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Photo taken during Plath’s college years — this is one of my favorites (not in the exhibit)


One of several self-portraits in the exhibit — she is imitating the popular “abstract” style of the 1950s

Pursuit By Sylvia Plath

Dans le fond des forêts votre image me suit.
Racine

There is a panther stalks me down:
One day I’ll have my death of him;
His greed has set the woods aflame,
He prowls more lordly than the sun.

Most soft, most suavely glides that step,
Advancing always at my back;
From gaunt hemlock, rooks croak havoc:
The hunt is on, and sprung the trap.

Flayed by thorns I trek the rocks,
Haggard through the hot white noon.
Along red network of his veins
What fires run, what craving wakes?

Insatiate, he ransacks the land
Condemned by our ancestral fault,
Crying: blood, let blood be spilt;
Meat must glut his mouth’s raw wound.

Keen the rending teeth and sweet
The singeing fury of his fur;
His kisses parch, each paw’s a briar,
Doom consummates that appetite.

In the wake of this fierce cat,
Kindled like torches for his joy,
Charred and ravened women lie,
Become his starving body’s bait.

Now hills hatch menace, spawning shade;
Midnight cloaks the sultry grove;
The black marauder, hauled by love
On fluent haunches, keeps my speed.

Behind snarled thickets of my eyes
Lurks the lithe one; in dreams’ ambush
Bright those claws that mar the flesh
And hungry, hungry, those taut thighs.

His ardor snares me, lights the trees,
And I run flaring in my skin;
What lull, what cool can lap me in
When burns and brands that yellow gaze?

I hurl my heart to halt his pace,
To quench his thirst I squander blood;
He eats, and still his need seeks food,
Compels a total sacrifice.

His voice waylays me, spells a trance,
The gutted forest falls to ash;
Appalled by secret want, I rush
From such assault of radiance.

Entering the tower of my fears,
I shut my doors on that dark guilt,
I bolt the door, each door I bolt.
Blood quickens, gonging in my ears:

The panther’s tread is on the stairs,
Coming up and up the stairs.
— one of the poems typed by Plath in the exhibit, said to have been written almost immediately after she met Hughes

Dear friends and readers,

Another foremother poet blog from a different angle than usual: I usually offer a few images from their best work, and comments, then a central section on the life and finally on the poetry in general. For tonight I want to describe a remarkable exhibit I saw and lecture I heard at the National Portrait Gallery: One Life: Sylvia Plath.

The exhibit was culled and put together by Dorothy Moss, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery, who also has taught at Smith College where Sylvia attended, and Karen Kukil, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Smith College, and editor of the first unabridged, uncensored (unbowlderized) books of journals, and now letters by Plath. Until Kukil’s work all the autobiographical writing by Plath that readers could reach were put together by Ted Hughes or only with his or his sister, Olwen’s approval; even now Plath’s daughter, Frieda, controls what is put in print, so there are still some letters, poems, pictures withheld, or where they appear framed and controlled by Frieda who is said to be a fierce partisan on behalf of her father, Ted Hughes. Frieda has written lines showing intense hostility and resentment towards those who want to know more about her mother’s life.

‘Wanting to breathe life into their own dead babies
They took her dreams, collected words from one
Who did their suffering for them.

They fingered through her mental underwear
With every piece she wrote. Wanting her naked.
Wanting to know what made her.

Then tried to feather up the bird again

The exhibit is small, only one room, but they pack a lot in. It takes us through her life at first using photographs, her own art work, letters about her by others, journalism, writing by her for obtaining prizes, an essay on the double in literature for a class, a recommendation by Ruth Beuscher, a psychiatrist who became her friend recommending her for a Fulbright after her time at Smith, and gradually focusing on her poems written upon specific personal occasions, and her later letters to friends in distress at Hughes’s treatment of her, trying to start a new life with two young children to care for. There is also a musical piece, an installation it’s called by Olivia Johnson, Glass heart/bells. On a table one sees glass jars and funnels, bells, light flickering, with some of Plath’s words from her poetry heard over and over (“I thought I could not be hurt”; “How frail the human heart”) and a line from Hughes (“a mirrored soul of art”). Moss and Kukil said they had a hard time getting the Smithsonian to agree to any exhibit: objections included the idea that since Plath killed herself, the exhibit would be dark and not appeal; the idea that Plath was not widely known. This is startling to be told when for most women poets she is the major figure of the 20th century. It reminds me of how until the 1960s Virginia Woolf did not receive public acclaim and only recently has her importance and greatness been acknowledged. Prompted by questions, Moss and Kukil agreed that her suicide has made her an ambivalent figure the way Woolf’s suicide has made her.

For the lecture, first Moss spoke for about a half hour, then Kukil for the same amount of time, then they took questions.

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A depiction of Plath by her from the exhibit: here she is weeping over what she is reading about World War One

Moss’s lecture: She began by saying how tears welled in her throat when the exhibit was finally in place. She surveyed the many books, essays, poems published on Plath since her death, and insisted that in fact Plath is part of popular culture, however unacknowledged or acknowledged only quietly. She seemed to determined to alter the picture of Plath as dark and brooding; at least she was not so when she was younger, though she had a break down before she went to college. Moss said many readers say they do not feel so alone in their reactions to our society and one another when they read Plath.

This made me recall one of the poems I first read by her, which I remembered ever after.

The Applicant

First, are you our sort of person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,

Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we given you a thing?
Stop crying.
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand

To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed

To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt,
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit —

Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.

Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of _that_?
Naked as paper to start

But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.

It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
(11 October 1962)

I too hate interviews. In my experience they are forms of hazing as well as demanding the applicant portray herself as utterly willing to efface the self to be loyal to the institution, the people who are hiring her, someone of high status, with a great deal of pride and determined ambition. Oh yes and doing what is fashionable. The poem is not in the exhibit.

Moss followed what is fashionable today too. Plath was presented as constructing her image, posing and savvy before the camera, so a picture of her imitating Marilyn Monroe (they said) in a bathing suit was one self, but another of her with brunette hair, looking demur was for application for a scholarship was another. They chose her with a bicycle in front of a school building with a sketch pad to be the leading image outside the door of the exhibit because they thought somehow this showed her presenting an image of herself. The photo was taken by a good friend at the time, Marcia Brown, who stayed loyal to her after Hughes left her, and to whom one of the poignant letters in the exhibit was written. They chose the poem “It was the night before Monday” to show a happy moment with her parents, Winthrop and Aurelia Plath, and her brother, Warren.


On one of the walls of the exhibit

She covered the usual early biographical material, her father’s sternness and early death, her closeness to an aunt Dot (Dorothy, her mother’s sister)), a picture of herself dressed as a nurse (done during her father’s illness). There were cut-outs by her: when young she wanted to be a fashion designer. These show an astute awareness of popular highly sexualized styles of the 1950s. (Yves Saint-Laurent similarly made his own beautiful cut-outs as a young boy; his were more original in style; see my comments on an exhibit of his art at the Fine Arts Museum in Richmond, Virginia.) There was a pony-tail, a long, Plath’s own from when she was 12 and first cut her hair, saved as a relic by her mother. Her mother wrote that she couldn’t sleep the night before Plath cut her long hair for the first time.

In her teens Plath drew herself again and again, imitating different styles. She was liberal in her politics , and some reflect that (there is a mocking collage of Eisenhower in the exhibit). She was horrified at the murder by the state of the Rosenbergs. Her pictures also imitate popular styles at the time (surreal, cubism), we see her as a clown. She originally wanted to major in studio art but soon after entering Smith her professors directed her into literature and writing.


A Fractured Self

Moss said the thesis about the double in literature reflected Plath’s own sense of her fractured selves. After she won a number of awards, she secured a position for a year working in New York City for Mademoiselle (much coveted). She interviewed Elizabeth Bowen; photographs of that interview are in the exhibit. She met Marianne Moore too. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, is about the disillusionment she experienced during that tie.

In 1955 she went to England on a Fulbright and there met Hughes whom she married a year later. There are many photographs of her and him together, and several familiar ones are in the exhibit, and a portrait by her of him (quite beautiful). Moss did not say this but it’s apparent (to me) that Plath unfortunately bought into the myth of the deep appeal for sexual women of aggressive, violent macho males and the poem “Pursuit,” and a letter she wrote immediately after that show her exultant upon meeting Hughes as a “savage animal.” She was in fact naive when it came to understanding the realities of living with a promiscuous aggressive domineering man; Moss said she thought she could change him; it’s not clear when she began to realize that he didn’t want to live a domestic life centering on children. She herself had longed to be a mother. Kukil said they included the famous poem, “Balloons” to indicate how much joy she felt with her children.

Here is one less well-known:

New Year on Dartmoor

This is newness: every little tawdry
Obstacle glass-wrapped and peculiar,
Glinting and clinking in a saint’s falsetto. Only you
Don’t know what to make of the sudden slippiness,
The blind, white, awful, inaccessible slant.
There’s no getting up it by the words you know.
No getting up by elephant or wheel or shoe.
We have only come to look. You are too new
To want the world in a glass hat.

It is said to be to her daughter, Frieda, as a little girl around Christmas. Plath’s greatest poetry comes from the period of her marriage and the desolation, despair and betrayal she knew in the separation.

Moss ended on Plath’s posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In accordance with her upbeat presentation, she did not tell of the gravestone which apparently has had to be renewed several times as people keep trying to erase Hughes’s name from it. Nor did she mention that Hughes’s second wife, whom he was living with when Plath killed herself (not yet divorced) killed herself. She had a child too.

Another poem not in the exhibit:

Edge

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odours bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

Diane Purkiss wrote an essay on this poem from which I quote: “Plath evokes first Cleopatra, whose serpents in Shakespeare are babies suckling her breasts, then Medea, whose ‘illusion of a Greek necessity,’ is revenge on Jason, her unfaithful husband.Medea’s revenge takes the form of child-murder. The woman in the poem hovers undecidably between the two figures, one whose ‘children’ killed her, one who killed her children, one whose violence turns towards her own flesh through her children, one whose violence turns outward through her children.”

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


Large Size Shoes by Sylvia Plath (this comes from an essay I read on another exhibit of Plath’s visual art — her drawings and illustrations, which are often very home-y and plain)

Karen Kukil concentrated on Plath’s writing, telling us briefly of the works she wrote, something of the history of the editions of the poems and letters. I wish she had told more about this. The exhibit includes the Royal manual typewriter she used as a teenager; later she has a semi-electric Smith Corona (so did I); then an Olivetti (in the UK). Kukil began by quoting a line by Plath: “I am in my deep soul happiest on the moors.” She is buried in Hepenstall (a parish church in Yorkshire). She covered The Bell Jar, the first book of poems, Ariel, with “Lady Lazarus,” a poem about suicide attempts. She too wanted to counter images of Plath as always a depressive by (as with Moss) by not giving the full context or de-emphasizing say her alienation from her mother’s form of ambition, such a poem seemed to come out of nowhere. She did talk later of the book, Letters Home, to her mother (Plath wrote altogether 747 letters to her mother); these show a happy complacent girl; they were carefully selected and censored after her death. Her mother had been very angry at the portrait of a mother in The Bell Jar, thinking it was simply her when it was a composite. Kukil said her own edition of Plath’s Journals (1955-62) is the first non-censored edition of Plath’s life-writing.

Plath, Kukil said, was “fearless.” That’s why she could write such frank bold transgressive poetry. She was an artist and would go through 15 drafts (of a poem “Elm,” a wood used for coffins, a poem about loneliness). She saved drafts of her poetry. All this was inherited by Hughes. Her poems also often have political context: so a poem on electrotherapy (which she apparently had inflicted on her) connects to her memories of how the Rosenbergs were electrocuted. Peter K. Steinberg whom Kukil worked with has created a website for studying Plath’s poetry. He is the co-editor with her of the two volume The Letters of Sylvia Plath (2017/18).

They then took questions. There was a good discussion. They told of how they came to study Plath. For Kukil it was being in Smith College. They were convinced that Plath knew she would someday be studied, and wrote at least some of her letters with a later audience in mind. She would write to Hughes saying they would someday be admired as a couple of poetic geniuses. (Their image has not emerged in quite the way she thought when she first married him.) They mentioned that Frieda has had a hard emotional life: her brother, Nicholas, Sylvia’s son, had a Ph.D. and did good work in science, but he too suffered from depression and killed himself. Teachers they had were important: Pamela Hunter gave a course which included work by Plath. Smith now has a rich archive of Plath material — bought from Hughes. They spoke of a course which joined together the work of Plath with Virginia Woolf. I made a comment at that: I said I thought that Plath and Woolf resembled one another in their after reputation: both died too young to control their papers; since they killed themselves, the reaction to their work has been affected by the average person’s discomfort with suicide, and this has kept the respect they both had early on subdued; that suicide arouses hostility in many people connected to someone who killed him or herself and by outsiders to the people most closely connected (say a husband). In Plath’s case there have been duelling angry biographies; in Woolf’s many attacks on her as elitist, “out of touch” with the world, often little understanding of Leonard. Both women commented on that, basically agreeing.


Stevenson has written about how she was hampered and stymied by Olwen Hughes

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

A Kitchen — by Plath

I’ll close on discussions I’ve had with people who’ve studied and written professionally on Plath, people who have taught her poetry, and people who have read her deeply. Often they object to autobiographical reading, but this seems to me cannot be avoided; the material is often rooted in the personal, and Plath makes this plain (as did a poet of the 18th century I’ve studied, Charlotte Smith.) Friends who suffer themselves from bad headaches mentioned that Plath suffered from migraines and how these are reflected in her poems; for example, the rhythms and imagery of “Lesbos.” One seeming impersonal theme that has general application emerges circles around Medea — as we know betrayed by Jason. My friend, Fran, wrote “one major aspect in Wolf’s own treatment of the Medea theme is the way people feed on other people’s catastrophes, scandals and often actually fan the flames of defamation themselves. Here you have a voyeuristic, vampiristic crowd gloating over a homier Medea’s personal calamity:

Aftermath

Compelled by calamity’s magnet
They loiter and stare as if the house
Burnt-out were theirs, or as if they thought
Some scandal might any minute ooze
From a smoke-choked closet into light;
No deaths, no prodigious injuries
Glut these hunters after an old meat,
Blood-spoor of the austere tragedies.

Mother Medea in a green smock
Moves humbly as any housewife through
Her ruined apartments, taking stock
Of charred shoes, the sodden upholstery:
Cheated of the pyre and the rack,
The crowd sucks her last tear and turns away.

One last which seems to me to show Plath at her finest is vatic:

The Moon and the Yew Tree

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over the cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness-blackness and silence.

Ellen

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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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Lucy Hutchinson with one of her sons

‘Yet after all this he is gone hence and I remain, an airy phantasm walking about his sepulchre and waiting for the harbinger of day to summon me out of these midnight shades to my desired rest — Lucy Hutchinson, Final Meditation’

I write not for the presse to boast my own weakness to the world — Lucy Hutchinson

Dear friends and readers,

This past Friday afternoon the Washington Area Print Group (a small offshoot of Sharp, the Book History people) held its last meeting of this semester. The editor of Lucy Hutchinson’s four book epic poem, Order and Disorder (a retelling of the book of Genesis, and comparable to Milton’s Paradise Lost), David Norbrook spoke to us about what was printed and not printed in Lucy’s lifetime, with a view to show how Lucy resisted print culture in order to write candid truth about her and her husband’s lives and to find release in writing poetry. His talk renewed an old and still today continuing interest I have in the remarkable generation of English women in the mid- to later 17th century who were actively involved in the English civil war, several of whom wrote memoirs, letters, and poetry out of their experiences. I did an etext edition of the autobiography of Anne Murray Halkett; my first published paper was on the poetry of Katherine Philips; one of my first foremother poets was Margaret Cavendish; and I devoted years of my life to studying and editing texts and writing about the translations of Anne Finch, wrote part of a biography. I’ve published reviews of books which contain chapters on her (e.g., Seelig, Autobiography and Gender in Early Modern Literature)

The most brilliant and learned of these women was probably Lucy Hutchinson, and way back in 2008 with a small group of friends on EighteenthCenturyWorlds @ yahoo (now a defunct listserv), we read and discussed Lucy’s brief autobiography and her magisterial biography of her husband, which is of course an autobiography, but also a history of the civil war and its aftermath for those who fought against the monarchy. I read a copy of a new Everyman edition by N.H. Keeble, based on the manuscripts, and the original introduction by Julius Hutchinson in an old Everyman. Here is an excellent website citing and explaining all Lucy’s writings, where the manuscripts are located, recent editions, good historical information and bibliography of Lucy Hutchinson.

Prof Norbrook told us (as everyone who writes about the memoir does) that the book was first published in 1806 by a descendant, Julius Hutchinson, in an attempt to make money on it (he was badly in debt from, among other things, gambling). Julius Hutchinson was concerned to separate his family from the radical Jacobin politics of the 1790s, and so refused to allow Catherine Macaulay (the historian) to see it, and cut passages of religious and political enthusiasm. This was the text that the early 20th century Everyman edition published. If you obtain this one, you can read Julius’s preface which is at times unconsciously funny because he lectures readers on how to react to his ancestors. Lucy’s biography even when cut by Hutchinson projects an intense indwelling religiosity; her fragment of an autobiography, written much earlier and broken off, show she came from a cavalier, upper class family (her uncle was keeper of tower) and reveals an intense and bitter struggle with her mother who tried to stop Lucy from cultivating her mind (her father encouraged and supported her in this), and favored Lucy’s non-reading sister. In the 17th century parents regularly openly favored one child over another (primogeniture and gender were factors in this kind of behavior). Lucy’s autobiography frustratingly ends on an early intense love Lucy had for someone other than Hutchinson, someone of whom her mother did not approve. It has a refreshing immediacy lacking in the biography.


John Hutchinson with another of their sons

I’m not going to go through Lucy’s memoir of her husband’s life phase by phase. The reader may find a good summary and evaluation and large swatches of the biography reprinted with connecting explanations and contextualization, respectively in Margaret George’s lively (and Marxist!) Women in the First Capitalist Society: Experiences in 17th century England and Roger Hudson’s The Grand Quarrel (which also includes selections from Margaret Cavendish’s life of her husband, Hutchinson’s royalist rival in Nottingham, and letters and journals by Ann Fanshawe, Brilliana, Lady Harley, Alice Thornton and Anne Murray Halkett). Lucy is distinguished from her fellows by her overt active political behavior, opinions and fierce dislike of Cromwell, which she says her husband shared — apparently because Cromwell set up a dictatorship, with himself and his son-in-law Ireton, in charge. The Hutchinsons’ vision was of a godly republic ruled by a Parliament which would be made up by godly men of property. John Hutchinson retired from public life for a while; he and his wife eschewed ambition overtly. She is deeply anti-feminist (Elizabeth I did so well because she listened to her male advisors), herself never for a moment drops her sense of a class hierarchy and where she and her husband deserve to be (She says that initially she and John were much in favour of the original Levellers who were merely standing up for justice and against vice, but that later the name became associated with a ‘people who endeavoured the levelling of all estates and qualities which these sober Levellers were never guilty of desiring’); she is biblical and acidulous. So their far left of the revolution is much qualified. The central section offers a fascinating exposure of the internecine personal politics of Nottingham as well as its seiges, the battles military and social that went on. Nick Hay wrote of this:

the massive bulk of these 230 pages is taken up with the events of the war as far as they concerned Nottingham and Hutchinson’s Governorship of both Castle and Town. Such is the account of internal dissension, treachery and indeed incompetence that it becomes something of a miracle to the reader that the Parliamentary victory seems astonishing. We must remember however that the key military encounters of the war (Marston Moor and above all Naseby which gets about 2 lines) take place very much off-page.


Early 18th Century print of Nottingham castle and park, showing “priest holes,” as it was rebuilt by the Duke of Newcastle

It’s also brave and original of Lucy to discuss the king’s trial at all, much less from the Parliamentarian point of view.

Lucy is writing this history after the Restoration to vindicate her husband and their war effort. Hutchinson himself seems to have been a fanatic. About pulling down images. He would not yield and that kept them winning at times. He also was inflexible and knew it. He didn’t want a place in the high government. It was dangerous and not what the war was about to him. He was not seeking high place, and Lucy (his wife) wants him to be admired for this. She knows how unusual it is. She herself didn’t feel this way. There are numerous references to Cromwell’s ability, his personal courage in hindsight. From the viewpoint of the post-Restoration republican Cromwell, even if seen as a malevolent force, appeared as a giant saviour. Prof Norbrook concentrated on one episode presented indirectly in the memoir: in order to save her husband’s life (he was one of the regicides who signed the death warrant for Charles I) she forged a letter in her husband’s handwriting where he recants his beliefs and expresses deep remorse over the king’s death. She went to court with this, and angered her husband very much. She had to persuade him to want to live for the sake of his family.

From our group read of the memoir in 2008 I find we agree that John Hutchinson suffered from what we now call “survivor guilt and this becomes more oppressive as the repression deepens and more and more of his old comrades are executed, exiled, imprisoned. Lucy wishes that he would save himself and wants to do whatever she can personally to do so, which leads her to take momentous steps (for her) of going against his wishes. Fascinating political and psychological material here – what a marvellous drama. Lucy understands her husband’s psychological processes as in this passage where she describes his reaction to persecution of his friends and associates:

‘notwithstanding that he himself, by a wonderfully overruling providence of God, in that day was preserved, yet he looked upon himself as judged in their judgment, and executed in their execution; and although he was most thankful to God, yet he was not very well satisfied in himself for accepting this deliverance.’

Here is where she stands:

‘And his wife, who thought she had never deserved so well of him, as in the endeavours and labours she exercised to bring him off, never displeased him more in his life and had much ado to persuade him to be content with his deliverance.’

Notwithstanding all her efforts her husband is eventually imprisoned, somewhat to his own satisfaction; he “told his wife this captivity was the happiest release in the world to him’. We are told “His wife bore her own toils [which must have been massive but of which we are allowed to hear little] joyfully enough for the love of him, but could not but be very sad at the sight of his undeserved sufferings; and he would smile sweetly and kindly chide her for it.” Neither of the Hutchinsons in any sense repent; their views do not change. On the subject of religious liberty they become more radical still. John Hutchinson only questions the abuse of power by the Revolutionaries and advises his son that if there should be a second Revolution he stand back and wait and watch what those in power do before committing himself to them. Remember all this is left in manuscript. He was arrested in 1663 after a pathetic uprising, treated harshly, sent to Sandown Castle in Kent, a run-down ruined place, cold, damp, wind-blasted, and there he sickened and died. Lucy suspects he was poisoned.

Professor Norbrook’s interest in print culture (for this paper especially) led him to tell us of the elegant speeches printed and attributed to those who were executed: Algernon Sidney, for example. Edmund Ludlow “entered print culture” to express “fierce hostility to the regime” in his Voyce from the Watch Tower. Those executed her hung, drawn and quartered.Lucy did not want this kind of thing to be published about her husband at all and in her Memoir reveals a continued pesistent misunderstanding between them (which I find poignant). On the other hand, Lucy meant to in her book show her husband’s continued loyalty to the puritan regime.

Professor Norbrook asked what genre the book belongs to because it is written as a family history told to her children to remember their father and learn from his life. The family did experience a steep decline, with children and grandchildren leaving England, descending to bankrupt poverty. Keeble suggests we see the Memoirs as part of the literature of defeat, and places it alongside Milton and Richard Baxter. The issue for defeated revolutionaries was how God could have left them to be defeated. This is the theme of Samson Agonistes. John Hutchinson is Samson – ‘a prisoner chained’. It’s one of these works which supposedly justifies the ways of God to men. The detailed portrayal of John Hutchinson’s perfections are intended to show him as a complete ‘gentleman’ – and patriot ‘in the tradition of Roman republicanism’ (this is suggested by Lucy’s use of the word senator, and links Catonian republicanism and whiggish England as its heir found in Addison’s Cato). Prison (as with Bunyan) is a place of spiritual education and liberty.

I have tried to read some of Lucy’s translation of Lucretius, De Rerum Natura and (much better as a read) her Order and Disorder. The first appears to be an exercise where she is teaching herself about atheism and learning to reject it after careful consideration. Order and Disorder is a retelling of the Genesis story where (once again) she is justifying the ways of God, or finding justification. What are moving, however stilted are her elegies for her husband (written while she is alone, grieving for him). How to convey the agon of this woman? In her elegies she inveighs against court life (an old pastoral trope):

A troop of restless passions wander there,
And private lives are only free from care …
[The moon’s] image only comes to close the eye,
But gives the troubled mind no ease of care …
… he alone possesseth true delight
Whose spotless soul no guilty fears affright.
[she did once stop an execution] …
Those who survive will raise no mutiny;
His table is with home-got dainties crowned,
With friends, not flatterers, encompassed round;
No spies nor traitors on his trencher wait,
Nor is his mirth confined to rules of state;
An armed guard he neither hath nor needs,
Nor fears a poisoned morsel when he feeds.
[For the person retired from court and public life]
Sweet peace and joy his blest companions are:
Fear, sorrow, envy, lust, revenge, and care,
And all that troop which breeds the world’s offence,
With pomp and majesty, are banished thence.

Much more her “Final Meditation:” dense, fragmentary and complex prose on the subject of death. It is personal and self-searching as Lucy struggles to reconcile what she knows should be her own theological joy at John’s translation to heaven with her own sense of personal loss … She’s a wonderful prose stylist, a poet in prose superior to her poetry in verse.

She remains a strong supporter of patriarchy and even apologizes for writing! Keeble writes:

This tension between, on the one hand, dutiful wife and, on the other, creatively bold writer, is negotiated by the narrative device of splitting the identity of Lucy Hutchinson into two. There is, on the one hand, the Mrs Hutchinson who is a subject of the Memoirs, her husband’s shadow with no voice; on the other hand, there is the narrator, independent, defiant and assertive. She is obliged to be dutiful, deferential, quiet; I, however, enjoy licence to speak my mind.

I wish I knew far more about her last 18 years of life, her relationship to her children, but we have nothing written down by her. There appears to be a historical novel about Lucy by Elizabeth St John The Lady of the Tower): I’m not sure what the focus of the book is, so am obtaining a copy. Sometimes this genre when well done can add to our knowledge through imaginative use of history.

The author has done extensive research in archives and gone round to battlefields too.

And for my Austen reader, Austen could easily have read this memoir; it’s the sort of thing she was known to like to read (memoirs, history, letters by women — think of Fanny Price, Anne Elliot’s reading, of Austen and Anne Grant). She might not mention Lucy and John Hutchinson, radical revolutionaries, any more than she mentioned reading Wollstonecraft. Or references to this material were cut.

Il y a toujours d’hommes superposés en un homme, et le plus visible est le moins vrai — Régis Debray, Éloges

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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womanwithbookunhappy
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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Anne Killigrew, Self Portrait (c. 1685) — note the allegorical picture to the side, what looks like a war tent above, and her holding a leaf of paper

Dear friends and readers,

I’m gratified to be able to say I return to blogging tonight with a poet and painter I found strangely appealing more than 30 years ago: Anne Killigrew, who managed in her brief life to leave a small body of strong remarkable grave poetry and at least four paintings. The paintings are of interest as providing an authoritative image of Killigrew herself, as well as an effective one of her mistress’s husband, James II, then Duke of York:

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James II when Duke of York by Anne Killigrew

What’s left or what themes we know of Killigrew’s paintings fit into, might today be seen as surprising but is the typical repertoire of later 17th century themes for women, i.e., she painted an image of the story of Judith’s violent beheading of Holofernes. Killigrew also shows characteristics we find in other women artists: her Venus Attired by the Graces, manifests a gentle mood and soft blended rich colors of red, pink, brown against stand-out soft blues are reminiscent of (anticipate is too strong) Angelica Kauffman:

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However, Killigrew did not leave enough paintings nor are the assertions that this or that image is of her secure enough to list her as an considerable woman artist of the era. Thus, what respect, knowledge and true interest someone can take in Killigrew must rest primarily on the posthumous edition of her poetry published a year after her death (alas, from small-pox). I here treat Killigrew as primarily a (foremother) poet.

Maureen Mulvihill, a literary specialist (who has written much on this later 17th century era, and done no less than 2 editions of the poetry of Ephelia) and rare book collector, has now added to the work done on Killigrew, “Poet Interrupted, the Curious Fame of Anne Killigrew.” Mulvihill’s focus is the history of Killigrew’s book in the context of what we know about her life, family, the court she lived in, her connections (especially as shown by the names of the people she addressed in her poems). Mulvihill identifies some of the problems and areas yet to be researched, and then surveys recent editions by Patricia Hoffman and Margaret J. M. Ezell. It’s also an essay directed at rare book collectors.

The poetry itself may sampled and is well (if briefly) characterized by Mary Mark Ockerbloom in the series A Celebration of Women Writers. Ockerbloom points out how uncertain is our knowledge of Killigrew (we are not sure what was her connection to the court of Mary of Modena, we are not sure if she knew Anne Finch, later Countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720), whose poetry and life I worked on for years). Ockerbloom brings out the evidence which suggests Killigrew was known in court circles for her poetry, a court atmosphere where a learned and chaste young woman was not likely to be comfortable, and then describes and quotes from Killigrew’s poetic oeuvre. I remembered a dark, grave, witty poetry, and would add to Ockerbloom that Killigrew’s most famous poem, “Upon the saying that my Verses were made by another,” is arresting for Killigrew’s representation of herself (as Germaine Greer remarks) “as a burnt offering” (Slip-shod Sibyls, 24-25) before her “sacred muse”

O Queen of Verse, said I, if thou’lt inspire,
And warm my Soul with thy Poetique Fire,
No Love of Gold shall share with thee my Heart,
Or yet Ambition in my Brest have Part,
More Rich, more Noble I will ever hold
The Muses Laurel, than a Crown of Gold.
An Undivided Sacrifice I’le lay
Upon thine Altar, Soul and Body pay;
Thou shalt my Pleasure, my Employment be,
My All I’le make a Holocaust to thee.

Dreams of rapture, of fame, of being valued like Katherine Philips (Orinda, 1631-64) turned into a source of shame, she was exposed for vanity (she alludes to “Esops painted Jay”). She is a Daphne who was “rifl’d,” her feathers torn:

My Laurels thus an Others Brow adorn’d,
My Numbers they Admir’d, but Me they scorn’d:
An others Brow, that had so rich a store
Of Sacred Wreaths, that circled it before;
Where mine quite lost, (like a small stream that ran
Into a Vast and Boundless Ocean)
Was swallow’d up, with what it joyn’d and drown’d,
And that Abiss yet no Accession found.

She lacked access, and by the end of the poem has likened herself to Cassandra.

Ockerbloom’s bibliography includes the best essay I’ve read on Killigrew: Carol Barash’s 22 pages situating her in “the imaginary underworld of Mary of Modena’s court,” along with a number of other fine poets of that court (Finch) and the era, in her magnificent study, English Women’s Poetry, 1649-1714. Barash is concerned to treat Killigrew both realistically and practically (wages for women at that court were 200£ a year, plus room and board) and to make clear that her poetry does not belong to the plangent and sentimental nor does she focus on rape or sexual victimizing, but creates a community of women in sensual landscapes filled with hidden allegories about power, ambition, and yes deep and embittering disappointment. “The Miseries of Man” is strikingly grief-stricken turn by turn. Barash discusses an unfinished ode by Killigrew where the poet identifies with a dove, “contrasts mundane squalor with the speaker’s belief in a higher, spiritual calling. The speaker urges her dove to soar beyond the low and dirty material world,” is at first self-confident and aggressive, returning to her “heavenly birthplace” after a “short time” on earth:

    Thy native Beauty re-assume,
    Prune each neglected Plume,
    Till more than Silver white,
    Than burnisht Gold more bright,
Thus ever ready stand to take thy Eternal Flight.

The imagery reminds me of Marvel’s in his famous “Garden” poem, but Killigrew’s dove finds her “plumage has been spoiled by those who attempt to transmit it to a larger public,” and that she has been “punished for taking the material world too seriously, for staying there too long,” is now at risk of being left “naked … and bare,/The Jest and Scorn of Earth and Aire.” I first read Barash’s book in the year it was published, 1999, and was startled by Barash’s austere tone. I had not been part of academic conversations for too long. Years (and many conferences and much interaction, reviewing, publishing) later, I understand better why Killigrew’s poetry about social deaths and real deaths, wars, violent dangers (mental as well as physical) and high aspiration, in a controlled pastoral landscape (a “specifically female retreat” and “place of political resignation”) calls out for sophisticated readings and high respect.

To suggest other points of view than Ockerbloom, Greer or Barash, an essay not included in Ockerbloom’s bibliography is David Vieth’s sceptical “Irony in Dryden’s Ode to Anne Killigrew,” Studies in Philology, 162 (1965):91-100: old and perhaps unfair, Vieth’s close reading suggests that Dryden’s ode to Killigrew could be read as high critical of her work (damning is the word). Barash has in mind Kristina Straub’s “Indecent Liberties with a Poet: Audience and the Metaphor of rape in Killigrew’s ‘Upon the saying that my Verses” and Pope’s Arbuthnot,” Tulsa Studies of Women’s Literature, 6 (1986):27-45, which I find has much merit. It’s a Foucault reading which finds that Killigrew and Pope’s poetry use of forms of rape offers paradigms for “social relations of domination and repression” determined by gender. Pope’s poetry emerges as under the sign of his disabilities.

To return to the essay which led me to this reading and blog tonight, Mulvihill’s analysis and description of the Killigrew’s posthumous book and modern editions situates Anne in her court and Killigrew world and also the commercial world at the time. She discusses the importance and merit of Richard Morton’s facsimile reproduction of Killigrew’s poetry, with a still valuable introductory essay (this is the edition I first read Killigrew in and have cherished ever after).

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The image on the front is said to be by Killigrew herself

Mulvihill suggests (I think rightly) that the recent editors should have gone further: the poems should be re-ordered to bring out significant relationships between them, their interlocutors, with a concentration that brings out themes and the different genres. I felt the same was true of an edition of Katherine Philips, and my work on Anne Finch was predicated on recognizing her struggle with the genres of the era, which she had to transcend to express her original thought and combinations of feeling. Here too (as with Finch) Mulvihill points to the problem of unattributed poems and poems wrongly attributed, which remain unresolved. She lists what she thinks specialists will find missing in the latest edition. She asserts that we are still awaiting a truly authoritative edition. Mulvihill includes at the end of her essay some particularly clear (large and richly colored) reproductions of images said to be of or attributed to Anne Killigrew and of one of her interlocutors.

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Mary of Modena (c 1694), artist unknown — she appears to have played an important role in the poetic writing of the women of her court (Anne Finch wrote a beautiful poem remembering Mary of Modena)

Ellen

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Philip Glenister as Wm Stafford curtly asking Mary Boleyn to be his wife (The Other Boleyn Girl, 2003)

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Jim Sturgess as George Boleyn, in the tower, awaiting beheading (The Other Boleyn Girl 2008)

Dear friends and readers,

This week I’ve been listening to Simon Vance read Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies so effectively that I returned to re-watching the 2008 Other Boleyn Girl film and part of the 2015 mini-series Wolf Hall. And now after several Tudor films this year I’d not watched before, and a number of non-fiction as well as fiction books on the actors and/or milieus of this area, how the Renaissance era is seen from contemporary documents. I’ve also come up with with an fresh idea that might help explain the popularity of this era. For why after all should the murderous and sexually insecure impulses of a half-mad King Henry VIII deserve a moment’s attention.

It’s this: the appeal of this Tudor Matter comes from its unacknowledged freedom to present masculinity in ways that undermine norms for men either in costume, manners or sexual behavior since the later 19th century, and tell real truths about fluid sexual desire and what worldly ambition may necessitate. hese “Elizabethan” or “Renaissance dream-themes,” screenplays and films expose men caught up in situations where their masculine pride is directly hit. They kneel to strong women, and their swords are rendered irrelevant when it comes to the power of money, religion and the king. The origin of this is in the period: men were flamboyantly dressed, the poetry and plays of the era demonstrate how they defied sexual taboos by enacting enthrallment, abjection, and sensitivity; when aristocrats or courtiers or businessmen (lending money) or soldiers, they were at direct risk from monarchs with the power to execute them with impunity. There were a number of women who came to power and used it effectively: Catherine de Medici in France, Elizabeth I in England are only among the most famous and powerful; there are many minor levels of power and victimage. Historical fiction and gothics picked up on this strain beginning with later 18th century gothics (Sophia Lee’s The Recess, 1783) and Walter Scott (Kenilworth and The Abbot among many others), and have not let up since; films took this over in both the US and UK from The Prisoner of Zenda on, and especially in the Errol Flynn and Gainsborough movies. Stewart Grainger is with us still in Ross Poldark.

Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl (2001) has been credited with putting new characters into the familiar mapped territory: George and Mary Boleyn. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel has for a wider public transformed the character of Thomas Cromwell (it began in the scholarship of Geoffrey Elton and Marilyn Robertson, 1970s-89) from the monster of Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons into another kind of empathetic hero-monster, a fixer and businessman and intellectual coerced into cooperation, co-opted like many today feel they are. for myself I bond intensely with Mary Boleyn, and have ever wanted to read more about the so-called “minor” women of the court, from the French Jeanne d’Albret (mother of Henry IV who said Paris was worth a mass) to Katherine Parr. It’s the first age where we find numbers of women educated and writing letters and poetry and drama.

Beyond this I am just fascinated by bringing Elizabethan-set movies together, and looking to see what is their dramaturgy; what new did this movie contribute to the Tudor Matter, what new techniques did it use. I want to watch the older Elizabethan movies and trace the changes in movies about Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, from Scott. I get the impression the 18th century was more stuck in frozen gender types than the age before or ours since. I find myself looking at the paintings of the Renaissance era to see where ideas and images came from for each decade of the 20th and 21st.

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Ana Torrent as Katharine of Aragon (Other Boleyn Girl, 2008)

The 2003 film is peculiarly fascinating for the way it also defies dramaturgical norms: Andrew Davies is credited as adviser and this script has the characters speak directly to us; the focus of the story is inward shattering of participants. Who are these: Anne and Mary Boleyn, with George around the edges of their talk .The 2008 film was a commercially successful costume extravaganza, whose historical adviser was Gregory herself, whose characters in this film strongly feminist film: beyond the Boleyn Girls, the remarkable Ana Torrent for Katherine of Aragon, Kristin Scott Thomas for Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother of the two beheaded children. The agonies of childbirth are presented repeatedly. I found these two women writhing under their lack of power yet so strong. The makers of Wolf Hall have had the daring to give us a new Elizabethan revenge play, with Anne Boleyn as a cool and transgressive stealth tragic heroine, and Cromwell a driven Hamlet.

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Clare Foy as Anne Boleyn, aggressively keen archer, POV Cromwell (2015 Wolf Hall)

Ellen

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Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting (1630)

Her words for herself in a letter dated 1649: ‘Caesar’s spirit in a woman’s soul’

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Judy Chicago’s Illuminated Letter for Artemisia’s place setting (The Dinner Party)

Dear friends and readers,

Though one purpose of these sketches and offerings of images is to call attention to either relatively or just about wholly unknown (erased) women painters and artists, I felt it would be perverse to choose another 17th century painter for my first round. Gentileschi’s pictures are so extraordinary, I have a couple of superb sources (Italian Women Artists from Renaissance to Baroque, by a host of art scholars, the catalogue and essays from an exhibition put on by the National Gallery of Women’s Art) and there are plenty of people who’ve never heard of her despite a moving autobiographical novel by Anna Banti (Artemisia, by Lucia Lopresti — yes she used a pseudonym), from which a film was made (by Agnes Merlet); several scholarly biographical and art studies (e.g., Mary Garrard’s Artemisia Gentileschi), individual essays [I will come back later to add a bibliography], a popular American novel (by Susan Vreeland). She even made the cut for Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party:

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The key event of Gentileschi’s life about which there is much documentation is a series of rapes: Agostino Tassi, Orazio Gentileschi (yes a painting father and workshop)’s apprentice or partner repeatedly raped her, her father publicly accused him of rape, and a trial. Mary Garrard reprints the whole of the extant papers and letters (in English as well as Italian) which provide a searing look into the daily behavior and mores of the era. Gentileschi was accused of being “a whore” herself: she did succumb to allowing this apprentice to fuck her again either in the hope he would marry her or because poor girl she had fallen in love with him; it was only months later that her father became aware of what had happened. Also involved was a woman who lived with the family in a role common in this period: a servant as chaperon who was also supposed to help find Artemisia a marriage partner, to broker it. At one point one of Tassi’s hanger-ons attempted to gang-rape Artemisia. As all that happened to her ever after was shaped by this public trial and what was said, for the rest of both their lives, Gentileschi and her father paid for their attempt at restitution and revenge. Artemisia was herself tortured at one point to make her “tell” the truth and test the truth of what she said.

Many of her pictures include violence, trauma, anger and sevral famously behead a man from a story in the Bible: here is her tour de force Judith slaying Holofernes painted after the trial:

Judith-Beheading-Holofernes

What may escape the modern viewer is that here we find Artemisia as the first female artist daring to paint a large-scaled historical and religious subject. I feel a sardonic humor in her choice of a subject which by the definitions of allowable historical and religious she could. Note the man’s agonized face, his terrific reddish color, the wrinkles of his skin, the blood trickling down the sheet, the way he is turned as Judith struggles to behead him.

She had done a Judith and her maidservant dated as just before this, where we find his head in a basket, a sort of image from a mirror, much more subdued lyrical using parallels in details of dress, soft browns, beiges, as the woman look about them, this time Judith fearful at being found out:

Artemisia_Gentileschi_-_Judith_and_Her_Maidservant

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Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome July 8, 1593, Orazio’s first child; like his friend, mentor, rival, the great theatrical Baroque painter Caravaggio, Orazio came to Rome to make a name for himself; his wife gave birth to several sons, three were apprentice painters, but her father saw his daughter excelled them, and trained her in easel painting while he worked on large frescoes. According to Stefania Biancanio, Artemisia “could skillfully grind pigments, boil oils, paint small commissions;” he used her face for portraits. Meanwhile his wife and her mother died in childbirth in 1605.

It was around the time she was 17 she painted Susannah and the Elders:

Susanna-and-the-Elders-A-Gentileschi

As Germaine Greer remarks, the woman is not there to excite sexual arousal; but show us an originally strong, muscular and sensual woman in the prime of life “crumpled against the cruel stone of the coping” (Greer 191), driven into “ruinous complicity” with her vulture enemies.

Unfortunately, Orazio allowed Agostino Tassi to give her more advanced training. Records show that Agostino had already boasted he had murdered his wife, raped his sister-in-law, beat up prostitutes regularly. Yet he was socially acceptable. He resisted Orazio’s demand he marry her. That is when this unheard-of kind trial (her father had to have known how hostile would be everyone to such truths about the way women were treated) began. It is important to remember that against all odds, she won the case; Tassi was exiled. But the public attitude was utterly hostile to these judges, and in 1614 one semi-champion (whom Greer said had been Tassi’s friend), a Florentine, Giambatista Stiattesi, married her and took her to Florence. It was then she painted Judith Slaying Holofernes, and was commissioned by Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, commissioned her to paint “Inclination” as a ceiling decoration for the Casa Buonarroti.

Biancanio says there were eight years of intense creativity, and she was matriculated into the Academia del Designo, the first woman ever accepted, and of profound importance to her professional career and self-esteem. She was now freed from a need to be part of a guild, she could buy pigments on her own (before she could not), sign contracts on her own; she had autonomy from father, husband, and later her sons. She bore four children, two daughers (Prudentia and Palmira) by Stattsei and moved to Rome to make a living for herself and her children. Her family included her two sisters and two maids. In 1626 she is in Genoa, 127 Venice, and then she dared to try her luck in Naples (a different and southern hispanic Italian culture), in 1630 opening a huge studio. In 1638 Charles I invited her to England. Braving wars, plagues and pirates, she took her household and rejoined her father there and they collaborated on a commission for the Queen’s house in Greenwich. It was an allegory of peace and the arts (now in Marlborough House, London). She is said to have met Anthony Van Dyck in 1622. When her father died eight years later, she returned to Naples. While in England, she had excited ignorant “repellent” gossip (Greer).

The atmosphere of her last years can be called “a twilight” (Biancano’s word) of success and loss: from these years we have letters to a Sicilian patron, Don Antonio Ruffo, who wants a genuine original from her at a cut-down price. Greer says these 1649 texts make “painful” reading: Artemisia complains of poor health, poverty, of how he is cutting her price, of the behavior or her models to her, the poor esteem her work is actually held in from the point of view of how it’s preserved or not. She is “an exhausted woman obliged to court provincial patronage.” From this time comes her series on the life of John the Baptist, this on his birth puts before us a world of women:

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While the baby is bathed, Elizabeth looks tired and indifferent to or unaware of what Zachary is writing down.

Numbers of the attributions of her painting to her have been disputed (by F. Ward Bissell especially) over the years (given to Caravaggio for example). They paintings are said to “vacillate” between her father’s hand and Giovani Baglione, and other minor Italian male painters of the time; this is where Mary Garrard’s work has made a difference: Gentileschi now prevails as the painter of figures of somber women playing music, intent on their musicianship.

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If you look at some of what is said by even more recent critics, you find denigration. This Lute-player made to recall Saint Cecilia is called “naive” because the figure is so in the foreground, too simple, inexpert:

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Biancanio makes a strong case for a work denied Artemisia, an extraordinary Danae

Danae

There are similarities to her father’s work, to a Milan Cleopatra (no certain attribution); it’s on copper (Artemisia did execute works on copper), but apparently it’s the painterly techniques (the shading of skin, the loose bedding, the psychology of the story-telling narrative that is telling: King Agrisius of Argos locked his daughter, Danae, in a chamber after a prophecy that she would bear children who would grow up to kill him. Zeus broke in to the chamber in a shower of gold, impregnated her, and her son, Perseus, eventually killed his grandfather. In the picture she clutches the coins in her right hand, her face look strained, guarded, her legs drawn together as if she is hurting after penetration. I love her maid, with her head covered in the long white scarf, her intense blue garment clutched, as she looks up to the sky and stars from which there is no help. I think of the sardonic comment made to Webster’s Duchess of Malfi as she cries out to God in the skies: “Look you, the stars shine still.”

The motif of the maid as a franker version of herself is found in Holofernes images; now we have an interplay of arms and swords (also a motif in her paintings, and a shielding from the light:

artemisia-gentileschi-judith-and-her-maidservant-with-the-head-of-holofernes

Now the head is on the ground; look at the maid’s alert calm-seeming face.

Her extant work is varied, and some clearly from commissions:

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Greer suggests her male figures in the portraits are femininized; here one man is suppliant and the other withdraws from him.

She depicts tender motherly love in this Madonna and Child:

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But repeatedly we return to this scene where a woman is coerced into sex: here the story of Bathsheba usually presented from the point of view of David and Bathsheba’s cowardly husband, is turned to the reluctant woman: forced marriages are a form of continual rape however submitted to:

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Lucretia, soiled, weary, crumpled despite her immense solidarity, is about to cut her breast off first rather than just pushing the dagger directly into herself:

Lucretia_by_Artemisia_Gentileschi

Artemisia Gentileschi’s story can be made into one of astonishing success: she painted for powerful men, traveled to prestigious courts to execute art meant for public definitions of such people. Her self-portrait (which I led with) shows her in peaceful reverie, intense contemplative state, and her magnificent, Clio , her chosen muse, makes proud to have fame (it may be read as an allegory). Throughout her career she is continually remembering moments of her life through female and male figures:

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But it’s said on her tomb were painted nasty graffiti accusing her of nymphomania and adultery.

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Anna Banti

Banti’s novel is a help in trying to imagine what Artemisia’s life might have felt like: it is a serious historical fiction and set just after World War Two. Banti weaves between an imagined author standing among ruined in a garden after the barbarism of World War Two, with a draft of a manuscript on Gentileschi destroyed and Gentileschi herself: the novel is an explanation of how we see them as the story begins. Artemisia’s story opens with her experience of rape: “Do not cry” (p. 1). Artemisia is ever holding back intense terrible endless crying: “She must wean herself from it if she does not want to die of grief” (p. 26). From the first phase of the novel on Artemisia:

“She did not have the strength to hate her violent, cowardly lover, the go-betweens, the false witnesses, Cosimo, Tuzia, and all the apprentices, washerwomen, models, barbers, painters, parasites: people who seemed to have scarcely ever have noticed her ever since she was a child and who instead had followed her hour by hour, substituting her actions and movements with unrecognizable ones in the presence of the judge. Today she feels guilty, guilty as everyone wishes her to be . . . (1995 Bison _Artemisia_, trans D’Ardia Caracciolo, p. 25)

She is separated off from other women who do not help her. They move away. She is locked in the house as a shameful thing. She wants to stay in the dark — Banti’s imagery returns right back to the beginning of subjective poetry and stories of early modern Europe through 18th century epistolary novels and poetry by women to studies of archetypal imagery in women’s novels today, e.g., “If only the dark would last forever, no one would recognize me as a woman, such hell for me, woe to others” (p. 25).

Well she overcomes that impulse (which Richardson’s Clarissa did not); but it’s not a simple process of repression, but layered. Forced into a hasty marriage, with a man she can’t respect because he doesn’t behave in a powerful aggressive way, calculating and therefore successful, world, because he makes her ashamed because he is of her, she knows others will sympathize with him. It also agonizes her to see him failing.. She lashes out at him and then feels remorseful, but goes ahead berating the man after all, feeling torn all the while.

“His hands look dirty against the white cloth. Dirty but light. This Artemisia remembers and it tears at her heart like something that has been lost; those hands, when they caress, are as light as feathers [she remembers them as beautiful then] She carries on talking, accusing, so as not to feel moved, and sheraises her voice and listens to herself in horror, within these walls which goad her into cruelty and spitefulness” (p. 83)

He leaves her. He runs away in the night. In Florence, she understandably gets into venomous fights with other women because, now separated from her husband, her humiliating sexual reputation is used against her. You could call her behavior self-destructive; the point here for Banti are the parallels with her modern heroine and her own life: There are many parallels in Banti’s life, but she is also allowing her heroine to express anger and anger becomes a driving motive in her ambition.

Always the imagined private life for which we have no record is intertwined so when Artemisia goes to England, it is after Antonio has come with another woman and triumphed over her. In another agon, she sets out though and the metaphors of stone, rock and burning sand as she boards a ship reminded me of Mary Wortley Montagu’s poetry about herself later in life as she set forth for and lived alone in Italy, an exile.

and in the depths of her heart, as on the gray sand secretly disturbed and marked by the waves, she saw the marks left by this thought which she had faithfully kept and inscribed all these years (p. 130).

It’s this idea of stone, of rock, of burning sands, of the mind as this endlessly enduring hard strength.
Her mind is described thus:

She was coming back from such a great distance, where she had received such terrible blows and lightning bolts that her eyes seemed dreamy … p 131).

The modern novel-writing heroine thinks in a contrasting passage: “What terrible masters words turn out to be” (p. 131). These words she is told about her husband drive her into “exile.” It is a tremendous voyage (remember Woolf’s Voyage out); vignettes of the people, of the places, each figure caught and
then Artemisia seen too. She enjoys her trip. I paraphrase from the Italian: She liked not being anywhere
in particular and moving on, the transience of it. She is happy to arrive anywhere too.” This woman’s identification is part of it: “Afterwards she recalled having seen a puppy, no, a small cat, very frightened, at the sparkling carriage window” (from the English translation, p. 167)

We are expected to know she went with her wondrous career but see the price she paid.

When a few women read the book on WWTTA, some were disappointed there was not much on her painting itself, and her public career was not the focus, just the outward framing; I wished there had been more about her household, what she drew from her relationships there. I have read Vreeland’s novel; it is a mainstream American book; a professional reviewer on Amazon writes accurately of The Passion of Artemisia that Vreeland attributes some “decidedly modern attitudes to people who would not have thought that way at that time, and ends on her “triumph as the first woman elected to the Accademia dell’ Arte in Florence” (“in a time when respectable women rarely left their homes”); the focus is equally her career, and family, “beautifully researched and rich with casual detail of clothing, interiors, and street life. She deftly works history and politics into the background of her canvas.”

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I conclude on one of her musicians, which some have tried to argue are not Gentileschi’s: here the face is hers:

Artemisia_Gentileschi_-_Self-Portrait_as_a_Lute_Player

A self-portrait of herself as a lute-player.

Ellen

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