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Archive for the ‘women’s poetry’ Category


Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh 1939 in Gone with the Wind

Diary

Friends,

Day 5/10 of books that influenced me (growing up lasts a long time), that had a discernible impact.

Again for me this is problematic. Between the ages of 13 and 15 I read and reread four books to the point I knew many scenes by heart and can today still conjure them up vividly in my mind. Undeniably (surely we are to to be truthful, or What are we doing in such an exercise?), the first up in time (I was 12) was Gone with The Wind. It came into our house as a book-of-the-month club special for my mother, and I sat down and began to read. I was so entranced (with a four column page) read it so much and so often that the copy fell into pieces. The cover illustration was a collage of scenes from the GWTW books (hence not like the one I find) but my copy was a reprint of the first edition, the ample book behind this older cover:


Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover

The problem is that even then I knew it was a racist book and I am today deeply ashamed of myself that I ignored this. (Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover.) It was wrong and racist behavior on my part as the book has functioned perniciously in US culture. Still I am not embarrassed in front of GWTW. I have seen this reaction when I used to assign to students to read a book from childhood and the young adult was embarrassed to realize what the book he or she so loved was. I regretted when that happened. My father tried to read The Secret Garden to me when I was 10 and had to give it up so mortified was he to see the agenda of Burnett’s book. These books answered to what we were then

I was Scarlett in my earliest readings. GWTW led to my reading a helluva of lot of Walter Scott in my earlier teens.  In later years I have decided the heroine of GWTW is Melanie. I shall never forget her standing at the top of the ruined stairs of Tara with a rifle, having killed the marauding soldier, and now determined to lug the corpse to the field to bury it. When Ashley comes home, Scarlett’s wild desire to run to him, and Will saying, “he’s her husband.” I’ve expanded the heroes to include Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes and Will Benteen.  I remember so many scenes from GWTW; they formed a backdrop of women’s key emotional moments in my mind. Scarlett in her mother’s green velvet curtains trying to charm money out of the imprisoned Rhett.

It’s women’s historical romance first and foremost.

I’ve never given up this type of book and some are leftist and liberal. My most recent wallowing has been in the distressingly pro-violence Outlander (the first three books) and the brilliant voyeuristic film adaptation: I find irresistible the central love relationship of Jamie and Claire, and I bond with Claire in book and film. I find irresistible still her fierce adherence to Jamie, I bond with her in book and film.


Claire and Jamie starting out together …

People disappear all the time.
Young girls run away from home.
Children stray from their parents and are never seen again.
Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station.
Most are found eventually.
Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Usually.
Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years

I know the Poldark novels by Winston Graham belong to this genre so my study of the Poldark novels began here when I started to read Ross Poldark after watching a few of the episodes of the 1970s serial drama. It’s deeply humane in its politics.


My first copy of Ross Poldark, the 1970s reprint of the 1951 cut version, published in anticipation of the 1975 serial drama starring Robin Ellis

There were three other authors I read & reread around the same time, getting to know by heart key scenes: the second chronologically was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I recently reread it once again and am convinced it is a poetic masterpiece of l’ecriture-femme, one of the great novels for women and one of the world’s great novels in all languages. Who can forget countless passages like this: “I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay.” Contra mundi.


This is the copy of Jane Eyre I now own

At the time I was not alive to the crucial differences in language between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne DuMaurier’s RebeccaRebecca was another “extra” from my mother’s subscription to the US Book-of-the-Month Club. Like Bronte, like GWTW, DuMaurier’s books satisfied a need in me that recent Booker Prize women’s romance (Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac, A. S. Byatt, Possession) also satisfy. Bronte and DuMaurier explicitly make visible a woman’s vision using techniques found in l’ecriture-femme, but there were only 5 Bronte novels that I could read (JE, Villette, Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights) so DuMaurier functioned as yet more of the same: My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Branwell Bronte and above all King’s General. Last summer I reveled with a group of people in a class I taught at OLLI at Mason in reading together King’s General (17th century civil war, crippled heroine) and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. However vastly more perceptive about the nature of reality, Volcano Lover is still of this genre. All versions of the same kind of underlying deep gratification of soul.

I had found my copy of Jane Eyre in a local drugstore for 40¢; I went back a few weeks later, and found imprinted in the same cheap way Austen’s Mansfield Park. Another 40¢ and home I went to read and reread MP. My fourth and nowadays favorite book of all these. When I got to the end and heard the moral of struggle and endure, I turned back to the first page and read the novel over again. I’ve never stopped reading it. It has never been far out of my mind, always at the edge of consciousness to be called up. I’ve never forgotten the cover of this MP: white, with 18th century type stage characters, and the blurb telling me this is a “rollicking comedy.” In my naivete I couldn’t understand why this blurb so false was there. But no matter I was Fanny, and this was a somber strong book.


The colors dark and distorted this is nonetheless the second copy of MP I owned

Since then I’ve seen all the film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park available.


Fanny and Edmund growing up at MP (1983 Ken Taylor BBC)

With GWTW, Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park I began my love affair with women’s great books, historical romance, and historical fiction. I’ve never stopped reading these and nowadays want only to write about them. And for me they include the great classics (in 19th & early 20th century beyond DuMaurier, English Anne Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Virginia Woolf, Rosamund Lehmann, Margaret Drabble).


Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre (Sandy Welch’s JA, 2006)

Ellen

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This hangs in the Colonna palace and is the only authentic portrait of Vittoria Colonna

Friends and readers,

For my third book of a 10 book list on what book influenced me most strongly or had some large impact on me: Suzanne Therault’s Un cenacle humanist de la Renaissance autour Vittoria Colonna, chatelaine d’Ischia. I read this in the Library of Congress over many nights the summer I was 37. Yes it’s in French: it is filled with Colonna’s poetry translated into French and situates her on the beautiful island of Ischia surrounded by other wonderful poets of her era, often more southern Italy like Jacopo Sannazaro, also all translated into French


Suzanne Therault, Un cenacle humanist de la Renaissance autour de Vittoria Colonna, chatelaine d’Iscia (click on the image to enlarge it)

I began by taking notes and then just xeroxed the whole book because I could not get it any other way: Therault had died before it was published so it is actually unfinished, parts of it in semi-draft. I enjoy this sort of thing when the book is great; you can see so much more of the person’s thinking and feeling often. I just fell in love with the picture of Ischia she created and her translations of Colonna’s poetry. She led me to learn Italian and I ended up translating all of Vittoria Colonna’s poetry and then went on and translate all of Veronica Gambara’s, write a chapter of biography of Colonna and a short complete biography of Gambara, and write essays on them. I published a few translated poems conventionally (in anthologies) and my work on Colonna was used by graduate students for their theses. My Colonna poems were read in a festival of Renaissance poetry.

