Posts Tagged ‘foremother poet’

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).


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.


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.”


Read Full Post »

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:

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:


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).

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.

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)


Read Full Post »

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

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.

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.

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


Read Full Post »

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’

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:


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:


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 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:


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:


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.


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:


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


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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


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


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.”


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


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


Read Full Post »

The American Lady improved as went on — but still the same faults in part recurred, 11 Jan 1809 … I made my mother an excuse & came away; leaving just as many for their round table, as there were at Mrs Grants, 19 Jan 1813 … I have disposed of Mrs Grant for the 2nd fortnight to Mrs Digweed; — it can make no difference to her, which of the 26 fortnights in the Year, the 3 volume lay in her House, 9 February 1813 (Jane Austen)


The cover and one of the sketches of the 18th century Scots woman artist, Lady Anne Barnard (1750-1825)

Dear friends and readers,

A couple of months ago now I reported that I had submitted a panel proposal for papers on Forging Connections Among Women for the November 2016 EC/ASECS conference at West Chester. The due date for paper proposals is fast approaching and last night I wrote a proposal for a paper:

Three Scots women writers: Anne McVicar Grant, Anne Home Hunter, and Elizabeth Grant Smith (“the Highland Lady”, 1797-1885)

I propose to discuss the writing of Grant, Hunter and Grant, from a different yet related perspectives than is usually done. Anne McVicar Grant is discussed from the point of view of how her poetry and prose fits in with idealized or sentimental images of early America, and helped create the national identity and nation creating of Scotland and seen in the context of Walter Scott’s slightly later achievement. Anne Home Hunter’s poetry is discussed as it relates to her lyrical writing for Joseph Haydn’s canzonettas; she is also brought up as the beloved partner of her famous surgeon husband, John Hunter, and a London saloniere; occasionally her moving poem to her daughter upon her daughter’s marriage is brought up (mostly because it’s a poem favored by anthologizers of women’s poetry). Elizabeth Grant Smith is still known as the Highland Lady, discussed as a kind of Jane Austen from traditional private non-fictional writing selves, a mirror of her era. Using Paula Backscheider’s categories in her study of women’s poetry, and various studies of Scottish women’s writing (especially those edited by Dorothy McMillan), I will try to see their work in terms of their lives and women’s traditions of writing: Grant and Hunter as writing poetry and prose of friendship, Hunter passionate elegies, and Grant as creating a counter candid universe.

To a Friend on New Year’s Day

Dear friend, for thee, through ev’ry changing year,
Unchang’d affection draws the tie more near;
Treasure most precious, dearest to the heart,
Increas’d in value as the rest depart.
Tho’ kindred bonds may break, and love must fade,
Friendship still brightens in the deep’ning shade.
Time, silent and unseen, pursues his course,
And wearied nature sickens at her source.
Methinks I see the season onward roll,
When age, like winter, comes to chill the soul:
I tremble at that pow’r’s resistless sway
Who bears the flowers and fruit of life away …

Let me not linger on the verge of fate,
Nor weary duty to its utmost date;
Losing, in pain’s impatient gloom confin’d,
Freedom of thought, and dignity of mind;
Till pity views untouch’d the parting breath,
And cold indiff’rence adds a pang to death …

Let me still from self my feelings bear,
To sympathize with sorrow’s starting tear …

Let me remember, in the gloom of age,
To smile at follies happier youth engage;
See them fallacious, but indulgent spare
The fairy dreams experience cannot share.
Nor view the rising morn with jaundice eye,
Because for me no more the sparkling moments fly.
— Anne Hunter (1802)

I’ve written about Elizabeth Grant only as part of what I had hoped to learn from an ASECS session on women’s public and private writing in the form of weekly notes taken from a group read we had on Eighteenth Century Worlds @ Yahoo in draft stage, and thought tonight I might add concise succinct summary to these, and a couple of references to recent work on Anne Grant and Anne Home Hunter that I overlooked or have come across since writing of them as foremother poets.


