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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.

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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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Amanda Root as Anne Elliot walking among the autumn leaves (1995 BBC Persuasion, scripted Nick Dear, directed Roger Michell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am chuffed (proud, happy) to say two new essays on Charlotte Smith by me are now available from the power and liberty of the Internet. The first is my essay for Sarah Emsley’s new series of blogs, “Youth and Experience: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion,” due to start December 16th. Mine is one of two previews;

“For there is nothing lost that may be found: Charlotte Smith in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

The other is by William Hutchings, Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Manchester, UK, “A Sense of An Ending: Persuasion and Keats’s “Ode to Autumn.”

It will be seen both of us chose to dwell on the autumnal aspects of Austen’s Persuasion and how she uses or provides an analogy for autumnal poetry by two contemporary or near contemporary poets. Thus Sarah put ours on her blog before Austen’s birthday in order to be seasonally on time.

I am writing this separate linked-in blog since I want to make sure there is no misapprehension about the four years worth of blogs on this site about Jane Austen’s letters and the Austen papers. The blogs came out of a group read we did on the two Austen lists (Austen-l and Janeites) several years. It was my idea to do the letters slowly, one a week. However, what insights emerged were a “hive” effect, the result of all of us putting our collective heads together to close read and add our own bits of knowledge and insight—and sometimes clashing on who Austen was as a person. It was a wonderful experience.

The second is on Charlotte Smith in a different or wider vein: I’ve decided to put my paper on “The Global Charlotte Smith: migrancy and women in Ethelinde and The Emigrants on academia.edu where it may be read now. It is also timely in a different way: for its political perspective on women and emigration.


A photograph taken in Oxford, Wytham Woods this November 19, 2017 by a friend

Ellen

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From the 1981 Sense and Sensibility: Irene Richards as Elinor is seen drawing and walks about with art materials (BBC, scripted by Alexander Baron)

Friends,

I found myself unable to reach the Jane Austen and the Arts conference held at Plattsburgh, New York last week. I have told why in my life-writing Sylvia blog.
Happily for me, the conference organizer was so generous as to offer to read the paper herself, and had it not been for a fire drill, would have. Two of the sessions, one mine was supposed to be part of, were sandwiched together so she read from the paper and described. I was told there was a good discussion or at least comments afterward. Since I worked for a couple of months on it — reread all six of the famous fictions, skimmed a lot of the rest, went over the letters — and read much criticism on ekphrastic patterns in Austen and elsewhere, the picturesque in Austen, her use of visual description, not to omit related topics like enclosure, a gender faultline in the way discussions of art are presented, I’ve decided to add it to my papers at academia.edu.

Ekphrastic patterns in Austen.

I hope those reading it here will find my argument persuasive, and my suggestion for further work on Austen using her discussions of visual art and landscape useful.


From the 1983 Mansfield Park Sylvestre Le Tousel as Fanny Price gazes at the maps her brother, William has sent her as she sits down to answer his latest letter or just write herself (scripted by Ken Taylor) – her nest of comforts in her attic includes window transfers of illustrations

Ellen

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Outlander 2014 Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall in Starz’s Outlander Outlander 2014 Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall and Tobias Menzies as Frank Randall before Castle Leogh, 1945

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Castle Leogh, 1743

I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again; I remember finishing it in two days — my hair standing on end the whole time …

Impelled by an irresistible presentiment, you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer –but for some time without discovering anything of importance — perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open–a roll of paper appears–you seize it–it contains many sheets of manuscript — you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber, but scarcely have you been able to decipher ‘Oh! Thou–whomsoever thou mayst be, into whose hands these memoirs of the wretched Matilda may fall’ — when your lamp suddenly expires in the socket, and leaves you in total darkness … Henry Tilney to Catherine Morland, NA, Chapters 14 and 20)

Dear friends and readers,

Having finished listening to Davina Porter read aloud (remarkably well) the whole of Diana Gabaldon’s historical romance, Outlander, I’m ready to go forward with watching the second season, adapted from Dragonfly in Amber. I’m studying both the series of romances and the film adaptations as examples of what has happened to popular historical romance in an era where the prestige of historical fiction has gone way up. Historical fiction and post-colonial historical romance have again for some (as the forms did in the Victorian era) become an instrument of political import (mostly post-colonialist). At the same time there has been a fierce backlash against feminism and liberal attitudes towards homosexuality (lesbianism, tranvestism), and fascist ideas gaining ground, i.e, violence as a means of solving problems, individual liberty and thought are out, women are there as mothers, wives, sisters, not individuals in their own right. That’s why Gabaldon needed a 20th century woman in her book so she should have agency.

How does this relate to Austen: this sort of book, the romance, especially gothic and implicitly political, ambivalently feminist were the kinds of books she read and praised as works genius — Ann Radcliffe, Charlotte Smith, Francis Burney, Maria Edgeworth — in a novel she rewrote endlessly in an attempt to combine satire of the form while embodying its truths persuasively, i.e., Northanger Abbey.

As a prelude, I’ve gathered up all the blogs I’ve written thus far on Outlander so I can refer back to them, and so my readers can see what has been our findings about this genre and film adaptation thus far:

Outlander: a cross between Frank Yerby’s Border Lord, DuMaurier’s romances, Sophie Lee’s Recess, Dorothy in Wizard of Oz, and epistolary subjective novels

Outlander and Poldark: Horsfield’s scripts; problematic parallels towards violence towards women & rape

Outlander 1: Sassenach and Craig Na Dun; People Disappear all the time … Radcliffe Redivida

1 Outlander 2 and 3: Castle Leogh & The Way Out: DuMaurier Redivida

1 Outlander 4 & 5: The Gathering and Rent; as a Descendant of Waverley

Outlander: 6 and 7: Garrison commander; Wedding Nights (2): tapestry

1 Outlander 8: Both Sides Now; The Long  night of the Wedding: magic

1 Outlander: 8 & 9: Reckoning; Both Sides Now, the historical sublime, Romancing History; 2:1 Through a Glass Darkly

1 Outlander: 10 & 11: Pricking of My Thumb; Devil’s Mark; babies & witchcraft; again the question of genre

1 Outlander: 12 & 13: Lallybroch and the Watch: you can’t go home again; gender roles transitioning

1 Outlander: 14-16: The Search, Wentworth Prison, To Ransom a Man’s Soul, Finale; The issue of torture

catrionabalfe

I have read fans were dismayed by the choice of Caitriona Balfe — I find her very appealing. At no point does she have the lightly mocking jocular tone Gabaldon uses for her heroine.

