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MaryorCharlesBeale1
Probably by Mary Beale, but it is initialed CB and has been attributed to her son, Charles, though nothing else of this quality is known to be by him nor did anyone anywhere give him any credit or notice for this kind of work (Henry Scipio Reitlinger, The Beale Drawings in the British Museum, Burlington Magazine, 41:234 (Sep., 1922):142-47)

jamesscott
James Scott (1649-89), 1st Duke of Monmouth (Fabien Newfield, Mary Beale)

Gentle reader,

I continue my project. Mary Beale is among the first women artists in Europe whose careers resemble that of 20th century professional expert: from the time she began she produced work on commission for a set price and supported herself and her family well; she clearly had a vocation for at the same time we find many pictures she did for the sheer love of painting, the person she painted and the image she captured. She was devoted to her art and developed it technically. A the same time as she was so famous to get all these clients, she is unknown to those looking at her pictures.

Trust me if you have ever looked at pictures of famous people at or on the fringes of Charles II’s court, you have seen the work of Mary Beale.

Take the familiar portraits: perhaps the most famous, though utterly without any sense of the personality we conjure up: Aphra Behn; Charles II with his long fat nose, sensual lips and wrinkle-filled countenance. Or Nell Gwynne whose main interest beyond the person the picture is said to represent, Charles II’s “protestant whore,” is that one has to remember that for most periods people who have power (including Hollywood stars in promotional photos) have not wanted their actual personalities to be discerned, but some abstraction which conjures up a presence hieratic and guarded, strong, invulnerable, and what is considered sexy and powerful at the time, in this case the Lely idea of well-fed opulent luxurious elegance.

These are not her best. Her best are the pictures of her family and those of ordinary people we’ve not heard of or go unnamed. Mary Beale is typical of so many women painters in using herself and family primarily. There appear to be many of herself, two of her husband. Her work occurs at the opening of Frances Borzello’s excellent Seeing Ourselves: Women’s Self-Portraits (which readily becomes a history of women artists):

MaryBealeHerselfcloseup
Mary Beale, Self-portrait, painted on sacking, recorded by her husband as a “study” for “improvement”

In her portraits of herself with her husband and son, she is more guarded

MaryBealeHerselfSonHusband

Those images I’ve found in color have been these personal ones (for which she presumably was not paid) and these offer those critics disposed to look at her mastery of painting, the most opportunity. But I did find one not of her family written adequately about:

portraitofyounggirlcolor
Young Women

From Vigue, Great Women Masters of Art: “As Mary Beale’s artistic career advanced, her pictorial quality increased through a more meticulous treatment of space and growing attention to detail. In her first paintings, the artist gained all of her expressive force from a marked chiaroscuro, employing strong contrasts and the effects of light to emphasize the figure’s face and expression. Later, during the 1670s, she began to move toward a more decorative and complete style.
    In this painting, the artist renders a young woman in profile looking toward the right. The woman seems to observe the viewer discreetly from the corner of her eye. There is a considerable difference in conception, aesthetic, and technique between this portrait and those by her husband or by George Saville. The figure is sophisticated, somewhat distant, and idealized. There is a marked interest in representing her with a beauty that does not go unnoticed by the viewer. Indeed, it attempts to capture the viewer’s full attention and sentiments.
    Beale thus treated the very last detail with great care, from the complexion to the facial features, sophisticated and modern coiffure, and the somber, elegant, and distinguished dress
made of expensive fabric. The care with which the artist executed the facial features in order to convey a specific expression is enhanced by the dress. Its soft white combines perfectly with the sitter’s delicate skin and creates a strong contrast with the black silk scarf. The folds of the scarf give rise to an interesting interplay of light and shadows, acquiring a sense of texture accentuated by the fleeting highlights of the fabric. Similarly, for the model’s bare shoulder, Beale used the effect of the light to transmit the tactile sensation of the young woman’s skin.
    A new element is introduced in this painting: The posture adopted by the woman is neither random nor circumstantial. The artist’s attention to detail serves to intensify the artist’s efforts to create an image with a dual reading in which elegance is combined with sensuality, an attitude of distance with subtle flirtatiousness, and the delicate beauty of skin and dress with refined eroticism, all conveyed by placing the principal point of light on the model’s shoulder and stylized neck. The artist gathers the woman’s hair on top of her head in order to reveal her rosy cheeks and best use the effect produced by the light as it strikes her skin.”

As someone who prefers the unfinished work that reveals something of the individual soul of the artist, I wish more were written about the drawings I started with:

MaryorCharlesBeale2
Girl’s Head (also attributed to her son, Charles)

What’s preferred by the general art historians is this kind of coy chubby sexy sentiment: for those who persist in attributing the drawings to her son, consider how like the face of this Bacchus is to the woman above

(c) St Edmundsbury Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Bacchus as a sensual adolescent, sex not clear

Her finest pictures are somber, capturing yet “vigorous, with an “expressive style, the skin tones fresh yet not voluptuous, fine treatment of drapery (Germaine Greer, Obstacle Race, 255-57)

portrMaryBeale
Self-portait (1666): note the inset paintings of her son and perhaps a female relative — it’s very large for the era, the subdued brown to red tones and skin color is vivid; there is the beginning of a smile she is trying to subdue too

Some of the less familiar, not quite celebrity types do show Mary Beale’s ability to capture a living identity:

gilbertburnet
Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), Bishop of Salisbury, historian, theologian, apologist for powerful people

What you have to do is look past all the paraphernalia to the person peering out at you from behind the mask, the clothing, the wig, or not, unknown ones looking away (probably directed to do that) as the case may be:

portraitofyounggirl
Portrait of a Young Girl (in Newfield)

Some look cunning, some smart, some mild. I recognize many famous individuals those who study the period will recognize by name; and individuals I’ve read about in Anne Finch’s biography (e.g., the Twisdens); there are other family groups. She painted people dressed in semi-classical guise; others imitating Renaissance figures (one woman breast-feeding as if this were a Madonna and child, but dressed in Restoration luxury). Mary Beale also flattered her sisters by giving them long noses, pursy lips and doe-like sensual eyes so that we have to look to see the still breathing identity staring at us:

sarahhall

She did paint a wide variety of minor and major known people of the era for some specific achievement or niche, to start to name a few, John Tillotson, John Ray and Henry Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Newcastle (a remarkable likenesses), John Maitland, Duke of Lauderdale and two John Lakes (minor powerful people), George Saville, and wives and daughters. And this is what many people might admire her for even if it intrigues or frustrates someone seeking a real presence from them.

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Tabitha Barber has written the well-researched biography, Mary Beale: Portrait of a 17th century painter, her family and her studio: Mary Beale lived a personally apparently exemplary quiet life of a gentlewoman, wife, and mother more typical of earnest religious people of the era — except that she was a working woman, professional in 20th century style, producing valued work for a decent living.

mary-bealechild
This is the sort of thing especially liked: young children made to conform to a current ideal of sensual rich beauty

She was born 1633 in Barrow, Suffolk, her father was recorder of Barrow. Her mother died in 1643, and nine years later she marries a fellow painter, Charles Beale. Two dates record two of the deaths of Mary Beale’s children by Charles: 1654, the first child died; 1656 a son, Bartholomew. While marriage often ended women’s careers in this era, Mary throve after her marriage. She began a professional apprenticeship then, and continued to paint during her children’s younger years. It was in 1656 she first established herself a a portrait artist. By 1655 she had a house in Covent Garden, and upcoming church people, and artists are said to have intermingled there. In 1656 husband and wife left London to avoid the plague. Another son, Charles, was born in 1660.

Nancy Heller (Women Artists: an Illustrated History) records Mary may have trained with Robert Walker, official painter to Cromwell and by Thomas Flatman, lawyer, poet, miniaturist. Then Lely helped her by inviting her to copy works from his personal collection. In 1670 her husband lost his job in the patent office, and this seemed to stir her up to become a professional artist, find a congenial milieu (not easy). So they moved to Pall Mall where clientele again grows. While she worked in pastels, watercolor, oils, drew, and grew popular for her pictures of children, her husband managed the household, primed canvases, mixed colors, became an art dealer. Heller singles out her portrait of John Wilkins (important person at Oxford and Cambridge universities, eventually Bishop of Chester) as typical of her: half-length, seated, dark background, eyes fixed on viewer (46-47):

johnWilkins

Her husband, Charles, says she recorded her workshop practices and sitters, it seems two notebooks of her own have survived out of many. They record lived life for middling or lower middle professional people from Cromwell to William the 3rd’s era; Interregnum to Stadlholder). There is a further diary written by a kinsman, Samuel Woodford, 1 Sept to 30 Nov 1662. These tell of friends and associates, and slowly a picture of an attractive congenial interlocking group of families emerge -= to which Mary Beale belonged despite her rakish, libertine and philosophically thinking clientele (from Carol Gibson-Wood, “Samuel Woodforde’s First Diary: An Early Source for Mary Beale,” The Burlington Magazine, 147: 1230, Painting in England (Sep., 2005):606-607)

Again from Nancy Heller one learns, Mary’s husband’s notebooks survive and these record the daily activities of his busy painting wife. Her husband recorded 83 commissions in 1677. Her sons helped with the work. Charles painted portraits – so the drawings might be his. She worked endlessly, painting replicas of her own work too. Lely’s death led to her losing subjects, and the household felt some financial straits. But after Lely’s death in 1680 she was commissioned to make copies of his work; “ironically, the accuracy of her copies has helped increase the confusion about what she painted” (46-47).