In A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, edd Douglas Gifford and Dorothy McMillan, two essays tell the story of the final publication and value of the voluminous life-writing of Elizabeth Grant, McMillan’s “Selves and Others: Non-fiction writing in the 18th and 19th century” [of women writers in English], and Peter Butter’s “Elizabeth Grant.” Over the course of a long life, Elizabeth kept up a vividly written, perceptive, unsentimental and candid record of her varied life, beginning with her grandparents (before she was born), her parents’ relationship, her own early thwarted love affair, semi-coercive marriage, and later years, only part of which were published in compilations from 1846-54, to make money. She includes trips to Cheltenham, descriptions of university life in England, and projects some surprisingly radical views of what she lived in Scotland (with real respect for local attachments in the Highlands at any rate). She is known for her ability to delight the reader with her scenes, but she can do far more than that, like enter into a tragedy of a woman whose husband dies on moors:

It was not till late autumn when our gamekeeper was on the Braeriach shooting grouse, that he saw seated on a shelf of rock midway down a precipice a plaided figure. It was all that was left of the missing shepherd … and his Colly dead beside him … His widow was past all knowledge of his fate; her anxiety had brought on premature childbirth, fever ensued, and though she recovered her strength in a degree, her mind was quite gone. She lived in the belief of the speedy return of her husband, went cheerfully about her usual work, preparing all things for him … Sometime towards evening she would look wearily round and sigh heavily, and wander a little in her talk, but in the morning she was early up and busy as ever. She was never in want, for every one helped her; but though she was so much pitied, she was in their sober way much blamed. The highlanders are fatalists … We must ‘dree our weird’, all of us, and ’tis a ‘flying in the face of providence’ to break the heart for God’s inflictions. They feel keenly too; all their affections are very warm and deep; still, they are not to be paraded. A tranquil manner is a part of their good breeding, composure under all circumstances essential to the dignity of character common to all of the race. (quoted by Butter, 231)

These were bowlderized and censored as well as abridged. Above are the first full texts unexpurgated and annotated to be published. Grant’s great-great-great-granddaughter allowed Canongate press to go forward presenting these texts as mirrors of the Highlands, as part of reconstituting a national Scottish identity. It is common for women’s autobiographies from before the 20th century to be published even centuries later by an editor whose purpose and agenda is different from the woman author’s.



Elizabeth wrote not only of her Highland life, but of her time in Ireland and France; she spent considerable time in London, England growing up, during her adolescent years, and in her later married life, Bombay, India too (alas never written up coherently, something may be learned from Bombay to Bloomsbury: A Biography of the Strachey Family by Barbara Caine).

The new full Memoirs of a Highland Lady is a masterwork of life-writing, and the other two of great interest too, yes partly as offering an incomparable depiction of all sorts of aspects of gentry to impoverished life wherever she was, but just as much of her own inner life through her telling of her struggles and all the many people she interacted with on many levels. The dry saturnine tone she can affect, the conservative framing and the real plangencies and cruelties (as when she was a child, the treatment she and her siblings were subjected to by governesses and parents) may tempt people to see her as a Jane Austen who gives us the authentic underbelly of existence, and daily life’s subversions and larger politics; there is a similarity in the authentic subterranean currents of women speaking to women where (as in what is left of Austen’s letters) a lack of publication means more liberty to speak. Like a Jane Austen or Frances Burney heroine, Elizabeth seems rarely to have been able to find a congenial female companion in her local place and time with whom to confide so she turns to forge connections with an imagined community.

For Anne Grant I omitted Catherine Kerrigan’s An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets and Paula Feldman’s British Women Poets of the Romantic Era; for her and Anne Home Hunter, Jennifer Breen’s Women Romantic Poes, 1785-1832. For Anne Home Hunter, the extraordinary revealing The Life and Poems of Anne Hunter (given the inevitable subtitle based on only a few lyrics), Haydn’s Tuneful Voice, ed, introd. Caroline Grigson (with an essay by Isobel Armstrong), essays in Mary Hunter and Richard Will’s collection, Engaging Haydn and sections in Wendy Moore’s The Knife Man: Blood, Body Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery and John Kobler’s The Reluctant Surgeon, both basically biographies of her husband John Hunter.

