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Elizabeth Moss as Offred, and Martha (cannot find actress’s name)

Friends and readers,

I’m over a week late in writing about the finale to this year’s film adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (see Episodes 1-3, 4-6, 7-9), but I want to offer some closure and a comparison with Atwood’s novel’s close.

This was another intensely grim and cruel episode: every human feeling that is natural and loving is thwarted; all the people living under this regime who are said to be powerful are seething with frustration; there seems to be no kindness anywhere until near the end of the hour when Moira-Ruby reaches Canada, and when Nick seems to enable Offred to at least leave the dead souls (man and wife) now at the core of the Waterford home. The only natural people are Nick, the Martha (who tells the story of her son’s death during the war they lost, for whom she grieves still).

As in the first episodes, the film-makers are past masters at coming up with the most terrorizing kinds of moods — Offred is to be punished with the other women — she showed she had power in the previous episode when she had to be turned to to persuade Offwarren not to throw her baby over the bridge: she is viciously hurt with that electric prod; she is taken and something seared in her ear; then Mrs Waterford is beating the hell out of her for the adultery she has endured in the Commander’s bed — Mrs Waterford has found her dress, and then dares to challenge her husband, which gets her nowwhere (as he answers to God, so she answers to him, a rephrase of Milton’s famous: he for God, she for God in him). What saves Offred momentarily is she is found to be pregnant and that overcomes all he transgressions (no, I will not use the verb “trumps” as it is now peculiarly ruined, sour) — except Mrs Waterford tells the commander it’s not his. That this does grate on him is seen when he questions Offred and elicits from her the misinformation of course the child is his. In fact, we have good reason to believe it’s Nick’s, and without sufficient explanation it is Nick who somehow engineers her escape from this home at the end of the episode into a shut truck which may be taking her into worse darkness or into the “light” (liberty)


Nick’s response when he realizes that Offred is pregnant and it is probably his

Offred now entitled to a good breakfast, but after witnessing the above scene of natural affection between Nick (glad of the pregnancy — this idea of children, sentimental behavior to them is not challenged by the series) and Offred takes her and cruelly shows her Hanna from afar without letting Hanna get close. Offred is locked in a car with strong windows and she cannot reach her child sitting on a school’s steps. Offed goes mad with frustration. Mrs Waterford re-enters the car and threatens to kill Hanna if this baby that Offred is carrying does not survive. Or she Mrs Waterford does not somehow become its mother. In a review I did some years ago of a study of the function of discarded children, nowadays abortions, dead babies, child-abandonment or murder, I discovered that such events are often at the core of searing novels (from Christina Stead’s The Man who loved Children to Winston Graham’s Marnie, an image not mentioned much in all that has been written about Hitchcock’s film) Offred, terrified because she cannot control nature (guarantee her pregnancy will go to term), tells Mr Wwaterford about his wife’s threats; he refuses to believe her. Meanwhile the man whom Offwarren had had to service and exposed as seducing he is humiliated and the egregious hypocrisy of a council leads them to use science – one of these hideous operations to which our society subjects people — to cut the man’s arm off. This “operation” is classic gothic (used in Branagh’s Frankenstein): one of the motifs of gothic is exposing science as inhumane, cruel, used for perversion. I have reason to know tonight egregious operations are performed in dentistry too.

Late that night Offred tries to visit Nick and he seems not to be there His house is shrouded in darkness, — or he’s not coming out in the night. Tired, she returns to her room and opens the package that Jezebel had delivered to her, and discovers it is brim full of hundreds of notes telling the dire stories of the different handmaid’s. We watch her reading these with a kind of joy, and then carefully stowing them away. Near the close of the episode they are rescued as evidence by one of the hand-maid’s.

Woven into the episode (across it, like a tapestry) Ruby-Moira’s escape to Ontario. We see her toil across snow and ice, avoid shots, and finally arrive at a bleak garage like room where she is taken in. Switch to a hospital like place where she has been fed, redressed, is asked if she has any family, and when she says no, is provided with a family from Offred (her husband Luke) and then (wonderful to an American) given insurance cards; welcomed warmly, given warm close and looks about her to see pictures of other invented families on the boards of the hospital corridor. Humanity conquers biology.


Luke in corridor in Canada

The final perversion in Gilead is the handmaid’s are led into a circle to stone someone to death and discover the person is Offwarren, subject to such brutality and from their hands for endangering her baby. First one brave handmaid refuses this outrage and a guard beats her ferociously, but then Offred steps forward into the circle, and drops her tone on the ground, “sorry Aunt Lydia,” and all follow suit, one by one. Lydia seems to feel here is a battle she should yield on (however temporarily). So she gives in, but says ominously “there will be consequences.” The girls return home as a group in triumph, each off to “her” home.

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) confronts Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) over cradle

These are seen at the ending as Offred remembers a happy moment with Luke after she is first pregnant with Hanna or has given birth (marveling over the child’s hands). This contrasts with a scene between the Waterfords where she and he attempt to reach one another humanly, to make love, but are intensely stiff, and seemingly fail emotionally. They must first admit and resolve their new perverted emotional lives, hers one of extreme resentment, frustration and probably self-blame, his still obtuse hypocrisy and reveling in power.

Then the ambiguous ending: as before Offred is woken in the middle of the night, pulled out of bed, dressed but as she comes down the stairs, she finds that both Mr and Mrs Waterford are desperately protesting and cast aside. There is Nick telling her to get into the truck, and she is locked in, the truck driven away. The camera focuses on he inside and for reasons that do not seem reasonable she is filled with hope and triumph (yet says she does not know what is ahead). The episode is called “Night.” Many of the episodes are filmed as if in night’s darkness. The 1999 film has Offred escaping with Nick and he daughter to a landscape of refuges, now pregant, rather like Julie Christie at the close of Heat and Dust finds peace in a refuge center high on a mountain where she comes to give birth. I am not eager to watch next season unless Atwood herself writes the script — I fear that the hard satire at the center which came from Atwood’s extraordinary book would not be kept up.

Atwood’s book’s ending is utterly different from both films: it is a piece of astonishing sleight-of-hand utterly skeptical of all we have read – not we did not experience it, but that we are led to see it as a manuscript from a time a century or so ago whose truthfulness we cannot check. Atwood times travels for her close. We are at a conference where the male professors are discussing a manuscript from another time and place. So fast forward to the future and the past looks very different, not so searing as here we are today, presumably safe and sound. This coda is a satire on academics, and their pretenses at humanity. The patriarchy reasserts itself too. The story in the book is more persuasively real than either film because psychologically credible throughout with the characters having inner complexities, especially Offred in her relationship with Mr Waterford (though this tends to excuse him, it even handedly shows sympathy for males caught up in patriarchy).

Here’s a personal take: the vision of this society is of imprisonment. Inside Gilead all are in prisons, prisons made of mind-sets, prisons dependent on punishment, prisons of hypocrisy, prisons of power. Supposedly competition is eliminated for some greater good, but the greater good is for the very few and is itself hedged by ideas that natural pleasures are sins.

We are in prisons or what we’ve built from our pasts; my neighbor-friend told me once when I was first friendly with her, that she felt when her husband died, her past had been wiped out, it was as if it didn’t exist. She was talking of personal memories, and the reality that they were diplomats and moved around the world so she first took root again in DC — luckily for she had a good job at the German institute, a private educational place serving the public (like so many in the US part private) teaching foreign languages to people going to and coming from abroad (then English), but much of her life is the product of her past. I’ve tried hard for 3 years to create a new existence for myself but find I cannot escape my past and to make something new and new relationships, create a new self at 70 well nigh impossible. My beautiful house, the books — if I move and reject them, then I have nothing. Both parents dead, no siblings, a couple of cousins and aunt who lives far away. As we age, we are prisoners of time and our bodies and these a product often of years of interaction, some considered and more free, others subject and subjected. The series is about enforcing pregnancy and regimenting the body. Power in it is based on paining bodies. Others are imprisoned in other ways — social life’s customs and patterns deeply fixed, regiments. Even the weather here — now ceaselessly hot — keeps people in who are not at the beach or taking trips.


Samira Wiley who plays Moira-Ruby — off hours, out of character

Atwood is showing the imprisonment rituals and ways of life are perverse in our world by her exaggerations of our world in her Gilead. At the time there were other female dystopias about wars between the sexes (one by Suzie McKee Charnas) where the women win or they lose. There is no gain for real from it. Interesting all the non-Gilead pasts in the min-series are of a hard brash difficult commercialized world where happiness is snatched at home from tiny nuclear groups attached to one another. It’s not really a Nazi or fascist vision, but simply capitalist and militarist in all the buildings and appurtenances we see. Food is associated with women who are cooks both in the past, outside and in Gilead; it is women who give birth but the outcome of this process intensely controlled.


Atwood herself in an authorized photo

Of course Margaret Atwood is a foremother and present-day poet of great achievement and stature. From her rich poetic writing, here is the appropriate (for Handmaid’s Tale)

Werewolf Movies

Men who imagine themselves covered with fur and sprouting
fangs, why do they do that? Padding among wet
moonstruck treetrunks crouched on all fours, sniffing
the mulch of sodden leaves, or knuckling
their brambly way, arms dangling like outsized
pajamas, hair all over them, noses and lips
sucked back into their faces, nothing left of their kindly
smiles but yellow eyes and a muzzle. This gives them
pleasure, they think they’d be
more animal. Could then freely growl, and tackle
women carrying groceries, opening
their doors with keys. Freedom would be
bared ankles, the din of tearing: rubber, cloth,
whatever. Getting down to basics. Peel, they say
to strippers, meaning: take off the skin.
A guzzle of flesh
dogfood, ears in the bowl. But
no animal does that: couple and kill,
or kill first: rip up its egg, its future.
No animal eats its mate’s throat, except
spiders and certain insects, when it’s the protein
male who’s gobbled. Why do they have this dream then?
Dress-ups for boys, some last escape
from having to be lawyers? Or a
rebellion against the mute
resistance of objects: reproach of the
pillowcase big with pillow, the tea-
cosy swollen with its warm
pot, not soft as it looks but hard
as it feels, round tummies of saved string in the top
drawer tethering them down. What joy, to smash the
tyranny of the doorknob, sink your teeth
into the inert defiant eiderdown with matching
spring-print queensized sheets and listen to her
scream. Surrender.

Ellen

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Elizabeth Moss as Offred (Handmaid’s Tale, 2016, “created” by Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano

Friends,

It may be that nothing could be fundamentally further in mood (dystopian horror) and genre (fantasy gothic or science fiction) from a Jane Austen novel, or any of the film adaptations (except perhaps P&P and Zombies: The Violent Turn) than Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, only short-listed for the Booker at the time), with its two iterations, the 1990 Volker Schlondorff/Harold Pinter 109 minute cinema Handmaid’s Tale, and now this gargantuan mini-series of 10 one hour episodes Bruce Miller/Reed Morano Hulu Handmaid’s Tale. But this is such an important production of a now clearly prophetic woman’s novel, however or because problematic at moments, we cannot ignore it.

The book is not just prophetic; it’s an allegory of today, of the way the men in charge of the US gov’t want to control women and the world. Every violation a woman can know is meted out; many men are equally powerless; you are hung for being gay, transgender, speaking unacceptably … what is problematic is the over-the-top violence: is it part of an inuring process which leads to acceptance of torture in many forms ….

The book is hard, harsh, not easy to assimilate: it begins in medias res and immediately you are immersed in a closed environment where the narrator, Offred, is cut off from any information beyond her immediate environment, itself laced with lies, and surrounded by treacherous fearful and ruthlessly bullying people (in this mini-series, immediately aggressively violent). The narrator grips you from the start — rather like Michel Faber’s Under the Skin and MarlenHaushofen’s The Wall. We are seeing this world from a single point of view — Offred (Natasha Richardson, far too lovely, and now Elizabeth Moss, her face all hard angles).

