People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. (Opening voice-over of Outlander, from Gabaldon’s novel, script Roger Moore)
Dear friends and readers,
This series of blog notes on the talks I heard will be even less representative than usual since I arrived late Thursday afternoon, too late to hear any of the Thursday sessions, and left Saturday afternoon before the women’s caucus luncheon ended. I was driving myself to Pittsburgh, a five hour plus trip for me, so did not try to come after teaching ended later Wednesday afternoon, but rather set off on Thursday around 11 am. I knew I should aim to return before dark on Saturday. I did enjoy two lunches and two dinners with friends, went to both receptions, renewed acquaintances and made a couple of new friends. I bought Norma Clarke’s Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street. For my own records and if anyone wants to peruse heads of topics within panels, and some details of some of the papers I heard, I offer two blogs’ worth of notes.
Thursday (March 31st) while I was driving there: I regretted missing “Literary History and Life Writing: The Development of Non-Fiction in the 18th century” (the panel began 8 in the morning, and had papers on theatrical biography and lives of Johnson); “In the 1720s …” (this was a panel beginning at 9:45 am, had 8 speakers, and must’ve revealed intriguing set of connections); “Widows and Working Women: Making a Living in the 18th century” (11:30 am, panel I would have loved to hear for the topic and especially a paper on “the widowed Anna Dorothea Therbusch,” a woman artist). In the afternoon I would have chosen one of the two panels: “Psychological Trauma in the Long Eighteenth Century” (II, 2:30 pm). The first included how to express trauma; on war, torture, Burney’s masectomy; Goethe’s Werther, and on people who might be considered failures). The second was called “Women in Motion: The Figure of the Female Traveler in 18th century Literature and Culture” and had papers on Sophia Lee’s Recess, Lady Anne Barnard’s orientalism, Indian women travelers, and Burney’s Wanderer). How I would have enjoyed and profited from these. I reached the hotel while the last panel I would have chosen was just about ending: “”Inside the Artist’s Studio” (4:45 pm, in Rome, the art marketplace).
But I was up bright and early on Friday (April 1st) and listened to the round table panel “against the novel” (8 am, chaired by Scott Black and Andrew Jarrell). I chose it unlike many of the round tables, the titles of the participants’ papers were cited, so I had an idea of what might be discussed. My interest was stirred because too much is still perhaps made of the realistic novel in literary studies. The session suggested among younger scholars, this is no longer true.
Two stood out among the short papers. Nicole Wright discussed an emergent genre at the close of the century: (ostensibly) non-fiction lives of lawyers, and one in particular, the anonymous Life of a Lawyer, which is a sort of Horatio Alger story, boy begins as orphan and ends Lord Chancellor and is presented plausibly, a believably imagined individual. These reveal that the professional lawyer often came from below high gentry. Ms Wright suggested these faux and real autobiographies are preoccupied with the problem of facts: is this factual, can you know what is, with the lawyer practicing scrutinizing facts. I’ve read of the sweeping changes in the court system where at the opening of the century lawyers were not regularly present at trials, to the end of the century where attorneys for the defense and prosecution and the rigamarole we are used to, with defendants making statements on their own behalf had begun. Rachel Carnel talked about how students today relate to secret histories. Ms Carnell suggested such back stories, digressions, fragmentations, non-linear narratives, anecdotes attract readers today. Since I have been reading and teaching Fielding I was very interested in Ms Carnell’s use of Fielding’s theorizing of the novel where he seems to veer towards realism (at least probabilities, consistent time, space) all the while he speaks ironically and himself practices many devices which treat his book as a book in front of the reader.
The talk afterward included Max Novak inquiring why one of the panelists thought Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel (a target in this session) came out of the cold war, and was told that the book is “suggestively anti-communist” because it promotes individualism. Prof Novak said, to the contrary, Watt’s book is itself Marxist, and was written in the context of the Leavis’s close reading, high moral elite approach to reading. I admit that for me it seemed the panel’s tendency was too strongly to dismiss the value of all gains in psychological, social truths, and shapely art of the “new novel” partly because the panelists themselves favored or were working on non-realistic fictions. One audience member reminded everyone that continental criticism valued the English novel because it observed people in their everyday life, the intimate, particular, is seen as valuable to know about.
