, and inspirited one another to carry on (see Surreal Friends: Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Kati Horna: Essays by Stefan van Raay and Nicola Johnson; Joanna Moorhead, Teresa Arq, Michelle Suderman, Antonio Rodriguez-Rivera. London: Ashgate: Pallant House Gallery, 2010). All three had unusually supportive spouses or partners (most of the surreal women artists took a very much secondary place to the surreal male artists they lived with or married); they found themselves with a group of male supportive friends. All married (defying the surreal idea that marriage must destroy a woman’s creativity), two had children (Carrington and Hora), and the three women spent hours together in their homes. They would spend time together talking (often of political issues), in the kitchen, reading, and then paint scenes reflecting their lives together, as in this semi-comic scene:


Varo, Vegetarian Vampires –they are eating watermelons, tomatoes, strawberries, with a rose on the table, pet chickens nearby

When you look to see how Remedios Varo’s pictures are understood, you find a variety of allegoresis all of which cohere or come together to form a single encompassing vision. In a fascinating article bringing together Varo’s pictures with the writing of Alejo Carpentier, Elizabeth Sanchez finds that after both made a journey down the Orinooko in Venezuela (separately, they did not know one another), both positive analogous stories of self-discovery, creativity, and spiritual rebirth. Sanchez organizes a number of Varo’s paintings to follow a heroine’s successful happy adventures into the unknown in realms of art; the quest makes the artist become one with the natural world. It must be admitted the imagery is fantastical:


Varo, Exploration of the Sources of Orinooko


Varo, Cosmic Energy (1956)

Dino Comisarenco Mirkin finds that the paintings trace a maturation process, telling stories of rupture, process, journeys, escapes, wondrous acceptance:


Varo, Outside the Tower (1960)

By contrast, Janet Kaplan explains Varo’s paintings in a feminist vein (which allies them more to the work of Kay Sage and Frida Kahlo): this one reminds me of Bemelman’s Madeline books


Varo, A Woman Leaving the Psychoanalyst’s Office (1960)

This is said to be a reverse Rapunzel:


Here a woman is kept passive and is unnerved by a male head, with glaring eyes, he licks her neck


Varo, Unexpected Presence

Still, Kaplan finds on the whole a progressive journey with different moments of insight.


Varo, Spiral Transit (1962)

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


A photograph of Remedios Varo in Mexico (with a pet cat)

Maria de Los Remedios Alicia Rodriga Varo y Urango was born on 16 December 1908, in a small town in Girona, Spain. Her parents were middle class, educated, worked for liberal causes; her father, Rodrigo, worked as a hydraulic engineer, her mother a devout Catholic. Both influenced her but the father more: he encouraged her to read, to independent thinking, provided her with science and adventure books (including Edgar Allen Poe). His successful career (including working directly for the Spanish king) took the family to Cadiz and then Madrid. She studied for a BA in a college of arts and crafts and a Madrid Fine Arts Academy whose students included other later respected painters (and Kati Horna’s husband, Jose). She began to paint under the influence of modernist poets (Lorca) and surreal artists. She married a schoolmate, moved with him to Paris, but a year later returned to Barcelona on her own where she became a member of the artistic avant-gard. The Spanish civil war had begun, which changed her (and everyone else’s) life. Her brother, Luis, was killed.


Varo, The Souls of Mountains (1938)

She had fallen in love with the anti-Franco activist, Benjamin Peret, and the pair moved to France where they shared studios with others; she exhibited, collaborated, experimented. She went to the Louvre, other museums and began to read mystic treatises (occult, about Tarot cards), but the Nazis were closing in and Peret and Varo were both imprisoned, experienced traumatizing abuse, and somehow escaping, with the help of a New York rescue committee, managed to flee to Mexico.