Several people record that Mary taught another woman painter, Sarah Curties (d. 1743) to paint portraits, including her husband, Dr Hoadly. Sarah was a successful portraitist. Elsa Honig Fine (Women and Art) sees Beale as one among several female artists around the court of Charles II and Germaine Greer supplies an image of one such painting:JaneCarlile
Joan Carlile

Greer: “A case has been made for this as a conversation piece; it’s rather a group portrait … figures posed before a background rather than social interaction. It is possible the same figure occurs in both groups, and that there is some attempt of making the picture an allegory of spring, with the lady of the house in the title role” (255-57)

Mary Beale herself charged £10 for 3/4 length, £5 for head and shoulders. On these terms she painted church people, nobility, landed gentry; she received a commission for 30 portraits from one family. “Most in demand were her charming portraits of children” (Fine, 68-69). I’m fond of two for the sake of the cats:

girlwithcat
Girl with Cat (in Newfield) — curled up

In this attributed to her son: the cat resembles the girl, maybe a bit cleverer?

MaryorCharlesBeale4

In 1699 Mary died in her own home in Pall Mall. She left two manuscripts of a Discourse in friendship (written for her friend, Elizabeth Tillotson).

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There was an exhibition held in London in 2000 in a newly constructed section of the Geffrye Museum (January 30): Mary Beale (1632/33-1699): Portrait of a 17th century painter, her family and studio. There can be no better example of how a woman’s work is denigrated than the review by Oliver Millar (Burlington Magazine, 142:1162 [January 2000]:48-49): not only were there fewer works by Mary on display than in another exhibit 24 years ago, Millar thinks this no great loss as he finds her work limited, dull, lacking any variety of mood, restricted in range of color and inferior in execution to other imitators of an inferior master, Lely. Mary was just not successful. Millar concedes there is interesting work by other people (Flatman, Mary’s son Charles) and so this exhibit has historical interest for students of Stuart Britain. He’s read Barber’s book with its “sensitive account of the ethics and social world” of Charles and Mary Beale. He sums up Barber thus: Mary lived an admirable life showing “unshaken adherence” to Christian ideals of piety, and with her husband enjoyed “marriage of equals:”

There was a rounded perfection to the Beales’ family life into which aspects of their professional work can be seen to fit with ease. They were godly, puritan folk, producing honest and truthful work to the best of their ability.

As described by Millar, Charles, her husband, emerges as the much more important figure from the catalogue:

Mary Burtin provides an invaluable account of Charles Beale’s investigations to a painter’s pigments, supports and method, an account partly based on his manuscript Experimental Secrets, studied here for the first time, and on materials in the Notebooks. It is a notable addition to what is already in print on an artist’s method and on portrait practice, relevant undoubtedly for other painters than Mary Beale.

Obviously I should have written this account of Charles, the husband, or Charles, the son, or maybe Flatman or anyone else but the central creative artist around whom the exhibit was built and around whose presence her family lived their lives.

But I haven’t. Mary Beale’s work is at its finest when she’s painting ordinary people and her family, and if the drawings are hers, when she is not under pressure to flatter people but can realize a truer likeness.

So I end on this one of her beloved son, Charles:

charlesbeale

And I offer two typical portraits of women: both seem to me to be intelligent, the second dreamy

cathymordauntmarybeale

MaryBealeportraitofunkmownlady

And one last child (also attributed to Charles, her son):

MaryorCharlesBeale3

Ellen

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MrsScroogegoodimagewithcat
Mrs Scrooge, widow, at home

Dear friends and readers,

For a few years now I’ve been able to write Christmas blogs about Jane Austen and “this time of festivities” (which is close to how her characters label winter solstice, somewhat ironically): how she perceives Christmas in her writing, how Christmas is treated in film adaptations of her books, e.g., Metropolitan; and more generally how Christmas and the New Year were treated in the 18th century, from Anne Finch, to Robert Southey.

Since this season had not achieved the specificity or importance in the 18th century it has since (heavily a result of 19th and 20th century commercialism), I’ve not been able to find enough on its treatment in other women novelists of the era (or men), but discover that on my old Sylvia blog, I had gone into Posy Simmonds’s illustrations for Carol Ann Duffy’s Mrs Scrooge before, but had not noticed how they include a cat when the well-meaning lady is at home,

posyMrsScrooge5
Her experience of the ghosts in the second half of Duffy’s graphic novel in verse does not perturb her cat

So this year turned to my new project, women artists, and found another woman artist who pictures cats, women and Christmas all together.

As Caroline Bugler says in her The Cat: 3000 years of the Cat in Art, Henriette Ronner-Knip (1821-1909) is not a woman artist who gets much respect.

8670_s_henriette_ronner_knip___dutch_artist
A photo of Ronner-Knip

She was Dutch, and began with landscapes, still lifes and genre scenes. These are overlooked:: they are mostly awful, overdone with ornament, too crowded with creatures and faux or kitsch pastoral-farm life. In 1876 she found her metier when asked by queen of Belgium to paint two favorite two dogs: she discovered she charmed buyers with depictions of beloved pets at play or sleeping. Her facility at this led to many commissions, first from other wealthy aristocrats and royals around Europe, and then just to customers. Cats in playful and sentimental poses and especially kittens and cat families became her specialty. Many today may not find her paintings to their taste, too artificial, too sweet, too much a part of an implied picturesque bourgeois world, not photographic renditions, but her pictures of animals are based on “acute observation and a thorough knowledge of this animal.” If you look at her studies you find she is often captures some central part of a cat’s mood and poses (Bugler).

studies-of-cats-1895-henriette-ronner-knip

henriette-ronner-knip-a-cat-with-her-kittens-cats-kittens

For today, Christmas Eve I have opted for her depiction of two kittens ruining a doll under a Christmas tree:

CatsatChristmashenriette+ronner-knip-white+hair-whiskers-pink+nose-grey+hair-sitting
1895

We see two young (well-fed and well-groomed) impossibly cute-calico cats treating a doll the way they would treat a person if they could, and do treat people’s things, not out of malice, but devotion. Who has had a cat who did not sit on their stuff? to gain attention, be close to us, just smell our things and make themselves part of it. Or take your stuff, this case the doll’s detachable fancy braided be-ribboned wig. Yes it’s a pose, yes the paint is too lacquered, the playfulness is too luxuriously pretty. She has moved into fantasy.

Fantasy is the key. You can learn from her cat pictures (as in Suzy Becker’s All I Need to Know I Learned from my Cat) to love, to take out time to play and to explore — and yes sleep and eat and simple be there for one another, implicitly loving. But what people love are those which satisfy their desire for symbols of stable luxury with the cats at play around these, as here where Ronner-Knipp has risen to the level of fantasy because of the objects played around:

playingwithmusic
Ancient music rolls and ink bottle

Candybox
Curiosity uses a porcelain candybox, echoed in the bowl; the box underneath echoes the wall

And every once in a while you can find a determined fierceness:

Henriette Ronner-Knip - The Uninvited Guest
An uninvited guest

And the difficulties of a cat’s real predation in its present environments:

catchasingbird

Fierceness, determination, environment brings us back to Mrs Scrooge:

Scrooge doornail-dead, his widow, Mrs Scrooge, lived by herself
in London Town. It was that time of year, the clocks long back,
when shops were window-dressed with unsold tinsel, trinkets, toys,
trivial pursuits, with sequinned dresses and designer suits,
with chocolates, glacé fruits and marzipan, with Barbie,
Action Man, with bubblebath and aftershave and showergel;
the words Noel and Season’s Greetings brightly mute
in neon lights. The city bells had only just chimed three,
but it was dusk already. It had not been light all day.
Mrs Scrooge sat googling at her desk,
Catchit the cat
curled at her feet; snowflakes tumbling to the ground
below the window, where a robin perched,
pecking at seeds. Most turkeys,
bred for their meat, are kept in windowless barns,
with some containing over 20,000 birds. Turkeys
are removed from their crates and hung from shackles
by their legs in moving lines
. A small fire crackled
in the grate. Their heads are dragged under
a water bath – electrically charged – before their necks
are cut
. Mrs Scrooge pressed Print

I had not noticed she is an environmentalist, anti-consumer (and thus salutary corrective to Ronner-Knipp) and Duffy’s tale a genuine cautionary tale with applicability to us today in the throes of spreading impoverishment and climate change:

atMarleys

Outside, snowier yet, and cold! Piercing, searching, biting cold.
The cold gnawed noses just as dogs gnaw bones. It iced
the mobile phones pressed tight to ears.
The coldest Christmas Eve
in years saw Mrs Scrooge at Marley’s, handing leaflets out.
The shoppers staggered past, weighed down with bags
or pushing trolleys crammed with breasts, legs, crowns, eggs,
sausages, giant stalks of brussels sprouts, carrots,
spuds, bouquets of broccoli, mangetout, courgettes, petit
pois, foie gras; with salmon, stilton, pork pies, mince pies,
christmas pudding, custard,
port, gin, sherry, whisky,
fizz and plonk,
all done on credit cards.
Most shook their head at Mrs Scrooge,
irked by her cry “Find out how turkeys really die!'”
or shoved her leaflet in the pockets of their coats, unread,
or laughed and called back “Spoilsport! Ho! Ho! Ho!”
Three hours went by like this.
The snow
began to ease
as she walked home.