As I am just now also reading about on disability, and would like to study its representations in 19th and 20th century fiction and life-writing much more, the four longer papers given in “Disability Narratives” (9:45, chaired by James Farr and Stan Booth) engaged me.
Erin Peters discussed texts that presented what we might call post-traumatic stress disorder after the English civil war. Writers were paying attention to invisible wounds, looking to how to cope with trauma. No longer was attributing such suffering to God’s punishment enough. Ms Peters read soldiers petitioning for pensions. They are looking for therapeutic remedies to avoid “self-murder.” Advice includes friends’ care and frequent conversation with trusted friends. Psychological impairment may be said to be central to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Inward care is needed to relieve the distressed mind. These writings show people taking such afflictions seriously, and trying to construct stories for relief of trauma the way people do for grief in our era.
Travis Chi Wing Lau discussed Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year as an early groping towards immunology theory. HF moves from stories to statistics and back again, describing quarantine crews, burials. The problem for the world of the book is all forms of prevention seem to fail: religious beliefs and rituals and what was called medicine didn’t work. Daniel Crouch discussed how typography, uses of punctuation, blank spaces on a page were used to represent disability in several texts. Francis Hopkinson had written about fonts and sizes of letters and symbols used expressively so this idea was understood. Mr Crouch showed where the architecture of a page itself was set up to record feelings about disabilities.
Maureen Johnson’s paper on Austen’s Persuasion used the word disability to discuss how Austen shows certain social disabilities function like stigmas in society: these include Anne as an older haggard spinster; Captain Benwick as a grieving semi-widower, Hargrave grieving over the death of a friend. The novel has aging people, and people who fake illness (Mary Musgrove) and we have one seriously physically disabled character: Mrs Smith seems unable to walk; her condition is exacerbated by her poverty and widowhood, two more social stigmas or disabilities. Corey Goergen’s paper focused on the unbearable sadness, the emotional pain of debilitation in the later writing of Dorothy Wordsworth as found in her journals.
A prisoner in this quiet room
Nature’s best gifts are mine
Friends — books — and rural sights and sounds
Why should I then repine? —
She had Alzheimer’s or some form of senile dementia but her writing also has many of the expressive features of women’s writing, which included reflecting through structure a fluid concept of the self. Dorothy is not anxious about her identity; she writes with great spiritual intensity. We must avoid reading her as if she was some Shakespearean holy fool. She is communicating obliquely “more than 35 years of close intellectual and imaginative companionship” and writing startlingly accurate poetry about her state of mind. This set of verses comes near the end of her papers:
My tremulous fingers feeble hands
Refuse to labour with the mind
And that too oft is misty dark & blind.
The talk afterwards added much to what had been said already. Chris Mounsey asked if words have to be reshaped to reflect disabilities?. To Erin he said the movement she is describing is from demonizing to therapy, and we should look to see how the tone of a piece changes, and tone towards the person suffering when the language of blame disappears. One problem in Defoe we see is how the readers can misinterpret in terms of what they already know. Chris suggested at the core of the problem of writing disability is the use of the word “normal.” Another member of the audience suggested that a study of the history of medical narratives shows mostly narratives of triumph where the person is cured. He said we need to overturn these falsifying patterns, see pain as normal, and that all personalities are at some level fragile.
I’ve been so interested in Scottish literature and Scottish identity the last few months that I went to “Upstairs, Downstairs in Scotland through the long 18th century.”
I stayed for two papers. Clarisse Godard Desmarest described the life of Sir William Bruce (1630-1710), a Scottish gentleman-architect, who built a grand house famous today: Kinross. Bruce was rewarded for his loyalty to the Stuarts after the Restoration, and plans were set afoot to build a beautiful house, and surround it with remarkable gardens. He was founding a family dynasty. She then covered what is left of the letters of Bruce’s first wife, Mary Halkett, to show us that a great deal of the successful implementation of the owners’ scheme is owing to her force, diligence and tact. Ms Demarest covered many details of what was built, planted, what trophies are there.
Mark Wallace’s paper on “High Life Below Stairs” was on the intersection of class conflicts: while he began by describing Edinburgh clubs and elite social life, his focus was eventually on how the upper classes ended the customs of giving servants vails (big tips). Mr Wallace described changing attitudes of mind towards pleasure and workin Edinburgh; that volunteerism was part of its social ethos. The Edinburgh clubs promoted philanthropy, reading and writing; they worked to mitigate some of the miseries inflicted on people during lowland clearances, and the destruction of the highland culture. They wanted their organization to outshine the English. At the same time they were seeking shore up the hierarchies that kept them in power. The claim was giving vails disrupted social intercourse (especially visiting) between the upper classes (because they cost too much, because servants drank too much when given money), and the practice was with rigorous repression discontinued. Hypocrisy cannot be denied as these clubs (however decorously) used alcohol themselves during festivities which were seen as enacting masculine bonding. For these elite groups it was a question of how to manage servants (repressing pride and any “licentiousness”) so as to network comfortably and conveniently in their own houses, but we and the middle and lower classes then could see brought to the surface class tensions and how servants lived disciplined marginalized lives. Mr Wallace described an often-cited and often-performed farcical play, Garrick’s High Life Below Stairs which presented these problems through satiric parody, in effect making light of serious issues. I thought of the falsfications of the enormously popular Downton Abbey while at the same time it dramatized class conflicts and showed us the vulnerability of the servants to the power of their masters and mistresses.
I then hurried to the poster session on the 17th floor lobby area and walked from poster to poster talking to and listening to innovative interactive ways (using software programs) the various instructors/professors were teaching students how to do research, about the 18th century. After lunch, Felicity Nussbaum read aloud the Presidential address by Srinivas Aravamudan, “From Enlightenment to Anthropocene.” I feel sure this post-colonial and cosmopolitan meditation on geological epochs, different philosophical approaches to history (including the popularity of vast tomes of encyclopedic books), geology and geography (climate change), and time itself, centering on the figure of Giambattista Vico while along the way writers from Voltaire to Montesquieu, the Lisbon Earthquake, the formation of the European mountains, were discussed, will be published. I’ll say only that I was attracted to the outlook of read text, which seemed justifiably pessimistic in the way it approached the time when (perhaps) earth’s people will have so changed the earth that our species can no longer survive on it and go extinct. The contemporary illustrations chosen were illuminating as also portraits of individuals less well-known now.
The long day ended with the panel on which I gave my paper: John O’Neill’s “The Eighteenth Century On Film” (4:30-6:00 pm).
Mine was the first paper, “Poldark Rebooted: 40 years on.” I demonstrated a plethora of 1960-70s films have been re-made within this time-frame and that with a couple of exceptions, the new films are using real or fantasy history to create a past with different emphases from the one realized earlier in order to project and/or construct an imposed or perceived group identity intended to allay insecurities of our era. I used the Poldark pair as a particularly lucid example of typical changes: the 1970s mini-series series dramatizes exploitative inexorable conflicts along class, political and gender and generation lines. Far from from presenting a strong community identity as way for individuals to solve their lives’ problems, the older mini-series centers on characters presented as individuals escaping – or failing to escape from – invisible coercive and sometimes unjust norms (prisons). The films identify with the radical, the rebel, and take a strongly feminist (sometimes anachronistically so) stance. The 2015 series reveals a single script-writer using film technologies to make mythic matter for an idealized perceived indwelling heroic community identity as a solution to individual problems. The women are now subordinated to, work for their families and working businesses, and their children, wherein they find their meaning and safety. The parallel for the first series is The Onedin Line, where there is much trust in existence itself, high scepticism towards religionm trust in technology; the parallel for the second Outlander where characters live in a spiritualized landscape, what happens in life mysterious, often monstrous, and the future something to be guarded against, potentially dark and grim. The actuating idea is people need to hold together, stay in a single imaginary space, and yet experience is centrifugal, now and again the strength of community as powerful when united against single or small groups of much more powerful individuals is shown to be a delusion.
Jennifer Wilson’s paper was on Alan Bennett’s use of diary materials (Greville’s and Burney’s especially) for his film, The Madness of George III. She suggested he has done this again for his film adaptation of his play, The Lady in the Van.
Maggie Smith and Alex Jennings as Miss Shepherd and Bennett (Lady in the Van, 2016)
Ms Wilson played clips from The Madness of George III showing how the rhythm of the scenes mirrored the movements of the diaries, and also how effective unusual camera work, close-ups especially. She talked of how Nigel Hawthorne’s performance was much enhanced (as would be Maggie Smith’s).
Courtney Hoffman argued that Outlander is a “feminist film text,” that the film used voice-over, montage, and a female gaze to break down the strong tendency of action-adventure romance to give us a male story. Instead we have story of female agency, based on a woman’s memory; Claire’s two voices, one from the present which turns into past and the other in the past which becomes the present are in charge, are shaping what we feel and what we see. Claire is pro-active, often controls what is happening. The mini-series overturns our gender expectations.
From Belle, the white and black heroines sewing together (Belle, 2013)
Steven Thomas’s rich paper covered several eras of films about slavery as well as several types of slave narrative films. There are commercial films meant to please large audiences, often majority white: these include plantation dramas of nostalgia, with the displacement of the fallen south onto a guilty (villainous, trangressive) woman (e.g., Birth of a Nation, Jezebel, Gone with the Wind). There are the evangelical and nationalistic films (funded by religious groups), linear in narrative, with redeemed and/or heroic protagonists (Amazing Grace, Roots, Jefferson in Paris). Some commercial films are aimed at African and African-Americans too: anti-plantation films, Blaxpolitation; they exploit voyeurism, fantasies of violence, “both” sides are transgressive and cruel (Mandingo, Cobra Verde, The Legend of Nigger Charlie). Unfortunately the films least well-known are often the truest to what was the experience of slavery and its politics. These include the 1960s and 70s Marxist films analyzing the political economies, dramatizing corrosive and destructive policies, using complex social antagonisms of all sorts (Tamango, The Last Supper, Burn!). Mr Thomas seemed to think finest as a type are the Pan-Africanist films: these layer memory, history, are de-centered and communal narratives, sometimes African in origin (Ceddo, Daughters of the Dust, Sankofa). Mr Thomas found more hope in the sense of education of viewers in the more widely-distributed “new” movies (very recent costume dramas, combining motifs (Lincoln, Belle, 12 Years a Slave, Toussaint Louverture, Tula: the Revolt). He offered lists of books, and articles on historical films, heritage, films about slavery, black cinema.
Though we did not have much time afterward, what talk we did have was stimulating. People seemed most interested in Outlander. Someone objected to Ms Hoffman’s thesis on the grounds that Claire is continually imperilled, often assaulted, near raped, and repeatedly saved in the old-fashioned way (in the nick of time) by her lover-husband from the past, Jamie MacTavish. I suggested what was strikingly innovative was how Jamie was given the over-voice most of the time in the second to last and penultimate episodes. In these it is he who is imprisoned and tortured (making the film politically relevant today) by Claire’s husband now in the past presented as a repressed homosexual cruel man who whips mercilessly and then seduces, rapes Jamie repeatedly until Jamie’s sense of self is shattered and he is giving in sexually to his abuser. This material transgresses almost every taboo on the presentation of masculinity in most films. People asked Mr Thomas questions soliciting information mostly, but there theme of a black community came up and he praised those films which do show us such communities, how they form and function. He said he is in the midst of publishing a collection of film studies, one of which will be his own paper. A woman came up to me at the close of the session and told me she is publishing a book on film where she has an essay on the two Poldarks where she basically offers the same perspective I did. Hers is not yet published. Mine will soon be up on the Net on a group blog maintained by a consortium of university and commercial groups (ABOPublic is its name).
And so the academic and scholarly sessions of Thursday and Friday that I attended ended.