I offer only an abbreviated general account (I list articles and books in the comments). There are numerous sites on the Net which recount the phases of her career (this from Spanish artists), some with more details. The central biography is Unexpected Journeys: The life and art of Remedios Varo by Janet Kaplan.. Surreal Friends is especially rich in citations of the books and artists’ work Varo studied,and of course are included many reproductions of Carrington and Horna’s work. All who have followed Varo’s life and work seem to be agreed that her art began to flourish when she moved to Mexico and formed her friendships with Carrington and Horna (see Guardian article). The patronage of Edward James, a rich Englishman who collected their works, and built a house in Mexico where they and other artists (not all surrealists) were welcomed. His close relationship was with Carrington and there are extant revealing letters.

The three women frequented meetings of the followers of German mystics Peter Ouspensky and George Gurdjieff (who also influenced P.L. Travers, known today for her Mary Poppins stories, but also a poet). They were interested in the evolution of consciousness. The two painters read art history, and studied Renaissance artists, especially Paolo Ucello’s strange allegorical secular paintings. They followed his use of natural color. These two paintings show Varo combining some of the older surreal imagery with her new occult preoccupations:


Varo, Hibernation (1942)


Varo, Stealing the Essence (1955)

They were as a group outsiders, Europeans, both marginalized and privileged. One might say the three women had the best of all worlds: their apartness gave them time to be together, and to make art, and their experience of war made them hold together. Varo did however divorce Peret, and by 1948 married a comparatively wealthy man, Walter Gruen, who respected her work and encouraged her to paint. The personalities of the three special women friends were quite different (as is their art); Varo was known as “sharp as a knife, quick-witted, always ready to pick up on new ideas and trends. With Gruen by her side, she became the most ambitious of the three. When she died, apparently unexpectedly, of a heart attack in 1963 (in the same year Kati Horna’s husband died), Gruen dedicated part of his life to cataloguing her works (some 400) and administering a legacy she had inherited from her parents.

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


Varo, The Escape

All who write of Varo emphasize the studied, careful and academic vigor of her approach. Early on she had supported herself working for Bayer Laboratories this way. Doubtless some of this came from her training by her father. She would visualize her idea, make precise sketches, trace them onto a panel, and then proceed to use oils. She preferred a limited range of color, linked to the natural world: earth tones, “raw umber,” blues, a monochromatic palette. Joanna Moorhead suggests the viewer remember Leonardo da Vini’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet it seems to me that what engages us are the sudden splashes of playful orange, red, yellows, in starry landscapes much blurred, with these child-like machines:


Varo, Roulette (1955)

My favorite of her paintings combine the marvelous with a style evocative of literary history —


Varo, Troubadour

She does show a real melancholy or depression occasionally, a deep disquiet with the way she is living her life, what she is reading:

Varo, Alchemy: A Useless Science


Varo, [Self-]Encounter

At her best she is tender, shows kindness, and her images seem could be fit into Shakespeare’s later romances


Varo, The Flutist

Ellen

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hardy_under_beachy_head-large
Hardy, Under Beachy Head

Dear friends and readers,

This is the sixth and last of my reports on the the Charlotte Smith conference this October, to which I will add a lecture given by Carole Brown on the history of St John’s Church in Guildford where Charlotte Smith was baptized and lies buried. The first I told of of the building, grounds, the social world of the conference; the second, my paper on the post-colonial Ethelinde and Smith’s The Emigrants (as well as plans for women artist blogs, Anne Killigrew, Dora Carrington and Remedios Varo); the third was on the Elegiac Sonnets; the fourth on Smith’s poetry again, this time from the point of view of the marketplace, natural world, and the use of paintings in her novels; the fifth, Smith as a novelist and playwright. We began and ended the conference papers with her poetry. Desmond and the places of her birth, upbringing, wandering and burial were part of this last phase.

demolitionbastille
Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Demolition of the Bastille (1789)