The book begins with Offred in her single room and going downstairs where she is about to go shopping. Slowly it emerges from her mind how she has come to live with the commander Waterford (Robert Duvall/now Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Faye Dunaway, now Yvonne Stahovski). The way records are completely under the control of gov’t agencies (which has been true for a few decades now), so that when the coup is accomplished, that very day our heroine cannot reach her bank account. The money she is told is not validly hers. When she gets home, she is told that her husband can reach it and it’s telling he doesn’t mind this. Suddenly then women are not allowed to own any property. The next day she is told by her boss –- as are all the other women in the office – they are no longer permitted to work. She must go home and be an obedient housewife. The boss looks very sorry to do this – he’s losing his staff – but he is under threat of terrific retaliations, he says. Return to the present: As Offred goes about the house we meet the Marthas (in long brown dresses); a male Guardian, Nick (now Max Minghella) at his car and where he lives (woman-less as a powerless man).

The novel is far softer, more subtly nuanced than either film: it begins with some sense of sympathy for Serena Joy as herself vulnerable (reminding me of the plantation owner’s white wife who hates his black concubine in Valerie Martin’s Property). But she seethes with resentment and hatred as she is forced to use Offred’s vagina (her own “barren”) to conceive a child, all she can justify her existence by. She moves from pretend concern for Offred when she thinks Offred is pregnant, to brutal kicking when Offred turns out to have her period. As the novel proceeds, Serena Joy encourages Offred to take up with Nick in order to conceive a child, and there is this appalling scene where Serena Joy has given Offed a single cigarette, and Offred has to practically beg to get a single match from one of the kitchen staff. Psychologically interesting scenes include those between the commander and Offred as they begin to be people to one another (as in their game of Scrabble). Lots of the details are vivid and appropriate — reminding me of the use of metaphor and landscape in Alias Grace, Cat’s Eye (one of her finest novels) and Lady Oracle (brilliantly about romance novels, the gothic).

The things that are done to the powerless heroines (all women are powerless but the apparent bullies, Aunt Lydia types (Ann Dowd) are horrible but not over the top so that they are not believable. They are parallel to what goes on in the US and elsewhere today. The hatred of gays, the desire to destroy women’s vaginas (one pregnancy test is an invasive procedure by doctors), the continual presence of military people, the ruthless disproportionate punishments, the way the hanged are dressed (like the tortured people in Abu Ghraib). A key motive in the book and both films: the narrator wants to survive and is willing to kowtow to anything, do or say anything to avoid bodily pain — it’s so easy to kill someone. I recently reviewed a crucial anthology, Speaking about Torture, where this drive to carry on as well as an assertion of individual self through talk and memory enables survival for a very few.


Max Minghella as Nick in the mini-series — he is hovering around the edges, looking like someone with a still alive conscience

The book’s ending is quite different from the first movie’s and since this mini-series has already gone well beyond the book in harrowing chilling inhumanity (the word seems so inadequate), I expect its ending will differ too. The book reaches its climax in the club where Offred comes upon Moira (she did not manage to escape), with Serena Joy discovering them having an apparent good time, and precipitates a crisis. One of the troubling aspects of the book and first film is how many of the women hate (or appear to hate) the other women. While reading I found detail after detail were simple exaggerations or night mare versions of our present political arrangements, what one sees in social clubs say — masquerades that expose.

The heroine in the book “goes out” — seemingly to her death, and the feel or sound is that of a great explosion. The 1990 film ends with a revolt, Nick enables Offred to escape to a trailer high in the mountains well beyond this terrible empire where we see her pregnant, relieved to be left alone, waiting for him — presumably the people who make such decisions insisted on an upbeat close. It did not feel tacked on: this is a pregnancy not dreaded. This mini-series has made Offred’s daughter central and she says she is staying alive to try to be there to protect her daughter (if she can), rescue her.


It’s worth noting that both are dominatingly white film — thus far Samira Wiley is the only black major character in both movies (Moira here, was Elizabeth McGovern)

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

Episodes 1-3


Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), Offred’s friend from the past (Offred now has a “real” name, June)

Episode 1: The film-makers made an atmosphere of complete appalled terror and horror. From the moment we see the family in flight, to their capturing Offred and her child. The use of violence is continually there and the film punctuated by heartless humiliation, regimentation, breaking of all taboos that are there to help people stay together naturally. I found myself shaking at moments. I was shocked by use rape to destroy people, and to make women (including Offred) attack someone viciously and ferociously.  Offred joins in, is even first to start beating the man labeled rapist mercilessly. The women are like dogs who from the punishment and the rage they feel are then drivne to wreak their vengeance on another helpless person. I worried Ofglen, the woman whom Offred goes shopping with, and seems to be making friends with, is not a traitor. Everyone is treacherous. But she is “disappeared” by the third episode. Some moments reminded me of the first movie. Moira in both is violently beaten and stipped naked, put to bed. The horror of the “maid” used as a receptacle for sperm while the husband systematically fucks her and she is made to lay in the wife’s arms. How the wife hates this. t. Offred witnesses the husband going into an elegant dinner party with the wife shut out in both iterations. The use of far shots is fascinating: these make us see the characters as so many tiny figures in a glass bowl, de-humanizes them into a maze.


The commander


His wife, Serena Joy

Episode 2: I can’t take more of this kind of thing than an hour in a row so waited another night before watching again. This is transition. The ever so gentle Mr Waterford (the commander played by an actor who reminds me of Ralph Fiennes when he plays these gentle loving brother-types so this is high irony; he chooses to impose scrabble on Offred nightly -(One Austen connection is with Emma! — Caroline Austen suggested one source for the depiction of Mr Woodhouse at backgammon with Emma was a real older male relative in the Lloyd family who tyrannized his granddaughters into nightly backgammon … for one night might be amusing but not continually.)
 
There is throwback to Offred’s memories of a having her child normally by her husband, but tellingly, the film makes that experience not altogether blissful: she is controlled by others as she fulfills routines taught, and her husband scoots out at the first opportunity. This mini-series has the nerve, the daring to bring out the analogies of “normal” life to this dystopia.  The bully woman in charge is so hypocritically proud of Moira for breast-feeding.  (I refused to breast feed the second time, I found myself after a vast hemorrhage asked if I wanted to try to breast feed — I told them you must be mad but they never blinked  — I could go on with this about how I was unknowingly dragged into some vast room where women were being taught to breast-feed, it took strength and never with that ridiculous IV to walk out).  Nothing is to be trusted: the woman Offred had started a relationshio with, Ofglen is replaced by another woman claiming to be her. Ofglen had told her not to trust the Commander’s driver, Max Minghella.

There is no gratuitous physical violence but the emotional violence through repression and perversion is continual and far sharper, a sort of continual emotional abuse which destroys pesonalities.


Aunt Lydia — the actress is made to look like people typically put into domineering intimidating roles, with expressionless faces, hard dense bodies ..

Episode 3 shows us in fragments how an originally semi-free society (ours) was turned into a dictatorship with women as slaves. First their bank accounts are frozen, then they have no money, then they are fired. Offred’s husband doesn’t mind it seems; he’ll protect her. But he can’t. Demostrations are seen, people beaten shot in the streets, especially women. All these remind me of what I see on TV when black lives matter people demonstrate, when the Occupy Wall Street Movement was brutally scattered, and people in the streets maimed for life. These are fragments of memory of Offred: she is thought to be pregnant and is phonily treated as precious. But after a hideous interrogation (she is given electric shock treatments each time she violates some speech prohibition or shows the least independence) she gets her period back and is again driven as a hated thing by the wife.

In each of the separate incidents, every profound violation a woman can know is done — I assume the last scene of the girl with a bandage over her vagina means she’s been subjected to female genital mutilation. raped, beaten, used utterly sexually, hung to death. It is moving slowly and instinct or some knowledge of long watching of these mini-series tells me it’s going at the speed of Outlander (16 episodes = 1 book much longer than Handmaid’s Tale) but it’s been so long since I read the book. A couple of allusions come from recently — about the constitution. Recent allusions I’d say are prophetic unless the writers had in mind Trump winning with Pence as his vice-president (Pence will not be alone in a room with a woman he says).

Note that I have not re-capped the mini-series; those wanting recaps must go elsewhere but here is an abbreviated review (by “anibundel” of I Should Have Been a Blogger) more or less done with an eye to the audience member who wants a recap. One should of course reread the book carefully, and then re-see all three episodes and then move on to the fourth. What is troubling about this mini-series is the hundred-fold increase in violence from book and first film: we are inured and most be given horrific behavior it seems before we are affected, and what this does is inure us further. I am worried that like Nabokov’s Lolita, this is an art work which invite us to revel in the subjection of women (especially since romance, marriage and motherhood are treated a holy subjects), while claiming through irony to attack the patriarchal bosses. See Francine Prose in the New York Times and think seriously about this.


A close-up landscape — from a later episode not yet aired on Hulu

Ellen

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Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window Shutters

Dear friends,

About two years ago now (how time flies) I chaired two panels whose topic was supposed to be single women living alone befoe the 19th century. Single did not mean unmarried necessarily: rather a woman living as a single woman without a man as husband, father, brother, uncle, or some form of “guardian” cousin. I did not specify that the women had literally to be living alone but was looking rather for someone who had the highest authority in the house, was not with someone else as her peer. I was aware that out of six papers accepted for this panel “as near enough,” only one was about real women living alone — and in these two cases, the woman, Charlotte Lennox and Charlotte Smith, were married and separated from their husbands, with children and servants and other people as burdens in the household too. The others were about fictions, nunneries, a love affair in letters (two young people being forbidden to marry), and my own on widows and widowers in Austen, where only a few in the fictions could be described as living alone for any considerable period of time, with the exception of the impoverished (Mrs Smith, Miss Bates). The fact of non-marriage as shaping their living conditions was not brought up except explicitly for Miss Bates.

I was encouraged by editors scouting about to develop a prospectus for an anthology of essays on this topic, but I was immediately confronted with the reason for the lack of papers. I had no study to fall back on, only individual books part of which might swirl around this topic (single women — meaning spinsters — in a given period, or widows in 18th century France). Studies were done of fictions because there at least the topic was defined and individuals clearly described — there is a problem of definition itself as the unacceptability of the state led many women to keep their state invisible (Felicia Hemans springs to mind). On the one hand, I felt there were so many women of this type when I began to look, and on the other how a firm conception to bring them together had not been developed. You could get articles or chapters on the pressure on women to marry, but then what was discussed was marriage. No one wanted to look; this was not interesting unless the woman was seeking power and it was this search for gaining power that was the interest. I asked friends who had more status than I to join me as an editor (to ask other people to write essays is to need status oneself), but all were busy with other projects. I am a retired adjunct lecturer aka independent scholar. A second obstacle was finding people; this requires a circle of close friend-scholars with the same interests who see somke advantage to themselves in appearing in this anthology. One last: one friend said I might find it becomes “too lesbian” (in effect) and so be sure to cover a wide range of types! (contact people privately before resorting to the CFP).


Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Modern Women

But I had not quite given up the topic. It’s too close to my heart now. Last term (at the Oscher Institute of Lifelong Learning at American University) I taught a class I called 19th century women of letters and my proposal to do it again with a different set of books has been accepted at OLLI at Mason for the coming fall. It hadn’t taken long for me to realize that the typical women of letters was a woman supporting herself, often living alone if I used the expanded definition. It does seem as if living truly alone, literally (though still an anomaly), is a phenomenon only found in the 20th century: essentially it requires that a woman have a good paying job or income (I thought of Virginia Woolf’s desideratum of £500 per year, the equivalent today would be $35,000 per year); and that the norms or mores of the community do not allow male thugs to molest her on the supposition she must be a prostitute (in effect). Before the 19th century there was no large general literary marketplace, few circulating libraries, few magazines. All this was the basis for the 19th century woman of letters:

19th Century Women of Letters

We will ask what did a woman writer’s career look like, what genres and journalism women published, what were obstacles & advantages women experienced, like & unlike today. We’ll read Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, George Eliot’s “Janet’s Repentance,” and Margaret Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and “The Library Window.”  We’ll also read brief on-line excerpts from Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography, Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century, Emmeline Pankhurst, “Freedom or Death” and Virginia Woolf’s “Professions for Women”.