I experienced some 15 years on and off of real happiness doing this and then Jim put it all on a website for me. I then extended the project into reading translation studies, wrote an essay on Austen in French and on translation itself and have loved to read translations especially in French and Italian ever after. I am friends with Antonio Chimenti, who wrote and published a short biography of Gambara in Italian and stay in touch with her. I am acquainted with Maria Musiol, who sent me a copy of her biography of Colonna, which I have read but did not write a review as I found myself in too much disagreement over the portraits; her retelling of the life is the only thoroughly researched one available. In my teaching I would assign a book of poetry translated from Gaspara Stampa, whom I also studied too.


Izzy on the roof of the Milan cathedral

Jim, I, Izzy and Laura went to Rome in August 1994, stayed 4 weeks and with Jim I managed to visit Marino, where her family lair (so to speak) was located; I saw the palace from the outside. He took me and Izzy and Laura to Ischia to stay at the beach for three days. This April when I went to Milan with Izzy and Laura I tried to get to Correggio (close by) where Gambara lived and my friend, Antonia, now resides but was not able to pull it off. You need to have a car. There are schools named after Veronica Gambara and a club (online too).


A photo of Marino

Over the years I’ve gotten lots of thank yous and comments, and since getting on the Net (1990s) have written a few reviews in a peer-edited Renaissance periodical of Renissance poetry, books about and by Renaissance women especially poetry and life-writing (scroll down to “Renaissance literature”). I reviewed the translation by Abigail Brundin of Colonna (which I find very poor, translationese, cribs in effect). My discovery and love of Iris Origo’s life-writing, biographies and autobiography came out of this interest. I try to keep up my reading skills in Italian — I read one of Elena Ferrante’s novels in Italian this past year, La figlia oscura, The Lost Daughter.


Brescia, where Gambara lived

Ellen

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Cattle Watering perhaps by John Glover (1767-1849)

Gentle readers,

I’ve had some troubles over the past two weeks: my PC Dell Desktop computer died, and it has taken two weeks to replace it with a new one (Windows 20); alas while I was promised that all my files would be retrieved and put back into my new computer for reasons that remain unexplained, the IT people did not manage to do that. So I’ve lost many of the stills I gathered over the past five years and worse yet some of my more precious files in my 18th and 19th century folders: the material for Charlotte Smith that became the Global Charlotte Smith, much of my recent notes and work on Margaret Oliphant and Elizabeth Gaskell. Very unlucky.

There is a silver lining: I paid to have the material said to have been backed up in the hard drive put into a commercial “icloud” set up called Carbonite and that has now been put on desktop and I was shown how to retrieve these lost files individually. It is arduous but can be done, one by one as I need them. Or so it’s said. I’ve yet to try alone but I believe I will as the need arises — or before when I have time.

Thus my usual work came to a stop for a while. I read on and for communication used my now beloved Macbook Pro (apple). It has been my savior twice, as this is the second time since Jim died a computer died on me. I wear them out 🙂 It also has the files as they were 5 years ago and this Friday I have promised myself at long last I will again contact the IT company I use for Macbook Pro and have them update and “clean it out.” Fix my icloud so that all that is in that computer will be in the icloud. I have learned new things about computers and coping with technology these past two weeks.

In the meantime I don’t like to leave this blog with nothing. I carry on with Virginia Woolf and am reading about Vanessa Bell still and the art of the Bloomsbury circle. Soon I will be able to post a syllabus for reading Woolf with a group of retired adults this summer. Tonight I am sharing a proposal for a paper that was accepted for the coming EC/ASECS (Eastern Region, American Society for 18th century studies) in Staunton, Virginia. This is a mid-Virginia town where Mary Baldwin college is located and the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company, a repertoire going for many years which Jim and I used to attend regularly. We’d make a day of it as it is a three hour drive from Alexandria, Va. There are two blocks of restaurants and tourist-y places, historical sites, a lovely landscape all around.

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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in the scene from the novel where Anne remembers Smith’s poem (1995 BBC Persuasion)

How to perform Charlotte Smith and Mathew Prior in the same novel: Intertextuality in Austen’s Persuasion

A proposal for the EC/ASECS conference in Staunton, Virginia, this October 2018.

In this paper I propose to explicate two diametrically opposed moods and points of view on the human experience of profound loss in Austen’s Persuasion. Pervasively and across the novel Austen alludes to Charlotte Smith’s plangent and despairing poetry of loss, embedding the novel as well in the romantic poetry of Byron and Scott. Arguably the crippled, bankrupt and betrayed Mrs Smith is both the genius loci of the novel and a surrogate for Smith herself, whose life Mrs Smith channels. At the same time, it is of Mrs Smith’s apparent cheerfulness when she is with other people that Anne Elliot declares: “Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature herself. It was the choicest gift of Heaven” (Volume 2, Chapter 5). In addition, Austen is careful to contradict Anne Elliot’s despondent musings as she walks alone in the autumn: through allusion Anne is thinking: Ah! why has happiness—no second spring? (the last line of Smith’s second sonnet in her much reprinted and ever enlarged Elegiac Sonnets).


Dancing at Upper Cross — one of the lighter moments in this film (the same Persuasion)

As if in mischievous contradiction to all this powerful passionate protest and investment in grief in the novel, Austen also alludes explicitly a very different kind of poet and poem: Matthew Prior’s semi-burlesque rewriting of an older ballad, The Nut-Brown Maid as Henry and Emma. In his frequent vein of cynical disillusionment with much realistic detail supplied about the lives of two characters where the male demands abjection from the female to prove that she is in reality irrecoverably in love with him after her father has explicitly rejected him as a worthy suitor. Emma is up to each turn of a screw Henry inflicts on her. The parallels with Wentworth and Anne present a serious critique of Wentworth’s behavior, with her usually much-praised new independence severely undercut. Austen seems concerned to undercut the misogynistic theme of testing a woman so prevalent in literature, among other texts in the era Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

There’s evidence to show that Austen knew both Prior and Smith’s writing well. It’s tempting to unite the two disparate veins as variations on dark themes of an authentic self and constancy: in her famous dialogue with Captain Harville Anne asserts as her right, is a knowledge of ravaged grief and permanent desolation as strong as any man’s. When we get this far with these skeins, it seems to me we have reached Northrop Frye’s once well known last phase of irony and satire, only instead of winter, Wentworth breaks through with a letter and we tumble back into romance, with even Mrs Smith knowing retrieval at novel’s end (as the real Mrs Smith never did, quite).