On Saturday afternoon of the second day of panels, there were two papers on Smith’s Desmond. Grace Harvey presented a group of ideas she was working out. She talked of Desmond as the most important radical novel of the era; it was the first to present the French revolution, and in is earliest phases, and made a strong case for radical reform. She had trouble finding a publisher. An epistolary novel, it has two central voices in the dialogues about revolution, which are connected to Desmond’s choices in life and couched in terms of their friendship: Desmond is the idealist “voice of reason,” his arguments show William Godwin’s influence; Bethel, the older man, is the “voice of experience, primarily there insistently to counterbalance and modify Desmond’s arguments. Desmond is unable to embrace Bethel’s advice, which takes the form of warnings, his own idealism untempered will become a source of unhappiness for him. Smith’s later books for children show the double voice again but in different terms: Mrs Woodfield, the teacher urge repression of discontent, cheerful submission to what is, a sort of Bethel attitude; but she also checks flippancy and superficiality in Henrietta and Elizabeth, urging on them a kind of serious earnestness. Grace didn’t mention how strongly Smith was influenced by Rousseau in both all these books, especially Julie ou La Nouvelle Heloise (for the novel) and Emile (for pedagogy)

Katrin Roder contextualized Smith’s Celestina and Demond with a discussion of sensibility in the era: her radicalism is rooted in ideas associated with the feelingful character of sensibility. These novels centrally question unconditional obedience to authority. They show how social sympathy creates human bonds; how important concern for others, for one’s home,and the limits of interpersonal support. Desmond loves his house too. she quoted interesting passages where Celestina attempts to help her servant Jessie, and Desmond listens to Geraldine, whose husband has sought to sell her and whom he marries at the end of the novel, where both identify and sympathize with these intelligent victims. Typical patterns for the sentimental novel show a hero’s suffering rewarded, morally superior victims who obey patriarchal norms. In Smith’s novels suffering is not inevitable, there are salutary reward, but the happy ending is often an afterthought. The reflections of the characters and narrator and what happens during the fiction of more important. Characters endure internal and external exile. In the discussion afterward it was remarked that if you cut Smith’s endings off, stop say at a penultimate chapter, they are deeply pessimistic.

allinghamnearbeachyhead
Helen Allingham (1848-1926), Near Beachy Head — this feels so appropriate as until they grew older Smith would often have had her children with her

One could say the last part of the day was devoted to Charlotte Smith’s unfinished (it’s a long fragment) poetical masterpiece, Beachy Head. Three excellent papers dependent on close reading, followed by a recital in the nearby St Nicholas church. Melissa Cow began with how Beachy Head, Smith’s most ambitious poem, lacks clarity of vision. The poem shows the inadequacies of science, geology, history, paleontology which are difficult to assemble produces a sense of strangeness. She begins with a strong sense of locality: the narrator is at the top of Beachy Head, and looks to see what is buried under his feet. While in Gilbert White we feel nature is a system, a good one which can be comprehended, Smith’s questions complicate and upset what we know. She goes beyond her reading of Erasmus Darwin to anticipate modern ideas about extinction; 17th century ideas about the immensity of the earth, catastrophes that have occurred, fossils of mammoth elephants. Her poem works through a range of associative leaps. Samantha Botz suggested Beachy Head invites pivotal readings of history as well as implied politics. Wordsworth saw himself as a man speaking to men, someone with a more lively sensibility, led to create in his mind what he does not find in the world. Smith gives us wandering silent fugitive figures, a contemplative antiquary, a lively anecdotal voice, as well as a critically analystical one, with visible nature showing contingency, and the vanity of science’s boasts.