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inverness
Inverness where the novel opens

A few thoughts on Gabaldon’s novel:

Problems: in the present time sequences Gabaldon is American and has no idea how to write British dialogue or thoughts. She uses the phony language of 1950s romance as I remember it: Frank Randall calls Clare a wench; characters beam at one another; they are roguish. She has been influenced strongly by the 1940s British movies and this is reflected in the films in the way the opening new honeymoon scenes are done and the opening scenes of the second season when she has returned pregnant in 1948 after Culloden has happened but she somehow does not know what happened exactly, not even who won. In the opening sequence in the UK there is supercilious tone of half-mockery at reading people; a shallow amused jocularity and descriptions of what no British woman really did in the 1950s when they shopped. Gabaldon seems to think that genealogy studies are serious historical research — or she assumes her readers do. It may be this tone is intended to function like that of Lockwood in the opening of Wuthering Heights (supercilious and faintly ironic), but he never aims his irony at sensitivity, history itself and so on.

Oh and no one reads anything at all – except as part of a profession. The film did counter this gap in the book with literary allusion (all added in, poetry from Donne, Robert Louis Stevenson) and downplayed the heroine’s irony towards her husband’s literary research profession — though presented her as slightly bored by him, and the renewed marriage not quite working (so said the heroine in her voice-over). Gabaldon herself is clearly (I concede) drenched in the history of this period and all sorts of book leaning, biography, chronicles (disguised or referred to in her companion most cavalierly, sprezzatura and all that – she never sleeps, does no housework &c&c)

amidthestones1945ep3
Escape — Claire perhaps wanted to disappear — through the stones

At each deviation and choice the film-makers are better. They keep the significant and resonating lines unerringly. Her story is what makes the book in a way, and her characters are somewhat re-conceived. Litereally the mini-series is close. Her heroine has never had a political thought in her head. Gabaldon is also a master of romance style; she sustains eloquence about love; her dialogue is naturalistic once Claire moves back in time and to Scotland. The Scottish dialect does not feel like pastiche. They add “Madam” to Black Jack’s speech and sudddenly Randall’s is an 18th century male voice. Gabaldon’s strengths come out more too: she’s good at describing love-making, at erotica. These passages are important for today’s historical romance for women, as the love-making is told from a woman’s point of view (foreplay emphasized ….)

There is self-reflexivity. Clare comments how in romances the “bad male” of romance is never rooted in any local reality; Gabaldon feels she does this by her post-colonialist story of the vicious English against the Highland Scots, the corrupt Jacobite courts. She also (I think consciously) wants to give us a heroine who struggles against forces of nature: so we have Clare fighting a wolf and subduing and killing it! It’s very much a woman’s book — if you can get into this sort thing. Today I’m going to try Daphne DuMaurier’s King’s General for a while to see if I can in her case for the summer term as I have to send in a proposal for this coming summer by Feb 10th! DuMaurier is a political innocent in comparison. The 21st century Catherine Morland would read both. — in preference to “real history,” which Martha Bowden in her Descendants of Waverley does not have that much use for either. Phillippa Gregory gobbles it all up to spit it out as historical romance: she has done that for Margaret Tudor too. The book as Emily Nussbaum wrote of the mini-series it’s mirroring our time. Anne Stevenson, one of my favorite 20th century women poets, has also written about the book favorably.

clarebeingtaughttokill
Claire being taught how to kill with a knife

There are some troubling patterns of violence and humiliation across the first season which is much more emphatic in the book: the subaltern hero is intensely punished. The last two episodes of the mini-series are horrifyingly abusive of Jamie Fraser: he is tortured into submitting to anal sex, his spirit to resist broken by breaking his hand, the merciless flogging. I had realized his back shows horrific treatment too, well, this a pattern in the book too: the ritual humiliation of the heroine (occurs much more weakly and not as centrally) is nothing to this. I asked izzy about Games of Thrones, and she said yes and they are killed off; in Agents of Shield these central and subaltern central heroes go through enormous emotional turmoil.

I had noticed this pattern in Tudor dramas on film: the men took the place hitherto reserved for the heroine, and took it that the Henry 8 story appeal was the ability to show masculinity of a very different sort than the modern controlled invulnerable (unattacked mostly) hero, but maybe not. In Outlander this fits the (mild or undeveloped very much )post-colonial perspective, an unintended consequence inheritance from Walter Scott. Poor Jamie can’t go home again even: the result an unmitigated disaster. I’ve grown to like Jamie Fraser, have bonded with him and to some extent Claire (the text is strongly offset by the mini-series, its tone and especially Caitronia Balfe’s intelligent performance). I find myself very anxious as the story moves from distraught catastrophe to distraught catastrophe. I know this was the appeal of Poldark: I liked the central hero and heroine (and secondary ones, Elizabeth and Francis, too). In Tolstoy’s War and Peace I bonded with some of the central characters. It’s a sina qua non finally for loving a book — though one can love the imagined author as a substitute.