Now suddenly a thought has occurred to me which I had not been able to reach before: I could do a book on this topic if I chose 6 women I could write about myself. I had so worried myself over the obstacles to an anthology. But I can write a book on my own. I have the Library of Congress and Folger nearby, and access to two university libraries, one with the database. I can now see an introductory chapter; the body of the work; and a conclusion. I don’t know why I couldn’t break through to this before. Maybe need. I need absorbing work I can genuinely respect and look at as useful to others beyond giving myself some kind of meaning. I have now faced that I will be alone most of the time for the rest of my life. I can blog, teach, write and read to participate with others, but I want some overarching goal to guide me. An introductory chapter, a chapter on a specific woman and outline and I could try to send this to one of those editor-publishers whose names and presses I still have.


Another possible candidate: Julia Kavanagh (1824-77), disabled, she supported herself and her mother by her pen

So I’ve begun reading again Norma Clarke’s Ambitious Heights: Writing, Friendship, Love, The Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Carlyle. I’m in the second half, the chapter on the relationship of Geraldine Jewsbury and Jane Welsh Carlyle, and remembered a brilliant portrait of them by Virginia Woolf in her Second Common Reader.

Woolf’s essay is a delight. She manages to convey Geraldine and Jane’s lesbianism without openly showing it — so this is a kind of post-James text. I refer to how Eva Sedgwick says lesbian and gay texts around the time of Henry James were using various subterfuges but coming out much more to show gay and lesbian experience. Carter takes another step into transvestism and gender ambiguity which except for the high-jinks of Orlando I don’t see in Woolf.

I was drawn to the pathos of these women in Woolf. Clarke’s Ambitious Heights rather brings out how hard Jane Carlyle was on her women servants — she worked them like semi-slaves, and also made them be a personal comforter to her. Let me say that was wrong of Jane Carlyle; Clarke made me wonder if other women did this. I know that male masters did bugger their male servants, and the only control was fear of blackmail. Woolf doesn’t have the space to explain why Jewsbury lived far away, how she came to London to live close. There were two visits of living together, and the first a disaster, the second a reinforcement. Paradoxically for us a disappointment because the letters stop when they live around the corner from one another. Today they might start to text and tweet at one another. Then Jane’s need of Geraldine but after her sudden death (from fatigue? from stress? from repressive years and years of wearing down her organs), Geraldine spends 20 years alone. The one photo we have of Jewsbury shows her quietly reading, all dressed up. Unlike Woolf who is daring for her time, Clarke does not bring up or out the probable lesbianism of Carlyle and Jewsbury (Jane and Geraldine). It was published in 1990; Clarke doesn’t even discuss the possibility. 26 years ago maybe it was verboten to get an academic respectable if feminist book published.


Geraldine Jewsbury

I also started Kirsteen, which I am relieved to say is as excellent as Oliphant’s Hester, The Ladies Lindores and Lady Car: A sequel (about the later years of one of the heroines in the first book), or long ago now (I don’t remember it as well any more) Cousin Phoebe. I just love Oliphant’s books and she would be one of my subjects. I need to narrow each one of six to the trajectory of women living alone, why, how, with what results. I have been wanting to blog on her powerful if flawed The Marriage of Elinor and thinking about this novel in terms of this perspective, brings out what Oliphant is meaning to say by this book, and its continued effectiveness today.

My reading of The Marriage of Elinor went on late at night; I turned pages feverishly because like other of Oliphant’s novels I couldn’t predict what was going to happen, and only towards the middle became aware (as is so common with Oliphant) that it’s not centrally about the character of the young heroine, after whom it is name, Elinor, or she’s secondary; the center is shared by her mother, Mrs Dennistoun whose first name was finally uttered: Mary.

The book is about a woman who gives all to a daughter who continually makes very bad choices. And why are they bad? because she chooses what the world says is admirable. Elinor marries Philip Compton, a macho male handsome man who takes her into expensive society and she finds herself emotionally corroded, among hollow people, a target for monetary fleecing. The book’s true hero, John Tatham has not been passionate and aggressive enough in his proposal to her. He is a kind of Henry James male who does not commit himself emotionally until it’s too late. Sheltering Elinor destroys her life. No one is willing to tell her (including her mother) why she should not marry Phillip Compton who turns out to be (not to put a fine point on this) far more than promiscuous and a gambler: he’s a downright criminal whom her world protects from censor because of his rank and family. The way the story is set up it seems to be about the young heroine — which is what happens in Hester and why it gets off to a very slow start, with us realizing only gradually the young heroine, Elinor, is a doppelganger to the older her mother (Hester is this to her aunt-in-law, Catherine Vernon). It’s very much both and about how destructive is the norm which will not allow a girl to know anything about the world, try to support herself and not be a helpless hanger-on, but find some fulfillment of her own.

Merryn Williams who wrote the best of the three recent books in English on Oliphant says the point of The Marriage of Elinor is to show us how little sexual passion and the reasons for marriage out of love last a very short time; what women care for is motherhood. Men cannot understand these feelings. Elisabeth Jay reminds her reader this is a late novel and she concentrates on the woman in it I’ve not mentioned: dissolute, amoral, endlessly in society (a sort of Helene in Tolstoy’s War and Peace) who is represented as repellent. Jay does not respect this novel, mentions it because it is not romantic and shows the real psychology of a desperately bad marriage (in terms of either party getting any fulfillment).

As Elinor sees how bad her decision to marry Compton is, she does all she can to hide the truth. There are hints Compton hits her. Her happiest times it now seems to her were when she was left by this husband to live with her mother and her boy. Finally she separates heself him for the sake of her son, so the son shall not be brought up to become another amoral man. Her mother has given up a great deal of money to Philip as a kind of bribe. Meanwhile Elinor allows her fear of what the world might say adverse to her pride drive her decisions: say to move from the comfortable home her mother has lived in most of her life (it appears to be near Dorking, so Sussex) way up north. She will not send her precious son to a school where he is surrounded by peers because is determined to keep from him who his father was for real, and his background. In court Elinor gives a testimony literally true, but false in what it implies, and the ne’er-do-well husband is himself let go, and returns to having nothing to do with her once he gets his hands on enough money to live luxuriously. But by the end of the novel she has silently conceded the man she married is a criminal type even if he has a title, and she goes to live alone up north, leaving her son with Tatham whose advice she has finally relied upon. The crucial last turn of the book is the question of whether her son will turn against her when he realizes all his life he has been kept away from others, gone to a school where he was not with his own class or boys of his own intellectual level; he does not partly because John Tatham has stayed by his side and provides the explanation and continuity the boy needs. The two women end up living alone in peace at the book’s end

Oliphant reminds me a little of Charlotte Smith: not finding a new radically changed structure on which to plot her story. She often wants us to see her characters confronting hegemonic norms of other people and unable to break them down — in many areas of life and death too. We are supposed to heavily criticize Elinor. I am so used to the conventional stance of pro-heroine, but in these latest scenes what Elinor wants to do (flee the law) is so egregious. Each time flight: each time refuse to cope with what she has created and wrecking havoc on those she says her actions are protecting. The book critiques the passive romantic supposedly super-virtuous heroine; she must come out and she must engage with the situations she’s created. The power of the book comes from what seems a skewed POV divided between Tatham and Mrs Denistoun who anguish over Elinor

How did Kavanagh, Jewsbury, Oliphant manage it? Woolf? I end on Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

So, added to Austen and sheerly the 18th century, woman artists, and foremother poets, I hope blogging here by thinking through work I do towards a book by me to be called The Anomaly. I’m an anomaly by the way. Not because I fit the definition of nearly living alone (which I do): a widow, with my unmarried daughter, a librarian and two cats, but because I’m a very learned scholar with no rank and no income except my widow’s annuity and social security, and the money my mother and Jim left me; because I teach at a place where I don’t quite fit either as a student (yesterday I became aware of how many of the women at AU went to elite or Ivy League colleges and studied to be lawyers and other professionals — they can have no idea who I am, from a free university, getting there by bus, studying English Literature) or teacher (I overdo), and because my social life such as it is is here on Net. Is this enough to be getting on with? I’ve got many rooms of my own and for now more than the minimum income …

Ellen

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Paul Sandby (1731-1809) The Magic Lantern

Dear readers and friends,

My second report on the papers and talks I heard at the recent EC/ASECS conference (see Money, Feeling and the Gothic, Johnson and The Woman of Colour). I’ve three panels, a keynote speech and individual papers to tell of. Of especial interest: a paper on hunger towers (the use of hunger as a political statement has reversed itself); on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (favorable!) and Mary Shelley’s Valperga, out in a good new edition; it’s about (among other things) a struggle between tyrannical autocracy and liberal democracy … just our thing …

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1861 Illustration of Dante’s Inferno: Ugolino grieving over his starving dying sons

For the last session on Friday (Oct 28th), I went to the “Adaptation” panel chaired by Peter F. Perreten. Erlis Wickersham’s “Goethe’s Use of Traditional Hunger Tower Motifs in Gotz von Berlichingen. The historical background of the motive brings out the astonishing reverse use made of death through hunger today. Hunger towers were a visible symbol and reality that told people looking at them that the powerful family (or group) or political person has imprisoned someone so that he (or she) shall die a horribly painful death from slow starvation. Erlis said they were common in medieval landscapes. A very cruel form of murder. Perhaps one of the most famous examples is in Dante’s Inferno: Ugolino who was imprisoned with two sons and two grandsons. Schiller’s play is less complex than what happened historically, which was an instance of torture, of unspeakable inhumanity during the last days of the feudal system. Schiller alters this so that it becomes a chosen hunger strike. Schiller is showing us a new state of mind, a way of conveying a deep disapproval, a rejection of life as then lived. Kafka’s early 20th century story, “The Hunger Artist” presents a scene of people watching a man die for entertainment, a sort of paradigm mirroring aspects of humanity. The most recent example is found in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games: she depicts a grimly impoverished society, a dystopian culture. Those who win a primitive unfairly manipulated contest receive more food and comforts. Its heroine, Katniss Everdeen represents the strength of idealism. Hunger becomes a weapon against oppression, a defiance of the existing social order. Escape though seems to be impossible in this hunger-haunted world. Of course what should happen is ample food be supplied to all.

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I had not realized the expressions on the faces of the actors in promotional shots for Hunger Games might suggest they are hungry ….

Sylvia Kasey Marks,”What did Playwright Arthur Miller do to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?” Helen Jerome was the screenplay writer for the first of the film adaptations of Jane Austen in 1941, a fairly successful P&P. The typescript is in Texas. At the time Miller was between jobs, his greatest plays had yet to be written, and one way he made money was to write radio plays He does not seem to have known much about the 18th century or its texts, and he used this Jerome adaptation in 1945 to write an hour-long radio show. Sylvia felt Miller had not read Austen’s novel: he is unaware of Elizabeth and her father’s warm relationship, of the witty use of letters. Miller made many more changes, some silly (Lydia gets drunk on raspberry punch), and a few subtle cruelties here and there. Miller also panders. But the play has as its theme a willingness to reject the past; the characters say that they never told the truth in this house for 10 minutes. We need to have a ruthlessness against the past that holds us.