I conclude with a link to a thread we’ve had on Women Writers through the Ages @ Yahoo over the past few days on the erasure of women’s impressionist artists from impressionist exhibits (yes there were a number), on how much of the women’s canon of poetry has been lost, destroyed, abridged, censored, how women artists as a group not understood at all. This paper I meant to write, this panel and the two I chaired on The Anomaly (women living alone from the later 17th through the mid-19th century in the UK and US) are part of my small effort (among many others on the world wide web) to do bring forward some of these women in their own right.

Marguerite Gerard (1761-1837), known as The Cat’s Lunch.

The above painting shows companionship between the woman depicted and her pets; she was Jean-Honore Fragonard’s sister-in-law, and he enabled her 40 year artistic career. Click on the image to enlarge and see full beauty of it. You will see that the cat is not as anatomically correct as the dog or later 18th century depictions of cats will become (say by Stubbs who is as good at cats as horses), suggesting the cat was not as commonly domesticated as yet as an at home pet as the dog was fast becoming.


Read Full Post »


It is however but Justice, and my Duty to declare that this amiable Woman [‘Anne Bullen’] was entirely innocent of the Crimes with which she was accused, of which her Beauty, her Elegance, and her Sprightliness were sufficient proofs, not to mention her solemn protestations of Innocence, the weakness of the charges against her, and the King’s character … The Crimes and Cruelties of this Prince were too numerous to be mentioned … and nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinour depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general … (Austen, The History of England, which unfortunately omits Mary Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, doubtless for reasons of space)

Dear friends and readers,

Though my daily presumed following remains at 83 (a mere drop of electrons in cyberspace), and on average I get about 200 hits a day, I here announce a new matter as if it might be influential.

When I studied medieval literature, I was told that imaginative literature did not value (nor was there money in copyright) literal originality of character and story, but everyone took from basic understood matters: 3 central ones were the matter of Arthur (still with us and producing new fiction and art), the matter of Charlemagne or France (this has gradually ceased, and its texts descend from Roland, as Orlando Furioso, Jerusalem Delivered), and the matter of Troy (Greek and Roman mythology and characters, viable until the mid-20th century and opera). The Renaissance and Shakespeare turned to contemporary short fiction in vast collections, mostly Italian in origin, Greek romance of the 3rd century.

I propose a fifth: the Tudor matter. These are all those familiar stories and characters which begin with Henry VIII, his court, his wives, and conclude with the death of Henry’s daughter by Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth Tudor I. It encompasses the stories of Mary Stuart (a foremother poet).

All these matters are open to endless re-doing and interpretation. Maybe we should credit the re-invention of this history as so much imaginative matter to Sophie Lee in her The Recess (1783, one of the first gothic and historical fictions), the first to tell the later parts of the Tudor matter as about the rivalry of Elizabeth and Mary Stuart through Stuart’s twin daughters; Walter Scott in several of his novels (Kenilworth, The Abbot, The Monastery), and Schiller in Mary Stuart. I’ve been deeply engaged by Renaissance women since I was 13 when I got my first adult library card and took out two fat tomes from the adult library, the lives of Jeanne d’Albret and Marguerite de Navarre (the latter woman as one of the acquaintance-friends of Vittoria Colonna part of a many years study). And this past couple of weeks in what spare time I had I’ve read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (both, both won the Mann Booker prize), watched and blogged about Robert Straughan’s mini-series (the best PBS has aired in years), and been disappointed by the RSC stage play in NYC.

As everyone paying attention to this cultural phenomena thinks he or she knows, Mantel meant to rewrite Robert Bolt’s untenable idealization of Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons out of a couple of recent decades of scholarship re-formulating our view of Thomas Cromwell as no longer the corrupt complicit thug (as so indelibly played by Leo McKern).