Amela Worsley’s “‘Death Alone: Charlotte Smith’s hermits” provided a fitting close to the conference and a lead-in to the musical setting of the poem. The idea of a poet as a lonely figure begins in the later 17th century, solitary introspective males in a landscape, to which the sublime is added in the later 18th. The lone woman is ever at risk of sexual assault. Her multiple solitaries are male hermits whose outlook she likened to that of Milton’s Comus, the unknown poet of the “Elegy written in a country churchyard,” Mary Robinson’s “Anselmo, hermit of the Alps. Amelia said Smith uses geology to de-familiarize the local. She offered a careful comparative readings. The figures seek safety and run great risk (psychological too), know intense suffering and rhapsody, and often end in the peace of death. This is one of the passages she dwelt upon:

    Then, of Solitude
And of his hermit life, still more enamour’d,
His home was in the forest; and wild fruits
And bread sustain’d him. There in early spring
The Barkmen found him, e’er the sun arose;
There at their daily toil, the Wedgecutters
Beheld him thro’ the distant thicket move.
The shaggy dog following the truffle hunter,
Bark’d at the loiterer; and perchance at night
Belated villagers from fair or wake,
While the fresh night-wind let the moonbeams in
Between the swaying boughs, just saw him pass,
And then in silence, gliding like a ghost
He vanish’d! Lost among the deepening gloom.—
But near one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots
Form’d a rude couch, love-songs and scatter’d rhymes,
Unfinish’d sentences, or half erased,
And rhapsodies like this, were sometimes found—

    Let us to woodland wilds repair
    While yet the glittering night-dews seem
    To wait the freshly-breathing air,
    Precursive of the morning beam …

derwentwater-cumberland-c-1806-large
John Constable (175-1837), Derwentwater, Cumberland (where Ethelinde is set)

I can’t speak too highly of the music of Amanda Jacobs, singing of Janet Oates, and recitation of the poem by Elizabeth Dolan at St Nicholas Church. Amanda and Beth had divided the poem into several emotional sequences conforming to the phases of the day that the poem charts. We moved from morning to afternoon to evening, giving us the lines as songs of grief and happiness. As with Ned Bingham, Viscount Mersey’s setting of Smith’s Sonnet, “Written in Bignor Park in Sussex, August 1799,” Low murmurs creep along the woody vale the day before, Jacobs’s music was atonal, dissonant, each line of music fitted to each line of verse, with an overall patterning that was melancholy yet beautiful, and in this case finally uplifting. Very 21st century music. I felt I had understand parts of the poem for the first time, had seen the logic (so to speak) of how the poem was put together. Everyone in the church seemed so moved.

It was evening and time to return to the hotel.

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

Sunday was our day of trips, which I mentioned in my first blog. On Sunday we set off around 9:30 am in a chartered bus. The bus-driver was a tour guide himself and told us about some of the landscapes and towns we drove through. Ned Bingham was our generous gracious host in a visit to Bignor Park where we could wander where Smith had grown up, left to marry and later visited, and wandered to write her poetry more than a century ago; a tourist’s trip to Petworth House and Park. The house is now a hollow shell for tourists to wander through with the impressive objects in the house set up somewhat indiscriminately. I could see how the original Earl was determined to set a grand aristocratic framing for each aspect of his house and park too, notwithstanding the beauty of the park and some of the pictures.

st_john_the_evangelist_stoke_guildford
St John the Evangelist, Stoke, Guildford

The last place felt most like a revelation to me, mostly because I had not known anything about Charlotte Smith’s actual birthplace, Stoke House where her mother grew up, the history of the local community at the time (and before and since), as well as the problem of where she’s buried (no one knows the exact spot in the church or grounds). All this and more was covered by Carole Brown, a local church activist, conservationist, and historian, who seemed delighted to be able to inform us of all this and whatever else we wanted to know with as much detail as she could get in in the half-hour walking and sitting tour. The site of the church goes back to pre-Christian times, the building itself (renovated countless times) to the pre-Reformation. She was able to inform us especially some of the other (and more) famous people who attended this church, philanthropists, a good deal about the church in World War One, and the most recent art in the church (Pre-Raphaelie glass windows) and how it is the center of a community of people of all ages doing all sorts of things in the church today.

It was a splendid conference.

Ellen

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