I found a long scene describing a childbirth very good. IN the depiction of Lallybroch, Jamie’s home, in the film instead of a long series of scenes of life in such a country place there was yet another action-adventure inserted betrayal: the book here is good. Both women’s point of view. At the same time the insistence on violence as an answer to problems becomes yet more overt. It’s not simply the book shows a man violent to a woman and her learning to accept just that once, but there are repeated instances of problems solved by violence. The idea is when there is no other way. I have said I think there are situations where the other side will not respond except through violence. To me the argument slavery was dying by itself ignores human nature plus the actual situation. I think the present administration thinks they can do what they want as the American people, especially democrats are utter cowards, despicably lukewarm (that’s how they see the desire to reason and negotiate). But many many instances should not turn violent; that makes for more violence — which does happen in the book: a man forced to give up his son whom he has been beating mercilessly by violence on hi then turns in our hero, so he may be hanged; our hero’s friends then set fire to his house or him (it’s not clear).

There is an obsession with defending violence as a way of solving problems (really — the belief is you force people to do things and then they retaliate if they are not scared any more), but also sheer pain, and combined with the at times faux at times earnest post-colonialism, it is an exploration of torture from the point of view of the horrors of the experience. You are not meant to be inured (as can happen and discussed by Susan Sontag in her Regarding the Pain of Others). This book sold widely in the US, is enormously popular. I’ve already mentioned the ceaseless attack on homosexuality through the depiction of Black Jack Randall — it’s kept up as mockery of effeminate males.

gentlewillie
Again the mini-series is an improvement: there are added and emphasized males who are thoughtful, gentle: like Willie — and favored

pattersonbalfe
Ned Gowan’s role as poet-lawyer is built up enormously — he appears only in the collecting of rents briefly and in the court scene in the novel — so the film-makers recognized this violence as a problem in the novel

In the final sequence of novel Jamie is humiliated personally (made to do submissive begging) and he feels he has to tell this to Clare: we get a depiction of torture which condemns it on all grounds and shows how it is basis of a tyranny (as Eleanor Scarry discussed in The Body In Pain); beyond that in the telling why someone would kill themselves after they escape even years after they escape (as Primo Levi and others who spent time in extermination and German concentration camps). He lives in dread of Randall and has nightmares. In the mini-series the emphasis was on a man raping a man, in other words sexual, and the discussions (such as they were on popular websites run by professionals, very discreet) focused on see how men are raped too (so it almost became a show revealing women lying in another direction — they pretend only they are raped) though to do the film justice it was also deeply anti-torture. I could not get myself to finish one of books Jim was in the middle went when the cancer had affected his brain to the point he couldn’t read, Speaking About Torture, edd Julie Carlson and Elisabeth Weber. Looking it at now I find essays on “What Nazi Crimes tell us”, how torture is represented, the “rituals of hegemonic masculinity” John Yoo, the torture memo and Churchill. I find it used in studies of torture where it is suddenly introduced with insufficient information. At first I thought it referred to the purpose of torture (as defined in such studies) to through pain and terror “drive the victim ‘beyond the borders of death into [a state of speechless] nothingness; well, that is what Black Jack Randall has done to Jamie and it is Claire who must give him an identity again, a sense he’s alive, pride, should live; the idea of ghosts on the mind is part of the meaning and in the second season and Dragonfly In Amber Jamie is haunted by nightmares of Randall getting hold of him again.

Before the book ends there is a (to me) odd decent moral set of lessons: Claire seeks comfort in “confessing” to a priest and we see him calm her conscience over bigamy; try to give reasons for God having sent her back to this era. As with Austen and other popular books I’ve read two chapters before the end you get the characters discussing the moral of the adventures, of this time-traveling. She clearly believes in God, that this is a just universe with rewards and punishments and yet a moralism about life as a journey and self-development through helping others and so on is suddenly put before us credibly. The discussions include can she stop Culloden for then the people who are supposed to be killed won’t be? the responsibility of changing history. At this point the book is silly.

murtagh
Murtagh listening to the priest, Claire and Jamie in the monaster

The book ends with Claire and Jamie leaving the monastery through walking through a cave which has warm restorative mineral waters — like a spa, only dark colored, a mirror. This coming up from a recess is directly Sophia Lee and Ann Radcliffe material, only enhanced here by the sensual delights of love-making. The center of romance is the love story. They will go to Rome where he has connections and could get a position, be safe, and they work to prevent Culloden. Murtagh who we have learned once loved Jamie’s mother and regards himself as Jamie’s second father goes with them.

crossingthehighlands
Crossing the Highlands together

I realize now I have listened to Porter read aloud the whole of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as translated by Maud — she provides brilliant reading of that too. I recommend her to lovers of books read aloud by tape, CD, MP3 or download.

Ellen

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Bath House, for Mrs James Henry Leigh by John Adey (1755-1860, Humphry Repton’s son)

“Those cottages are really a disgrace. The church spire is reckoned remarkably handsome. I am glad the church is not so close to the great house as often happens in old places. The annoyance of the bells must be terrible. There is the parsonage: a tidy–looking house, and I understand the clergyman and his wife are very decent people. Those are almshouses, built by some of the family. To the right is the steward’s house; he is a very respectable man. Now we are coming to the lodge–gates; but we have nearly a mile through the park still. It is not ugly, you see, at this end; there is some fine timber, but the situation of the house is dreadful. We go down hill to it for half a mile, and it is a pity, for it would not be an ill–looking place if it had a better approach — Mansfield Park, Chapter 9

“… the Cobb itself, its old wonders and new improvements, with the very beautiful line of cliffs stretching out to the east of the town, are what the stranger’s eye will seek; and a very strange stranger it must be, who does not see charms in the immediate environs of Lyme, to make him wish to know it better. The scenes in its neighbourhood, Charmouth, with its high grounds and extensive sweeps of country, and still more its sweet, retired bay, backed by dark cliffs, where fragments of low rock among the sands make it the happiest spot for watching the flow of the tide, for sitting in unwearied contemplation; the woody varieties of the cheerful village of Up Lyme; and, above all, Pinny, with its green chasms between romantic rocks, where the scattered forest-trees and orchards of luxuriant growth declare that many a generation must have passed away since the first partial falling of the cliff prepared the ground for such a state, where a scene so wonderful and so lovely is exhibited, as may more than equal any of the resembling scenes of the far-famed Isle of Wight: these places must be visited, and visited again to make the worth of Lyme understood — ” Persuasion, Chapter 11

Dear friends and readers,

I thought before going on to notes from my last conference this fall, “EC/ASECS: The Strange and Familiar,” I would devote a working blog to my project and thinking about “Ekphrastic patterns in Jane Austen.” After all this is supposed a blog focusing on Jane Austen.