She hated waste, consumerism, Mrs Scrooge, foraged
in the London parks for chestnuts, mushrooms, blackberries,
ate leftovers, recycled, mended, passed on, purchased secondhand,
turned the heating down and put on layers, walked everywhere,
drank tap-water, used public libraries, possessed a wind-up radio,
switched off lights, lit candles (darkness is cheap and Mrs Scrooge
liked it) and would not spend one penny on a plastic bag.
She passed off-licences with 6 for 5, bookshops with 3 for 2,
food stores with Buy 1 get 1 free
Above her head,
the Christmas lights
danced like a river toward a sea of dark.
The National Power Grid moaned, endangered, like a whale.

environmentalist

The Thames flowed on as Mrs Scrooge proceeded on her way
towards her rooms.
Nobody lived in the building now
but her, and all the other flats were boarded up.
Whatever the developers had offered Mrs Scrooge to move
could never be enough. She liked it where it was,
lurking in the corner of a yard, as though the house
had run there young, playing hide-and-seek,
and had forgotten the way out. She remembered
her first Christmas there with Scrooge,
the single stripey sweet
he’d given her that year, and every year …

— Carol Ann Duffy (turn back to The Guardian)

Nor how she has stayed faithful to her memories of Mr Scrooge before the second imitative half of the tale begins.

Ellen

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Hodge, Samuel Johnson’s cat, a memorial statue before “Dr Johnson’s house” in London

Dear friends and readers,

I remarked on my blog on my time away this summer in NYC that I had read a couple of books beyond Ashford’s Mysterious Death of Miss Austen, one of them being, Doris Lessing’s wonderful On Cats, and had blogged about Lessing’s books and my two cats on Under the Sign of Sylvia.

I told about my blog on Lessing’s On Cats on C18-l (a list-serv dedicated to any and all things having to do with the 18th century), and the topic morphed to postings on the illustrations to Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the death of his Favorite Cat,” about its illustrators, and then, morphing again, to attitudes towards cats and primates in the 18th century, finally ending on Samuel Johnson and his cat Hodge.

An article by Lisa Berglund was recommended and I read it: “Oysters for Hodge, or Ordering Society, Writing Biography, and Feeding the Cat,” Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies 33:4 (2010): 631-645. I found her insightful and informative. Much of the article is about the specifics of Johnson and Piozzi’s relationship and Boswell and Johnson’s relationship, how their presentation of Johnson’s relationship with his cat differed and reflected their own outlook. For me what I liked was the material that comes through on Johnson as a person, especially some of the most loveable aspects of the man, and Johnson and his favorite cat, Hodge. (We must recall of course that we don’t know for sure that Hodge was Johnson’s favorite cat; perhaps Johnson just said that to make Hodge feel especially valued, so Hodge’s feelings would not be hurt — joke alert.)

The basic stories told and retold by Johnson’s biographers (and again by Berglund) are taken generally this one: we see Johnson sitting and stroking his cat, Hodge, and informing his visitor, say Boswell, who (part of the context of the anecdote) tells us he hated cats and had been telling Johnson about Mr Langton, “a young Gentleman of good family. ‘Sir, when I heard of him last he was running about town shooting cats.’ Langton is treating cats the way Hancock and Hasting’s self-perceived spiteful neighbor (or ex-friend) treated their expensive Siamese (see my Doris Lessing blog). A cat is a shooting target. Johnson proceeded to assert vigorously that Hodge was as “a very good cat”, “a fine cat,” and (especially) that no one would shoot him.

Johnson had years previously bought a little black boy as a toddler, whom he named Francis Johnson, brought him up, educated and freed him. Francis as an adult worked as Johnson’s servant. Johnson also left his money to Francis who was basically cheated out of it (but that’s another story). Johnson himself defied hierarchy by going out himself to buy himself oysters for Hodge. That is, he did not ask Francis to go. Gentlemen and ladies were not supposed to go shopping and (perhaps) bargain and haggle. That’s what human servants were for. But Johnson did not want to ask Francis lest it derogate in Francis’s mind from Francis’s dignity. Note Johnson was thus sensitive to a man who was an ex-slave and black. Nor did Johnson want to bother any other servant: Johnson feared they’d get back at the cat, and he knew the cat was helpless. Cats in the 18th century were expected to find their own food, make it (by say killing a bird or mouse or rat.)

(It’s telling to me that When I told Jim about this he remembered how in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, Sam Weller says “”It’s a wery remarkable circumstance, sir”, said Sam, “that poverty and oysters seems to go together” (Chapter 22). Jim was suggesting maybe Johnson’s value for Hodge only went so far as oysters were cheap. In other words, undercutting the thrust of the story, which is to show Johnson tenderly concerned for his cat.)

To return to Berglund’s article and one of her major theses. She allows to emerge from her materials the reality of thought or feeling behind the intellectual justification for dis-valuing non-human animals. To do so defies subordination, hierarchy, ranking. Boswell and Piozzi object to the way Johnson values Hodge in ways analogous to the way they (by implication) object to the way he values Francis (a black man).

Berglund quotes Piozzi: “Piozzi reports, ‘Francis the Black’s delicacy might not be hurt, at seeing himself employed for the convenience of a quadruped’”. To be fair, Piozzi also has an “impassioned statement” about “the place of pets in the lives of human beings occurs in British Synonymy. A lengthy entry in that book of English usage, discriminating the terms ‘hunting’, ‘coursing’, ‘shooting’ and ‘setting’, concludes with an idealised description of human and animal sympathy, exemplified in the hierarchical relationship between a dog and his master.” But note how central hierarchy still is. Piozzi’s story about Johnson buying the oysters occurs in a context where Johnson himself complains about the behavior of Piozzi’s mother’s spaniel at the dinner table, where Johnson felt the dog was overvalued. Spoiled, we’d say.

Boswell’s passages are also shaped (Berglund shows) by Boswell’s profound “discomfort” with Johnson’s physical and emotional direct engagement with his cat.

What an energetic description Boswell gives us, full of physically evocative verbs: ‘scrambling’, ‘smiling’, ‘half-whistling’, ‘rubbed’, ‘pulled’. We experience Johnson very much embodied here, rather than as detached intellect or dictatorial moralist. And yet what makes this passage engaging and at the same time odd is our realisation that Boswell’s vivid portrait emerges from profound discomfort. Boswell has an ‘antipathy’ to cats. If he observes Johnson and Hodge’s caresses so closely, it’s because their intimacy makes him nervous. He can barely force himself grudgingly to ‘observe’ that Hodge is ‘a fine cat’. (Three monosyllables are very atypical of rattling Bozzy.) Indeed, the words applied to the cat and his master graphically contrast to those with which Boswell describes himself: ‘antipathy’, ‘uneasy’, ‘suffered’. Boswell is uncomfortable, almost in pain, as he watches Johnson’s interaction with his pet.

Johnson’s affection for his cat, and his behavior to Francis is more than eccentric. It threatens “Boswell’s “sense of his perogative.”

This perogative is what we as human beings are entitled to do to animals because we are superior, not because (the real truth) we can. As Stanley Holloway dramatized in his brilliant music-hall routine, “Evings’ Dog Hospital” (unfortunately I can’t find it online), where the animal-keeper or “Mrs Evans” (he blames his wife) is clearly sadistic towards the “petted creatures,” animals who can’t talk.

They don’t have hands with thumbs either.

Yes there have been some changes, and the first are seen in the later 18th century, in the Romantic era, but only very grudgingly. More:

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Jim, age 24, with our dog Llyr, age 3

I suggest this kind of argument and these sorts of “pregative” feelings are still very strong with us today. When my dog died and I grieved so, I was told it was “inappropriate” because Llyr (her name) was “just a dog.” That phrase was repeated at me in tones of hostility at my absurdity. A central thesis in Sy Montgomery’s Walking with Apes is the reality that the three women scientists she writes about all were intensely concerned that non-humane primates have lives as valuable as human beings, as worthy. Goodall put an obituary for Flo, a female chimp, in the Sunday Times. Gildikas shows the loving relationship orangutans are capable of.