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The regular reader of this blog will recognize I’ve put together two previous and drawn on my knowledge of Smith and Prior. I never tire of Austen’s Persuasion either nor the many film adaptations made from the text since the first in 1971 (click and scroll down to reach 6 blogs & essays on 5 Persuasion movies).


Anne lending herself to be lifted into a carriage by Wentworth (Ciarhan Hinds) (ditto)

Ellen

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Vanessa Bell, the artist, the theme this time a woman drawing

Dear friends,

Some more thoughts on women as autobiographers and biographers. I’ve been reading yet another autobiographical novel by a woman, Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw. It’s another that conforms to the characteristics of women biographers and autobiographers as outlined by Suzanne Raitt and Gale Bell Chevigny. Again one must collapse distinctions between autobiography and biography and fiction and non-fiction. This brings us back to Max Saunders’ Self-Impression with its argument that in our century the central genre has been “autobiografiction.” In Stauffer’s book on the Art of Biography in the 18th century he suggests that autobiographers to be listened to and good must have the capacity to see themselves from the outside, almost as if the writer were another person. Conversely the biographer often prides him or herself on the autobiographical element in their quest and they use autobiographical documents. Anyway the history of all three forms cannot be understood apart from one another. without the history of the other.

Jigsaw is centered on Bedford’s fractured relationship with her mother and what she is doing is restoring their lives together, imagining them as more one unit than they were because so often her mother was absent from her. The mother was with a lover, with her husband (Bedford’s father), leaves to live with another lover. From afar the mother tries to dictate or show interest in her daughter’s schooling, reading, what worlds she belongs to, but the effort is largely imaginary. The mother’s first loyalty is to the man she is living with, dependent upon.

How many absent mothers do we find in women’s novels. This paradigm is usually explained as allowing the daughter-heroine liberty but from this new perspective it is a mirror of how daughters experience their mothers in a patriarchal society

Then yesterday and today I read two essays that felt very old because they were printed in pre-Internet days and are not on-line. The first, Patricia Meyer Spacks’s “Reflecting Women,” in a 1974 Yale Review (Vol 63, pp 26-42) offers yet more analogous marvelous insights into women’s life-writing and fiction which anticipate and indeed say more graphically, less abstractly what Raitt, Chivegny and others on women’s life writing from the Renaissance to today put forth as a new findings. Demoralizingly I thought to myself what I’ve read other unearthers of a women’s tradition in this or that art:  how can make progress made when each generation has to re-fight the same battle. Yes women were great artists and here are their names and history. Yes this is the genres they paint or write in and the latest critics proceed to re-invent what was said before and has been forgotten because what was published was so rare and then it was forgotten — like this one by Spacks.

Spacks is more penetrating and ranges across classes and eras and conditions in ways none of those I’ve read recently do. She discusses the rich society woman, Hester Thrale Piozzi’s continuing re-telling of her life story in most of Piozzi’s writing and compares what is found there to the deprivation and racial punishments known by the young African-American woman, Anne Moody in Coming of Age in Mississippi; and yet more appalling for what was done to her, Mattie Griffith’s Autobiography of a Female Slave (first published 1857; first published in an affordable paperback in 1974). In one scene Mattie is tied to a post, stripped naked and whipped and violated sexually, then laughed at and denigrated and then compared to an non-human animal. I wonder she did not become deranged or kill herself. Emily Kugler on Mary Prince’s autobiography rejoices that she has found Mary Prince as an almost unique autobiography by an enslaved woman in the US; Kugler has not heard of Griffith it seems. Spacks moves to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (17th century writer during the civil war in the UK). I never forgot the pathos of the final paragraphs of the Duchess’s brief autobiography where she says she writes for “my own sake, not theirs” (others) so it does not matter that her readers assume what she writes does not matter, and has only written so she will not be mistaken in history as another of the Duke’s wives now that she has written his biography. to Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa to Ellen Willis’s Up from Radicalism: A Feminist Journal (1969).  Ellis fears her arguments with her partner and his disapproval of the ways she lives will lead to their parting: she needs the comfort of his presence, his money. In later years well after Spacks wrote, Ellis married her partner to have his access to good health care when Willis developed and then died of cancer.

Spacks uncovers that the underlying perspective of all these is that of women who are dependents. Hester Piozzi Thrale was forced to marry Thrale, a man much older than she, vulgar, cold, a bully, by her mother who proceeded to dominate Hester for decades during which Hester was continually impregnated by this man. Thrale bought attention and respect by her salons filled with prestigious people; that was one of Samuel Johnson’s functions at Streatham. What view can a woman have of herself who is a bondswoman, whether to other women, a selfish domineering mother, or a man however professional and rich. Hester’s salons were to entertain him and pass the time. I remembered that when Hester married Piozzi, Johnson cursed her and she was utterly ostracized by her daughters, friends, family; deserted by Frances Burney for whom Hester had done so much (as she did for Johnson): that’s why she went to Italy. I have had to give up on writing my half of a Woolf-Johnson paper partly because I knew what I now have to say about Johnson will be so utterly out of kilter with my partner would and will pay as well as everyone in that volume. It’s conceived as demonstration of Johnson’s modernity. Modernity? A feminist avante la lettre is what is partly implied no matter how qualified the assertion

Mattie Griffiths escapes because her white mistress left her a legacy and her freedom. She still had to flee to realize it (with money hidden away), and went to live in Massachusetts where she taught “African children.” She then wrote her autobiography using the style, language, tropes of European tradition. Her book is written in a stilted style so as to gain respect, an identity and tell of the intolerable conditions under which she had lived. She is safe by assimilating herself in a book. Spacks compares her to the 20th century Brazilian prostitute, Carolina Maria de Jesus who lived in one of the unimaginable slums of that land, writing on scraps of paper picked up in the street, using for money what the father of one of her three children gives her for serving him sexually when he visits. She loathes him, is disgusted by herself because she is a woman. Like many another woman at the bottom she lives in fear of arrest. Readers Digest rejected her manuscript. Arrest, illness and then death is the fate of a major character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 19th century protest industrial novel, Mary Barton: for vagrancy, she is given 3 months hard labor, and then ejected with nothing on offer to help her. What matter if this is nominally fiction.