I suggest here she had another source, or at least another kind of inspiration: women’s historical romance and feminist biographies, her stealth heroine out of Eric Ives’s The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, and the idea of re-visioning Philippa Gregory’s bringing out of the shades and into public memory, the almost forgotten Mary Boleyn, not to omit Jane (whom I reserve for anther blog, on Julia Fox’s biography of Lady Rochford). There’s nothing unusual here: women have been crediting as their source prestigious male books from Fanny Burney’s list in her Evelina, to Virginia Woolf who seems never to have read a woman contemporary, to Ann Patchett who attributes her Bel Canto to Mann’s Magic Mountain, when it’s clearly rooted in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden. Mantel also followed the rule for success for women writers by having a male hero as her surrogate.

Tonight I want briefly to defend the version of The Other Boleyn Girl directed by Justin Chadwyck, screenplay Peter Morgan, lavish production, done in HD (very early for this) with an expensive cast of brilliant actors, seemingly limitless budget for costumes, production design, locations. A commercial success, it was lambasted by the critics — by contrast to Wolf Hall, which has been praised as much as Brideshead Revisited (to be sure the 1981 mini-series) itself. It’s not a profound or great movie, but it is competent and has enriched and changed some of the directions of Tudor matter ever since.


The question of course is which Boleyn girl is “the other:” answer, both.

Mary Boleyn (a contemporary Tudor portrait)

Scarlett Johansson turned into luscious yet nun-like Mary Boleyn on her way to Henry’s bed (ever obedient to her family’s aggrandizing will)

I’d like to admit that my first reaction as I began to watch was as adverse as the most sneering of the reviewers at the time. The film presented the woman as at once all powerful (machinating openly, and especially both Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn) pressuring men by telling them home truths that undermined their masculinity:

Anne Boleyn (contemporary portrait)

In Columbia PicturesÕ/Focus FeaturesÕ The Other Boleyn Girl, Anne Boleyn (Natalie Portman, pictured) schemes not only to take the bed of King Henry VIII, but to become queen as well.  The film is directed by Justin Chadwick from a screenplay by Peter Morgan, based on the novel by Philippa Gregory.  Alison Owen produces.  Executive producers are Scott Rudin and David M. Thompson.
Natalie Portman as Anne Boleyn actively manipulative schemer to become Henry’s wife

The romance trope also duly includes the idea they are helpless against demands of men that they have sex with them, follow their ambitions, even though they are stronger and smarter and foresee the destruction of what might make their children have long and valued and contented lives: if you are paying attention, there are more “other” Boleyn women beyond Jane Parkman, married off to George Boleyn, Lord Rochford. Lady Elizabeth Boleyn, the mother, who lost her son, daughter and a third daughter exiled in disgrace from court; Sir Thomas, her husband, died two years after the execution of George and Anne


Kristin Scott Thomas as Lady Elizabeth Boleyn as the highly intelligent strong faced woman who tells off her feeble corrupt husband, Sir Thomas (played by a weak Mark Rylance) but does not defy him

Gregory and after her, Peter Morgan, turns Katharine from the usual pious resigned stone into a woman who suffers intensely in childbirth and when she sees her Henry take up with Anne Boleyn very seriously asks him forthrightly if he means to break up his kingdom’s order and his marriage because a specific woman has denied him (fucking)


Ana Torrent as Katharine eschews cant piety, and

Yes the film also followed the exaggerations of the conventions of historical romance since Madame de Scudery wrote her Clelia, giving sumptuous and expensive visual realization to what has been used to give women’s historical fiction a bad reputation.