For the past month, I’ve been slowly making my way through Austen’s famous six novels alongside many studies of the picturesque in landscaping, about landscape architects in her era and their debates, on how literary people, gardeners, historians have approached the mode (especially different when it comes to the use of enclosures to take the land from the propertyless and vulnerable), and how writers about Austen in particular place her and her novels in these debates. One might expect her outlook to change because the worlds of her books have different emphases, and since her stance towards life changed over the years: from (generalizing) a mildly rebellious, personally acid (as a woman) point of view to seriously politically grave and questioning, to acceptance, ever with irony, mockery of the very gothic mode she had loved, to late melancholy over what she wished she had known, and a new valuation of the sheerly aesthetic.

Yet I find broadly across the thirty years of writing life (1787-1816/7) a sameness, a steady holdfast to a point of view. This may be voiced as a strong adherence to judging what is presented as aesthetically pleasing or true by its usefulness. How far is what is created useful for those who live in or near it — use includes how much comfort and pleasure an individual can have from art, which seems to depend how far it works with the natural world (or against it, destroys the natural world), at what cost does this use come, and she counts as cost not only the removal of people and destruction or neglect of their livelihoods (especially in Mansfield Park and Emma), but how far it erases history or the past which she sees as giving meaning to the present through group memory and identity. She excoriates those who seek only status through their purchases and efforts, shaping what emerges from this motive as hypocritical at least as regards joy in all the aspects of the natural world, and disrespectful of animals, plants, whatever has been built. There’s nothing she despises more than someone who professes to love something because it’s fashionable — as say the gussied-up cottage. She has little use for celebrities: partly she is too snobbish and proud to chase after someone whose work so many profess to admire but in fact understand little of. To appreciate any art, no matter what it is, from drawing, to singing and playing an instrument, to curating (as it were) an estate, you must do it diligently and caring how it will turn out for its own sake, not for the reward you might personally get.

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John Linnell (1792-1882), Gravel Pits in Kensington (1812)

This is what I found to be true of the implied author’s attitudes and to account for the treatment of pictorialism wherever it be found in her works. I began with the idea that she found very funny viewers, readers who approach art and judge it insofar as it literally imitates what happens in life: walking in the autumn or death of the year, sitting in a garden in the cool fall, working in a kitchen, aboard a boat — these three are the subject of aesthetic conversations, however brief, in, respectively Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion. Now I see she partly wants to take aboard critiques from characters who never forget the practical realities of life, so remain unable to engage with improbable conventions of design, typical scene drawing, and what’s left out and/or assumed. The aesthetically naive or obtuse reaction has something direct to tell us about what is the relationship of what is seen to person seeing. I originally saw in the gap between artistic convention in a medium and what it’s representing in real life as allowing for enjoyment in contemplating how the convention is just a convention and we could presumably choose another. So we are free in art. Now I’m seeing the importance of going outside convention, our own enjoyment of whatever it is, to understand ourselves better. Then we can do justice to others who may not be able to respond imaginatively on a sophisticated level but have other valuable traits.

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John Crome (1768-1821), A Heath

This is a very serious or moral way of putting this matter but I think in what seems to be the beginning of an era of indifference to the needs of others, to previous understood relationships, to truth anything less is a further betrayal.
I found myself so strengthened by Austen as I went along (as I have been before) this time because in contrast our world outside is seeing remorseless attacks on the natural world, most people inhabiting the earth, worship of pretension, competition for rank and accumulation of money at whatever cost to others and group loyalty (never mind what to). A different version of these latter probably dominated the world-centers and made the later 18th century world the suffering-drenched place it was, but there were at the time groups of reformists, revolutionaries who were (to use FDR’s formulation) for a much better deal for all, even including animals.

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George Morland (1763-1804), The Artist’s Cat Drinking

I’m going to hold back on working this thought pattern out in close reading of appropriate places in Austen’s books for my paper, and here just briefly survey one old-fashioned book published surprisingly recently (1996) for the way Austen is treated as knitted to and writing for her family.  Matey belongs to those who read Austen’s books as non-critical of her era, to some extent unexamined creations (staying away from “politics”), belonging to a closed small world of what I’d call rentier elites. I thoroughly disagree with most of this; I think Austen’s outlook to be so much larger than this, and critical of her world and family too, but Batey understands what is provable by close reading and relevant documents (which recent published critics seem not to). Matey’s book is good because Matey uses the particulars of Austen’s family’s lives and their neighborhood (and its inhabitants), their properties and how they treated them wisely.  She looks at how authors that Austen is known to have read or from her novels probably knew and how their topics and attitudes are treated in Austen’s books. Her documented sources  are books Austen quotes, alludes to, or are unmistakably part of her text). She researched about these common sensically and with discrimination, ever thinking of what is Austen’s tone as Batey decides whether this or that text or garden place or drawing could be meant to be part of Austen’s discourse.

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Contemporary illustration: Box Hill

Each of the chapters is attached either to a period of Austen’s life or one or a group of her texts; they all have beautifully appropriate reproductions of picturesque landscapes; they all pick up on some aspect of debates on the picturesque in the era, often closely attached to, coming out of the particular Austen texts (but not always). “The Background” (1) tells of Austen’s family’s life briefly, how they lived in picturesque landscapes, how Edward the third brother was adopted by a rich couple who gifted him with immense wealth in the form of two country mansions and wide lands with all the patronage, rents, and power and education that came with that. The Austen family is presented as highly intelligent, wanting few personal relationships outside themselves (unless it be for promotion) and their gentry world. Austen wrote for her family is Batey’s assumption. We learn how Austen grew up inside “The Familiar Rural Scene” (2), loved Cowper, band egan her first long novel as epistolary narrative .  Batey dwells on Austen’s love of Cowper and how his poetry educated her into the kind of writing she did. Cowper is much quoted, how Marianne is passionate over his verse, Fanny has imbibed it in the deepest recesses of feeling and memory.

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Selbourne today —

Batey swerves slightly in “Agonies of Sensibility” (3): as she is herself politically deeply conservative, she makes fun (unexpectedly given how she’s presented Austen thus far) of the writers and the texts she says influenced Austen profoundly: Goethe’s Sorrows of Werther (where, I suggest, the hero kills himself as much because he has to live in a sycophantic court as any love affair he has), Charlotte Smith’s deeply depressed poetry and more desperate novels (highly critical of the social and political arrangements of the day): as with Cowper, Batey quotes at length and Smith’s poetry does justice to itself. Batey shows how the family paper, The Loiterer mocks “Rousseau’s half-baked” (her words) ideas. She goes over the juvenilia she can link directly to the family members: “Henry and Eliza” where she uses names and places of people close by:

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Lady Harcourt’s flower garden in Nuneham Courtenay (based on precepts in Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Heloise)

The same paradoxical pull-back shapes her “The Gothic Imagination” (4):  Batey talks of “the whine” of this material: the graveyard poets, the grand tour, Ossian, Blake. Batey does not take seriously any of this as deriving from contemporary anguish; her perspective is that of the aesthete (very 1950s American); she discuss the sublime from Burke apolitically, the lucky landowners, and even (or perhaps especially because ever sceptical). Samuel Johnson is hauled for his sceptical assessments (no sign of his Journey to the Western Islands). So Batey’s outlook on Northanger Abbey is it is about this “craze” which Austen saw through. Nonetheless, she quotes tastefully, and you can come away from this chapter with a much richer terrain and Austen text than Batey herself allows for. And she combines, so Smith’s Emmeline now comes in. She quotes from the effective presence of the abbey, the Tilney’s conversations on the picturesque and history, Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest as found in Austen’s text (amply quoted with illustrations appropriate).

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Thomas Jones (1742-1803), The Bard

Batey has not heard of feminism but she does know these are women’s texts and includes a reproduction of an landscape by a woman I’d never seen before but alas tells nothing of the artist, not even her first name:

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Lady Leighton, a watercolor of the gothic seat at Plas Newyd where the ladies of Langollen (a famous lesbian couple) read Ossian together (it was said).

I must start to condense. “Enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque” (5) and “The Beautiful Grounds at Pemberley” (6) contain a valuable discussion of Gilpin, who he was, how he came to wander all over England and write books on landscape and accompany them with evocative illustrations. She goes over the flaws in these (they are semi-fake, omitting all that is unpleasant, like exhausted hard-working human beings, and “eyesores” like mines), his theoretical works, of course the mockery of him (Batey is big on this). She does tell how Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price exposed the way these landscapes avoided showing how exploitative of the people and landscape products (for use) these enclosures and picturesque-makers were, but does not apply this to Austen: rather she quotes Marianne either engaged with the sublimely or critical of hypocritical cant. For the Sense and Sensibility discussion (where Batey stays on the surface again) she includes many lovely black-and-white and grey illustrations of real landscapes (ruins that real, i.e., crumbling buildings), tourist sites (Netley Abbey to which Austen’s family came). The productions for Pemberley are gorgeously colored: a Turner, a Joseph Wright of Derby, photographs of vast green hills. For Pride and Prejudice Batey simply dwells on the visit to Pemberley saying how unusually detailed it is, without asking why. She does notice Darcy has left much of the original placement of streams in place, and invites gentlemen to fish there; but how is it that every window has a gorgeous view from it, how did this come about, were these specifics originally related to some discussion (in a previous longer P&P) of how Darcy made the landscape never crosses her mind.

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Batey thinks Ilam Circuit walk gives us a sense of what was to be seen outside Pemberley windows

No matter how much was “lopp’d and chopp’d” says Batey, we have all in place that we need.

Batey approves of the chapters on Mansfield Park, “A Mere Nothing Before Repton (7)” and Emma, “The Responsible Landlord” (8), because there is so much serious criticism of the picturesque which Batey finds herself able to enter into in the first (land should be useful, should honor history, the church). She has a fine thorough discussion of Stoneleigh Abbey which Mrs Austen’s cousin tried to take over when its owners died so took his aunt and her daughter with him, possession being nine points of the law: the letters are quoted and they feel like a source for Northanger Abbey. Repton’s work for the Austens as well as generally is done far more justice to than Mr Rushworth ever understands.

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Stoneleigh Abbey before (Batey includes an “after” too: all the animals, the gardening work are removed as unsightly)

Batey believes Mr Knightley is modeled on Austen’s wealthy brother, Edward, who did work his own land, who valued his cows, who was conscientious — within limits: she does not bring out how later in life Edward was among those who refused to pay for a share of improvements of roads as he himself would not profit from it (we can’t do that, must not share). She does not seem to realize the earlier portrait of John Dashwood is also Edward nor that Edmund (whom she also identifies with Edward) is more than a little dense. But yes Mr Knightley is our ideal steward of land, working hard to make sure all can get something from nature (though, let me add, some do get more than others as the pigs in Animal Farm said was only right), and has not bowed to fashion, kept his trees, his house in a low sheltered place, has not spent enormously for “an approach.”

It comes as no surprise that Batey’s last chapter, “The Romantic Tide” (9), does not concentrate on Persuasion or Sanditon. These do not fit into her idealization of wealthy mansions, landscapes of and from power (I’d call them) . The aesthetic debates of MP and Emma set in a larger social context do not reach her radar. Thus that the Elliots have lost their house as Austen’s sixth longer book begins, the money basis of the economy, of war (Wentworth’s business like William Price’s is when called for killing and grabbing the property of others) and increasingly transient nature of existence for the fringe gentry are not topics here. We begin in Upper Cross but move to dress and harps in Mansfield Park (Regency costume enables Batey to bring in Fanny Knight and Austen’s times together in London). The furor over cottages orne probably represents an association from Mary Musgrove’s house, but the details are now all taken from the satire on Robert Ferrars’s despising of large buildings, worship of cottages and hiring Bonomi (without further context) in Sense and Sensibility. Sanditon‘s seaside gives way to “the insufferable Mrs Elton’s” lack of a real abode, her origins in trade in Bristol, and Lydia Bennet’s vulgarity. Batey’s text turns snobbish itself.

Where originality comes in again is not the sublimity of the sea, but in how the Austens enjoyed themselves in summer after summer of Austen’s last few years on the coast, “undeterred by threats of invasion.” Batey thinks the source place for Sanditon Bognor, which made a great deal of money for its entrepreneur, something what we have of the fragment suggests Mr Parker will not do. Anna Lefroy’s apt continuation has him going broke but for brother Sidney, a hero only heard of in the extant text. Jane Austen, we are told, disapproved of challenges to the traditional way of life, was against exploiting sickness and hypochondriacs like the Parker sisters. Batey seems to forget Austen was herself dying but includes the idea she “had little time for the socialistic propaganda of William Godwin”! In Sanditon Austen is harsh towards Burns and (we know from her letters) was strongly enamored of Crabbe — he has a hard look at nature and the rural landscape. A Fanny Price, name and character type, the story of a couple separated as imprudent with no retrieval are found in Crabbe. However, as Batey acknowledges in her book’s last few paragraphs, in Persuasion Austen revels in Charmouth, Pinny, Lyme.

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William Turner, watercolor of Lyme Regis seen from Charmouth — Austen stayed there in 1803 and 180 and Anne Elliot discusses romantic poetry with Captain Benwick there

Batey’s is a useful book if you don’t look in it for any perception of why Austen was compelled to write and the full complicated nature of her texts. If it seems to be, it is not much different from Janine Barchas’s comparable History, Location and Celebrity, recent, respected: Barchas’s book is not filled with matters of fact in Austen, but in other books (of genealogy), in Barchas’s case buildings Austen never mentions (interesting if lurid), in amoral people not connected to her except by chance of first or last names (of which Austen does not have much variety). A “proof” can hinge on a number: Thorpe and Catherine have driven seven miles to one place, well seven miles in another there is this other gothic place, and Barchas has her subject matter. Both give us historical context, and between the two, Barchas remains speculative, a matter of adding one speculation to the next, and then crowding them around a text that never mentions them; Batey has the merit of writing about texts and movements Austen discussed, alludes to, quotes from, places we know for sure she visited, lived in. Both have good bibliographical references and you can use them as little encyclopedias.

Ellen

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Hardy, Under Beachy Head

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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John Constable (175-1837), Derwentwater, Cumberland (where Ethelinde is set)

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

It was evening and time to return to the hotel.

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

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St John the Evangelist, Stoke, Guildford

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

It was a splendid conference.

Ellen

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Frontispiece to 1788 edition of Elegiac Sonnets

To the Goddess of Botany:

OF Folly weary, shrinking from the view
Of Violence and Fraud, allow’d to take
All peace from humble life; I would forsake
Their haunts for ever, and, sweet Nymph! with you
Find shelter; where my tired, and tear-swollen eyes
Among your silent shades of soothing hue,
Your ‘bells and florrets of unnumber’d dyes’
Might rest–And learn the bright varieties
That from your lovely hands are fed with dew;
And every veined leaf, that trembling sighs
In mead or woodland; or in wilds remote,
Or lurk with mosses in the humid caves,
Mantle the cliffs, on dimpling rivers float,
Or stream from coral rocks beneath the ocean’s waves

Dear friends and readers,

This is my 2nd report on the Charlotte Smith conference at Chawton House Library (October 14th-16th). I’ve described the morning panels and musical recitals; in the afternoon, there were three more panels, two again on Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets and her poetry, the third on her novels. This suggests someone preferred the poetry papers or more likely there were more of them and they were strong: this verse first made her reputation, and continued to be respected (if forgotten). I first fell in love with Smith’s poetry. I report on only these two on poetry here (saving the third for third blog in order to keep the reports shorter). I want to stress here, this is just the gist of what was said, many details and sub-arguments omitted.

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From Elegiac Sonnets, 1789.

We began with The Marketplace and the Canon.

Michael Gramer’s “Subscription and the Poetic Corpus,” was a comparative study of the first 3 editions of the Elegiac Sonnets. He compared Smith’s sequencing of her first 19 poems in the first and second editions; for the third, he suggested the 35 poems open and close in the same fundamental trajectory of permanent heartbreak. The compelling goal of the 1st edition was to support her husband and herself and children while in the debtor’s prison, and to hire lawyers or do whatever was necessary to see him freed. What we see is a drama of non-renewal, of indifference before the poet in nature and outside in society. I agreed with the pairings Michael outlined: thus sonnets 7 (“On the Departure of the Nightingale”) and 8 (“To spring”) revisit and deepen sonnets 2 (“Written at the Close of Spring”) and 3 (“To a Nightingale”). In Sonnet 9 (“Blest is yon shepherd on the turf reclined”) Smith envies the shepherd; in Sonnet 10 (“To Mrs G,” “Ah! why will memory with officious care”) she fails to bring her memories out vividly or repeat them; 11 (“To Sleep”) and 12 (“Written on the sea shore. — October, 1784) drift towards death, with the last registering an indifferent universe. Mid-way Sonnet 6 (“O Hope! thou sooth sweetener of human woes!”) and the last, 12 (below) offer a sense of closure.

Written on the Sea Shore, Oct. 1784.
ON some rude fragment of the rocky shore,
Where on the fractured cliff the billows break,
Musing, my solitary seat I take,
And listen to the deep and solemn roar.
O’er the dark waves the winds tempestuous howl;
The screaming sea-bird quits the troubled sea:
But the wild gloomy scene has charms for me,
And suits the mournful temper of my soul.
Already shipwreck’d by the storms of Fate,
Like the poor mariner methinks I stand,
Cast on a rock; who sees the distant land
From whence no succour comes–or comes too late.
Faint and more faint are heard his feeble cries,
Till in the rising tide the exhausted sufferer dies.

There is some change in ordering in the 2nd edition, but not significant. The third edition extends the perspective further to create a world of widening allusions, with the poet still the lone wanderer who is not cured, but (as yet) feels not altogether hopeless. It was published by subscription, usually not favored by women; it too sold widely, and then there was a second subscription. Almost unheard-of. The fifth edition listed the subscribers’ names. At one point her husband, Benjamin (she had left them by then), heard she was making money, broke into her house (she was in law his), attempted to beat her, through violent attacks got her to give him the money in her desk.

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John Constable, A Seascape

Bethan Roberts’ “On the margin” returned us to Smith’s 44th sonnet, “Written in the churchyard in Middleton in Sussex” (it had been discussed in the morning). We were looking at the sonnet’s content about a church near the sea from a geological standpoint: Bethan had illustrations (1796 1807, 1828, 1847) showing showing the gradual encircling of the church by the waters. It’s a poem about erosion; all dissolves away, only she fated to remain (and endure hard-work, geological, archealogy). The poet wishes she could escape the noise and movement of the oceans, mountains, life itself. She is intensely desolate. Bethan also showed images of paintings by Constable of this area. She ended on Smith’s poem to St Monica. The learned antiquary no longer comes to this spot, no holiday rituals occur here, not even “the pensive stranger” who looks at the place from afar. Only the poet comes close to find meaning in this spot

The antiquary comes not to explore,
As once, the unrafter’d roof and pathless floor;
For now, no more beneath the vaulted ground
Is crosier, cross, or sculptur’d chalice found,
Nor record telling of the wassail ale,
What time the welcome summons to regale,
Given by the matin peal on holiday,
The villagers rejoicing to obey,
Feasted, in honour of Saint Monica.
Yet often still at eve, or early morn,
Among these ruins shagg’d with fern and thorn,
A pensive stranger from his lonely seat
Observes the rapid martin, threading fleet

The broken arch: or follows with his eye,
The wall-creeper that hunts the burnish’d fly;
Sees the newt basking in the sunny ray,
Or snail that sinuous winds his shining way,
O’er the time-fretted walls of Monica.
He comes not here, from the sepulchral stone
To tear the oblivious pall that Time has thrown,
But meditating, marks the power proceed
From the mapped lichen, to the plumed weed,
From thready mosses to the veined flower,
The silent, slow, but ever active power
Of Vegetative Life, that o’er Decay
Weaves her green mantle, when returning May
Dresses the ruins of Saint Monica.

Oh Nature ! ever lovely, ever new,
He whom his earliest vows has paid to you
Still finds, that life has something to bestow;
And while to dark Forgetfulness they go,
Man, and the works of man; immortal Youth,
Unfading Beauty, and eternal Truth,
Your Heaven-indited volume will display,
While Art’s elaborate monuments decay,
Even as these shatter’d aisles, deserted Monica!

M.O. Grenby returned us to Charlotte Smith as a businesswoman as well as poet. We learned how in her letters dealing with her publishers, Smith would demand higher prices than they were willing to pay, would argue with their assertions they had made less than they had; used them (and her work in effect) as stocking a bank from which she could draw needed money. Smith also wanted to influence almost every level of the publication process, was actively interventionist, changing the order, the content. She suggested a French translator. (What kind of translation matters.) Her later books meant for children were also published to make money. We know exact sums Smith asked for and what she got. She was willing to move from one publisher to another. It does seem most of Smith’s efforts did not bring the money she wanted. When the older Cadell with whom she began as a writer died, she had an even worse time and eventually cut off relationship with the younger Cadell. It’s telling that at the end of her life when the liberal brave publisher, Joseph Johnson, began to publish her, she got better payment and advances without doing half as much strenuous negotiation (or hardly any at all).

hardy_under_beachy_head
Thomas Bush Hardy, “Under Beachy Head” (the poem published by Johnson was “Beachy Head”)

There was not much time for discussion afterward (the musical recital and lunch had made us much later in the afternoon by that time than intended), so we had a brief coffee, and immediately after another panel of papers.

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

Now the topic was Nature and Art.

Lisa Vargos’s paper on Smith’s “Nature Writings for Children,” suggested how original or at least different was Smith’s approach to the natural world and time from that of most romantics or readers at the time. (Reminding me of Mme de Genlis in her Adele and Theodore and many another woman writer before and since (discussed so long ago by Ellen Moers in her Literary Women), Smith sets herself up as a teacher, Mrs Woodfield, who with her two pupils, Elizabeth and Henrietta, explores the landscape. Mrs Woodfield shows how hard it is to control nature, rather they, as people, must join in on an intimate community within the natural world and exert influence on behalf of this continuum of living creatures and plants. Rural Walks contains innovative dialogues, and anticipates aspects of our contemporary theories about climate change. Often Elizabeth cannot see or respond to what Mrs Woodfield is putting before her while Henrietta is more receptive and perceptive. A kind of common humanity is felt, as Mrs Woodfield describes the tragic death of a small animal (dormouse). In her Conversations Introducing Poetry Smith is Mrs Talbot talking to George and Emily. Lisa discussed “To the Snow-drop” which shows Smith’s knowledge of Erasmus Darwin. Smith had in mind Anna Barbauld’s poetry for children; her book also aligns itself with Gilbert White’s writing. As a teacher she is not a disciplinarian, she challenges children to say why this or that is happening. One underlying aim is to help them find (or create) a permanent place to dwell within themselves.

museumsite

Richard Ritter’s talk, “Finding ‘Remote Pleasures at Home:’ Charlotte Smith’s Conversations and the Leverian Museum,” was about the museum as such, and how museums in the later 18th century functioned commercially. Smith as teacher is in this part of her book bringing the children there to see the collection; everything is neatly displayed, and the children supposed to look, ask questions and given a sense of a system within which specimens were set up with great care, and made to look “alive.” The limitations of taxonomy were felt. Here and there Smith’s poetry registers the sudden violent destructive power of natural history. What made his talk interesting was the conflicts he described between those like Smith who had their doubts about such displays:

The birds, or insects, or quadrupeds, though they may be very well preserved, lose that spirit and brilliancy, which living objects only can possess. The attitudes of the birds are stiff and forced, and without their natural accompaniments. Their eyes are seldom so contrived as to resemble those of the living bird; and altogether, their formal or awkward appearances, when stuffed and set on wires, always convey to my mind ideas of the sufferings of the poor birds when they were caught and killed, and the disagreeable operations of embowelling and drying them. — Charlotte Smith, Conversations, Introducing Poetry: Chiefly on Subjects of Natural History. For the Use of Children and Young Persons, 2 vols (London: J. Johnson, 1804), ii, 64-65.

and those so enthusiastic for this kind of show that they overlooked the down side, such as imprisoning animals in an unnatural environment which gives false impressions to those come to see.

Oil painting on canvas, River Landscape, with Fisherman, and distant Ruins of an Abbey, manner of George Smith of Chichester (Chichester 1714 - Chichester 1776) and John Smith (Chichester 1717 - Chichester 1764).Tall tree in foreground; river runs across the centre of the picture. A fanciful ruin of slender Gothic arches on an eminence at right. A fisherman seated on near bank.
River Landscape, with Fisherman, and distant Ruins of an Abbey, manner of George Smith of Chichester (1714-1776) and John Smith (1717-1764).A fanciful ruin of slender Gothic arches on an eminence at right.

Valerie Derbyshire’s paper, “In pursuit of the picturesque: Looking a Smith’s places with an Artist’s Eye,” was about the effect of a some popular contemporary landscape artists on Smith’s poetry. Valerie dwelt on George and John Smith, followers of Gilpin, especially; she seemed to feel his paintings were liked by Smith; but she also mentioned Thomas Hearne’s paintings based on an artificial aesthetic, putting nature in an ordered landscape; Paul Sandby, with his ideal classical landscapes of anywhere and everywhere; Richard Wilson’s more romanticized (as to light and mood), but more accurate landscapes. And of course Gilpin, whom Austen’s brother and Austen herself mention with much delight and respect. Val showed us where specific landscapes could have been influential. Smith rejoices in her picturesque memories of her childhood and uses them: Emmeline is herself outside the social world; Ethelinde makes heavy use of some recognizably real places; Celestina is another homeless heroine, living in an exiled state. Valerie said the descriptions of the Isle of Wight and some of the English countrysides owe a good deal to this kind of painting.

a_winter_landscapegeorgesmith
John Smith of Chichester, A Winter Landscape

The talk afterward was informative. Lisa talked about botany in the era, the use of herbs for medicine. There is a poignancy about Smith’s tone in her children’s books. I asked Val how she felt about John Barrell’s Dark Side of the Landscape where he argued that most of these landscapes were unreal because they left out the rural poor, the hard work, the disordered dismal existences. Valerie acknowledged the cogency of Barrell’s objections and said Smith must’ve been aware of this gap or discrepancy between these distanced views as she describes beggars, exiles, soldiers the desperately poor in her poetry. There was not time to talk about why such figures are not found in Smith’s novels more often — perhaps readers wanted romancing?

I have now thought about this problem of the source of Smith’s landscapes. I know that Radcliffe studied travel books to concoct her landscapes and perhaps Smith did this for the Hebrides. Her years at Bignor Park were important and in her letters and the poetry until she is too sick and in pain to walk she wanders in the English countryside. She had herself been to France. She orders books from libraries and borrows them when she is writing her novels, and she grieved so about their loss because (as she says in her letters) she used books too to write with.

I also thought about Smith’s depiction of a debtor’s prison where she does not dwell on the other people surrounding her hero and heroine sympathetically, but as dangers to the heroine (sexually) and people the hero keeps away from (this in Marchmont). I’ll end on this sonnet, one whose political point of view was not much covered in the conference:

Sonnet 67: To dependence

Dependence! heavy, heavy are thy chains,
And happier they who from the dangerous sea,
Or the dark mine, procure with ceaseless pains
An hard-earn’d pittance — than who trust to thee!
More blest the hind, who from his bed of flock
Starts — when the birds of morn their summons give,
And waken’d by the lark — ‘the shepherd’s clock,’
Lives but to labour — labouring but to live.
More noble than the sycophant, whose art
Must heap with taudry flowers thy hated shrine;
I envy not the meed thou canst impart
To crown his service — while, tho’ Pride combine
With Fraud to crush me — my unfetter’d heart
Still to the Mountain’s Nymph may offer mine.

It’s a bitter poem. It’s said in studies of emigration to the US and Australia and Canada from the UK what was longed for most was independence, liberty from the clique-patronage system of the ancien regime, which Smith loathed. So the problem of dependence in the poem is much larger than a woman seeking a position or freedom from a tyrannical husband or family. She attacks the ancien regime system at its corrupt narrow source, and at the same time asserts a secular ethical outlook that strengthens people. So if she does not truly identify with the poor or lower class people, she does understand what makes the world everyone lives in so corrosively destructive.

It was time for coffee and some biscuits. My next report will cover papers on Smith’s fictions.

Ellen

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