Women become mirrors of their men; they avoid reality by fantasizing in print, in their writing, says Spacks. They write not only to create an identity (that I have known since reading Paula Backscheider and Margaret Anne Doody on women’s poetry) but to assert themselves at all. They justify themselves by claiming exactitude in truth. They are safer because their bodies are not immediately involved; yet they don’t have to claim anything for themselves beyond the recognition of the literary effectiveness. No political action need be taken. Sexuality is a trap. Men look at sexuality as a challenge, the woman is a pleasure to acquire as a subordinary part of their lives.  For women it becomes an agent of her defeat (as she has children and begins to live apart from the larger social world). I used to write in the interstices of time when my children were young. The classic mode is that of translation or the sharp perceptive observer, both of which I did.

Do I dominate my own experience by writing about it? I know I don’t. My rational for this tonight is to make sure that Spacks’s essay is not forgotten. But I am creating an identity as a (I hope) respected writer, scholar, teacher, blogger online.


Isak Dinesen’s hard-won house in Africa

Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s “Dependents: The Trials of Success” is a companion essay to Spacks. It caught my eye as next (pp 43-59) and because in my last Sylvia II blog I wrote of false imposed definitions of success. This is a remarkable analytical essay, much longer than Spacks, which I cannot do justice to. Rorty begins by saying the US nation began with an assertion of independence based on war. Autonomy and power are what we focus on; self-respect comes through self-reliance. Of course we know independence is a myth for anyone; as a criteria it’s a killer for women who are automatically failures when they don’t define their lives by themselves. As an ideal it makes women resent men and men resent the dependence of women on them. Mobility is demanded — individual assertiveness comes first. The arts of self-expression cannot be valued. In trouble and need where can people turn? They hide their families; put children into schools that socialize according to to these norms, and women become even more beside the point, functioning as “consumers.” But productivity is the mark of worth.

When she comes to women married to professional men who are intellectuals, she moves into details close to my own experience and heart. She says to create you need to be in a world working with like-minded others, in a special environment where intellectual work is a full-time job. Juggling very differrent other demands makes for half-hearted half-time scholarship, perhaps competent. Slowly the “shadow of self-contempt” moves in. She thinks this is not a specifically female problem, but the problem of a “harried and torn person.”

An interesting side question is her idea that only when people work together do we come to know one another’s strengths and virtues and she thinks it’s taking on responsibility that offers fulfillment far more than any leaning on love. Mutual reliance among equals, and now her essay turns desperate as she returns to US values of domination which results in one group of people giving up so much (and it’s not natural) for another. We are back to the bondsman and master. It’s in this light Rorty questions the reality of “liberty,” “satisfaction,” “success;” the last is experienced as trial, ordeal in a juggernaut of power. There is thus a high cost or price paid for what is called “progress.”

She then goes on to say we must revise our conceptions of human worth, respect a whole range of talents, temperaments, redefine our grounds for mutual esteem. We need to get back to shared social planning for all. Utopian? She ends with recent travels where she became convinced the conditions of women in different countries are too different for any general solution that is gender-based. General solutions across cultures are economic and ideological. She thinks the “mechanisms” of “social vindictiveness” against “social explorers” in the US are paradoxically stronger than ever. Do not let yourself be unprotected against the rage the whole system engenders and then what you need to do undermines any social transformation.

I have gone a long way it would seem from women as autobiographers and biographers. But the content of what women write about has brought me here.

From “Biography from Seventy-Four” by Patricia Fargnoli

She is not who she was.
Last week, she dreamt
she could still run.
She ran and ran a long way.
She sleeps uneasily now,
waking and turning,
waking and turning.
If she could be anywhere
she’d be on the windjammer
sailing to Martinique,
the one she remembers
that comes back in dreams,
the sea dark blue and rolling,
that paradise, green mountain
and white sand in the distance …
Grace: what is given
without being asked,
what makes one able to rise.
The last time she felt joy
so long ago she can’t remember.
She is afraid
of thunder that comes too close,
war and the threat of war.
She tries to protect herself
from the wind of no good …. (from Winter)

Ellen

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Grant, Duncan, Parrot Tulips

[Not long after reading Sir Thomas Browne’s Urn-Burial] The disease gained rapidly upon him now in his solitude. He would read often six hours into the night; and when they came to him for orders about the slaughtering of cattle or the harvesting of wheat, he would push away his folio and look as if he did not understand what was said to him. This was bad enough and wrung the hearts of Hall, the falconer, of Giles, the groom, of Mrs Grimsditch, the housekeeper, of Mr Dupper, the chaplain. A fine gentleman like that, they said, had no need of books. Let him leave books, they said, to the palsied or the dying. But worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing [what’s biographer to do?], Orlando Chapter 2.

Friends and readers,

I’ve finally come to a conclusion about what the book by Virginia Woolf, Orlando is: an experimental novel. I must hold to this and not let go as I’m committed to teaching it this summer.


Vanessa Bell, Design for a Screen: Figures by a Lake

This after three sessions of discussing the book with a group of retired adult learners; watching Sally Potter’s movie of Orlando (and the features on a DVD where Potter and her fellow film-makers explain what and why they are doing what they do in the film); browsing many essays and scattered statements, and finally coming upon two genuinely helpful chapters, one from Julia Briggs’s Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life and Avrom Fleischman’s The English Historical Novel, not to omit a couple of perceptive blogs (one source is Sackville-West’s little girls’ book, A Note of Explanation), and emailing with friends.

I’d compare it with other experimental modernist fiction: Dorothy Richardon’s Pilgrimage; Joyce’s Finnegans Wake; Jorge Luis Borges’s novellas; Umberto Eco’s later fantasy magic realism. Think too of Elena Ferrante’s little girls’ picture book, a graphic novel of a young girl’s nightmare, The Beach at Night where the doll is thrown away. In the learned Woolf there is a sheer density of intertextuality (worn lightly): she scoops up an ever-expanding (as you tease the references out) literary imaginary, with a few specific authors and heroes from the 16th through later 19th century who appear (sometimes outside their period); much allusion, reference, parody, critical commentary: Jane Austen there, she channels Boswell on Johnson (there are references to the Hebrides and Scottish hills seen at a distance in the final peroration of the book) through Orlando’s conversations with Nick Greene: how tiresome are authors on authors.