Gildikas herself mothering Supinah who herself takes her job as mother seriously (the way Lessing’s black cat does)

Family life is concentrated on by Goodall in her books:

Fossey fought a war for gorillas to have equal space and food as human beings. She lost.

Temple Grandin understands this seemingly ineradicable idea that there is this subordination of all creatures, this hierarchy and some of us are just ontologically more valuable than others. When one group of people exterminate another group, they are treating this other group as vermin (see film, Marcel Ophuls’ The Sorrow and the Pity on WW2 holocaust of Jews) and presents her objections with tact in her Animals in Translation. She tries to persuade you it’s in your interest to regard your farm animals this way at least until the moment you kill them for your profit. But her case is harder since she write about non-pets and animals people kill and eat for food or use for materials for clothes &&

We do more than eat animals. We experiment on them ruthlessly. See my blog on Frederick Wiseman’s Primates: Watch what these primates do.

Against Thomas Gray’s cruelty and those who think it inappropriate somehow that Blake’s illustrations make the cats and fish so human-like, here are two cat and one caterpillar poems, two (appropriately) from the long 18th century:

“The Retired Cat”

A poet’s Cat, sedate and grave
As poet well could wish to have,
Was much addicted to inquire
For nooks to which she might retire,
And where, secure as mouse in chink,
She might repose, or sit and think.

I know not where she caught the trick,—
Nature perhaps herself had cast her
In such a mould philosophique,
Or else she learn’d it of her Master.
Sometimes ascending, debonnair,
An apple-tree, or lofty pear,
Lodged with convenience in the fork,
She watch’d the gardener at his work;
Sometimes her ease and solace sought
In an old empty watering-pot,
There wanting nothing, save a fan,
To seem some nymph in her sedan
Apparell’d in exactest sort,
And ready to be borne to court.

But love of change it seems has place
Not only in our wiser race,
Cats also feel, as well as we,
That passion’s force, and so did she.
Her climbing, she began to find,
Exposed her too much to the wind,
And the old utensil of tin
Was cold and comfortless within:
She therefore wish’d instead of those
Some place of more serene repose,
Where neither cold might come, nor air
Too rudely wanton with her hair,
And sought it in the likeliest mode
Within her master’s snug abode.

A drawer, it chanced, at bottom lined
With linen of the softest kind,
With such as merchants introduce
From India, for the ladies’ use,
A drawer impending o’er the rest,
Half open in the topmost chest,
Of depth enough, and none to spare,
Invited her to slumber there;
Puss with delight beyond expression
Survey’d the scene and took possession.
Recumbent at her ease ere long,
And lull’d by her own humdrum song,
She left the cares of life behind,
And slept as she would sleep her last,
When in came, housewifely inclined,
The chambermaid, and shut it fast,
By no malignity impell’d,
But all unconscious whom it held.

Awaken’d by the shock, cried Puss,
“Was ever cat attended thus!
The open drawer was left, I see,
Merely to prove a nest for me,
For soon as I was well composed
Then came the maid, and it was closed.
How smooth these ‘kerchiefs and how sweet!
Oh what a delicate retreat!
I will resign myself to rest
Till Sol declining in the west
Shall call to supper, when, no doubt,
Susan will come and let me out.”

The evening came, the sun descended,
And puss remain’d still unattended.
The night roll’d tardily away,
(With her indeed ’twas never day;)
The sprightly morn her course renew’d,
The evening grey again ensued,
And puss came into mind no more
Than if entomb’d the day before.
With hunger pinch’d, and pinch’d for room,
She now presaged approaching doom,
Nor slept a single wink or purr’d,
Conscious of jeopardy incurr’d.

That night, by chance, the poet watching,
Heard an inexplicable scratching;
His noble heart went pit-a-pat,
And to himself he said—“What’s that?”
He drew the curtain at his side,
And forth he peep’d, but nothing spied;
Yet, by his ear directed, guess’d
Something imprison’d in the chest,
And, doubtful what, with prudent care
Resolved it should continue there.
At length, a voice which well he knew,
A long and melancholy mew,
Saluting his poetic ears,
Consoled him, and dispell’d his fears;
He left his bed, he trod the floor,
He ‘gan in haste the drawers explore,
The lowest first, and without stop
The rest in order to the top;
For ’tis a truth well known to most,
That whatsoever thing is lost,
We seek it, ere it come to light,
In every cranny but the right.
Forth skipp’d the cat, not now replete
As erst with airy self-conceit,
Nor in her own fond apprehension
A theme for all the world’s attention,
But modest, sober, cured of all
Her notions hyperbolical,
And wishing for a place of rest
Any thing rather than a chest.
Then stepp’d the poet into bed
With this reflection in his head:

MORAL.

Beware of too sublime a sense
Of your own worth and consequence.
The man who dreams himself so great,
And his importance of such weight,
That all around in all that’s done
Must move and act for Him alone,
Will learn in school of tribulation
The folly of his expectation.

(I’d have made the moral show us the humanity of the cat in its irrationality, its fear. Lessing says cats retreat so, often are scaredy cats, wary in ways that threaten them because we take them too early from their mothers).

Readers may know of Anna Barbauld’s poem against animal experimentation (Priestley against mice), but few probably know this beautiful one which takes in the complexities of people’s relationships with even insects:

“The Caterpillar”

No, helpless thing, I cannot harm thee now;
Depart in peace, thy little life is safe,
For I have scanned thy form with curious eye,
Noted the silver line that streaks thy back,
The azure and the orange that divide
Thy velvet sides; thee, houseless wanderer,
My garment has enfolded, and my arm
Felt the light pressure of thy hairy feet;
Thou hast curled round my finger; from its tip,
Precipitous descent! with stretched out neck,
Bending thy head in airy vacancy,
This way and that, inquiring, thou hast seemed
To ask protection; now, I cannot kill thee.
Yet I have sworn perdition to thy race,
And recent from the slaughter am I come
Of tribes and embryo nations: I have sought
With sharpened eye and persecuting zeal,
Where, folded in their silken webs they lay
Thriving and happy; swept them from the tree
And crushed whole families beneath my foot;
Or, sudden, poured on their devoted heads
The vials of destruction. – This I’ve done,
Nor felt the touch of pity: but when thou,
A single wretch, escaped the general doom,
Making me feel and clearly recognise
Thine individual existence, life,
And fellowship of sense with all that breathes,
Present’st thyself before me, I relent,
And cannot hurt thy weakness.– So the storm
Of horrid war, o’erwhelming cities, fields,
And peaceful villages, rolls dreadful on:
The victor shouts triumphant; he enjoys
The roar of cannon and the clang of arms,
And urges, by no soft relentings stopped,
The work of death and carnage. Yet should one,
A single sufferer from the field escaped,
Panting and pale, and bleeding at his feet,
Lift his imploring eyes,-the hero weeps;
He is grown human, and capricious Pity,
Which would not stir for thousands, melts for one
With sympathy spontaneous:-Tis not Virtue,
Yet ’tis the weakness of a virtuous mind.

And Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats from her memoir with the same name. In the book it has a subtitle: “On Guard”

I want you for my bodyguard,
to curl round each other like two socks
matched and balled in a drawer.

I want you to warm my bedside,
two S’s snaked curve to curve
in the down burrow of the bed.

I want you to tuck in my illness,
coddle me with tea and chicken
soup whose steam sweetens the house.

I want you to watch my back
as the knives wink in the thin light
and the whips crack out from shelter.

Guard my body against dust and disuse,
warm me from the inside out,
lie over me, under me, beside me

in the bed as the night’s creek
rushes over our shining bones
and e weak to the morning fresh

and wet, a birch leaf just uncurling.
Guard my body from disdain as age
widens me like a river delta.

Let us guard each other until death,
with teeth, brain and galloping heart,
each other’s rose red warrior.

My father’s cat, Pushkie: the poor cat was so afraid and nervous, she hid in the bedroom most of the time; she died young the way Siamese often do. My father was very fond of her because she was so loving to him, and he grieved severely when she died

Ellen

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Sylvia, with a loved and loving cat

Dear friends and readers,

Let me place this foremother poet blog with my Austen Reveries in honor of Austen’s possible lesbian spinsterhood, and yet regard it as an overdue extension of my other foremother blogs celebrating Jane Dowson’s Women’s Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology. There I told of five women poets of the left: Nancy Cunard, Winifred Holtby, Ruth Pitter and Valentine Ackland, the last of whom from 1930 on was the life-long partner of Sylvia Townsend Warner, who doesn’t need me to commemorate her: as, gentle reader, there’s a beautiful website, recordings of her reading her poetry, blogs which pick out her most beautiful private poems, to say nothing of a great biography by Clare Harman, and insightful essay on her and Valentine Ackland (see essay in comments).

Nonetheless, tonight I want to live through her poems as a poet of the solitary and solitude and at the same time echo others who have reminded the world that Townsend wrote and acted as a passionately politically committed woman of the left, tireless in her concern for the poor, deprived, and vulnerable, for cultural freedom and intellectual liberty, an anti-fascist, a radical spirit. Dowson’s selection omits the fairy poetry, everything that can be seen as twee, and offers strongly anti-war, Muriel Ruykeyser kind of verse, lesbian love poetry in the modern mode.

Some Make This Answer

Unfortunately, he said, I have lost my manners.
That old civil twitch of visage and the retreat
Courteous of threatened blood to the heart, I cannot
Produce them now, or rig up their counterfeit.
Thrust muzzle of flesh, master, or metal, you are no longer
Terrible as an army with banners.

Admittedly on your red face or your metal proxy’s
I read death, I decipher the gluttony to subdue
All that is free and fine, to savage it, knock it
About, taunt it to stupor, prison it life-through;
Moreover, I see you garnished with whips, gas-bombs, electric
          barbed wire,
And affable with church and state as with doxies.

Voltage of death, walking among my fellow men
Have seen the free and the fine wasted with cold and hunger,
Diseased, maddened, death-in-life doomed, and the ten
Thousand this death can brag have reckoned against your thousand.
Shoddy king of terrors, you impress me no longer.

Song for a Street-Song

What, do you plan for children now?
A child is a pretty thing,
A thing of promise, a tender thing.
Day by day, year by year,
You love it more. War is near,
And dogs and strangers choking in the gas fume
Is a calmer spectacle than the fruit of the womb.
There’s the sting
When the drums go rub-a-dub!
There’s the rub!

What, do you plan for marriage now?
Love is a handsome thing,
A thing of tenderness, a growing thing.
Day by day, year by year,
If It knits you more. War is near,
And flesh that lay beside you in marriage-bed
Mangles your own he an when it is ripped and shred.
There’s the sting
When the drums go rub-a-dub!
There’s the rub!

What, do you plan for freedom now?
Freedom is a noble thing,
The mind’s sanction, a vital thing.
Day by day, year by year,
It claims you more. War is near,
And freedom in muck of warfare maimed and defiled
Is a bitterer hazard than loss of mate or child.
There’s the sting
When the drums go rub-a-dub!
There’s the rub!

We plan for love and children now,
And freedom, that noblest thing.
We gather to us everything
That’s growing and tender, vital and dear,
To arm us more. War is near.
Against that enemy pang of the quickened sense
Is the swiftest weapon, is the surest defence.
There we cling
While the drums go rat-a-plan!
So we plan!

Drawing You, Heavy With Sleep

Drawing you, heavy with sleep to lie closer,
Staying your poppy head upon my shoulder,
It was as though I pulled the glide
Of a fun river to my side.

Heavy with sleep and with sleep pliable
You rolled at a touch towards me. Your arm fell
Across me as a river throws
An arm of flood across meadows.

And as the careless water its mirroring sanction
Grants to him at the river’s brim long stationed,
Long drowned in thought; that yet he lives
Since in that mirroring tide he moves,

Your body lying by mine to mine responded:
Your hair stirred on my mouth, my image was dandled
Deep in your sleep that flowed unstained
On from the image entertained.


West Chaldon, one of Sylvia and Valentine’s homes

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

A young Sylvia Townsend Warner, with kitten

I should say at the outset that until a few years ago I didn’t know that Sylvia Townsend Warner wrote poetry, nor that I had a volume of her Collected Poems, edited by Claire Harman in my house until Jim and I joined Library Thing and we catalogued our library. Then I discovered my treasure. I had thought of Warner’s books as Jim’s books: two volumes of fairy stories, biography of T. H. White, an Arthurian. Jim likes fantasy reading and enjoyed the tales especially Kingdom of Elfin. I believed he tried the T. H. White biography. This is not my thing. But then I read Claire Harman’s collection and introduction; Harman writes excellent biographies: her Fanny Burney is beautifully written, and has the merit of being the only one of the biographies frankly to demonstrate how fictionalized are the journals and diaries, and to argue this is inevitable, and does not detract from their greatness, indeed is partly responsible for it. Her Jane’s Fame commits the rare feat of providing new insights, new careful close reading — to show, among other things, that her family was generally against her having a vocation or career as a writer.

Sylvia Townsend Warner is known best for her fantasy stories and as a lesbian; her work is usually presented as belonging to the world of Arthurian Glastonbury romance of the type the Powys brothers were writing in the 1930s, a set of people and writing turning away from the modern technological industrial world. What is forgotten is the Powys brothers and those who wanted to turn away were often profoundly anti-capitalist, anti-materialist; they belong to the world described by Patrick Wright in his The Village that Died for England, and On Living in An Old Country, or (simply) Tank. She is not to be classed (as she sometimes is) with the kind of child-conservatism found in Dodie Smith’s comic masterpiece, I Capture the Castle.

Reading Warner’s poems reveals a Bronte-like undercurrent, grim, filled with despair, horror, quiet dread and the humor is hard. Harman says these poems could be fitted very well in one of Powys’s Arthurian romances; better yet, let us look at the currents as not unlike Thomas Hardy. And they are wholly unlike the child-like tone of Tolkien at times, and have nothing of the complacency of Sayers in her verse (who also was part of this upper class genteel set of the later period). They do seem a woman’s poems (the despair, melancholy, indirection) and often there is something strongly gothic in the pictures of the houses (haunted of course). Blake too, the brief ones with their sudden stinging protest (however muted what is being protested against is) with titles like “The Little Lamb.” Wonderfully she is outside what counts somehow and seeing futility and yet anguished over it. The best are very quiet.

Now here are two of these in her fairy vein:

From The Espalier (1925)

What voice is this
sings so, rings so
Within my head?
Not mine, for I am dead,

And a deep peace
Wraps me, haps me
From head to feet
Like a smooth winding-sheet.

Before my eyes
Reeling, wheeling,
Leaf-green stars
Have changed to purple bars

And flickered out,
Spinning, thinning,
Up the wall,
That has grown very tall

Only that voice —
Distant, insistent;
Like the high
Stroked glass’s airy cry;

Echoing on,
Winds me, binds me
As with a thread
Spun from my own head.

O speak not yet!
Forget me, let me
Lie here as calm
As saints that nurse their palm;

Whilst like a tide
Turning, returning,
Silence and gloom
Flow in and fill the room.

Some of her poems remind me of Elizabeth Bishop. This might seem a far-flung analogy, but the tone and indirect of the metaphoric surface are alike to me. So the following reminds me of Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” Warner is a poet of solitude:

Also from The Espalier:

Sitting alone at night
Careless of time,
From the house next door
I hear the clock chime

Ten, eleven, twelve;
One, two, three —
It is all the same to the clock,
And much the same to me.

But to-night more than sense heard it:
I opened my eyes wide
To look at the wall and wonder
What lay on the other side.

They are quiet people
That live next door;
I never hear them scrape
Their chairs along the floor,

They do not laugh loud, or sing,
Or scratch at the grate,
I have never seen a taxi
Drawn up at their gate;

And though their back-garden
Is always neat and trim
It has a humbled look,
and no one walks therein.

So did not their chiming clock
Imply some hand to wind it,
I might doubt if the wall between us
Had any life behind it.

London neighbors are such
That I may never know more
Than this of the people
Who live next door.

While they for their part
Should they hazard a guess
At me on my side of the wall
Will know as little, or less;

For my life has grown quiet,
As quiet as theirs;
And the clock has been silent on my chimney-piece
For years and years.


Sylvia Plath’s (yes the poet Sylvia Plath) Wuthering Heights

King Duffus

When all the witches were haled to the stake and burned,
When their least ashes were swept up and drowned,
King Duffus opened his eyes and looked round.

For half a year they had trussed him in their spell:
Parching, scorching, roaring, he was blackened as a coal.
Now he wept like a freshet in April.

Tears ran like quicksilver through his rocky beard.
Why have you wakened me, he said, with a clattering sword?
Why have you snatched me back from the green yard?

There I sat feasting under the cool linden shade;
The beer in the silver cup was ever renewed,
I was at peace there, I was well-bestowed:

My crown lay lightly on my brow as a clot of foam,
My wide mantle was yellow as the flower of the broom,
Hale and holy I was in mind and in limb.

I sat among poets and among philosophers,
Carving fat bacon for the mother of Christ;
Sometimes we sang, sometimes we conversed.

Why did you summon me back from the midst of that meal
To a vexed kingdom and a smoky hall?
Could I not stay at least until dewfall?

Her rhythms are insistent and strong. Not that I’m against the fairy poems: Townsend Warner created an internally consistent fantasy world — perhaps Tolkien would be comparable in this. Perhaps little known are her individual books of poems and how these intertwine. These two come from Boxwood (1960). In the first you see that Warner was another woman poet who looked back through to her mothers in writing, to earlier women:

Anne Donne

I lay in in London;
And round my bed my live children were crying,
And round my bed my dead children were singing.
As my blood left me it set the clappers swinging:
Tolling, jarring, jowling, all the bells of London
Were ringing as I lay dying-
John Donne, Anne Donne, Undone!

Ill-done, well-done, all done.
All fearing done, all striving and all hoping,
All weanings, watchings, done; all reckonings whether
Of debts, of moons, summed; all hither and thither
Sucked in the one ebb. Then, on my bed in London,
I heard him call me,. reproaching:
Undone, Anne Donne, Undone!

Not done, not yet done!
Wearily I rose up at his bidding.
The sweat still on my face, my hair dishevelled,
Over the bells and the tolling seas I travelled,
Carrying my dead child, so lost, so light a burden,
To Paris, where he sat reading
And showed him my ill news. That done,
Went back, lived on in London.

I know we don’t forget what a hard life Anne Donne had but it’s not common to bring her alive and use Donne’s refrains this way. Warner opens her book with a series of lyrics called “Boxwood” which interweaves myth, books, landscape. This is the fourth:

The book I had saved up to buy
Was come, and I
Unwrapped it and went out to be
In privacy,
As though to read such poems were
A kind of prayer.
And any bank, and any shade,
Will do, I said,
To be the temple of this hour­
So why not here
Where these old creaking chestnuts frown?
There I sat down
And read the poems; but the tree
Spoke them to me.

You can find very hostile remarks by Warner on women readers and feminism (by-the-bye); this too was common in the pre-1940s era. Yet Lolly Willowes (1926) is the story of a spinster who becomes a witch and was nominated for the Prix Femina The Corner that held the World is about medieval nuns (very eccentric); in Mr Fortune’s Maggot (1927) we meet a missionary sodomite out to convert others.

Some bibliography:

Valentine Ackland, For Sylvia: An Honest Account, London, Chano & Windus, 1985.
Barbara Brothers, ‘Writing Against the Grain: Sylvia Townsend Warner and the Spanish Civil War’ in Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, eds, Women’s Writing in Exile, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, PP·350-66.
Claire Harman, Sylvia Townsend Warner: A Biography, London, Chatto & Windus, 1985; London, Minerva, 1985.
Claire Harman, ed., The Diaries of Sylvia Townsend Warner, London, Chatto & Windus. 1994.
William Maxwell, ed., The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner, London: Chatto & Windus; New York, The Viking Press, 1982.
Wendy Mulford, This Narrow Place: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland … Life, Letters and Politics 1930-1951, London, Pandora, 1988.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘The Way By Which I Have Come’, Countryman, xix, no. 2, 1939. pp. 472-86.
PN Review 23, vol. 8, no. 3. 1981, special edition on Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Sylvia and Valentine’s first home

Ellen

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Snowlight, 1/29/11

Dear friends and readers,

Last night (morning dreams) I dreamt of  cats. I know because I woke twice during the dream, and on the first waking thought I was awake & the dream had happened: I dreamt that a baby cat like Ian (ginger tabby) had gotten into the house.


Ian and Clary when young

Then there were two more like him, then a white one, all scrawny. We couldn’t find where they were getting in from. Then lo there was a white furry (long-haired) one.

Then I slept again. When I woke this morning I remembered my dream, & looked about me and felt Clary and Ian snuggled against me very tightly & so have written about it here …


Ian recently, on the edge of our bed; he and Clary are siblings and you can see the family resemblance in their round faces, rather flat, eyes a little too large; he has jowls and she could have (but is too thin)

I have had other dreams of late where I wake say in the middle of the night or early morning dark hours, and think, it’s really happening, but then sleep again to wake when it’s not yet light and realize this is a dream.  However, when I wake in the morning light to rise, I’ve forgotten the dream. What made this unusual is I remembered it upon finally getting out of bed.

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

A kind friend invited me to phone her and we discussed the dream and it came out that I was feeling beleaguered.  Taking on too much for me. What had I taken on that was too much?  Well, I’m trying to help Isobel get help: since I’m nervous, prone to anxiety attacks, have to keep myself calm by not trying to do what is beyond me (like say traveling distances alone), this is very difficult. I don’t integrate socially with ease; I’m not keen on phones. I know nothing of what we are eligible for.  This latter is the case with many people — quite deliberately done by the powerful who run these government organizations. But that it’s common doesn’t help me. 

When I saw the first baby Ian, I was tempted to keep him, but then were the others, Jim said there were too many, and I knew he was right.  And I said to my friend "Too many cats!"  The phrase I said to my friend on the phone brought home another aspect of this. I do see it. It was Laura who reported Rob said "Too many cats" when Jim shamed her into taking the cats for a week after she had more or less refused me, after she had (in effect) bullied me into getting them.  Jim called it a case of Bait and Switch.  It was Rob who said this, Rob she has deliberately gone to live with who she represents as finding us unacceptable. Now since she lies so much this may not be true, and whenever I’ve been with him, he seems to like us and make far more intelligent cooperative sensible conversation than Laura does. She used to say Wally drank and I never saw it; she says this man drinks. I’ve never seen it.  But the phrase echoing in my deepest ear comes out of deep hurt and loss.

I encountered a total wall at the Social Security number. Tapes of general questions and answers I couldn’t get past. I was not supposed to.  From Alexandria, they will not help unless I get a designation from SS for Izzy and three useless phone numbers. I’ve now supposedly hired a lawyer but had a phone number from a girl who works there (has a job) but it’s not in her job description to read what I wrote only to fill out forms.  I now have three more places to call on Tuesday.  An appointment at Kaiser on Friday I don’t feel eager about. So much more than the "too many cats".   Worried sick.

I miss my friend Nick whose avatar on facebook is a large long-haired white cat.  His letters to me so help me.

Perhaps it was also all prompted by my working so hard for 5 weeks to produce a really brilliant learned paper, to be told by the editor she liked it so, and then she turns around and becomes an ugly bully and (in effect) insists I savage it down to less than half its length.  Perhaps her publisher hated it. I cannot say. Only that I will never write for this woman again. The stress of this — and more profound frustration — the whole incident was handled by Jim who wrote the emails — brought on the dream too.


Clary the way she looks now, walking along a bookshelf in front of others

The cats do twine themselves around my heart and comfort me.

A poem by Marge Piercy, said to be about Sleeping with Cats but probably a verse letter (in effect) to her (then new) younger husband:

"On Guard"

    I want you for my bodyguard,
    to curl round each other like two socks
    matched and balled in a drawer.

    I want you to warm my bedside,
    two S’s snaked curve to curve
    in the down burrow of the bed.

    I want you to tuck in my illness,
    coddle me with tea and chicken
    soup whose steam sweetens the house.

    I want you to watch my back
    as the knives wink in the thin light
    and the whips crack out from shelter.

    Guard my body against dust and disuse,
    warm me from the inside out,
    lie over me, under me, beside me

    in the bed as the night’s creek
    rushes over our shining bones
    and e weak to the morning fresh

    and wet, a birch leaf just uncurling.
    Guard my body from disdain as age
    widens me like a river delta.

    Let us guard each other until death,
    with teeth, brain and galloping heart,
    each other’s rose red warrior.

    by Marge Piercy, from Sleeping with Cats

On guard indeed. 


Looking up, 1/29/11

Ellen

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Dear Readers,

Here’s are some photos of my room.  
. 

That’s my desk, and to the side a wall or Jane Austen books, near it another of Anthony Trollope — my stills and pictures are meant to surround me like nest of comforts — you can just make out Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth, some from the Palliser series (picturesque shots of women friends in the park) …  Canaletto provides my screen saver.

The other side of the desk; my library table. You can see Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwoood, a Constable picture of Salisbury cathedrale where Trollope says he thought of The Warden, impressionism, there’s Diana under a tree with a cat.

I remembered it after rereading a poem, sent me by my dear friend and fellow poet, Farideh:

from Desk
By Marina Tsvetaeva
(In a letter she wrote to Pasternak :my desk is kitchen table)
Translated by : Elaine Feinstein

My desk , most loyal friend
thank you. You ‘ve been with me on
every road I’ve taken.
My scar and my protection.

My loaded writing mule .
Your tough legs have endured
the weight of all my dreams , and
burdens of piled-up thoughts.

Thank you for thoughening me.
no worldly joy could pass
your severe looking-glass
you blocked the first temptation,

and every base desire
your heavy oak oughtweighed
lions of hate,elephamts
of spite you intercepted.

Thank you for growing with me
as my need grew in size
I’ve been laid out across you
so many years alive

While you’ve grown broad and wide
and overcome me. Yes ,
however my mouth opens
You stretch out limitless.

You are a pillar
of light.My source of Power!
You lead me as the Hebrews once
were led forward by fire.

A couple of days ago she asked me how I discovered poetry and came to translate Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara and work for a number of years on the poetry and life of Anne Finch, Charlotte Smith, Mary Wortley Montagu (among others).  Well,  I discovered books.  I’m an only child, I did have cousins and aunts and uncles but none of them except my father (now dead) were at all congenial or read serious books that I know of.  Two of my aunts read popular romances (my father’s sisters), ; some were probably capable of reading but never did — they were poor, under pressure and schools and American culture made no effort to encourage reading for real.

It’s wonder how I did it in a way. I’m the first of my generation to go to college never mind getting a Ph.D. Like some of the stories the people on Wompo tell, I just gravitated to what I could find for solace in life and it turned out to be books. I found myself isolated at around age 18-19.  I was anorexic (I weighed 78 pounds), miserably married (I divorced my first husband at age 21) and really with only a couple of friends I rarely saw. As a girl my father had a wall filled with old classics and my mother belonged to the book-of-the-month club. My father took me to the library as soon as I was old enough to take out a child’s book and read it on my own and he read to me (e.g., RLStevenson’s "Sire de Maltroit’s Door" and "A Lodging for the Night").

When I went to college, I found I loved what I was reading and could lose myself in writing and reading.  I must’ve been about 19 when I sat on a bench with one of these girlfriends and told her and myself how I would try to survive and more than endure life, get something out of it I find joy in. I faced the reality of my lack of social skills in politicking and my lack of connections; I gave up on making money. I told myself that my goal would be modest, but I would stick to it. How I was going to spend my life writing and reading I didn’t know but I was gonig to hold to that.

Then again in the 1980s when I was in my late 30s I found myself living in Virginia with a baby on an apnea monitor and I began to go to a research library at night, and I found these poems by Renaissance women I never knew existed. I was so excited. Then I found the poems of Vittoria Colonna in French translations by Suzanne Therault; I loved them and wanted to translate them. Then I loved one of Gambara’s poems and so that started it.

And I think along the way I did now and again make decisions which saved me from spending my life working for money. We have a small house and never tried for a big one. We have not decorated it fancily at all.  We have modest old cars. We don’t try to "entertain" as it’s called. I never made an expensive event for myself in marrying nor my older daughter. I did pay for their colleges but it was within reason. I never borrowed any big sums. My husband had a government job which provided health care and a pension.

Farideh who is Iranian called me a Darwish:  "a person who prefers a spiritual life in this world and doesn’t exchange his or her inner life for or with money and power."  to which I siad, it wasn’t that I preferred it necessarily. It was that I found myself unable to cope with the world given my position in it: I hadn’t the connections, power, know how, social skills to put myself forward. I didn’t like the social world most of the time in any comfortable way.  So I choose a path I could do. The alternative was suicide or take some horrible 9-5 job 5 days a week of work that was soul destroying, well a living suicide.

I was able to pull it off because I found a loving man I was congenial enough with who respected and supported me and encouraged me to write. 

Jim in the early morning, still in his robe, our front room: his rocking chair, not far from the fire place.

He helped me create this room of my own I described on my first blog (which I have now recreated here below).  I sometimes think we made a mistake when we had children, as we cannot help our daughter very much but she has become our friend, a comfort and real presence who we offer ourselves to. We did goof when we left NYC. But both decisions were natural and the second forced on us at the time; going to DC gave him a good job in the government where through merit he could rise (not so possibly any more), and which we live off of still, from his pension (he too lacked connections and money and power and his social skills are not great either).

She told me her son has written a novel (at age 16) and it was published. I know her daughter reads Austen in Farsi and they watch the films together. I have to tell her Izzy has written a novel, a publisher shown interest and we are waiting to see if the company will publish it. Here is Izzy with and without our girl cat, Clarissa-Marianne.

And now for where I read and write from, beginning with this photo from the photo albums at Women Writers through the Ages at Yahoo (where I have a set of photos of writing places for a number of women writers — from magazines and articles on the Net)

By the puzzle pieces on the table, we see she did love puzzles — as the photo was published before her recent memoir with jigsaw puzzles.

On wompo we had been talking about where we write from and how it’s a reflection of our psychic needs. But as with
partners/husbands/companions/significantothers, it’s often hard to predict for our social and writing selves in public are not the same as these selves in private nor can we see how others see things.

For myself while I have written away from my "workroom" (see below), as in a small house in Desert Island, one summer I did all the Austen calendars (extracted them from the books) while sitting in a very quiet nook, a window nearby, looking at a lake where I heard only loons – tranquillity, stability, a sense of security, all of which are things needed by me (craved0, mostly I’ve written in a small room in my house and herewith is a description.

I invite others to describe their writing or reading spaces as comments or meme blogs.

I post at all sorts of hours, but try hard to keep it to before 9 in the morning after 8 in the evening (though I break this "rule). I live in a small private house (that’s a NYC term which means unattached) in a neighborhood once made up of similar houses. No more. Most have been renovated and expanded. Don’t ask. When the 4 blocks where the houses look like mine were built, people had  an ideal of much grass and space between houses so there is still a lot and a wide sky one can see. The most recent houses have this ideal of filling up the lot and opulence and they build fences and plant high trees.

I post from a room 9 feet by 12 feet. My daughters used to call it Mommy’s workroom; but a part of it has my husband’s desk. It’s not a study distinct from the rest of the house as most of the rooms are lined with bookcases like this one. It is the only one where there are desks and tables for writing. It does have a bookcase with nothing but Jane Austen books and another with nothing but Anthony Trollope books. I don’t know how tall the room is. The ceiling is high enough.
 
It has two large windows: in all the rooms of my house 2 of the walls have large windows. Built before air-conditioning became more or less universal in Virginia. To the side of me one window has an awning and in spring and summer finches sometimes nest there, make babies and have ferocious fights over the territory (if a second couple comes along). I like watching them. Out the front of my house I see the street, grass, my wooden fence. If I stand and peer out I can see a pink tulip tree which much of the year is bare; it has green leaves just now. Across the road down the street are some cherry blossom trees. Also lovely for said three weeks.

We have no less than 6 computers in this room, 6 monitors (some are servers), a scanner, keyboards galore, and a printer. Much of this is my husband’s. Every man his own Houston space center. I understand how to use one computer and one machine which plays DVDs and videocassettes, and the scanner and printer.

I have managed to stuff three tables into this room, two library ones on which sit some of these computers and a microfilm reader my husband bought me for my birthday one year — from a local junior high.

My desk is large and old. I bought it in 1972. Mahogany with deep drawers and a wide surface. I have books in piles on the floor in baskets. Books on my desk, including dictionaries Italian, French, Fowler’s Modern English usage, my beloved Thesaurus which I’ve owned since 13; it was my father’s before me. It has gotten me through everything I write. I keep it in my lap when writing for publication. I have had it recovered recently. It’s the second book I have done this for: the first is my French Larousse.

Those parts of the walls which are not covered with bookcases (which do furnish a room — we have 43 across the house) have posters and cut-out pictures Scotch-taped up. I have rows of photos and postcards trailing up, across on top, and down again — postcards from friends (Diana has a bunch), photos of me and Judy Geater and me and Angela Richardson when we spent an afternoon in London together. Diana under a flowering tree looking at a cat. I have a big poster of Clark Gable gambling as Rhett Butler (my favorite) too and Ronald Colman in Lost Horizon (looking very drunk and melancholy), numbers of coloured print reproductions of late 18th century picturesque/ gothic scenes (Claude, Hubert Robert), [photos of friends. Lamps.

My younger daughter sit in her environment in a room behind me, also two windows, also a couple of computers, also books, but many other things different from mine, including a huge stereo outfit.

Where do other post from? What part of the world or your patch of the earth? What time? What does the world look like from your seat? Environment.

It’s a wonderful subject, for we are not just talking about literal space, but a psychic space we create for ourselves to
dwell in while we read and write; some need a room and tranquillity, but some prefer (as we’ve seen on Wompo) to be among people or on the fringe of activities; like me and Fran (who sent to WWTA description of her room) some do have a certain room to return to; others have a space inside a house or their office (s?).
 
Mine has evolved. Yes it began with a desk that was to be my central area — and it has remained so even if "I" now share that area with a computer. But next to the computer is my writing space and space for immediate books wanted. But now I have more tables: my room is not big so I have accommodated but two. Hmmm. I also do have bookcases so that may account for my only fitting two tables in: next to me (close to heart, near at hand) is a bookcase stuffed with jane Austen books (by and on) and notebooks, xeroxes, and notes and another across the way a bookcase filled with Anthony Trollope books & notebooks, xeroxes and notes. To my back are two large bookcases mostly stuffed with folders but some books, and mostly on women poets and writers (big spaces for Anne Finch, Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara — though they have migrated outside the room too). My art books are two long shelves in the front of the house; Jim my husband has two long shelves on top of them of music books (his love).

I too enjoy the neighbor’s gardening. That tulip tree I so love has never been worked on by me 🙂

Jim comes in here sometimes, but not often — even though to the right of me is his desk and all above, around and below it all those computers I mentioned which I don’t understand but provide our blog, our website, and he calls "our servers." Since he so rarely uses (he has as I wrote turned the front room into his workroom too) it, I have one of my two fans on his desk area for writing facing me. Laura (now on this list) used to like to come in and talk at length with me when she lived here; Izzy comes in to watch Jane Austen movies with me — as I have the only player in the house which will play the British tapes Judy has kindly sent me (and only they plus a couple of Region 2 DVDs I bought) play the whole of these movies.  Once upon a time Laura would come in here to talk privately.