But as I carried on watching, by the time I came to the end I saw that it had all the considerable strengths and offering to women of characters surrogates which account for the continued strength and relevance to women readers of this form, and of historical biographies of women. This was clinched for me as I witnessed the closely similar unflinching presentation of the beheading of Anne (which I now think Wolf Hall 5 imitated)


I said to myself, if we (Mantel) can revise Cromwell the ruthless instrument of Henry VIII, turning England into a groups of people seemingly unable to fight back against state terror tactics, into a basically deeply human man, deeply engaged in throwing off the hypocritical cover-up superstitions of a fanatical Catholic regime, why not revise Anne – and Mary, Katharine as a wounded angry woman, bring in the mother of these two sisters, as an intelligent thwarted one who would have done better by her son and daughters — though in this version (as in Wolf Hall) Jane Boleyn is again the spiteful sexually frustrated product of a coerced marriage, and Norfolk a ferocious non-thinking monster (Bolt, I remind my reader, had Norfolk as well-meaning if obtuse, a loyal friend to More, indifferent to religion but not friendship).

Mantel has been doing and taken seriously for what Diana Wallace says most women’s historical fiction does: re-constructing marginal figures, bringing sexuality into play as an unspoken deep motive, extending what affects public life: Anne’s plight in both films, but made more central in The Other Boleyn (as all the births are showns as hardships, dangerous, out of the control of the woman) is she cannot will a healthy boy. The difference is Mantel centered her re-vision on a man who was once in public power and changed the nature of the English state church. Much more important than any woman writhing in childbirth (which we see Anne and Mary do more than once), and weep when either what emerges is stillborn or premature, or for whatever reason is rejected by the father (as when Henry VIII rejects his illegitimate healthy son by Mary Boleyn because he is now intent on gaining Anne).

The depiction of Anne is not one people will admit to finding likable. She is too performative — too amoral. A friend suggested to me she was a kind of Becky Sharp; I thought of Austen’s Lady Susan, Trollope’s Lizzie Eustace.

Another serious flaw derives from the attempt to make the film have wide reach (people who might not know or remember the details of the Tudor debacle). This probably led to the film-makers making the characters far too explicit. It is an exaggeration to present Anne as in councils with men and family members leading some plan — women didn’t do that. Every norm and punishment prohibited it. The explicitness with which sex was discussed was not done, unreal, improbable. What Mantel and Straughan have is literary tact — the difference between Richardson’s Grandison and Austen’s Mr Knightley is literary tact. So in Wolf Hall (the mini-series) Jane Seymour sits in on one council, but it is to ask advice, not to take any lead, and to seem to obey. If she is manipulative and ambitious, we must pick it up from the actress’s face.

From Wolf Hall, Kate Philips as Jane Seymour appealing to her brother Edward (Ed Speleers) for advice

We might fault Mantel for adhering to the conventions of good woman=docile and loyal (Liz Cromwell), presenting the hardship and pain of parturition discreetly, off-stage.

One might ask (and such romances implicitly do), if Anne is (and in histories seems to have been) ambitious and successfully manipulative (she is implicitly that in Wolf Hall — that’s what Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn is there to tell Rylance as Cromwell), so are most of the men — only this film they are mostly depicted as weak, and with misguided hubristic aims (Norfolk too), with Bernard Cumberbatch as the complicit courtier-husband, Carey,

He can dance but no more …

and Eddie Redmayne as William Stafford, if well-meaning, equally supporting the Henry regime, at least not active on behalf of either Anne or Mary, but waiting in the wings (as it were) to become good husband material for the remmants left of the Boleyn family rescued by the maternal power of Mary

This film ends with an exulting intertitle that Anne and Mary won after all when Elizabeth took the throne (another part of the Tudor matter is the story of Henry’s last intelligent wife, Katharine Parr who brought her up too)

Henry (played by Eric Bana who admittedly from the feature seems to have known little of the history) is presented as weak before women, duplicitous, stupid, sexually predatory, with some attempts at different kinds of shots.


This is the kind of historical romance where you are shown an evil world careless of women and children, where the only decent safe option is retreat. History tells us Mary did this twice in life, first with Carey (who did die), and then with Stafford for which she was severely castigated by her family, funds cut off from the pair, with the implication they were miserable. Well we don’t know that and they did live a long time and died in their beds.