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Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot grieving over her letters (2007 Persuasion, scripted Simon Burke, it’s just possible to see Persuasion as a breaking away from the past that holds us in its grip)

Linda Troost gave an insightful account of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I enjoyed her paper because when I wrote my blog I could not find one review or blog which took the movie at all seriously or praised it; most people could not get beyond its mockery of aspects of heterosexual romance, and seemed to regard the piece as inane trivia. I reviewed it as a flawed work (see my The Violent Turn), which attempts a mirroring of our modern preoccupations with violence as a solution to all our problems; there is some serious gothic: a deep disturbance over the human body, it whips up disgust with nature, and (as Frankenstein, the ultimate origin) has an obsession with death. Linda took it on its own terms, which she appeared to enjoy: Lady Catherine de Bourgh as a great warrior, Wickham’s desire for power, how Elizabeth saves Darcy. I was aware of how many scenes in the film still keep the pivot or hinge-points of the book,and how the costumes quoted other films, Linda brought out many jokes through intertextual borrowing from other films

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The kind of breakfast scene so typical of Austen films

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The familiar Darcy proposal to Elizabeth becomes a violent duel, complete with swords and axes

The day was over; there was a reception for Linda Merians, who had been the secretary of the society for so many years, speeches, drinks, and then I went to dinner at a nearby Asian fusion restaurant with a friend.

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Wm Hogarth (1697-1764), The Distrest Poet (1736)

The early morning session, Bibliography, Book History, and Textual Studies chaired by Eleanor Shevlin was marvelous but I doubt I can convey why because the fun was in the minute changes people make to their texts, the interest complicated questions of profits from copyright, and one woman’s thwarted attempt to sell her book of letters for money.

Jim May discussed Goldsmith’s multitudinous revisions, big and small, in his poems “The Traveller and the Deserted Village.” Jim began with how in the Clarendon edition of Pope, the editors chose to use the earliest possible text, a pre-publication copy, on the grounds that incidentals don’t matter. He then moved to Arthur Friedman’s edition of Goldsmith which shows a feeling for a very complicated text. For Goldsmith writing was rewriting. He rewrote other people’s adaptations, translations, introductory material. He would revise and revise and revise his own texts. He would respond to critics by revising for the next edition. The problem for readers is they don’t understand Friedman’s system of annotation (Lonsdale’s is easier to follow). You can trace Goldsmith’s thought by paying attention to these small changes.

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Nancy Mace asked if Robert Falkener was aanother music private or a principled revolutionary, bringing otherwise unaffordable music (sheets) to “the masses?” It’s a story of 18th century conflicts between open access and protection of private property (musician and composer’s profits). In 1760s we find Falkener’s name on harpsichords as a builder; then then begins to produce music sheets. Printers had preferred to use engraved pewter plates; Falkener recognized printing from movable type was much cheaper. Music had been selling for shillings and so many pence; Falkener sold his sheets for a penny a piece. Music trade brought suit three times and courts sided with plaintives. It was in 1777 music regarded as texts was covered by copyright. Falkener used arguments like Handel’s work had been in the public domaine, he raised the troubling question (by then) of monopolies. She looked at the case of Love in a Village which led to a series of lawsuits, claims and counterclaims (Bickerstaffe, or Walsh or Pyle)and finally the; court more or less sided with original or first owner. Meanwhile Falkener had lost but he carried on printing: 8 of the most popular sheets, from a popular operetta). The problem with claiming his purpose was to reach more people falls down when you realize these people could not afford even the cheaper sheet music.

Michael Parker discussed “the unknown career of Harriet Woodward Murray, a Maryland Woman of letters. Prof Parker edited the poetry of Edmund Waller and is now working on a biography, and in a letter by Alice Mary Randall he read of her friend, Harriet Woodward (1762-1840) who produced a book called Extracts. He then came across a 2 volume set of Extracts attributed to someone else, which he recognized from the earlier description. The book reflects the preoccupations and tastes of genteel American who is a great reader; she moves from gaiety to piety, to trying to help impoverished and African-American people. She includes Shenstone and poetry of sensibility, Shenstone himself had gathered poems by his friendsHe told of her parents, who she married, the planation where she grew up, where she lived later upon her marriage, her good friend, Catherine Nicolson Few (1764-1854). Harriet’s husband had lost a great deal of money, so Harriet wrote this book and Catherine attempted to get up a subscription list of 380 individuals for 456 copies, 156 of which were women. Frederick Green of the Gazette printed it. The friendship between the two women seems to have lapsed, and Harriet tried to sell the books herself. In fact few took their copies, mostly family members and the profit was $30. In this century most of the copies were destroyed by a descendant by mistake. The family was related to the family behind Daisy in Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.

The room was full and there was a lively discussion afterwards — about American culture, the realities of selling books by subscription, did writers stay with the same printers? Nancy reminded us that music was a luxury business: middle class people learned to play instruments, and most money was made selling instruments. The audience did not care about the quality of the printed sheets. The composer had to sell his music through a fee; there were no royalties then.

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Adolph Menzel (1815-1905), Staircase by Night (1848) — I felt an appropriate image for Wright’s poems (see just below)

Catherine Ingrassia’s keynote address, “Familiarity breeds Contentment: (Re)locating the Strange in 18th century women writers” was basically about how to go about changing the canon so we can bring in 18th century women writers hitherto not studied. The new technology and editions make it possible to study minor women writers for the first time: we can have the texts from ECCO and Pandora online. She had two lists of words: those signifying familiarity are pleasant; those signifying strangeness, hostile. The period saw the first editions by women of their poetry, first biographies; they were attacked too. But obstacles to a woman writing are many, from family obligations, to impoverished widowhood. To use the old anthologies is to repeat the same mistakes as often editors rely on a previous edition. Now we have tools to use like the Cambridge Companions to Women’s Writing: books which offer ideas on how to approach the texts we have. There were anthologies of women’s poetry, miscellanies by individuals, often writing in solitude without much opportunity to make money. Catherine read aloud to us poems by women of the 18th century, one a widow with 2 daughters, another by a spinster. She chose a poem about a battle, about Culloden (great defeat and slaughter), about a riot in Bristol; women wrote poems about widowhood, homelessness, hungry children, wives thrown into prison with their husbands (not male topics). Among the better known women mentioned were Mehetabel Wright (about the death of a new born child). I’ve written a foremother poet essay on her life and superbly strong verse. Catherine ended on Eliza Haywood as a good candidate for major treatment in a course, highly topical, daring in her treatment of same-sex relationships. There is a six volume set of her works; an Approaches to Teaching volume.

The discussion afterward did not turn on the question of the quality of Haywood’s work, but rather the problem that since in many colleges, there will be a course given in eighteenth century literature and/or history at best once every two years, which of the traditional authors should you eliminate so as to make room for Haywood? It’s not as if the canon which is so recognizable and familiar to us is at all familiar to the undergraduate, who you might like to attract to a study of 18th century literature, culture, art. It was then time for the business lunch.

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It was at this point I found myself unable to take substantial enough notes to report on the afternoon consistently. So I’m going to conclude on noting for those like myself interested in three papers on women writers or artists, with brief summaries of three papers in the last session. Alistaire Tallent’s paper was on “Stranger than Fiction: How a Slanderous Novella Made Mademoiselle Clairon a Star of the Parisian Stage (I know how important these memoirs are for actresses’s careers and reputations — see my The Rise of the English Actress); Joanna M. Gohmann’s “Paws in Two Worlds: The Peculiar Position of Aristocratic Pets in 18th century Visual Culture” (especially as a cat lover I regretted not hearing this one) and Caroline Breashears, “Novel Memoirs: The Collaboration of Tobias Smollett and Lady Vane” (Constantia Phillips, Lady Vane’s life appears as an interlude or insert in Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle, utterly non-conformist, an instance of scandal life-writing).

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Marguerite Gerard (1761-1837), Le chat angora — those familiar with later 18th century painting will be familiar with paintings of women aristocrats with their pets (not always accurately rendered, often placed in the position of a child or among children)

XIR64477 The Cat's Lunch (oil on canvas)  by Gerard, Marguerite (1761-1837); Musee Fragonard, Grasse, France; Giraudon; French, out of copyright
Another Gerard: The Cat’s Lunch

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Mary Beale (1633-99)
, Portrait of a Girl with a Cat — the salacious ones are remembered but the appearance and accuracy of most (like this) testify rather to how animals were increasingly treated as companions to owners and their children

“Giving Voice to the Persecuted” (3:30-4:45 pm) was the last session, and chaired by Sayre Greenfield. Ted Braun gave a full description of Olympe de Gouges’s L’Escavage des negres, and its first production (deliberately played badly). He also placed it in the context of Gouges’s passionately-held revolutionary beliefs: it might fail as theater (it’s an excessively sentimental heroic romance), but not as an anti-slavery tract. Gouges asked direct resonating questions (how can we behave so miserably, deplorably to these people?!). She spoke on behalf of the oppressed, revealing the worst cruelties, asked for equality for women. For her efforts, she was reviled and guillotined.

Jennifer Airey’s paper, “A temper admirably suited to Enthusiasm: Sexual Violence, Female Religious Expression, and the Trial of Mary-Catherine Cadiere (1731)” was about a young nun who was probably taken gross advantage of by her confessor; she sued him for rape, he was acquitted and then accused her of witchcraft. She was using a relgious vision to give her cultural authority. It was a cause celebre, pornographic pamphlets, and anti-catholic propaganda appeared. Both people were in danger of fierce physical punishment. The real story ended in his death and her disappearance from the world’s stage; but Mary Shelley re-worked the story fictionally in her Valperga in the characters of Beatrice, an orphan who becomes a prophet, and Castruccio, a tyrant prince (see Mary Seymour, Mary Shelley, pp 251-53). After a prolonged sexual assault Beatrice goes into violent convulsions, and has visions which Shelley sees as empowering her. Shelley also flirts with heresy by suggesting an actively malevolent God.

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An excellent new edition by Stuart Curran is reviewed in Romantic Circles — “the novel dramatizes a struggle between autocracy and liberal democracy that spoke to its era and now our own

Christine Clark-Evans’s “Colbert’s Negro/Negres Slave Mothers and Montesquieu’s Climatic Mothers: Motherhood in the Code Noir and Of the Spirit of the Laws,” was the last paper of the day. She spoke of the harsh treatment of enslaved mothers (no right to anything, least of all their children) who were abused concubines, forced back to work immediately after giving birth. Theories of mothers and motherhood (Roxanne Wheeler has a book on this) ignored. Montesquieu was against slavery and in his work said that only through vicious slavery could you clear the land and produce sugar at a profit; he described the horrible treatment of enslaved black women.

We stayed to talk though we had run out of time. Ted said one problem with her play is decorum deprives her slave characters of authentic voices. Jennifer suggested Shelley asks if nature is inherently evil, with God an incompetent adminstrator. Shelley’s Last Man we find God treated as love.

And so a fine conference ended.