She combines biographical and autobiographical fantasy about Vita Sackville-West (the genius loci of the book, her house, Knole, its habitas) and herself with a time-traveling historical tale (each era has high violence, imperialist events, and in the corners of life disaster goes on: “a poor black cat had been mistaken for coals and shovelled on the fire,” Chapter 5). The story line (picked out by Sally Potter) about a search for a gratifying identity by Orlando a frequently writing, brooding, thinking man-as-woman writer stymied by in impossible trammels of male and social demands, including marriage, diplomacy in world cities and withdrawn gypsy tribes.

As to the biographical sources:  Sackville-West visited Russia a number of times, loved the place apparently and enjoyed snow, so the story of the love affair of Woolf and the Russian countess is a transmutation. Her continual diary keeping and “The Oak Tree” represent two Georgic poems Sackville-West wrote: The Land and the Garden. Her husband, Harold Nicolson spent much time in Constantinople and other places as a diplomat, when the choice of Istanbul. In gay literature Constantinople, Venice and Turkey have become known tropes of homosexuality or gayness. Set a story there and you are suggesting your book is about transgressive sexuality, fluid sexuality. In her ancestry her grandmother was a gypsy, Pepita, who had a married a Spanish gentleman, Juan Antonio de Olivia; the marriage broke up and she went to live with Lionel Sackville West, the heir to Knoles, and Vita’s grandfather, Sackville II (2nd Lord Sackville). They had 5 children, all illegitimate. The youngest and a daughter, Victoria (Vita’s mother), married the nephew of the next heir-at-law or in line, Lionel 3rd Lord Sackville (the eldest son of 2nd Lord Sackville’s brother, William Edward). He was legitimate. Did Victoria marry him to secure Knoles? There were two court cases over Knoles; one for the property, and one to wrest money from an old man who lived there for decades with Victoria. The mother won both.

It’s a continual satire on culture (Boswell and Mrs Williams at worship of Johnson; Pope as tiny dwarf writing salacious poetry, deeply anti-feminist), on the rituals of life as contradictory social dysfunction or downright lies, through free-wheeling history and magic realism geography. I entertain the idea it’s book of struggle on the part of Woolf to find and come to terms with her transgender self and reach some plateau of sexually mature enjoyment — with other women, with a husband, through a child. The art of living is hard to master.


Roger Fry, Barns and Pond at Charleston

The clue seen everywhere in the labyrinth, the word tapestry of Orlando is its lack of verisimilitude. That gives Woolf the liberty to present herself as on holiday (at one point she finds herself in a modern department store, what fun for women at the turn of the 20th century), to invent grotesqueries too and senseless jokes on Orlando’s partners. Perhaps Woolf’s use of absurd and silly names and the swift changing back and forth ofgender of previous women lovers to undermine, mock heterosexual solemnness. Shes seek one authentic self so earnestly and at the close discovers there is a new self at every corner. I loved the many subversive and beautiful (with imagery) meditations, just the sudden soaring from all sorts of sudden thoughts and images pour out:

At every step she glanced nervously lest some male form should be hiding behind a furze bush or some savage cow be lowering its horns to toss her. But there were only the rooks flaunting in the sky. A steel-blue plume from one of them fell among the heather. She loved wild birds’ feathers. She had used to collect them as a boy. She picked it up and stuck it in her hat. The air blew upon her spirit somewhat and revived it. As the rooks went whirling and wheeling above her head and feather after feather fell gleaming through the purplish air, she followed them, her long cloak floating behind her, over the moor, up the hill. She had not walked so far for years. Six feathers had she picked from the grass and drawn between her fingers and pressed to her lips to feel their smooth, glinting plumage, when she saw, gleaming on the hill-side, a silver pool, mysterious as the lake into which Sir Bedivere flung the sword of Arthur. A single feather quivered in the air and fell into the middle of it. Then, some strange ecstasy came over her. Some wild notion she had of following the birds to the rim of the world and flinging herself on the spongy turf and there drinking forgetfulness, while the rooks’ hoarse laughter sounded over her. She quickened her pace; she ran; she tripped; the tough heather roots flung her to the ground. Her ankle was broken. She could not rise. But there she lay content. The scent of the bog myrtle and the meadow-sweet was in her nostrils. The rooks’ hoarse laughter was in her ears. ‘I have found my mate,’ she murmured. ‘It is the moor. I am nature’s bride,’ she whispered, giving herself in rapture to the cold embraces of the grass as she lay folded in her cloak in the hollow by the pool … [I could go on and on].

Our narrator tells us poetry is voice answering to voice in secret transactions. There’s even a Tristram Shandy turn as the book ends on the day the author is writing it presumably on the last page.


Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf

I’m not sure which costumes and colors in Potter’s movie are my favorites; perhaps the Victorian outfit Tilda Swindon emerges from the hedge maze in. What Sally Potter does bring out the latent story: in the movie Tilda Swinden as Orlando is seeking to find her identity, to create a space or way of life for herself that she can be herself in, she seeks liberty from stifling conventions at the same time as she finds it impossible to escape them altogether.

Side details: throughout Woolf’s books old poverty stricken women are seen, lonely, looking out windows. Sally Potter includes these, e.g., [except for] an old woman hobbling over the ice as in Woolf’s book: some old country woman hacking at the ice in a vain attempt to draw a pail full of water or gathering what sticks or dead leaves she could find for firing, not a living soul came their way.


Marianne Werefkin, Winterland

The book has parades of terrifying cruelty at its close (glimpsed now and again in the book’s anecdotes), but it ends in semi-celebratory mood, a vision of pageantry. Sally Potter ends her sweet and upbeat movie with the wildly caricatured angel returning to Orlando once again sitting against a tree, this time with a young daughter nearby, singing this hopeful vision:


Orlando


her daughter


Jimmy Somerville as the counter-tenor angel:

… I am coming.
I am coming. …
… Here I am. …
… Neither a woman,
nor a man …
… Oh we are joined,
we are one …
… with the human face …
… Oh we are joined,
we are one …
… with the human face …
… At last I am free. …
… At last I am free. …

NB:  The images from all the paintings on this blog but the one by Werefkin came from the Net, but I learned of their existence and titles from a superbly insightful and informative book: The Art of Bloomsbury by Richard Shone, mostly on and filled with pictures by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant.

Ellen

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Detail of Murray’s face from painting by John Singleton Copley


A print of Foster’s face under a large hat

Friends and readers,

The last of this set of foremother blogs: two women writers, very enjoyable to read: Judith Sargent Murray and Hannah Webster Foster; and several others whose lives show the American colonialist environment: Susannah Rowson, Sarah Wentworth Morton, and Leonora Sansay. Murray is a deeply appealing writer of feminist essays; Foster’s novel brought me close to tears. Leonora Sansay was the Creole mistress of Aaron Burr.

I am taking such a long time writing about this early modern American women writers course: I was away in Milan last week for more than 12 days, which has occasioned this hiatus. I hope to be more regular on this site from here on in at least for some time to come.

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

The last session in terms of the writing we read in Prof Tamara Harvey’s course was the most fulfilling because it was the most pleasurable and insightful as writing. Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), wrote fiction and essays, poetry, plays, and was an effective advocate for women’s rights. Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), wrote a epistolary novel still in print because it’s still read for its own sake, a prose commentary on education for women in the US, had two daughters who themselves became professional popular women writers. They write in an attractive available style, with sustained intelligent thought, and humanely. Both had careers in or through periodicals that appealed to the educated common reader of the era.

Like many a woman reader before me, I much enjoyed Murray’s essay On the Equality of the Sexes, which is an important text in feminist intellectual history. Calling herself Constantia, she anticipates Wollstonecraft in arguing that women are born with equal gifts to men and would contribute much to society, be better people if they were permitted to develop these. That it is the thwarting of these gifts, and inculcating of behaviors false to nature that inhibits their abilities. She anticipates Virginia Woolf too in showing how in a family the brother of such a girl is given all opportunities and she is repressed into instrument to support him and the family. The strength of her reasoning and a foundation in reading other feminist women writers (Mary Askew is quoted; also Charlotte Corday) show a wide range of reading in the classics and European authors.

She has a more overtly moralizing tone because in the US religious organizations were far more more forceful (taking the space that perhaps class adherence had in the UK), but her horizons are secular in aim. I delighted to discover she had read Vittoria Colonna (as the Marchioness of Pescara), and other Italian Renaissance women (Isotta Nogarella), Marie de Journay, Madame Scudery, Anne Murray Haklett and other women from the English civil war, and then the list of 18th century women writers is long and formidable (Genlis, Barbauld, Seward, Cowley, Inchbald, Smith; Radcliffe , Williams, Wollstonecraft). Alas one author she does not know was Jane Austen. Except for Austen, I felt Murray had been reading the same books I had. This is rare for me. Stories of an individual woman's capability in the public sphere are accompanied by an insistence in the importance of building women's self-esteem ("complacency"), as a foundation for economic independence. She was indeed radical. She reminds of me of other women in the later 17th century (Lucy Hutchinson) who were educated in a religious tradition (in her case "universalism") became devoted to a husband who helped her develop her gifts. John Murray was her second husband and it was his status (a rich shipping mercant) and career (a teacher) that enabled hers.

She wrote in magazines and produced fiction and a play centered on women as a group interacting with one anther rather than women seeking men (husbands, with courtship all the book would be about). Her The Traveller Returned and epistolary novel (really a series of essays with stories exemplifying), The Story of Margaretta is are over-didactic, with the latter more effective in showing how the development of sensibleness and abilities prevents women from making self-destructive miserable choices during the period of what might be called sexual and adult awakening (the theoretic point of say Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Anne Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall).


Sarah Wentworth Morton, said to have been very pretty as seen in this portrait by Gilbert Stuart

Harvey wanted to stress how Murray was involved in building a career for herself and devoted what class time there was to a quarrel she had in print with another woman journalist and poet at the time, Sarah Wentworth Morton (1759-1846), who had called herself Constantia too. Morton’s husband had gotten Morton’s sister (staying with them at the time) pregnant, and the sister killed herself,and this private trouble emerged in public. Morton claimed the name was hers first, and she used it to signal her constancy to her husband.

I felt this focus undermined the respect for them Harvey was meaning to build. Morton wrote verse featuring non-white characters, a popular elegiac poem on behalf of abolition of slavery (The African Chief, based on the life of a slain St Domingo enslaved man) and Ouábi; Or the Virtues of Nature: An Indian Tale in Four Cantos, a European style love-conflict poem featuring native Americans (the story reflects Morton’s life troubles). These works sound much less readable than Murray’s (or Foster’s), but it used to be thought Morton wrote another epistolary novel, The Power of Sympathy (printed with Foster’s in a Penguin classics volume edited by Carla Mulford), with a believable enough psychological acuity.

It’s noteworthy almost all these early modern to later 18th century women writers were given these over-the-top romance names (Morton was also called Philenia & a Sappho), which had the effect of leading to their being taken less seriously than male writers.

Harvey spent all the time we had for Foster on The Coquette, which I have heard papers on before (see my report on a paper on The Coquette at the 2015 ASECS). There is nowhere near as much known about Foster as there is about Murray, probably because most of Foster’s publications are in fiction; essays invite a certain amount of autobiography, but The Coquette has been written about academically even frequently since the feminist movement.

The story is as follows: Peter Sanford, a libertine male seduces Eliza Wharton, a flirtatious young woman; he has no intention of marrying her (as beneath him), marries someone else while as his mistress she is gradually isolated; she becomes pregnant, gives birth, and dies shortly thereafter; no one attempts to go to her to help her. Ironically, there is information on the story’s source in real life scandal and death of an isolated mother and her stillborn baby.

What rivets the reader is the personality of the heroine, Eliza. She has escaped marrying a elderly clergyman she did not like, and finds herself pressured to marry another clergyman, Rev J Boyer, who is a decent man and would be a good husband to her but bores her as he attempts to control and thwart what are her enjoyments. Influenced by Richardson’s Clarissa, Foster has Eliza attracted to a rake, Sanford who is well educated and attractive, a secular young man; she is a reasoning secular young woman. Each major character has a separate correspondent and their voices are all individuated, believable.

The novel becomes a satiric philosophical debate on what is friendship. Eliza’s confidant responds to Eliza’s frank talk and real needs with mild but steady and unsympathetic moralistic scolding. What is proper entertainment? what do people want out of marriage? In this book they marry for money and rank, and Eliza’s refusal to follow this pattern isolates her, and gradually the novel turns into a poignant tragedy. She is never a libertine like Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Austen’s Lady Susan. Gradually her voice vanishes from the book, and we feel her punishment is unmerited. This is in contrast to a didactic parallel popular American novel by Susannah Rowson, Charlotte Temple (also with a source in real American life at the time). Forster’s book leaves the reader with a sense of grief for Eliza and indicts the rigidity of her society. It moves away from the religious morality of the time more than Samuel Richardson’s novel which equally indicts the other characters of his novel but rather for their greed or inhumanity or cruelty.

I found myself unexpectedly really enjoying reading the novel; it was a page-turner until Eliza understandably falls into her strained depression and moves towards death. She is so dependent on letters. I found tears coming to my eyes as I read about her death. She could not find a world to belong to and in this new country could not exist without one.


This may be a depiction of Leonora and one of her children (by John Vanderlyn)

Professor Harvey hurried on to bring in yet another American novelist of the era, probably a Creole Leonora Sansay (1773-1821), born Honora Davern, who became the mistress of Aaron Burr. Very like Jane Austen’s aunt Philadelphia, Leonora was married off to the powerful man’s client (Hancock was Hasting’s client); it’s not irrelevant both lives in colonies run by the empire of which they regarded themselves as a sort of member (women are only sort of members). As Hancock became obsessed with controlling the daughter who was fobbed off on him, so Louis Sansay eventually became intensely jealous of Leonora and violent, and she fled him and Haiti rejoining Burr and supporting him when his ambition led to his being accused of treason. Eventually after a few aliases, Leonora disappears from the public record; she appears to be yet another American woman writer of this era more interesting for her (amoral in her case) life than what she wrote.

If you followed along, the course did open a terrain of American women writers and their lives and the environment they had to live in politically, socially, religiously, one of dangerous wars, ruthless slavery and for most women obedience to repression or erasure. Judith Sargent Murray was a rare lucky woman in this colonialist world. For myself I most enjoyed communing with the women’s texts I had once known and had had no one to talk to about, and being introduced to new ones, though I concede had I had such a course as an undergraduate I might have been sorely tempted to research the origins of the women’s literature in America some of which when by women I do so enjoy today.

Ellen

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Pilgrim children dressed for church (17th century American art and dress)

Yet grant some small acknowledgement of ours (Bradstreet, “The Prologue”)

In darkness foundering
Words fail the troubled mind.
For who, I ask, can light me
When Reason is blind? (Sor Juana, “On the effects of Divine Love”)

Dear friends and readers,

Among the delights I knew this early winter was to hear for the first time ever some American women writers I once spent hours and even weeks reading in the Library of Congress talked about intelligently and in words I could understand for the first time. It’s an odd feeling to have felt and thought about these women writers and their texts in the silence for long periods, shared my pleasure and thoughts with no one, and then suddenly confront a living constituency. I took a course at the OLLI at Mason in Early Modern American Women’s Writing. Four sessions of reading.

Not only the professor from George Mason, Tamara Harvey, had studied them thoroughly, but this was no dumbed-down course:  she cited articles, books, and talked of colleagues and students who also had read with interesting comments they made and perspectives written about. Had clearly discussed them in conferences, taught them to coming scholars. She took a perspective I had not thought of, and chose quite different poems from the ones I had so loved when I read their work in the 1980s on weekday nights and weekends in the Library of Congress reading rooms. I had looked at each as an individual and was absorbed by their life stories, chose the immediate personal texts, or texts that immediately appealed by their easy eloquence or wit or humor or pathos. Prof Harvey chose texts which could show the reader the origin and development of the American imaginary that is with us today. For all of them were born or writing or lived out their lives in the North American colonies and then US states.

There has been written a good sympathetic biography by a modern American woman poet, Charlotte Gordon: Anne Bradstreet, The Untold life of America’s First Poet. Anne emerges as a reluctant American, and you gain her full personal context:

I’ve never written about these American women writers in public before. The first two wrote texts which even at their most attractive show them thanking their God for dire punishments inflicted upon them personally, or when they try to assert their love of writing or desire to express themselves, they have first to argue for a right to write in the first place (which they seem to have to), in language so self-berating, so without any overt sense of their strong value, it’s hard to find several verses altogether unmarred. In her A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf complains the problem with 18th century poetry by women (in the UK) is they cannot forget themselves, are continually so aware of harassment, of embittering experiences as women, of obstacles set in their way for any kind of individual fulfillment, they are ever writhing with complaint. What about disfigurement and deformity & miseries which you feel you are forced to be thankful for? Religion has not just veiled and repressed the minds of women writers in the US, it makes them express patently perverse ideas.

That’s why I never made a foremother blog for Anne Bradstreet 1612-72). She’s a strong poet with an individual voice, as in this opening of some vereses upon waking up to find her house burning down (July 10, 1666):

In silent night when rest I took,
For sorrow near I did not look,
I wakened was with thund’ring noise
And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice.
That fearful sound of “fire” and “fire,”
Let no man know is my Desire.
I, starting up, the light did spy,
And to my God my heart did cry
To straighten me in my Distress
And not to leave me succourless.
Then, coming out, behold a space
The flame consume my dwelling place.
And when I could no longer look …
When by the ruins oft I past
My sorrowing eyes aside did cast
And here and there the places spy
Where oft I sate and long did lie.
Here stood that trunk, and there that chest,
There lay that store I counted best.
My pleasant things in ashes lie
And them behold no more shall I.
Under thy roof no guest shall sit,
Nor at thy Table eat a bit.
No pleasant talk shall ‘ere be told
Nor things recounted done of old

She writes of her children as chicks in her nest — she’s another woman poet who identifies with small vulnerable non-human animals:

I had eight birds hatched in one nest,
Four cocks there were, and hens the rest,
I nursed them up with pain and care,
Nor cost, nor labour did I spare … (“In reference to her children, 13 June 1659”)

She writes so intensely about her love for her husband, and what a good man he was (as all as her father), is guilty about the trouble she caused her (apparently) incessantly pregnant (and bodily miserable) mother, her fear herself of death from childbirth:

And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harms,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thy arms (“Before the birth of one of her children”)

I had stayed with the domestic woman’s art, her private life. Well, now I branched out over the week in my reading. I read four poems on the four seasons (summer “with melted tawny face, and garments thin”), filled with wonderful home-y imagery of her life. Tamara Harvey said her favorite of Bradstreet’s poems is “Phlegm,” which she said was about medical science of the era, and which I discovered when I went home and read my one paperback (The Works of Anne Bradstreet, ed. Jeannine Hensley, foreword Adrienne Rich) is unqualified angry at the behavior and language of most people she encounters

Patient I am, patient I’d need be,
To bear with the injurious taunts …
I’ll leave that manly property to you,
I’ll love no thund’ring guns nor bloody wars …. (from “The Four Humors”)

It was still to me counterproductive for the professor to have picked out to concentrate on the worst stilted poems (admittedly by Bradstreet probably thought her most serious), as Bradstreet in epic form at length retells some Biblical or ancient history, and I thought to myself the other women around me (there was but one man in the class) will never seek out this woman’s book, but in these the professor found assertive feminist ambition (interwoven with the usual half-thwarted ambition) and comments allusive of American experience historically.

I now reread Rich’s introduction and found for the first time she too was interested in Bradstreet’s early depiction of the American experience: Rich stayed with the poetry one can read (descriptive) and we end up with Hart Crane by way of Cotton Mather. All those many years ago I had compared her to Anne Hutchinson, persecuted (like the French women of the 1790s,e.g., Madame Roland), speaking out, acting publicly on behalf of radical political beliefs. Now I see Bradstreet much more in a line with the political learned Lucy Hutchinson, down to having written an epic poem too (Lucy’s is actually readable), who, happily I have written a foremother blog for.


Sor Juana, portrait by Miguel Cabrera (see essay by Elizabeth Perry in Early Modern Women, a Disciplinary Journal, 2012, Vol 7, pp 3-32)

The professor chose the same kinds of high ambition poems to stress in the case of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1651-95). These are truly awful, some plays where allegorical Catholic figures declaim and dance, again with the twisted self-accusatory, self-assertions. Sor Juana was much worse off: illegitimate, the child of small landowners, she’d have no dowry and (reminding me of Galileo’s unfortunate daughter) was made a nun, and for a while let alone to read and study and write love poems to imaginary lovers (the poems reminded me of Andrew Marvell, somewhere between the metaphysicals and clarity of later 17th century verse). These were those I read, plus a few others to Mexican aristocratic women, sometimes on classical myths I could recognize (Pyramus and Thisbe!). I did remember one where she justified the enslavement of a girl. I seem even to have tried to read a book on her poetry, and got half-way through her life and religion (!) by Octavio Paz, Sor Juana, on “the entrapments of faith.”

No one to talk to, I somehow did not realize that what happened was she defied a bishop (guardedly, qualifiedly) and that was enough to lead all around her to quash her gifts, stop her writing; silenced, made to “do penitence,” no surprise she didn’t live long after this. Prof Harvey revealed also that Sor Juana was strongly hostile and aggressive towards native people in the US (for savage reprisals, strong nationalist), wrote blood-thirsty choruses,reminding me now of the sequences of “savages” dancing in the Americas in the film adaptation of Outlander (so we haven’t gone far in popular conceptions of African-derived rituals or native Americans, it seems). I began to see why I read only a third of the one volume of poetry I have (A Sor Juana Anthology, trans. Alan S. Trueblood, foreword by Octavio Pza) and never opened one of these half-crazed vision books (Sor Juana’s Dream, trans., intro, commentary Luis Harss), filled with guilt, agony, torturous versions of mystic neoplatonic readings of ancient kingdoms.


17th Century Spanish church (American, Yucatan, San Pedro)

Poor woman. I now think what I managed on my own was from her short period of joy, and reading over the week came to the conclusion she was a lesbian, and her bitter encounter with the bishop was preceded by equally crushing relationships with court women. She began as an innocent with a kindly good heart, naively reaching out to people expecting reciprocation:

And although loving your beauty
is a crime beyond repair,
rather the crime be chastised
than my fervor cease to dare.

With this confession in hand,
I pray be less stern with me.
Do not condemn me to distress
one who fancied bliss so free.

If you blame me for disrespect,
remember, you gave me leave;
thus, if obedience was wrong,
your commanding must be my reprieve …(“Excusing herself for silence, on being summoned to break it”)

So this time I read on into two-thirds more of my anthology of her poetry. It is equally hard to find a whole poem to share that is not painful. The fantasies of herself with the imaginary beloved in natural landscapes (reminding me of Anne Finch’s reveries) are lovely. There are long winding verses with deep grief at separation from the beloved, relief in his company where she can tell of her cares, “insidious memories,” awareness of the fleetingness of their beings. Some are addressed so directly and intimately to a lover (sonnets like Vittoria Colonna’s, but better, less repetition of the same imagery and more truthful) where she imagines him strangling her with a rope, teasing, vexing her with vacillations; in one she is widowed in a series called “Vicarious Love.” In the English translation, she’s at her best in short lines with four line rhyme schemes:

That my heart is suffering
from love pangs is plain,
but less clear by far
is the cause of its pain.

To make fancy come true
my poor heart strains
but, thwarting desire,
only gloom remains …
I yearn for the chance
to which I aspire
yet when it impends
I shrink ….

She has so few color words, I share this stanza for the sake of that word “green:”

Return, beloved one;
my weary life is suffering decline
from absence so prolonged.
Return, but if you stay away,
although my hope is fed by tears of pain,
I’ll keep it green till you return.

There’s a series on the relationship of convent to court. Any individual stanza gains its individual meaning from context so again it’s hard to convey why anyone would be drawn into these. There’s one on music which attempts to imitate music, a series on the self in the world (things are pretty bad, even learning is harmful for many). She recognizes the great cruelty of people, but also that hers are imagined troubles too, so some are “happy in their unknowing.” Paz finds her not so melancholy as I do since he follows her astronomical poetry and, through his religious belief, enters into her Dante like visions where she transfigures her longing spirit for love and understanding.

When it has come to the desired place,
It sees a lady held in reverence,
And who shines so, that through her radiance
The pilgrim spirit gazes on her (Paz, “Council of Stars”)

Nonetheless, in the dream book I mentioned, now opened and at least skimmed, this self-insight is not uncommon:

… to the undaunted spirit
that, disdaining life, determines
to immortalize itself in ruin.

I thought of the Renaissance poet, Margaret of Navarre’s Prisons, but perhaps for the modern reader, Emily Dickinson, Gabriela Mistal, and Elizabeth Bishop (drunk, lesbian, living at the edge of a world that did recognize her) would be more helpful in situating her among women. For art work, Remedios Varo (see my blog series, women artists) who spent her last years in Mexico and ended making surreal mystic fantasias.


Varo’s The Escape

I’ve four more, long 18th century women writers from this course on American roots, for our imaginary. The writer of a once widely-sold captivity narrative, Mary Rowlandson (1637-1711) and the neo-classical verse writing Phillis Wheatley (1753-84), in a deep sense a captive all her life; then journalist, essayist, playwright, poet, advocate for women’s rights (an American Mary Wollstonecraft), Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820), and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840), playwright and still in print and read novelist.

I’ve spent this evening in the company of two great spirits.

Ellen

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