The 2008 Other Boleyn Girl (there is another, earlier, 2003, which I hope to watch and comment on as an added comment to this blog soon) comes with features almost as long as half the film. These showed the care for and beauty of the cinematography (the many angled intriguing and sumptuous shots), how effective the costumes, and the uses of production design far shots in landscape, and heritage places. The actors in both sets of features talked about their roles. The actresses were made to feel central to their characters was their sisterhood; Jim Sturgess was told that the explanation for George’s behavior to Jane Boleyn (he would not have full sex with her) was he was gay, over-sensitive, and was nearly driven to incest because Anne feared that Henry could not give her the healthy “seed” for a boy.


He is shown as shattered by the pressure and terrified and protesting as the axe came down on him. This differs from the written records of the executions, but are they not biased in the direction of decorousness on behalf of the king’s “justice.” Chadwick said was he was aiming for was emotional immersion in family politics and fierce individual psychologies. As with the contrast between say Winston Graham and Daphne DuMaurier’s Cornish histories, Mantel’s book (like Graham) and Straughan’s film insofar as six hours allows roots and embeds her Tudor in the politics and wider social and economic realities of the Tudor era, while Gregory’s book (like DuMaurier’s King’s General, Jamaica Inn, and both the 2003 and 2008 films) keeps central focus on inward subjective private life.

The film begins with a married pair and three children (Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn walking, Anne, Mary and George playing in the grass) and ends symetrically (William and Mary Stafford walking, Mary’s two children by William or Henry and Elizabeth Tudor playing in the grass). Cyclical like woman’s life writing, like their experience of life. It would have been far greater to show the second set of children later on, but the soft-focus trope of refuge is too urgent.



I agree with Jerome de Groot (Consuming History), Helene Hughes (Historical romance) and the seminal essay by Miriam Burstein (on the typology of women characters in historical romances and history) that the key to the traditional approach to women figures (pre-feminism let’s call it) is to value the woman who is loyal above all, wary, stays in conventional roles, preferably at home; she is rewarded (as is Mary Boleyn by Gregory and in a way by Morgan) unless she drops dead from disease (Mantel’s Liz Cromwell). But I admit I often identify with these women. So part of the revision of Anne’s character comes from that. But by no means all: Anne argues ferociously with Henry in this film — this is born out as a “tempestuous marriage” by older historians like Scarisbrook on Henry VIII and Eric Ives too. Mary attempted retreat with Carey and then with Stafford in the historical record.

As I recently defended the Hampstead novel: women’s domestic themed fiction, women who write primarily to and for other women so as to forge imaginative connections and support, I have here at least explained and briefly explicated this well done women’s historical romance film.


Read Full Post »

Iris Apfel, fashion collector and designer, interior decorator, businesswoman

Flowers are very much worn, & Fruit is still more the thing – Eliz: has a bunch of Strawberries, & I have seen Grapes, Cherries, Plumbs & Apricots – There are likewise Almonds& raisins, french plums & Tamarinds at the Grocers, but I have never seen any of them in hats — Jane to Cassandra, 1799, Bath to Steventon

Dear friends and readers,

I hasten to recommend this 83 minute documentary, Iris, by Albert Maysles — lest it disappear from the DC area quickly. I regret that last year I did not see the 83 minute documentary on a nun’s life, Ida, so allow me not to make the same mistake again.

Iris is a more revealing quietly sensitive film than it seems at first: Maysles presents a creative idiosyncratic woman who expressed herself through buying outlandish and interesting clothes, jewelry and encased herself in worlds and closetfuls of artistic and craft objects. The Metropolitan Museum show of her art called her rightly a rare bird of fashion. At the time of this film Apfel is 91, and that is part of the subject too. Iris is filmed to make clear her ugly, aging ravaged face and body, how she uses such heavy accessories to hide behind. But when younger she used them as expressions of an aesthetic of materialism. Albert Maysles is himself aging. We see how painful it is to age because both people dread losing their memories, their past and in her case her husband, her other self.