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One of the worst things that happens to Greer Garson as Elizabeth is she gets mud on her shoes and dress (this in 1941) — this is after all a Jane Austen blog

Ellen

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This painful image reflects the reality of black woman slaves’ lives — of which Mary Prince (1788-after 1833) was one

I then saw my sisters led forth, and sold to different owners: so that we had not the sad satisfaction of being partners in bondage. When the sale was over, my mother hugged and kissed us, and mourned over us, begging of us to keep up a good heart, and do our duty to our new masters. It was a sad parting; one went one way, one another, and our poor mammy went home with nothing.**

** Let the reader compare the above affecting account, taken down from the mouth of this negro woman, with the following description of a vendue of slaves at the Cape of Good Hope, published by me in 1826, from the letter of a friend, –and mark their similarity in several characteristic circumstances. The resemblance is easily accounted for: slavery wherever it prevails produces similar effects.–“Having heard that there was to be a sale of cattle, farm stock, &c. by auction, at a Veld-Cornet’s in the vicinity, we halted our waggon one day for the purpose of procuring a fresh spann of oxen. Among the stock of the farm sold, was a female slave and her three children. The two eldest children were girls, the one about thirteen years of age, and the other about eleven; the youngest was a boy. The whole family were exhibited together, but they were sold separately, and to different purchasers. The farmers examined them as if they had been so many head of cattle. While the sale was going on, the mother and her children were exhibited on a table, that they might be seen by the company, which was very large. There could not have been a finer subject for an able painter than this unhappy group. The tears, the anxiety, the anguish of the mother, while she met the gaze of the multitude, eyed the different countenances of the bidders, or cast a heart-rending look upon the children; and the simplicity and touching sorrow of the young ones, while they clung to their distracted parent, wiping their eyes, and half concealing their faces,–contrasted with the marked insensibility and jocular countenances of the spectators and purchasers,–furnished a striking commentary on the miseries of slavery, and its debasing effects upon the hearts of its abettors. While the woman was in this distressed situation she was asked, ‘Can you feed sheep?’ Her reply was so indistinct that it escaped me; but it was probably in the negative, for her purchaser rejoined, in a loud and harsh voice, ‘Then I will teach you with the sjamboc,’ (a whip made of the rhinoceros’ hide.) The mother and her three children were sold to three separate purchasers; and they were literally torn from each other.”–Ed.

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Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

“Conscientious Objector” by Edna St Vincent Millay

I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.

I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the
        clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the
        Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself: I will not give him a leg
        up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will
        not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the
        black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but this is all that I shall do for Death; I am
        not on his pay-roll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of
        my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the
        route to any man’s door.

Am I a spy in the land of living, that I should deliver
        men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe
        with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.

Dear friends and readers,

On any other blog, this coupling might seem strange. I hope not so here. Mary Prince was that nearly unique presence in 18th century texts: a black woman slave who atttempted to tell the story of her life in her own words. Edna St Vincent Millay was a very great women poet. I’m carrying on my much delayed accounts of conferences and lectures I attended this past fall. Tonight I tell of two excellent lectures I heard at the Washington Area Print Group (WAPG) held once a month during the college semester at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. We look upon ourselves as a small “cell” or twig of the larger SHARP group (book history), which twice I was privileged to attend and once to give a paper on Anthony Trollope’s mappings of his imagined counties: Geographies of Power.

Here is the description of our October 7th meeting:

The slim pamphlet, The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave. Related by Herself. With a Supplement by the Editor. To Which Is Added, the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African (1831), has gained increased visibility over the last decades due to its claim to being the first slave narrative written by a woman in English. Yet, like its predecessor, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. Written by Himself (1789), these British publications do not fully anticipate the genre models that would later be established by their nineteenth-century North American counterparts. And, unlike Equiano’s Narrative, Prince’s “History” also highlights issues of authorship that continue to raise debates over how scholars should view the autobiographical accounts of enslaved and formerly enslaved people. This talk will cover the life of along with the production and dissemination of the biography formerly enslaved Mary Prince (c.1788-after 1833, b.Bermuda), including her negotiation of familial and religious networks to navigate the West Indies and Caribbean while enslaved, and her eventual self-emancipation through alliances with abolitionist groups in London. It will also look at how Scottish-born Thomas Pringle’s editing of and libel trials over her biography fits into his own history as one of the “founding fathers” of South African settler poetry as well as how Susanna Strickland Moodie’s transcription of Prince’s oral history later shaped her work as one of the first Canadian novelists and the increased visibility in the second and third editions of reader-produced paratexts. This is part of a larger project that looks at women in the British Empire, and positions the writings of formerly enslaved women such as Mary Prince as central to the histories of Britishness, African identity, as well as foundational to understanding the writings of other more well-known authors, such as Jane Austen.The model of narrative, the history that leads to its publication, and the dissemination of Prince’s life history illuminates the way authors, especially women, negotiated the interpersonal and imperial politics of making their stories heard throughout English-language Atlantic print networks.

Susannah Strickland Moodie might be familiar to my readers through Margaret Atwood’s imagined recreation of the Journals of Susannah Moodie as well as the Booker Prize winner, Alias Grace. Moodie wrote the classic memoir of Canadian literature: Roughing It i the Bush, was a journalist and wrote poetry. Early Canadian women of letters;=, she and her sister, Catherine Parr, are the subjects of an illuminating biography, Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray (a wonderful read).

Here is a brief gist and transcription of what Emily said:

Emily’s talk was so stimulating of interesting questions and suggestive about so many concrete details about slave women’s lives and the difference between these (where there were moments of pleasure, often with their childen if they were fortunate enough to keep some semblance of family) and the texts we can or must rely upon.

The text of Mary Prince’s life is available in a Penguin classics, edited by Sarah Salih, ISBN 9780140437492. Her life has been published in a number of scholarly editions, with excerpts in anthologies. One of the best, which I can’t recommend too highly is Politics and Empire in Victorian Britain: A Reader, ed. Antoinette Burton. for those seriously interested in Jane Austen, it is noteworthy that Bristol (from which it will be recalled in Austen’s Emma, Mrs Elton aka Miss Augusta Hawkins, daughter of a tradesman, hailed). Her life story was the first slave narrative attributed to a woman. Equiano was her predecessor in Europe; Frederick Douglas came after her. Her life was published as a tract of an anti-slavery society; her story came with a supplement by an abolitionist editor, Thomas Pringle, as “taken down by” Susannah Strickland, to which was added another yet briefer narrative of another female captured African slave. The questions swirling around it concern authority and ownership. Whose testimony are we willing to endow with authority? (We weren’t sufficiently to Hillary Clinton on November 8, 2016.) Who owns the telling of their own lives, its perspective. We see in this text a cultural exchange between bourgeois “white” people trying to present the subaltern enslaved existence of someone regarded as ontologically “not quite human” (not mattering as in #BlackLivesMatter). She (and Susannah Moodie too) was helped to get into written history and then be paid attention to by the 19th century phases of feminism, or “Female Societies” for example for “the Relief of British Female Slaves” (founded 1825).

Mary Prince traveled around the world of Britain’s global colonial empire in her brief hard-working life. I have rarely come across someone whose bodily strength was so used/abused from the time she was outside infancy. Born after England abolished the slave trade, she was at first owned in Bermuda, Jamaica, by a very young girl as a present/toy/doll/commodity. When the chief male of the household remarried, Mary Prince was sold. She survived by luck and by her ability to negotiate with her owner/lovers. One problem in telling her life is she cannot admit to allowing her body to be used sexually. It seemed to me her most basic work-job was as a washer-woman (very hard work) cleaning clothes. She was made to work with half her body in salt water for long hours at a time (rice production) and that shortened what life her body managed; she was also subjected to severe flogging, partly (I think) a result of her strong intellect, which at the same time enabled her to survive. To try to imagine what her legs, feet and back looked like is probably beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not seen tortured people or someone who has lived in the extremis of harsh colonized existence (from Ireland to the Congo). Flogging was a commonplace yet horrific practice inflicted on slaves, colonized peoples, and mainland British males who were “pressed” (snatched as ruthlessly as any genetically African individual). Emily mentioned the “problem” of her being overly emotional, but it seems to me it’s important to keep registering (no longer is the present a better age) outrage. Equiano had the advantage of maleness so he was far better educated by those who recognized or used his real talents/gifts or those of our Mary. He lived well at times, rose to an office-linked higher status; as a woman she could never have this. On a couple of occasions, men who became Mary’s lover or others who became attached to her tried to buy her freedom. This appears to have enraged more than one employer, and she would be whipped ferociously because these attempts had been tried.

On her text’s publication, there were lawsuits, set on essentially by the people (John Wood specifically) who had owned her and whose cruelty her text made plain. First Pringle’s veracity was questioned by the editor of the Glasgow Courier in Blackwood’s Magazine (wide circulation); Pringle sued Cadell, the publisher of Blackwood’s; then Wood sued Pringle. Mary was forced to take the stand and told of her sexual relationship with a Captain Abbot with whom she lived for seven years and to whom she was emotionally attached. (She would hire herself out or be hired by other families where men would take her body either for money or free, if they could.) This kind of thing damaged her stature and reputation further in the eyes of the public (the public did not respect slaves); and she had to leave one society she had joined, the Moravian, and went to live with a freeman, Oyskman who promised to buy her freedom from whoever nominally owned her. Susannah Moodie Pringle had to justify herself again and again for being an amanuensis (probably more like an editor) and defended Mary Prince’s chastity (as if she didn’t, hers would be called into question).

Emily then contextualized Mary among other African-American women. She covered the life and poetry of Phillis Wheatley (left poems), Margareta Mathilde Odell (poems and a memoir). One has to resort to finding names. (I find this is still true of 20th century women artists who participated in the surrealism movement!). Much is to be gleaned from John Gabriel Steadman’s narrative of Surinam (Emily didn’t mentioned Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which while it is a romance, has led to serious texts about Latin and South America), the narrative of “Joanna, An Emancipated Slave,” from the colonialists of North America, Catherine Maria Sedgwick, Elizabeth Freeman who was Sedgewick’s nanny, Florence Hall (but 4 pages). Such texts are still often dependent on staying in print by attracting women readers. The average woman reader wants an upbeat story, something where she sees something like instant emancipation when at its rare best is gradual. They are trained to want a veil on sexual experiences, on sexual violence.

I found one of the most disturbing aspects of her story is that she was forced to allow other women to examine her body to prove her stories of abuse were true. We see here what also happened to working class, agricultural, servant women: if suspected of being pregnant, other women had no compunction against coming to them and literally grabbing a dress and feeling the woman’s body. There is no protected space around a woman, her body is not her own if she has no high status to protect her.

As to what Jane Austen could read or know of this material: she had Cowper, Thomas Clarke, Charlotte Smith, Southey; her younger brothers. while ordering flogging, and her older brother witnessing and accepting as a local militia man the anguished punishments of mutiny, could at least tell of what they saw — though it was commonplace then as in World War One not to tell.

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millaybook

Here is the full blurb for the Edna St Vincent Millay meeting on November 18th:

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), recipient of the 1923 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, was a daring, versatile writer whose work includes poetry, plays, essays, short stories, songs, and a libretto to an opera that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera to rave reviews. Known for her free-spirited lifestyle in Greenwich Village, Millay wrote poems promoting personal freedom that resonated with a generation of youth disillusioned by the social and political upheaval of the First World War. Millay’s literary executor Holly Peppe will present an overview of the poet’s life, illustrated with slides, and suggest reasons for her poetry’s uneven critical reception. Dr. Peppe will also talk about her friendship with the poet’s sister Norma Millay. Dr. Timothy F. Jackson will discuss Millay’s manuscripts, her publication history, critical reception, and the process of editing Millay’s works.
    Holly Peppe, literary executor for Edna St. Vincent Millay, has written and lectured widely about the poet’s life and work. Dr. Peppe’s essays appear in various books and periodicals including Millay at 100: A Critical Reappraisal (Southern Illinois University Press, 1995); Millay’s Early Poems (Penguin Classics,1998); Collected Poems (Harper Perennial, 2011), and Selected Poems: An Annotated Edition (Yale University Press, 2016).
    Timothy F. Jackson is an assistant professor of English at Rosemont College. He earned his doctorate in editorial studies from the Editorial Institute at Boston University. While a CLIR Fellow at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he served as an assistant editor of the Walt Whitman Archive and was the initial executive editor of Zea E-Books. He has edited work for traditional and digital publications in a variety of fields, including poetry, philosophy, and business.

Both talks were very engaging. Holly Peppe: Millay was regarded by academia as simply this “song-bird,” and not seen as the major American figure in letters that she is. It was the Norton Anthology of Women’s Literature which first featured a variety of her poems and took them all seriously. An obstacle to writing her life accurately is her sister, Norma, still alive, is determined to censor anything that might be seen by the average person as “negative.” At the same time she (who has much insight into her sister’s life and politics) controls all the papers.

On her background: her mother provided her with a steady diet of interesting music. In high school she worked for the literary newspaper. It was after graduating college, that she was writing poetry and first attracted a modicum of serious attention and respect. She wrote political, love, confrontational poems. She was the first to introduce and deal with themes of real female sexuality in American literature. She was fortunate to attract patrons. She had won a couple of contests, and Caroline Dell heard her read and paid for her to go to Vassar. From 1917-21 she became part of groups that included important critics (Edmund Wilson) and painters as well as writers (Isobel Bishop, Max Eastman who escaped Nazi Germany). To make money she wrote “pot boilers:” Nancy Boyd was her pseudonym. She was consistently anti-war. She met and married Eugen Van Boissevain, widower of the labor lawyer and war correspondent Inez Milholland, a political icon Millay had met during her time at Vassar. A self-proclaimed feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their twenty-six-year marriage.

A pivotal moment was buying a 700 acre farm-house, Steepletop, which became a core place around which they built a shared unconventional life. Both drank a lot. She had a much younger lover, George Dillon, whose presence is the center of her erotic sonnet sequence, Fatal Interview (which became one of her signature texts with her wider public). One finds her with Charles Ellis Norton (important intellectual of the era just before and early 20th century); she became active in opera patronage. Her writing is written from the woman’s point of view: the woman’s body is central to her experience of social life (how men like, are attracted to, marry a woman). It was in 1940 she first was attacked for a Notebook she published. A few close relatives and friends died, and she had a nervous breakdown. Remember this is a time of barbaric war. Her sister, Catherine died, and then her beloved husband of lung cancer (1949). She returned to Steepletop to live alone. She translated Latin texts during this time. She did drink heavily all her life, and at age 58 she died from a fall down the stairs.

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The main house at Steepletop

Tim Jackson told us more about editing the texts — which was his basic function. There have been many reprintings and editions of Millay’s work. Since 1912 her poems have appeared in more than 50 anthologies. To do a collected standard edition of course requires going to the manuscripts. He was interested in who influenced Millay (and also who her work influenced). Millay copied out John Donne, Housman and Thomas Gray’s famous “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” She read the later 19th century French poets. She wrote Edmund Wilson about her memories of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and she wrote Matthiesen about her later poems. T.S. Eliot was interested in publishing her poems but as they appeared in first editions. but she would tinker endlessly (revise and revise small things). We find her angry at publishers over specific lines: she worked very hard on prosody, rhyme.. Her most popular book was one filled with lyrics, Figs from Thistles (the poem people seem to have remembered “My candle burns at both ends”), and by the wider public her earlier poems are much much better known, especially her sonnets. Apparently (for reasons I can’t figure out), “Rendez-vous” is among her most widely read and praised:

Not for these lovely blooms that prank your chambers did I come. Indeed,
I could have loved you better in the dark;
That is to say, in rooms less bright with roses, rooms more casual, less aware
Of History in the wings about to enter with benevolent air
On ponderous tiptoe, at the cue, “Proceed.”
Not that I like the ash-trays over-crowded and the place in a mess,
Or the monastic cubicle too unctuously austere and stark,
But partly that these formal garlands for our Eighth Street Aphrodite are a bit too Greek,
And partly that to make the poor walls rich with our unaided loveliness
Would have been more chic.
Yet here I am, having told you of my quarrel with the taxi-driver over a line of Milton, and you laugh; and you are you, none other.
Your laughter pelts my skin with small delicious blows.
But I am perverse: I wish you had not scrubbed–with pumice, I suppose–
The tobacco stains from your beautiful fingers. And I wish I did not feel like your mother. (from Huntsman, “What Quarry?”)

I found the above on the Internet with an ordinary person explaining why she personally loved the line “I could have loved you better in the dark.”

In her notebooks one finds quite a lot humor and comedy, comments on the immorality of the “seven deadly virtues.” She also wrote an essay on faith as a philosophical groundwork for herself. By John Crowe Ransom, an important contemporary critic, she was treated with disdain mainly because was a woman; and it has been her gender and the preference of the wider public for love poems that have gotten in the way of her gaining the respect and place in American letters she should have. In life she found herself dunned by the IRS for information about her tax liabilities. Eventually a historian, Alice Burney, interested in her work gathered a great deal of it and sold it to the Library of Congress. She made a lot of money and with her husband’s accumulations, was able to live the life of a chatelaine, farmer, and women of letters at Steepletop, an estate of 300 acres, which is nowadays a “site of memory,” a place you can visit. There are regularly scheduled tours.

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Kauffmann, Angelica; Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses; National Trust, Saltram; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/penelope-taking-down-the-bow-of-ulysses-101590
Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807); Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses

There is no comparison between the hardships of Mary Prince’s life and how all she ever said was brought into question because she had been a slave; and the liberty, fertile and happy relationships of Millay’s and a relative lack of respect for her work because she was early on marginalized as a woman. In her brief and frank autobiography (her voice does come through), Mary tells of how she saw herself as chained to a washtub for most of her waking hours in her strongest years. The line quoted by Sarah Salim as an epigraph for her edition of Mary’s life brings out how African-American women were seen and used for the first two hundred years of living in the US: “The nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God, 1937). I first became interested in Millay when I read her “Conscientious Objector” in Jon Silkin’s great anthology of war poetry, The Penguin Book of First World War One Poetry. In the edition this poem first appeared, it was in the back of the book with other poems by women. At first there had been no poetry by women worth reading according to Silkin’s anthology. His book has been much admired and reprinted several times: the most recent edition threads the women’s poems in chronologically and at the back we now have superb poems originally written in other languages and translated into English (a number of German poems, Russian including one each by Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetayeva, by Eugenio Montale and Giuseppe Ungaretti). I hope the new edition is part of a change placing Millay in the contexts where her work truly belongs. This does not just mean in “mainstream” American literature (preponderantly by men) but books of women’s poetry too. I’ll end on two. Here is “Menses” at the Poetry Foundation (also read aloud) and

An Ancient Gesture

I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
Penelope did this too.
And more than once: you can’t keep weaving all day
And undoing it all through the night;
Your arms get tired, and the back of your neck gets tight;
And along towards morning, when you think it will never be light,
And your husband has been gone, and you don’t know where, for years.
Suddenly you burst into tears;
There is simply nothing else to do.

And I thought, as I wiped my eyes on the corner of my apron:
This is an ancient gesture, authentic, antique,
In the very best tradition, classic, Greek;
Ulysses did this too.
But only as a gesture,—a gesture which implied
To the assembled throng that he was much too moved to speak.
He learned it from Penelope…
Penelope, who really cried

Ellen

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Carrington when young (photo)

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The river Pang, Tidmarsh

I long for the wings of an owl that I mighty FLY — Carrington,1930, “after a frusrating domestic crisis that kept her from painting” (Hill)

I see my paints and think it is no use to me, for Lytton will not see it now (quoted by Noel Carrington)

Dear friends and readers,

I return to a final two essays in this second series calling attention to women artists after I had gone to one too many exhibits of groups of artists under this or that rubric where there were either none or a token or one or two women, often the same couple of pictures. I managed twelve from the Renaissance into the 21st century for the first series, and Carrington is the eleventh of a second fifteen. I’ve found in this second group many great and beautiful and meaningful pictures and other forms of visual art; but also that even the better known women are hardly famous outside a narrow selection of people or only known for their connection with a man or notorious life event; and their art afterwards underestimated. In many individual or personal fulfillment was thwarted by gender expectations, at least two died young from childbirth. Their self-esteem as artists was battered; nonetheless, they developed female-inflected genres, made art different from that of their male counterparts, and succeeded wonderfully well as artists. Carrington’s life and art fits these patterns.

In Carrington’s case what she is famous for gets in the way of people seeking out and appreciating her art. First, for her devotion to Lytton Strachey (1880-1932) and suicide soon after he died because, she asserted, she could not imagine or endure life without him.

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Carrington’s Lytton Strachey (1916) — one of her finest characteristic portraits and one of the finest by anyone of him — it’s a study of sensitive hands, of meditative reading

Then there’s the still widely-assumed belief that she self-flagellatingly destroyed or painted over many of her pictures, and indulged herself in non-save-able non-prestigious immanent arts (on house walls, for signboards, craft-y things, book marks, covers, and illustrations), so that hardly anything truly fine and great and permanent survives. Her intense reluctance (refusal) to have an exhibition of her art reinforces the idea her pictures were not good enough.

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The Mill at Tidmarsh (Lytton and her first home together) — perhaps her most famous masterpiece

That she killed herself is out of doubt, but why is not so sure. Jane Hill’s reprinting of the ceaseless art-making Carrington did around Strachey in the last three chapters (phases) of Carrington’s life (in her The Art of Dora Carrington) to see to his every comfort argues a tender idolization (the above two black swans can be seen as standing in for herself and Strachey), but Carrington’s brother, Noel Carrington, (in his Carrington: Paintings, Drawings, and Decorations) makes a strong case for understanding that several factors beyond her adjustment to life through Strachey’s kindness and congenial intelligence led to her killing herself: she suffered a lifelong distress from her mother’s rejection of her, naturally vulnerable in relationships, sensitive, of a depressive temperament: she painted to make herself happy and her images show her reaching out for security, tranquility, stability.

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An Artist’s Home and Garden

She did wipe out and destroy many of her works (sometimes because she lacked money for paper, sheer supply problem), but since she seems to have made art as continuously as she breathed, as it were constantly, no task too trivial she produced as large a corpus as many a major artist and a lot survives.

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A giraffe scene Carrington created for the nursery door of Rosamund Lehmann’s children (John Lehmann her brother was a central editor at Hogarth Press — about which see below)

She would not allow exhibitions of her art (we glimpse a complex psychological disability), so her pieces did not begin the trail of circulation and discussion the way most artists become known, and given her inclusion (however marginally) in the elite English art and literary coteries of her era, much went into and remains in private hands. She did use unusual media:

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Harmony: Labador Coast — made from painted tin foil on stained glass

You might say her marvelous letters are used against her as superior to her visual art instead of seen as another manifestation of her strong projection of her vividly perceptive experience of a self-chosen unconventional way of life that allowed her to create visual art continually.

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David Garnett — her portraits done as a matter of course of whoever visits capture inner qualities through color, line, shadow

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The drawings of herself are in the letters

In the last twenty years three excellent ground-breaking books have been written about her: Hill’s, Noel’s and Gretchen Gerzina’s biography, Carrington. These and an exhibition (at last) prompted superb essays, three of which reprint pictures and enter the heart of her vision. Them there is Carrington, the film, based on Christopher Hampton’s screenplay (a kind of outline of Carrington’s life out of Holroyd’s and Gerzina’s book), with its virtuoso actors uncannily capturing the inner life of some of the people around Carrington (Samuel West as Gerald Brenan, Rufus Sewell as Mark Gertler) and inimitably Emma Thompson and Jonathan Pryce as Carrington and Lytton:

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A photo of Lytton reading to Carrington

It’s out of these I dared this blog. Genevieve Sanchis Morgan on Carrington’s art as “forms of masquerade” (Mosaic 31:4 [1998]) proves Carrington transferred her private life and most unspoken feelings, her transgressive attitudes (towards marriage, children, social performance as self-promotion, sexuality) into her pictures (landscapes especially and why she did not want to exhibit). She made for public consumption (as it were) the familiar images of herself as a devoted domestic servant and cook,

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Cook and Cat

with her pets,

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At Ham Spray

walking talking sitting by the side of Strachey,

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Her innovative household art was her own real life giant dollhouse to hide in, and keep continually absorbed and busy in her private world shared with Lytton. She defflected her literary ambitions (and some satire) behind playful distractions (trompe d’oeil bookcase with titles that mocked contemporary and her associates’ books as well as Jane Austen), and found desperately needed loving reassurance in sexual partnerships with like-minded people. Gerald Brenan she loved, and returned his visits,going to Spain with Lytton and alone

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She created great pictures there, continually protecting herself through these social performances. These come from her times in Spain:

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A hill town in Andalusia

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A Spanish woman, ink and silver foil on glass

Gillian Elinor’s essay on Carrington and Vanessa Bell (1879-1962) in Woman’s Art Journal (2016), as near contemporaries, working aesthetically and developing content in the same kinds of and actual domestic milieus (“Bloomsbury Painters” the title), argues their art is crucially like that of other women (tropes, themes, the relationship of their works to them and their lives)

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Vanessa Bell, The Nursery

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Carrington, Bedford Market (1911)

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Carrington, A Footbathing Party — much like Bell’s

Jane Marcus (Women’s Review of Books, 12:1 [1994]) pays attention to Carrington’s loaded playful interiors and pictures an crockery as evoking a witty primitivism, working against mainstream (male) art to produce village-English delicate dreams and objects (recalling Woolf’s To the Lighthouse), as in this

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Rouen Ware

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Beanie Bags — the paired figures are typical of lesbian art

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Self-portrait (1910)

Her life can be told in terms of phases of her art. The fourth child of a Liverpool merchant who had spent decades in India, to bring back an easy competence, he married a narrow-thinking rigid woman and for Carrington this meant much conflict over the years. She loved her father, was tormented by her mother. There are no portraits of her mother:

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Her father (painted much later)

But her mother was artistic, valued art, and she and her siblings early on were encouraged to use their hands, and Dora (she later insisted on dropping this first name she regarded as too feminine, silly, like Dorcas, an archetypal shepherdess) learned to love to, spend hours drawing.

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Noel her brother — much later

After High School, there was her period at Slade where she made life-long girlfriends, with one of whom, Constance Lane, she completed a cycle of of three large frescos “on the library wall of Brownlow Hall” (Hill 23). She began to paint strongly colorist and cubist-like bucolic landscapes and scenes, won a scholarship, and came under the influence of Roger Fry and Mark Gertler (not just his art but as a sexual partner). Finding she could not live in a repressive Victorian-style home (only visit) and have a career and mature adult life, she moved and tried to support herself in London. This period is filled with marvelous small line portraits, comic cartoons

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Very Stevie Smith like

and the earliest of the bucolic snow and tree landscapes with their high wide great bowl top areas.

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Hills in Snow at Hurst Tarrant (Hampshire), 1915

This is the time of her immersion in the Omega Workshops (1914-16): playful woodcut art, and riots of color and decorations of ordinary everyday things, which while they didn’t sell to the larger public, are the foundation for the way Carrington would later cover every inch of Ham Spray, her and Lytton’s second home. She didn’t do well at Lady Ottoline Garsington Manor (“I am out of favor now! completely!”), but met others who (if not as much, like Lytton) were important to her: Augustus John’s household (whom she turned to as easy companions); individual people whose character struck her favorably:

by Dora Carrington, oil on canvas, 1920
E.M. Forster

Like Vanessa Bell, Carrington took to engravings and book illustrations

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Lytton she first met in 1916 at Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Asheham House — and to fast forward their Hogarth Press provided another place for her woodcuts small animal drawings, and remunerative work for Ralph Patridge, the first of her lovers whom she married to keep him near Lytton (and please Lytton). By 1917, she and Lytton were making a home for themselves at Tidmarsh, and by 1918 he achieved his first of several commercial successes, Eminent Victorians.

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Tidmarsh Mills, the meadows

The story of her life becomes a story with Lytton triangular sexual and working relationships with a series of men, and travel (to the continent, around England) and perpetual art-making (from pictures to bookcases, fake and real). Hampton’s movie dramatizes the pain Carrington knew when she felt she had to force herself to act out different selves, and when she felt Lytton did not reciprocate her loving care, efforts catering to his every whim, only to see him distance himself, become at times remote. At the same time her correspondence with Strachey, and especially over her decision to marry Partridge are among the most genuine openly confiding trusting letters I’ve read. They understood and supported one another in many other areas beyond the reading of books and living the larger routines of life. The pressure from the different worlds Carrington found herself in was also offset by the art-making: she repeatedly creates idyllic peaceful and playful beauty in personally felt landscapes (with funereal images)

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and stuffing and covering every available inch of her literal surroundings, over and over:

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A fireplace tile design

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Birds above a cornucopia of flowers

She made signs; this half of a Circus horses reminds me of Watteau’s famous shop sign of people examining pictures in an art shop:

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This is severe in its way: the horses are still and in a row

In her later years she allowed herself to be used by a rough sportsman type, Beakus Penrose (played by Jeremny Northam in the movie): she did love to sail with him (she writes of her “Shelley craving to sail & leave these quiet rural scenes for Greek islands), as witnessed by her remarkable tinsel on glass picture, the deliberately child-like Bon Voyage (1929):

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She became pregnant by Penrose, a (to her) deeply distressing because repulsive condition (she never adjusted to her female body), and Lytton stepped in to find and pay for an abortion. Her end is well-known: Strachey developed pancreatic cancer, and died, and within three months, despite many friends’ efforts to prevent this, Carrington shot herself through her mouth with a gun on a Friday, March 11, 1932. She meant it.

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Tulips in a Staffordshire Jug (1921) – she painted many flower still lifes

That Carrington’s gender was female played a central role in her difficult life, withdrawals, and long neglect. John Rothstein in the introduction to Noel Carrington’s book says rightly that Carrington’s “remoteness from he impulses which moved” most of her contemporaries (ambition for money, high rank, fame, fashionable luxury, admiration from the admired) set her apart (13). Carrington herself also said of participating in contemporary schools of artists to Gertler over post-impressionism that “this ‘culture’ and group system is partly the reason for the awful paintings produced” (35).

But what her mother couldn’t bear (perhaps where her overt troubled life started) was Carrington was not conventionally beautiful. When Carrington is hiding her pictures, or dressing like a boy, she is hiding her body. Gertler wanted her to give up her painting and devote herself wholly to him as his wife. She resisted this fiercely, but could only find a stable life with the daily rhythms and calm expectations that she needed for creation of her art on Lytton’s income.

In talking of a career, she repeated Frye’s warning early on about how hard it was going to be to practice great art as a woman. How she will be regarded by others. She wrote Gerald Brenan about “how difficult it was to be a ‘female creator'”

the few that did become artists, I think you will admit were never married or had children. Emily Bronte & her sisters, Jane Austen, Sappho. Lady Hester Stanhope. Queen Elizabeth and even lesser people like the French female artists Berthe Morissot [who did have a daughter], Le Brun [ditto], Julie de Lespinasse & Dudeffand [? is this a reference to George Sand whose legal name was Dudevant or Madame du Deffand?] … If when I am 38, I am not an artist, & think it is no good my persevering with my painting, I might have a child …

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Spanish Boy (1924) — in her two portraits of adolescent boys she captures their vulnerability

This is an important statement if we realize that she was also much influenced by painters no one else was, for example (according to Hill), the Renaissance painter, Joachim Patinir:

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The Hermit

Patinir’s Flight from Egypt does recall Carrington’s landscapes:

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Carrington’s candid utterances to Brenan about being a woman (“You know I always hated being a woman” [Elinor 31]) are so sad because she never was not an artist, always alive to the art of others, in groups or as individuals. She did hate being pregnant (and thus perhaps deprived herself of a raison d’etre once Lytton was diagnosed with inoperable cancer). When she painted Lady Strachey (Lytton’s mother) it’s said she caught the inner strong woman, but she also masculinized her, made her monumental in doctor’s robes:

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Of her depiction of a group of young girls marshalled by two female teachers, one a nun on a beach to play (On the Sands at Dawlish Warren), Carrington wrote: it was “a study of the misery of authorized fun” (110). She escaped the world’s invisible prisons but at great cost

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Annie Stiles — her servant whom Carrington depended upon and painted, and drew frequently — she describes herself as with two servants eating or by the fire when Lytton is gone away

Ellen

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James Whistler (1834-1903), “Reading by Lamplight” (1858)

Women cannot be expected to devote themselves to the emancipation of women, until men in considerable number are prepared to join with them in the undertaking — John Stuart Mill, On the Subjection of Women

Dear friends and readers,

Another set of texts we covered in my 19th Century Women of Letters course this term included George Eliot’s ground-breaking depiction of wife abuse in her “Janet’s Repentance” (one of her three Scenes from Clerical Life), which I preceded with Caroline Norton’s English Laws for Women and the contextualized with Lisa Sturridge’s chapter on the novella in her Bleak House: Marital Violence in Victorian Fiction, an on-line Master’s Thesis by Renee Wingert, Battered, Bruised and Abused Women: Domestic Violence in 19th century Fiction, to which I am indebted in what I write below. We also read a fine essay by E. S. Gruner, “Plotting the Mother” about Ann Bronte’s Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Ellen Wood’s East Lynn and Caroline Norton’s Lost and Saved (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, 16:2, 1997). Although until recently (when it is discussed) “Janet’s Repentance” has been treated as centrally depicting alcoholism, its real center is wife abuse. Given the set-back women’s causes have received in the recent US election, I’d like to right this misapprehension and urge those who love 19th century novels, especially by women, to read it.

It is striking and original study even today. It places the multiple acts of of physical violence (seen on Janet’s body and the whole of her depressed behavior as a result) not in a private house away from everyone, as a hidden private act, but in the community, showing us how it’s known and occurs as part of everyday life that everyone knows – like the reality everyone also sees (highlighted in Chapter One) that Janet’s husband, Dempster, is an awful bully. Most of the time until today when these things are talked about or dramatized in stories and film, it’s assumed or said no one knew. The woman colludes by not telling explicitly in the cases of sexual harassment. In modern stories, she fears she’ll lose her job, her children, her husband will get back to her and kill her. In fact people live utterly interdependent lives, and a build up of a community of hypocrisy is essential to the husband getting away with it (from schools where the children attend to doctor’s offices). When she leaves she leaves into a community of people, that is what is so striking and to this day unusual. Eliot shows how she is blamed in all sorts of ways by the very woman living in the house with her, how legally she has to break the law to leave him. And yet Janet is isolated – who more without someone to turn to for help than she? her mother doesn’t move on her behalf; only after she flees for her life do the others admit they know, help her to hide and determine to act o her behalf. In Oliver Twist Nancy is a street prostitute; Helen Huntington in her Wildfell Hall is this reclusive person, the whole point of Sherlock Holmes stories which include as inset pieces stories of abuse – the best known is the “Adventure of the Abbey Grange” – is to protect the aristocratic family from shame. (“Abbey Grange” is well-known because the husband spitefully murders her dog and it was done superbly well in the 1980s Jeremy Brett series). The other books mentioned by Wingert or Sturridge do not bring out this everyday reality. “Janet’s Repentance” was serialized by Blackwood and it made him far more uncomfortable than most of the books he ever published.

Equally still mostly verboten is the man is upper middle class. A middle class milieu is usual for stories by women because it’s what they know. But most accounts in the 19th century and until today are of working class men and women, often desperately poor; in the 19th century in parliament an elsewhere it was repeated ad nauseam this was not a middle to upper class problem: it was the drunken working class man presented as unemployed often (as in Dickens, e.g., Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities). And there was legislation in Parliament proposed (it didn’t pass) to flog such men. John Stuart Mill supported flogging such men. Because of course then it’s not them. Didn’t pass.

It’s a movingly done, utterly believable, persuasive story. Wingert’s chapter brings out how the violence is multifaceted violence: emotional, mental, physical, social (the man demands absolute obedience) — he becomes incensed when she finally on impulse in small way refuses him (she will not pick up the clothes he has thrown on the floor) and he kicks her out. The first time we see her it’s as a silence woman waiting for him to come up the stairs, and yes she’d drunk, how else could she endure this but find indifference and oblivion this way. You can see what’s emphasized by noticing it’s serialized and where each installment begins and ends (Part 1, chs 1-4, Part 2; Chs 5-9, Part 3; Chs 10-14, Part 4, Chs 15-21, Part 5, Chs 21-28).

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Another 19th century illustration of a woman with a book

As the story opens (1-4), there is an emphasis on the nature of social life and community in Milby. We see how bullying, competition, domination is what wins out and is respected. Everyone sees how horrible Dempster is but they don’t care; they are afraid of him themselves. This environment fosters violence – to a clergyman seeking a post, in public and in private. There is much witty satire on professions (like the medical establishment, though not as funny as Trollope in Dr Thorne), women’s vanities in church. the curate and teacher at this point reads nothing at all. It’s a first attempt at ethnography.

At first we hear of Janet through ominous gossip of unnamed or minor characters or Janet’s mother. “to see her daughter leading such a life …. For my part I never thought well of marriage … Janet had nothing to look to but being a governess … I certainly did consider Janet Raynor the most promising yong woman of my acquaintance … Or: “I’ve never been to the house since Dempster broke out on me in one of his drunken fits. She comes to me, sometimes, poor thing, looking so strange, anybody passing her in the street may see plain enough what’s the matter” (Mrs Perrifer). It ends on her waiting for him to come up. We hear ““O Robert! Pity! Pity!” and are told her mother not far off in her house is imagining this: Janet’s mother’s complicity is thus begun. Two more conflicts are laid out: the established church type versus the dissenters and evangelicals within the citadel; the sensitive, Tryan who wants to effect moral change in the community and those who want an older acceptance of rough coarse ways to remain dominant (why Dempster and his ilk want to pillory him). Tryanites versus anti-Tryanites.

The second part (5-9) opens with switch of mood, morning, people cheerful, a fortnight has passed and Janet is looking better. We move from

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we know them when they are gone” … [to]

When our life is a continuous trial, the moments of respite seem only to substitute the heaviness of dread for the heaviness of actual suffering … Janet looked glad and tender now — but what scene of misery was coming next? …. When the sun had sunk, and the twilight was deepening, Janet might be sitting there, heated, madened, sobbing ot her griefs with selfish passion, and wildly wishing herself dead (5)

We see Tryan again, this time with a firm constituency and friends. They are anti-high church (one man says we could do without all these bishops) and we see his courage withstanding ridicule to be stubbornly the way he is. we hear the local clergy: they discuss carelessly who is kept out of the workhouse and who not. Alas, Janet is delighted to collaborate with her husband on placards; she claps her hands so pleased is she to be valued. We have this scene of the mother-in-law and Janet and her husband: she has little love for Janet, much jealousy, angry that Janet is childless (as are all Eliot’s heroines insofar as we see them). Then we meet the middle range of church leaders, the vicar, his wife, a tea party, and Tryan comes off very well: he is a decent average man who wants to be among people. We have the scene of stigmatizing Tryan gets through with his friends nearby. Eliot seems anxious for us to know that Janet will change here too: the next time we will see him, he will come as Janet’s beloved friend to help her.

In the central chapters (10-14) we see Tryan making his way into minds and hearts and (among them) Janet responds despite the “thickening miseries of her life.” Dempster’s business is not prospering – and he takes it out on the person nearest to him whom he can. We are told about “these suspicious points:” it would seem this is a corrupt man (who wouldn’t reveal his tax returns if there were such things). He’s not liked, not trusted, and is drinking more, he becomes more violent inwardly too. The word “cruelty” is used of him repeatedly (13 — “a woman he can call his own to torment … the keen retort which whets the edge of hatred”), and then the crashing close where a dinner is supposed to take place and she refuses to pick up his clothes – an impulse of defiance, maybe the first. Alcoholism is central in these chapters too, though not overtly dramatized until the end of the story. Janet does say to her friend (who will help her) Mrs Pettifer; “Kindness is my religion.” She does tell her mother finally how cruel this mother and everyone else is to. These are complex persuasive pictures of the man becoming more drunk, more inwardly violent – reviewers likened this story to a biography. Reviewers recognized that here was a new unusual author. Then the dreadful scene where he says I”ll kill you,” with a “devilish look of hatred.” But instead on impulse, he thrusts her in in her nightgown, barefooted on a freezing old night. She stands there so relieved she is not dead. It takes a while for her to realize she is cold and feel her strong instinct against suicide. This is the story’s climax.

The denouement (15-21) shows us Janet out in the world now, parted from her husband. she has a strong instinct against suicide and saves herself by going to Mrs Pettifer’s house to whom she was kind and is her rescuer. Is told stay, remain calm. We enter her mind, her memories and there many deeply felt about a woman’s life, its stages and phases (15); she was when young “a pet fawn” given over to the “clutches of a panther.” She thinks over her situation: he owns everything; we are told she felt she had not strength to be independent (much less go to court).

Life might mean anguish,might mean despair; but — o, she must clutch it, though with bleeding fingers, her feet must cling to the firm earth that the sunlight would revisit, not slip into the untried abyss, where she might long even for familiar pains (15)

Eliot muses how all of us are hidden from one another (“full of unspoken evil and unacted good”). Janet fears “being dragged bck again to her old life of terror, and stupor, and fevered despair” (16). She has to determine something. In modern terms we’d say Janet needs to “work” on several areas of psychological damage, needs to talk and find understanding (where Tyran comes in). The difficulty of breaking the habit of drinking for calm (in her case) and indifference to what is happening around her, and the hardest of all what to do about her husband. Now others are with her, among the first thing to be said is, how to protect her from further violence. Today people get a court order and police are alerted – they are supposed to be on the side of the abused person. How is she to live? Her lack of property or income. Mostly dramatized is how she must consult with someone. Over in her house the household and Dempster begin to realize she is not coming home. He has no Janet to bully so he goes after his coachman. Here finally is someone who won’t serve him if insulted: the man says will have the law on the lawyer. A little later therefore Dempster is too proud to call for this man, and half drunk (as usual) gets up to drive his coach himself.

There is a kind of waiting and finally one evening Tryan comes to Janet as her mutual confessor-psychiatrist. In a deeply inward colloquy he tells Janet of an attachment he had with a girl who he left because she was in slower station than him (they were lovers); his cousin said to go out to missionary. He does not but finds life is empty without her, and he hears she had become a prostitute subject to a brothel madam, and is now dead. Here is the core of his conversion experience. (As with Gaskell’s Mary Barton we have the story of a broken prostitute at the hidden core of the tale.) Those who’ve read Daniel Deronda (or seen Andrew Davies’s film adaptation) will recall that Gwendoleth Harleth ends up in just such a relationship with Daniel Deronda.”Janet’s Repentance” has been called “evangelical gothic:” we have a slow conversion of Janet not to the doctrines of evangelicalism but to an emotional cleansing. The others are practical; Something must be done to secure her from violence. Then the community feeling: turning in her favor: her servants who saw it all say they would not stand being mauled. (They never helped her, did they?) As she grows stronger, her mother rightly fears she might go back. But news comes Dempster has had a bad accident (overturned the coach), no one knows if he is alive or dead. As a reader the first time round I hoped he was dead.

And then the ending or fifth part (22-28). We get this exemplary wife, and then he dies with her still looking for some sign of forgiveness (!?); there is none. He is Dempster to the end. No final moment which Janet dreams of even comes. And an incipient romance between her and Tyran cut off. This ending reconciled Blackwood to the story (though he no longer wanted a fourth clerical tale). Janet can be seen as repentant, and I have to admit not only repentant for having been alcoholic but for somehow being at fault. There is a punitive pattern asserted here too.

Although her friends try to keep from her Dempster’s state, she has been trained to submit, and wants actually to go back. They try to stop her, and hide at first that he has been in this accident, but she’s a free body, no one is imprisoning her. Can’t hold her back and she is there to listen to his nightmares – maybe such a man feels remorse. Good lines include Eliot on the community’s “inherent imbecility of feeling:” Most people simply do not enter into one another’s cases at all, Mr Pilgrim (who is close to the scene) is a case in point. Tryan talks of how she doesn’t want particulars known to protect her. Day after day, the community again becomes divided about her – she is to blame, some cant about widows helps. We begin to get religious talk and Janet manifests nervousness. She is so used to her old life; she is at sea, scared. Real psychological feeling. she yearns for “purity, strength, peace” (221). Finally Dempster dies in a delirium tremens fit. Then we see her efforst with others to secure the now consumptive (over-worked) Tryan a place to at least maintain what health he has. Her mood is likened to that of a prisoner galled long after bars go away; you are feeling the memories of the abuse – Eliot would know what is it like to be an ex-prisoner from American prisons. Still she is freed from “haunting anxietya about the future,” “dread of anger and cruelty,” can find repose (23) Again Mrs Pettifer is our dea ex machina; she moves so she will need a boarder. Another good woman in the story, Miss Linnet (a sweet bird name) helps furnish the new place. But he dies.

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Elizabeth Nourse (1859-1938), The Closed Window

As in Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and other stories, Eliot’s heroine submits herself to duty; violates natural feelings of revenge, fear, hatred. She does this throughout her career. Gwendoleth’s husband falls over boat, and she hesitates a moment before she throws him the rope; he cannot reach it and the water carries him off; had he not drowned she would have submitted. I wrote in an essay on Eliot published in Studies in the Novel some years ago, “Taking Sides:”

It is the great merit of Eliot’s imaginative work that she poses questions of serious and large import with which we are today only beginning to deal frankly. It is its great defect that she repeatedly opts for dramatic resolutions which cruelly deprive her exemplary characters of some natural fulfillment or worthy goal on the grounds that it is right for them to violate their natural instincts and obey conventions, conventions she herself ignored and disobeyed in order to become George Eliot the great novelist. Her characters immolate themselves, behave even semi-suicidally and we are to admire them for this. What she most often offers is consolation.

In this story we will have Janet left to do good deeds and sit near Mr Tynan’s grave and be admired and liked by all especially her mother. I should say I see in the incipient romance, an underlying autobiographical paradigm (Janet: “alone, she was powerless”): in the second half of Eliot and Lewes’s marriage, he was often ill, very thin; he lies behind Ladislaw, Daniel Deronda — and Tryan too. Tryan is cut off by his consumption.

From the reviewers at the time: some were shocked, women were to write uplifting fiction, all three very unpleasant stories said one critic. Some attacked the exposure of clerical politics: clerical and religious papers paid attention to all three stories. Mostly they were offended but dissenters not as. Many preferred the portrait of Tryan to Trollope’s Mr Slope (from Barchester Towers); a positive not satirical image. Famously Dickens said the author was a woman. Among the best were those that praised the story for the strong depiction of Janet – the interior character of Janet. But I think also the community life is central to the story’s effect. It was agreed moral impact of book was well-meant and there you have the beginning of the immense respect she would get.

I’ll end by suggesting the use of the pseudonym in this particular case was the result of more than Eliot’s being a woman and wanting to hide that. Her matter is deeply subversive. She was known to be an atheist or at least agnostic, living with a man outside of marriage. How could she deal with issues like these and get the respect needed for her story to function morally.

Janet’s Repentance is a deeply felt, passionate and intelligent text, often satiric too. I hope I have roused my readers’ curiosity and interest to get hold of and read “Janet’s Repentance.”

Ellen

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