As an adjunct I have no other space. I’ve been told the lecturers’ room is my space too, and I’ve seen adjunct colleagues actually work there. I can’t. People come and go, and I just don’t feel right there. It’s stigmatized in my mind.

ON Wompo someone developed the idea of psychic space which struck me as good, but then I thought about Anthony Trollope. Basically he wrote everywhere and anywhere. Famously, he had a long-time servant get him up at 4:30 in the morning so he could write until 9 as he had to get to work (for the post office, sometimes to an office, sometimes by travelling) by 10 and he forced himself to produce 250 words a day. But he also wrote on trains (he made himself a small desk), on boats, and all day long in the interstices of his job. He worked for 37 years full-time while producing novels in the first part of his career. I’ve two reproductions of rare photos of him, one which shows him standing up looking alertly at something and writing away. So he wrote standing up too. Probably the only place he didn’t write was when he was on horseback (I assume he didn’t, but who knows?). In his case he was (I think) a compulsive writer; he wrote to escape and kept it up all his life. He tells us in his autobiography that before he began to write, he would dream his stories, and learned to discipline himself to work them into coherent narratives. So writing was simply getting down what he was escaping to — all the livelong day apparently and he could do this all his life and when surrounded by others.

And also earlier women before the 19th century: how often the space they had was not theirs properly and they had to endure much hostility. Germaine de Stael who (it’s said) wrote standing up in her own study lest she incur the ridicule of her father. She was hiding her writing from him. Jane Austen is said to have written in a room to which access was had by a creaking door. The creak enables her to thrust her papers below her desk so as not to be observed writing. I’ve thought the story of Austen an exaggeration, but now I think to myself her nephew’s description makes this experience sound so cozy and accepted by her. Maybe it was not. Fanny Burney wrote late at night to hide her writing and wrote her final manuscript out in a forged hand. Imagine that.

But not to be sad this warm afternoon, it seems that most people who do write have to have and do get some space and time for themselves, women over the centuries and in repressive cultures too.

Today I look out my window and see this bright sunny autumn day — variegated leaves and autumn chrysanthemums and flowering bushes too still. I can dream here.

The long shadows of a day and life richly spent together, with recent addition of two cats — one named by Izzy, and one by me and Jim:

Clarissa-Marianne.  She has a passion for dead leaves. She is also a bundle of anxiety, on the edge. ever giving and seeking affection, alert, on the run, move, tenacious, bold and vocal.

Ian, quieter, loves to stay in his grey round bed (his pod we call it), stands off to the side watching, sometimes aggressive but often wary, cautious, hesitates, likes to sit and watch, or sleep.

Ellen

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Dear Friends,

On Wednesday I was moved to put the following poem by Margaret Atwood on Wompo:  It’s from a section of her Collected Poems, Power Politics, 1917: a series of incisive, plain spoken (the bare style) powerful statements, eloquent, they exhort us today still as the world they describe has just grown more so:

Here is a three parter:

They are the hostile nations

i

In view of the fading animals
the proliferation of sewers and fears
the sea clogging, the air     –
nearing extinction

we should be kind, we should
take warning, we should forgive each other

Instead we are opposite, we
touch as though attacking,

the gifts we bring
even in good faith maybe
warp in our hands to
implements, to manoeuvres

ii

Put down the target of me
you guard inside your binoculars,
in turn I will surrender

this aerial photograph
(your vulnerable
sections marked in red)
I have found so useful

See, we are alone in
the dormant field, the snow
that cannot be eaten or captured

iii

Here there are no armies
here there is no money

It is cold and getting colder

We need each others’
breathing, warmth, surviving
is the only war
we can afford, stay

walking with me, there is almost
time / if we can only
make it as far as

the (possibly) last summer.

I wrote about my motives for putting it there as follows:  Of late some personal experiences and what I’ve been reading online and in weekly periodicals, as well as friends’ stories of their lives and those people they know have begun to persuade me that there will be no improvement in lives for most people in this next 8 years at all, indeed more ground will be lost — less jobs for anyone, at less pay, more of daily experience controlled and limited by the interest of large corporations and institutions (I now can’t even get myself working sinus medicine), and war and more war (military power) to shore up the power of such conglomerates, no matter how or what such wars smash. Margaret Atwood just published a new dystopia; I’m not much for science fiction (can’t read it), but what I read about it shows how sharp and insightful she is from her earliest realistic novels (Cat’s Eye) to what I was reading tonight.

A long thread emerged with women saying "Amen" and they agreed.  A happy result is Farideh Hassanzedah put one of her poems on the list and has now rejoined WWTTA:

Have a talk with Time.
Try to understand him,
and let him understand you.
Reconcile yourself with him—
forget the conflicts,
the repeated offenses,
his axe ‘s strokes.

Don’t knock at the doors of kings.
Walk on , walk on without regret
for what you leave behind.
Let your footsteps be your country.

Don’t carry weapons,
Don’t pile up treasure,
or seek a grand title .
Don’t engrave your image
on a kingdom’s coins,
or sign your name
to secret documents.

Don’t be a statue
in a public square.
Don’t build a museum
or be a museum exhibit.
As you walk this earth,
don’t act like a priceless antique.
Don’t mask your face with mosaics.
Don’t play the buffoon
or the martyr.

Put your exile
on the tip of your tongue,
and say a kind word with a smile,
without a trace of arrogance or grandeur.
Kind words have neither arrogance or grandeur.

The house of your love
Is the nightingale’s tear drops.

Be sure to tell him:
I love you
from the heart of my heart.
From the heart of my heart
I love you.

The heart of your love
Is the nightingale’s wings.

Delighted, be always delighted.
Be fruitful like any tree
beside a river.

Take your delight
from the earth—
where else will you find it?
Go with an elegant grace
even in the midst of ruins,
and let the world be yours
without its sad mythologies,
its labyrinths.

Adapted from a long poem: THE TRANSIENT THINGS by: RAAD ABDULQADIR

It put me in mind of Anna’s Barbauld’s Evenings at Home, an enormously popular and influential book in the 19th century.  These were revolutionary teaching stories showing that learning occurs in contexts, situations, and as opposed to early primers where impossibly good children learn pious lessons and lists of words, she situates her learning  — as does though less entertainingly, skilfully and humanely, Felicite-Stephanie Genlis in Les Veillees de Chateau (Evenings at the Castle, which in her letters Austen says she is reading and enjoying).  But the book is more than this:  the little pieces are also satiric fables and moving hymn-like poems of quietude and peace.   One I want to use to end this meditation meant ase anti-war, anti-fascistic militarist controlling society (where the discourse is such and experience set up such that there is no place to complain for yourself, let alone make a general statement that can be effective):

Calling Things by Their Right Names

Charles. Papa, you grow very lazy. Last winter you used to tell us stories, and now you never tell us any; and we are all got round the fire quite ready to hear you. Pray, dear papa, let us have a very pretty one?
Father. With all my heart-What shall it be?
C. A bloody murder, papa!
F. A bloody murder! Well then–Once upon a time, some men, dressed all alike ….
C. With black crapes over their faces.
F. No; they had steel caps on:-having crossed a dark heath, wound cautiously along the skirts of a deep forest …
C. They were ill-looking fellows, I dare say.
F. I cannot say so; on the contrary, they were tall personable men as most one shall see:-I-eaving on their right hand an old ruined tower on the hill …
C. At midnight, just as the clock struck twelve; was it not, papa?
F. No, really; it was on a fine balmy summer’s morning:­and moved forwards, one behind another ….
e. As still as death, creeping along under the hedges.
F. On the contrary–they walked remarkably upright; and so far from endeavouring to be hushed and still, they made a loud noise as they came along, with several sorts of instruments.
C.  But, papa, they would be found out immediately.
F. They did not seem to wish to conceal themselves: on the contrary, they gloried in what they were about.- They moved forwards, I say, to a large plain, where stood a neat pretty village, which they set on fire ….
C. Set a village on fire? wicked wretches!
F. And while it was burning, they murdered-twenty thou­sand men.
C. 0 fie! papa! You do not intend I should believe this! I thought all along you were making up a tale, as you often do; but you shall not catch me this time. What! they lay still, I sup­pose, and let these fellows cut their throats!
F. No, truly-they resisted as long as they could.
C. How should these men kill twenty thousand people,
pray?
F. Why not? the murderers were thirty thousand.
C. 0, now I have found you out! You mean a BATTLE.
F. Indeed I do. I do not know of any murders half so bloody.

Some of my favorites too are about cats. 


A cat named Darcy and his friend:

We are thinking of giving our cat, Clarissa, a middle name: Marianne, in honor of her penchant for dead leaves.

Ellen

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