As it began, I was tempted to leave. The feel was of a crass commercial with a ludicrously over-accessorized very elderly woman who shrugged at the cinematographer. Maysles shows how she appears commercially and then he cuts away to delve the real person behind the pragmatic protective mask. Like Joan Rivers’ biography film, this documentary is a defense of high and low and all kinds of fashion, of crassness too, of an aesthetic which values over-the-top show of the self dressed up to the point where the outfits acquire a strange beauty and at least to the eye transform the self.


It takes place in the present as we follow Iris around for a few recent weeks or months in this last phase of her existence. Maysles slips what footage and photos Apfel has of herself from the past in and out of the present to give us a sense of her career. She had begun as a clerk at Lowman’s, been spotted as intensely sincerely interested in what she was selling. She somehow moved from the respect she garnered there, to a job in a higher fashion store, and then there is a gap (we are not told) and we see her traveling about Europe buying up fabrics, tourist souvenirs of all sorts, statues, pictures, sacred objects, seeming junk in markets around Europe, to estate sales of the wealthy and aristocratic class. Probably she was one of those people hired to make the cloth that is used for dresses, as a textile designer. I surmise that was the craft she based her original success and money-making on. She did not emphasize this part of her aesthetic at first but produced very 1950s style women’s high fashion art.


But by the time she was in her mid-30s to 40s (from the photos) she had developed a thriving business selling exquisitely embroidered, woven, artfully-crafted batches of cloth to museums, designers who used such materials, private rich people, something like Old Weavers Inc. We watch her travel about the world from super-expensive building in which there is an impoverished craft show to small tribal and town places where artisans still survive.

You gather that as time progresses she began to lament the pushing off the stage of craftsmen, of cloth that is not manufactured from sheer chemicals. Of machine-made uniform cloths, outfits, boring unalive junk. She collected her objects more greedily. She respected and admired craft, beauty, humanly made things of all sorts. She is attracted to the bizarre and gradually herself became more bizarre as she aged. The stuffed recreations of animals she has remind us of young adorable (if you are susceptible) children, adolescents, and she buys them wherever she can pick unusual and touching and funny ones up. She collects toys too — she does like manufactured items, but those which show alert intelligent playfulness. She had no children. Of her relatives there seems to be only a nephew left.


Apfel had become known around NYC: she was for decades a consultant to store-owners making window display; she went round to fashion shows and (presumably) got to know people who haunted such places. We see her mounting windows for more expensive famous department stores in NYC. She lived and was known in the areas of Florida where Jewish people live and where there are retired comfortably well off people. She does not seem to have attracted any coutures in Europe though the types found there show up at her parties. She took what she did for a business as seriously as she takes dressing herself. She went on TV and did interviews; she showed daytime TV watchers how to dress themselves in ways they liked, that people admired them for, that made them stand out alluringly. We see her also in very vulgar shows on TV and while she fits in we see as opposed to others, she does not talk cant.

From the Met show

Her breakthrough to celebrity and more money and prestige came when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NY mounted an exhibit of her costume art. The Met curator of costume and furniture and objects had had a show cancelled (due to conflicts he did not specify) and needed a show in its place. The Met curator had seen Apfel’s huge stores of objects. We are shown apartments with double-height closets, a warehouse and he thought her stuff could replace the show he had been planning. It seems it was he who brought out into the public the bizarre, exotic and extraordinary nature of her creations; they had gone far beyond the ordinary fashion outfit.

This was part of the poster advertisements for the Met show

It was mounted beautifully and the show was (somewhat unexpectedly) a tremendous sale-out, a hit, covered in the public media everywhere.

Again from the Met show

Within a decade or so she was given an honorary degree in the Fine Arts Institute of NYC and teaching classes pragmatically and artistically. That Museum show (Rare Bird of Fashion) traveled about the US and led to other museum exhibits, and these to an appointment in the Fashion Institute of NYC (as a professor who taught the practical angle of becoming a successful fashion and interior designer, maker of costumes and clothes).

Norton Museum Iris Apfel on display fashion show photo/C.J. Walker

Norton Museum Iris Apfel on display fashion show photo/C.J. Walker

Palm Beach version of the show

We are not shown how but we surmize she must’ve been a past mistress at getting herself accepted, respected, consulted in the richest most notable fashion circles in the US. She has all the mainstream values; there is no socialism in this woman; she is an individual entrepreneur, travels with the rich and elite. Yet she was born in NYC, Queens and never lost her accent, remained the suburb type who haunts thrift shops without being the least bohemian. In a way she is a hoarder. Perhaps this is why she never made the cross-over professionally (to be paid large amounts) outside the corridors of NYC and related places in the US. Europeans and non-western types are at her parties but her shows did not travel there, nor the unusual yet stylish ways she dressed women. Thus this young student from the Institute imitating her only shows her superficial appearance as it might seem to a young girl trying not to be mainstream.


Iris was far more bourgeois, something out of a Doris Day movie, more philistine (and greedy for gorgeous and with an eye for unusual things). Not an overt idealist.

Her idea is you have one life to live and ask yourself what you enjoy most. She loves dressing up. She prefers the garish to the subtle, large jewelry to small. But she is intensely alive to and appreciative of tribal creations which are often quieter, at least in traditional cultures. As of 2015 she had five apartments and one warehouse filled with her finds, a warehouse of extraordinary numinous as well a politically-resonant objects.



Apfel continues to work hard, finding her unusual and beautiful objects in flea markets to local Armory an estate sales, the liquidation of movie moghuls. She endlessly saves (so to speak) eclectic finds:


The secondary thread is her aging and her love for and care of and concern for her husband. He is with her throughout all the years and now deeply dependent. There are a few shots of Miami where one of their apartments is, and numerous silhouettes and daytime shots of well-known Manhattan streets of shops and upper end avenues scattered throughout the film but they come in more towards the end. We don’t see much of their private life except as they travel and shop and go to shows of fashion together, but we see how they supported and helped and were together always. She is asked if she regrets not having children; it seemed to me she did not regret this at all but felt she had to say she did and then we get this speech about how you have to give up things for your career. This is used as part of the trailer as if it’s the film’s theme. She is at the time of the film herself weakening; she broke her hip and hid from her husband that she had an operation in the hospital that afternoon. Of course she went to the “best” aka the most famous of doctors in the most famous of hospitals and had elite care. We see them go in and out of hospitals dependent on paid people and friends. Her husband nearly 100 is failing. She protects him. Early and in the middle of the film she is walking with him, he is ever by her side (not her by his side). And at the end she walks in NYC alone as he cannot walk with her.


The director allows himself to be filmed filming Iris towards the middle of the film and towards the end we see a stalwart woman coping with aging. She succeeded because she is thick-skinned, has mainstream goals (ambition), and worked hard ceaselessly networking, socializing. Her long-term trusted housekeeper is there towards the end, protective of her employer: I assume she has been well-paid, anyway I hope so.

Then at the close we see Iris at long last selling off a vast warehouse of precious objects (paintings, statues, funny toys, and endless jewels and clothes) to buyers. The film turns plangent. These are sites of memories. Her happiest moments were buying, and her memories of the places and circumstances she bought things in. But she remains smart (it is the appropriate word). Her spontaneous (she is lucky in that she is utterly neurotypical in her social ways) outburst against cosmetic surgery ought to be replayed to all actresses now in their forties and tempted to destroy the muscle and other elements of their faces attached to their brains in order to simulate youth.

Take the time to watch and hear:

What is fashion? it is not a concern for the reality of a woman’s body but rather as an object to be decorated by her arts and a vision of what is alluring. This is quintessentially a woman’s film, about a certain kind women’s art, even if it has often been men who are the fashion designers for those who value appearances. It’s even a ghostly kind of thing as the point is not to reveal the inner vulnerable self, to go against biology in a way, at the very least ignore it.

Whenever this summer I see a woman’s film or one by a woman (Gemma Bovary by Anne Fontaine is coming to my local art theater) I will report about it here.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »